DEVOTED TO…FELLOWSHIP… BROKE BREAD IN THEIR HOUSES 

How much time do you spend in secular or worldly influences in your everyday life? Battling the traffic to and from work or school; interacting with friends, associates, and colleagues during the day; surfing the web for a while; talking with neighbors and friends for a while; doing home chores; watching TV (how many hours?); checking in for a while with Facebook (or whatever your favorite flavor of social networking might be); etc….times at least 5 days a week, right? Then there’s the occasional secular hobbies and sports we might be involved in during the work week. And there’s the Saturday activities, most of which are non-religious. Hopefully, you get the point that the vast majority of our week is spent “marinating” in secular or worldly settings. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; otherwise, as Paul said, “for then you would have to go out of the world” (1 Cor. 5:10) and no one would hear the Gospel.

It is, however, to get you to be thinking about how many of the approximately 112 waking hours of the week are spent with secular, worldly influences—in comparison to the time spent among positive spiritual influences. Also to think about what those secular or worldly situations/people/programs are usually trying to influencing you do. Godly stuff or not-so-godly stuff?

On the other hand, what will the spiritual situations and people in your life try to influence you to do? Get the point? I’m hoping that this contrast will make it clear how important Christian associations are in the life of the Christian.

The New Testament clearly teaches us, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’” (1 Corinthians 15:33, NIV). And if this is true (and of course it is), then it is also true that good company will encourage good character and discourage bad. This is why Paul wrote, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality” (Romans 12:9-13, NIV). Notice how many “together” encouragements he mentions?

This is why the very first Christian spent time with each other. They made friends with each other, they ate at one another’s homes, and gave their new faith a “fighting chance” by cultivating Christian associations. God made us social creatures: we want friends, we want to fit in, and we find ourselves influenced by others. This is part of the reason that the Lord gave us the church and commanded that we assemble (Heb. 10:25). Christians of any spiritual age (Christian “newborns” to the most mature) need to be careful about the influences with which they surround themselves.

Christians of every maturity level need to be friendly towards every brother or sister, new or old. Make the effort to make friends. Invite others to your home (aka, hospitality, a seemingly lost practice these days). Accept the invitation of others. Come to even the social events of the church. Organize a social event, a youth group gathering, a golden agers gathering, a young family gathering, a singles’ gathering. Make your best friends, your closest friends Christians. You might be surprised at the spiritual growth you gain in knowledge, in courage, in conviction, in moral character, in prayer, and in wisdom.

Research shows that Christians with several friends within the church are not as likely to fall away! Conversely, those with few or no friends within the church, tend to fall away back into the world. Let me encourage you to pursue friendships and relationships within the fellowship of the church.

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Devoting Ourselves to Prayer

The last couple of postings have been giving thought to spiritual growth; not just the spiritual growth of a new Christian, but the growth that is important to the spiritual health of Christians of every spiritual “age”. And to do that, we’ve been meditating on what the earliest Christian did in Acts 2:42-47. In this article we’ll look at their devotion to prayer as a way to grow.

The early church was devoted to prayer (v. 42). Devotion here, like in our discussion of devotion to the apostles’ teachings, requires a love for, a loyalty to, and perseverance in. It is not a hit and miss sort of thing; rather, it is something done at every opportunity, something given a priority over lesser things, born out of an intense interest and love. So, be devoted in prayer; learn to love it, cultivate an intense interest in it, and practice it at every opportunity.

And also like growth through Scriptures, there are a number of approaches and levels in prