Follow . . .

If we believe that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for sin, and if we are confident that what we call salvation is offered to humanity as a free gift, how do we respond to God and actually take possession of this gift? That’s where we left this topic last week in this blog.

First, summation. With the Bible as our foundation of faith and practice, we know that all humanity begins in a state of rebellion/sin against God (Romans 3:23). Because of this sin, no one is able to meet God’s standards of righteousness (Romans 3:10). God has provided a substitute to take on himself the sins and punishment of others so that they might be presented as righteous to God the father. That substitute is Jesus Christ (1 John 2:1).

At this point, it could seem that the sacrifice of Jesus, powerful enough to cover the sins of the entire human race, would automatically clean and redeem everyone who ever lived. Potentially, that is so. Practically, there is more.

The Christian church, following the words of the Bible, often uses related terms such as save, saved, and salvation. This means a person who is still in a sinful state is rescued from that state by Jesus’ sacrifice. The church also uses the term grace. We talk about grace as unmerited favor or receiving something we don’t earn ourselves. The picture of a gift is often the best illustration of grace. A gift is, well, a gift. A gift is given because the giver wants to do so. The giver doesn’t have to do so, he wants to. The person to whom the gift is given must take it. If the receivers do not actually take a physical gift into their possession, the transaction is not complete.

The Bible pictures this appropriately in Romans 6:23, “the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” and Ephesians 2:8-9, “. . . it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God . . .”  Following the logical picture of a gift, the person to whom it is offered must take possession or receive it in order to complete the transaction.

Again, the Bible follows the picture of a gift offered and accepted in John 1:12, “Yet to all who received him [the gift], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God . . . .” and Romans 10:13, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

God’s gift stands as an open offer to all of humanity, but it must be received/accepted to be effective. To describe this act of acceptance, the Bible uses such terms as believe, receive, accept, and others which are often difficult to understand in terms of modern language and thought, especially when communicated across linguistic and cultural barriers, as is common in missions.

While a missionary in Indonesia, I had the opportunity to present this concept to a small tribal group which had little contact with the Bible, the church, or even the outside world. I realized I might have only one opportunity to make this presentation to them. I could not assume they knew enough about God or his dealings with humanity to understand the concepts of sin, rebellion against God, and substitutionary atonement. It was very interesting as I tried to lay down the entire foundation of redemptive history in about 30 minutes, before even approaching the concept of God’s work and offer through Jesus Christ. When I finally did explain that, I could sense their interest.

I knew what I wanted to say next in English, but I knew little of their tribal language. I was using Indonesian as a trade language to bridge the gap. I knew my choice of words would be crucial in establishing real understanding of what was at stake. I’m not quite sure what happened next, though I know I can’t attribute it to personal brilliance. Instead of receive, accept, believe, I used the Indonesian word ikut which means follow. I asked if they were ready and willing to follow Jesus.

I could not have anticipated the response. The entire village, with one voice, responded, “Tuan, kami mau ikut Tuhan Yesus” - “Sir, we want to follow Jesus.” To them, the word follow resembled what they did with their village chief. They committed their lives to the chief. They did what the chief told them to do. They listened and learned from the chief. It was, therefore, not that difficult for them to apply this same concept of total allegiance in soul and spirit to Jesus Christ as their new chief of chiefs, as a beginning to understanding the full relationship.

As it turned out, use of this word was both appropriate and effective. There is now a thriving church in this village. Was it biblical? Looking through the Gospels, the first four books of the New Testament, we can see Jesus using this word over and over again. He called his first disciples to “follow me” (John 1:43). Follow, for Jesus, did not simply mean to walk behind him in a physical sense but implied the total commitment of one person to another. In the same way the church today often uses the word believe and takes pains to distinguish simple intellectual assent from committed belief.

The second half of the book of Acts follows the travels of Paul the apostle as he moved among the major centers of the Roman world bringing the news of God’s free gift of salvation and calling on people to respond to it. While in the city of Philippi, those opposed to Paul’s message arranged for him to be imprisoned. While in the local jail, an earthquake broke open the doors and the chains which were holding Paul and his companion Silas. Shortly afterward, the Roman official in charge of that prison came running into the cellblock, thinking all of his prisoners had escaped and that he would be punished by his superiors. Instead, Paul assured him that no one had left the prison.

The jailer asked Paul “what must I do to be saved?” To which Paul replied “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved. . . .”

The Roman religion allowed for many gods and was accepting of new gods from  peoples they conquered. Intellectually believing in a god would not have been difficult for that jailer. Paul called instead for a committed belief in one specific God, Jesus Christ. Immediately after this question and answer, Paul and Silas went with the jailer to his own family dwelling and spent the next hours explaining what it meant to truly follow Jesus. When they were finished, the jailer and those in his household were so willing to commit themselves exclusively to Jesus Christ and to follow him that they accepted the rite of Christian baptism, thereby identifying themselves for all times with those who followed Christ.

That is the mission of the church, 2000 years ago and today, whether in our own communities or the other side of the globe. By virtue of our own relationship with Jesus Christ, we are expected to share our understanding of God, his relationship to humanity, his standard of righteousness, his provision of salvation in Christ, and the response he expects from people to his free gift.

It doesn't stop there. But that's for next week.

The Gift

God created the world and all that we see in it. Humanity, of course, is part of that creation. With the creation, God set certain standards of thought and action for all people. We find, however, due to the human rebellion against God, we all entered this world with a nature prone toward violating God’s standards, which we sum up with a single word sin. Sin stands as a barrier between an individual and God. The individual cannot approach God unless that barrier is removed.

Let’s pause for a word of general understanding. In Christian circles, people often talk of sin, original sin, and sin nature. In theological terms, people sometimes reference the phrase total depravity. Many otherwise good and knowledgeable Christians have come to embrace the popular belief that total depravity means there is absolutely no good in any person. That’s just not so!

As explained by Dr. Charles C. Ryrie in the Concise Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, “the concept of total depravity does not mean depraved people cannot or do not perform actions that are good in either humankind’s or God’s sight but no such action can gain favor with God for salvation. . .. Because of that [sin] there is nothing any person can do to merit saving favor with God.” 

That makes this idea even sadder. If we were confident only bad people would be punished by God, we could probably live with that. The concept of sin and depravity, however, teach us that even the best of people is not good enough to meet God’s standards.

If this is true, if no human is good enough to meet God’s standards, what hope is there?

The simple answer, given in the Bible, is that God provided a substitute to take the punishment for fallen humanity. The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:19-21, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. . .. God made him who had no sin [that is, Jesus] to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Likewise, the writer of the book of Hebrews recorded, in Hebraic terminology, “After he [Jesus, the Son] had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” And again, from Paul, this time in Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

God demands high standards, so high that no human can meet them. Only God, in the person of Jesus Christ, could present himself before judgment without sin. In doing so, he was able to become a living sacrifice/substitute, taking on himself the punishment for others.

It was not, however, a done deal. Although the price has been paid, God expects a response from people in receiving this. Romans 4:3 gives a historical and scriptural precedent for this teaching in the New Testament. “What does the Scripture say?” wrote Paul, “‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” Applying it to now, “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” (Romans 6:23) and “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God -- not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8).

This can be a difficult concept to grasp. For someone who has not grown up in a religious tradition, the whole concept of sin and salvation, punishment and reward in a spiritual sense is foreign. Many others have grown up in a religious tradition built on laws, rules and regulations, and ritual. These would prefer to do something on their own to earn God’s favor. These and other difficulties often stand in the way of people comprehending the magnitude, yet simplicity, of God’s free gift.

However, our firm belief in the concept of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is based on our equally firm belief in the Bible as the inspired word of God. This is an example of a belief being built on the overwhelming weight of biblical evidence. This is the consistent teaching of the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments. This has also been the consistent teaching of the orthodox church over the past 2000 years.

But we’re still not finished. If we believe that Jesus Christ paid the penalty for sin, and if we are confident that it is offered to mankind as a free gift, how then do we receive this gift? What should be our response to God?

And that will be the topic of our next writing next week.

Paul's Provision

Political ambassadors going abroad on behalf of their home countries may end up a long way from home, but they are not simply turned loose and forgotten about. They are not sent off with a parting gift and wished well. Though they live in the places that they are sent to, they receive ongoing care and provision from their sending countries. The country they are being sent to is not expected to pay the ambassador, nor is their fate entrusted to the foreign nation. They still belong to the sending country, so the sending country accepts responsibility for them.

Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles on the way to a life of missions is willingness to relinquish many comforts of “home” to go where we are sent. Our perspective changes drastically, however, when we remember that though we are ambassadors to the earth, we are provided for by our “home nation” of heaven. This is something Paul understood first hand.

The apostle Paul was a tentmaker. It was even supposed that he continued this trade well into his missions and would speak to those who gathered as he did his tent making. It was clear from his writings, however, that he did not see his tent making as the source of his provision. He did not see himself as a tentmaker who preached on the side. He saw himself as a man completely dedicated to the work of God who may have happened to make tents as he did it. He saw his heavenly sender as his provider. Since he was an ambassador for heaven, he trusted heaven entirely for his provision and the provision of the churches to which he tended. His focus was on heavenly treasures rather than earthly ones. His currency was not money but souls.

Scripture reminds us of this in several places. Paul himself wrote, “And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19) and “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, "I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you" (Hebrews 13:5). Matthew reminds us, “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” (Matthew 6:26). The psalms sing of it as well: “I, the LORD, am your God, Who brought you up from the land of Egypt; Open your mouth wide and I will fill it” (Psalm 81:10), “The young lions do lack and suffer hunger; But they who seek the LORD shall not be in want of any good thing” (Psalm 34:10).

Whom do you trust for your provision; your sender or this world? What is your economy; money or missions? You have been given skills, education, talents, or a vocation. While you may be using them, ask God if there is a way they can be applied to further His kingdom. If you're looking for an opportunity to use your professional skills to further God's kingdom, contact us! We may be able to help.

Sanders, E. P. “St Paul, The Apostle”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Paul-the-Apostle. 28 June 2018.

Putting On Your Oxygen Mask

Inhale. Exhale. In a blog series several months ago, we talked about how what inspires you (what you “breathe” into your mind and spirit) influences what you exhale into the world. Being in the world and trying to exhale the culture of heaven is like breathing through an oxygen mask to avoid toxic fumes. When on an airplane, the familiar safety spiel will instruct you to ensure your own oxygen mask is safely in place before assisting others with theirs.

So often as ambassadors of heaven, we are focused on making sure everyone has his or her oxygen mask in place. This is part of the core of missions; to connect others to the breath of the Holy Spirit. Are we, however, checking that our own mask is in place?

Daniel lived a life of favor and promotion despite the times his people were suffering. He was an unsuspecting ambassador, plucked from his people with the other most eligible young men to serve as human plunder for King Nebuchadnezzar. He was set smack dab in the middle of an environment that was toxic for spiritual growth. He knew he had to have his “oxygen mask” on right away. In the first chapter, verse 8, is says “Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine”. He refused the splendor being offered to him in favor of water and vegetables as a sacrifice unto the Lord. The very next chapter the King has his dream. When no wise men can explain it and a death decree was issued for all of them, Daniel prayed earnestly for the interpretation- which was given to him! When brought to the king, Daniel has yet another opportunity to exhale pride instead of exhaling Heaven. The King asks if Daniel can interpret his dream. Daniel could have easily jumped at the opportunity to say, “Yes! I can! I am so much better than all of your other wise men! Promote me!”. Instead, he gives God the glory.

The king asked Daniel (also called Belteshazzar), “Are you able to tell me what I saw in my dream and interpret it?”

Daniel replied, “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries. He has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in days to come. Your dream and the visions that passed through your mind as you were lying in bed are these”

Daniel 2:26-28

By now, Daniel had established a reputation of unworldly trustworthiness. His refusing to compromise his mission from Heaven for the kingdoms of earth was evident.

At this, the administrators and the satraps tried to find grounds for charges against Daniel in his conduct of government affairs, but they were unable to do so. They could find no corruption in him, because he was trustworthy and neither corrupt nor negligent.”

Daniel 6:4

They knew in order to put him in a compromising condition, they would have to require him to deny the customs of heaven in favor of the customs of earth. They convinced the King to issue an edict stating that all who did not worship the king were to be thrown to the lions. When Daniel still refused to compromise his devotion to the Lord and was thrown to the lions, he was spared! Something so miraculous resulted in a change all around him. Daniel had not only kept his oxygen mask secure, but he had connected King Nebuchadnezzar to an oxygen mask of his own! All of the exhaling Daniel had done on his environment about the power and goodness of God now was inhaled by Nebuchadnezzar in a triumphant edict. Thousands of oxygen masks must have dropped from heaven that day to all parts of the kingdom.

I issue a decree that in every part of my kingdom people must fear and reverence the God of Daniel.

'For he is the living God

and he endures forever;

his kingdom will not be destroyed,

his dominion will never end.

He rescues and he saves;

he performs signs and wonders

in the heavens and on the earth.

He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.' 

So Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.” 

Daniel 6:26-28

Commit anew today to remain undefiled as Daniel was. In the fact of the temptations of pride, greed, and compromise, to keep your oxygen mask in place and continue to exhale the uncommon things of heaven. You never know... your doing so could, like Daniel, secure the oxygen masks of entire nations.

Set Apart AND Set AS A Part

No doubt those devoted to Christ were made to be set apart. We hear about our role as the “light in the darkness” or a “city on a hill”. Many times this “set apart”-ness in the world can be confused with separation from the world. While there were those Old Testament stories about individuals who were set TO a wayward peoples (such as Jonah or the major prophets or Esther), there was a pronounced theme of retaining purity of mind, body, and heart. Levitical law denoted down to the detail how to maintain right standing with the Lord. Countless times the Israelites were warned to not combine their customs or lives with those who did not honor the Lord.

In the New Testament, all of this is shifted with the example of Christ. He specifically sought out the Gentiles, the unclean, and the unorthodox. He did not seek these things to become like these things. He still maintained a set apart life even more so than any of us could accomplish because He was without sin. Rather, He sought these things to demonstrate the second piece of our ambassador calling. Yes, as ambassadors we are called to be the light of the world. That light, however, shines brightest in darkness. That light is needed most in darkness. We are to become the light, and to live in such a way that is uncommon and set apart, but we are to do it in the midst of cultures and peoples who still live in darkness.

Esther is a fantastic demonstration of this ambassadorial quality. Comparable to the best Bond film, Esther lives and operates among a people hostile to her own. In several instances it says “Esther had not revealed her nationality and family background, because Mordecai had forbidden her to do so” (Esther 2:10). It also says, however, that she won the favor of all around her (2:15). It never says how she obtained favor of all who saw her, but I can't help but assume it had something to do with her uncommon way of living. Her heart being centered around something bigger than herself.

She may have “blended in” enough to be selected for the position of highest honor in a hostile nation, but she was no slouch when it came to holding onto her beliefs. She had a bravery that never allowed her to compromise. When the order was given against the Jews, she broke all customs and even risked her own life by coming before the king unannounced and pleaded for a despised people. It would have been MUCH easier to just sit idly by and stay safe in her cushy palace. She did not, however, lose perspective that her royal position was an ambassadorial one. She had been given favor and connections in a foreign land for a reason- for the glory of God and accomplishment of His mandate to reach all peoples.

Though it was risky and could have gone several ways, she was received, and her people- God's people- were spared. Many times that's where we stop. The bigger picture, however, was not about the Jews being saved. It was what happened in the hearts of those around them.

In every province and in every city to which the edict of the king came, there was joy and gladness among the Jews, with feasting and celebrating. And many people of other nationalities became Jews because fear of the Jews had seized them.” Esther 8:17

MANY people of OTHER NATIONALITIES became Jews. All because of how God's glory was able to shine through this ambassadorial role Esther served. That is what it is all about. What darkness surrounds the world around you? How are you able to connect with those around you in a way that gains favor for the Lord? What ways can you be bold in sticking to your faith in a way that will amaze those watching your life?

Mediators

You are an ambassador of heaven. You hear that, and what comes to mind? Missions to foreign nations? Reaching out for Christ in your community? Often when thinking of our ambassadorial role we think of all the way in which we are outreaching on behalf of God to people. Moses, however, modeled a very different kind of ambassador role. He ALSO reached on to God on behalf of people. Praying for others! Part of being an ambassador is this others-centered prayer.

I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. Exodus 32:9-14

He wasn't the only one to model this facet of our ambassador role. Abraham modeled it long before Moses when he pleaded with God not to destroy Sodom.

Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”

The Lord said, “If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

Then Abraham spoke up again: “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five people?”

If I find forty-five there,” he said, “I will not destroy it.”

Once again he spoke to him, “What if only forty are found there?”

He said, “For the sake of forty, I will not do it.”

Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak. What if only thirty can be found there?”

He answered, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.”

Abraham said, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, what if only twenty can be found there?”

He said, “For the sake of twenty, I will not destroy it.”

Then he said, “May the Lord not be angry, but let me speak just once more. What if only ten can be found there?”

He answered, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.” Genesis 18:23-32

With the coming of Christ, the interceding to God on behalf of people did not stop. In fact, Christ solidified this need as part of our function as Heaven's ambassadors in the way the He modeled praying for us. Several times Christ is recorded as praying to God on behalf of those He was with.

Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”Luke 22:31-32

"I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom You have given Me; for they are Yours” John 17:9

Even now, we are told that Christ continues to perform that mediator role as our intercessor.

Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for usRomans 8:34

As modern-day Moseses we are called to meet God on the mountaintop. This mountain top may look like a prayer closet, a desk, a back porch, or wherever you engage with God during your quiet time. In this place, we are to soak up God's words and instructions. We pursue with a hunger more of who He is and draw nearer in that direct relationship in which we hear from Him. Where we no longer hear about Him but have our own experiences of Him in our life allow us to know Him personally. Not only are we called to bring the good news of God (His transformative and redemptive power that is paid for and ready to work in our lives) to people, but we are also called to bring our petitions and intercessions on behalf of those who are unreached or those in our lives who don't yet know Him to God. As ambassadors on the earth, we use our prayers as strategic targeting for the kingdom of God.

The modern political role of an ambassador requires much international communication. These individuals are constantly communicating on behalf of his or her home nation. They also, however, act as messenger and reporter from the foreign nation, monitoring events, communicating what is happening in that location, and reporting the results of their efforts. When we see things going awry in earth (our “foreign assignment”), our job is to contact God in heaven (our “home nation”) in the form of prayer. Take some time each day this week to not only pray for those in your life or community who need to be reached by Christ but to also pray for the unreached peoples around the world. I challenge you to not just let your prayer be for God to reach them but to also ask God how you can partner with Him in becoming part of the solution. Be both the prayer and the answer to it in whatever ways you are called.

Ambassadorial Mandate

Merriam Webster defines an ambassador as “a diplomatic agent of the highest rank accredited to a foreign government or sovereign as the resident representative of his or her own government or sovereign or appointed for a special and often temporary diplomatic assignment”. It even includes as an additional definition, “an authorized representative or messenger”. It is not a new revelation for many of us that we are ambassadors of Christ on this earth. You may have heard that you are “Christ's representative” or “Jesus's hands and feet”. The greatest confusions, I believe, lie in what exactly it looks like to be an ambassador and where our mission field is.

We are going to spend the month of June looking with fresh eyes at the ambassadorial mandate placed on us. From the time we gave our lives to Christ, we became His body. This was the very moment we became an ambassador. Christ is a resident of Heaven. We know from God's word that He is at the right hand of the Father interceding for us.  

Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Romans 8:34

We also have begun our citizenship in heaven by becoming eternal beings. His word says that we are seated with Him in heavenly places.

 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus. Ephesians 2:4-6

It does not say we will be seated with Him in heavenly places but that we were (past tense) raised up and ARE seated there currently. Through Christ we gain citizenship in heaven and become heaven’s representatives on earth now. By making us His ambassadors, we are (reflecting on the definition), given the HIGHEST spiritual rank in our foreign land (earth) in order than we may be the resident representative of our sovereign (God) for a special and temporary diplomatic assignment.

A foreigner may live in a new culture, but there will always be pieces of his or her worldview, experiences, mannerisms, ways of thinking, routine, etc. that will reflect his or her native culture. In the same way, when we die to self and become alive again in Christ, our way of life becomes distinguishable from that around us. We carry the culture of heaven. The way of doing things in heaven- the logic of heaven- is very backwards from that of earth. The greatest is the least, the last is first, the humble are exalted, and the master comes to serve, the poor are rich, we pray for our enemies, and we know the impossibly miraculous is possible. Even though we live in the world, the way we live reveals our foreignness.

They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood. 1 John 4:5-6

We are given God’s authorization as messengers. What is our message?

In the same way a foreigner, when asked about his or her culture, would respond both with overarching facts about the way of life as well as personal anecdotes to illustrate them, our message to those around them is the gospel preached to us in the Biblical word of God but ALSO the illustrations of that gospel in our personal testimonies of experiencing the gospel and saving power of God in our individual stories. In the subsequent weeks, we are going to look closer at the culture of heaven, the ambassadorial message, and those we are called as ambassadors to through examining ambassadors in scripture. Until then, be asking yourself…am I reflecting heavenly culture? What ambassadorial acts and messages are being delivered through my own life?  

 

Specific Prayers, Specific Answers

I am both purpose driven and goal oriented. When I set goals, I am very specific about what I want to do or to happen. If I don't know what I want to get done, it usually does not get done. Even worse, if I don't know what I want to get done, I don't know if I am really accomplishing anything at all!

In a similar way, shouldn’t our prayers also be specific so that we can see specific results from that prayer? Think of Elijah's prayer referenced in James 5:17-18, Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

This passage refers back to 1 Kings 17 and 18. Elijah prayed specifically for a drought and got a drought. Later he prayed specifically for rain and got rain. In between that time, he challenged the prophets of Baal to a showdown on Mt. Carmel. He prayed specifi­cally that God would send fire from heaven to consume his offering, and God answered in that specific method. God not only answered the prayer, but made that answer a visible testimony to his power, causing a turning from Baal to Himself.

I wonder sometimes if our general prayers are not from fear that if we pray too specifically we might not see the answers we're looking for and so fail. Seriously? Once we give something to God in prayer, it’s His. It’s up to Him to respond in whatever way He thinks best. We neither succeed nor fail in prayer, but trust in God’s judgment. God will work out all situations for His good and the good of those that love and follow Him.

A former missionary to Indonesia has written:

We had just built a new house for a co-worker and were planning a house warming to thank the other missionaries who had helped. We had invited them and our local missionary pilot. The only problem was that dry season was upon us and we didn't have enough water in the river for a float plane landing.

People started to pray for this. Up to the afternoon before the housewarming, we had no rain. Esther, a nearby missionary and one of the invitees, radioed that she and the Christians in her village were praying for rain. The next morning, she radioed over early, with obvious disappointment in her voice. She was so sorry they couldn't come, because there had been no rain on their river, and assumed none on ours.

"Esther," I said, "last night after dark it began raining here. It rained all night. Then, just as the sun came up, it stopped and the clouds broke up. We're fine for a landing!"

I later checked around. Five miles to the east, west, north and south of our station, there was no rain. Over us and in the surrounding jungle, it rained all night. Then, just at dawn the rain stopped, the clouds broke up, and the conditions were perfect for a landing.

Specific prayer brought a specific answer.

On another continent and another time . . .

In 1984 Open Doors with Brother Andrew and other Christian organizations "called for a seven-year campaign of prayer for the Soviet Union . . . with the specific goal of complete religious liberty and Bible[s] available for all." In 1990 multi-party democracy was instituted. In 1991 a failed coup led to the total breakup of the Soviet Union and the banning of the Communist Party.

Do the math! 1984 + 7 years of prayer = 1991 on the dot!

But there’s at least one more story of prayer here.

When dictator Joseph Stalin wanted to stamp out Christianity in the 1920's, he confiscated Bibles. For some reason, though, he did not destroy them. He stored them in local warehouses. In the early 1990's a mission team discovered a storehouse of Bibles not far from them and received permission from local authorities to take and distribute these Bibles.

Going to the warehouse, they hired some locals to help with the work of transferring the books to cars and trucks for transport back to the city. One of the young men hired was not a believer and spent his time mocking and harassing the Christians. As the day wore on, the missionaries realized that this guy was no longer around. Searching, they found him crying in the back of the warehouse.

This young man had decided to see why these books were so special, but did not want the Christians to see his curiosity. He went to the back of the warehouse to look at one. Choosing a Bible from the top of the stack, he opened the cover and found his grandmother's name written on the first page. God had arranged to have his grandmother's Bible taken from her and stored in that warehouse for 50 years until this very man came along to find it.

They later found a prayer written by that grandmother when her Bible was taken. “God, don’t let the church die. Help my grandchildren to know you and believe.”

How specific can you get, in both petition and God’s response?

I’ll not say much more, because I don’t want to take away from the impact of these true testimonies. Go through the Bible yourself. Look at the prayers, in the form of specific requests, spoken by God’s people through the word. Look at God’s responses. Then, by faith, make your own prayers as specific as theirs and watch what God does.

Does God Answer Prayer?

Bob L. was leading a weekly prayer meeting for the community around Sentani International School in Papua, Indonesia. At the front of the room was a chalkboard divided into four columns. As people suggested prayer needs each week, Bob wrote them in the first column. Tracking the specific requests, each week Bob would move some into column 2 -- “answered yes,” column 3 – “answered no,” or column 4 – “not yet.”

All of those attending Bob’s prayer meetings saw graphic examples of how God does respond to our prayers. He doesn’t always do so in the way we might expect (or want), but he does respond, and we almost always see his response in an obvious way.

Although pray is more than just asking for things, we most often seem to associate it with bringing specific needs or requests to God. So, let’s continue to look with that perspective through today’s post.

From a person’s first prayer, usually in the form of Romans 10:13 -- Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved, to specific promises and principles given to people like the prophet in Jeremiah 33:3 -- ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know,’ to Jesus words to his disciples in John 15:16 – “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name,” God shows that he wants to respond to the prayers of his people

In 2 Chronicles 20, King Jehoshaphat prayed for deliverance from a superior army coming against Jerusalem. Not only did God destroy the invaders, the fear of God came upon all the kingdoms of the countries when they heard how the LORD had fought against the enemies of Israel (2 Chronicles 20:29)

Peter the Apostle had been arrested and imprisoned in Jerusalem. Acts 12:5 records, So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. The next paragraphs describe how God sent an angel to free and then personally escort Peter from his cell and almost to the door of the house where this prayer was going on.

Paul told the Corinthian church about his “thorn in my flesh,” some unknown affliction from Satan which made him less effective than he wanted. He prayed very specifically that God would remove this problem, but God responded with an emphatic “no.” God does not always with what we want to hear. When that happens, we have to have faith that God has a better idea, which he will reveal in his own time.

Beginning the great faith chapter in Hebrews, the writer used the example of Enoch to tell us and without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6).

As I write this, I am encouraged anew that God does care about his people enough to listen to us when we converse with him. The overwhelming weight of biblical evidence convinces us that God cares enough to respond, that he is powerful enough to respond, and that he wants us to see and acknowledge his responses.

For our part, we can’t afford to allow our preconceptions, personal agendas, or impatience to get in the way of what God wants to do in and through us as we pray.

Hearing God

Let’s build on two statements from last week’s posting.

Starting with the simple definition that says prayer is conversing with God, we remember that we have the privilege of that conversation because we are in a relationship with God the father through our faith in Jesus Christ.

As far as biblical terms go, words such as pray, worship, praise, ask, inquire, and plain old speak – when they are active verbs – express the concept of conversation with God from our side. When God such says things like “listen carefully” (Ezekiel 44:5), “hear my words” (Deuteronomy 4:10), “Come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18), we can understand it is God’s turn to lead the conversation. More generally, whenever we read anything from the Bible, we can be sure it is part of God’s conversation, both to those who originally heard the words and to us who came after its writing.

The thing that sets prayer apart from any other conversation in our lives is a simple fact that is between the God of the universe and we who are called by his name. From the beginning, it’s all about relationship.

I was recently reading the book Face to Face by Pastor Monte Kline. In this book, Klein calls Christians to spend more personal time with God. He often labels this as personal retreat, which can be anything from a few hours to days alone with God. He points to Moses’ 40 days with God in the clouds of Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:19) and Paul’s years in the Arabian desert (Galatians 1:17) as examples to note and follow (though not to those extremes) in finding our own times to be alone to talk to and hear from God.

In these examples, God seems to have used the person’s time alone to instruct, build, and prepare them for the next stage in their lives.

We know the Christian life is supposed to be one of spiritual growth. Both Paul and the writer of Hebrews refer to some Christians as being in the baby stage of growth. They don’t note this just in passing, but as an stage we should quickly grow out of. New Testament writers point this out in passages such as 2 Corinthians 10:15, Ephesians 4:15, and one of my favorites, 2 Peter 3:18, “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” And then there is a wonderful statement by Paul in second Corinthians 3:18. This one verse is so chock-full of meaning, but the overall sense is growth, when he wrote, “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

I submit that one of the greatest outcomes of prayer is becoming increasingly more comfortable in the presence of God so that he can direct our lives and use them for his glory. The more we converse with God, the easier it is to continue speaking to him. That conversing can find us on our knees alone or one of several praying in a group. It might be speaking aloud with God or forming the words in our minds. It can be singing together with hundreds in a church sanctuary or singing Scripture choruses alone in our car. It can be asking him for something or thanking him for something. Although I highly doubt God needs a smart phone, we could probably talk to him through texts, where the acronym omg takes on a whole new significance.

And, before you know it, talking to God becomes second nature to us.

On the other side, God responds to very few people in the booming voice he must have used to Moses on Sinai, or even the still small voice which Elijah eventually heard in 1 Kings 19:12 (KJV). He most often seems to talk through his written word, in which case the more time we spend reading the Bible, the more familiar we are with what he wants us to know. He talks to us often through circumstance or the advice of believing friends. Again, the more often we recognize this, the easier it is to understand and apply it in our lives.

And, again, before you know it, we are able to discern more specific leading for our lives.

I once attended a communications seminar where the facilitator reminded us of a common proverb, practice makes perfect. "There is some truth to that,” she said, “but a more realistic way to look at it is practice makes permanent.” She explained the more we do something the more it becomes a standard part of our lives. Oh, were that so in our prayer lives as well!

Last week I left you with the thought that prayer is based on our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. It doesn't stop there. Prayer helps us grow in that relationship so that we may become more like Christ and be more useful to the God who calls us.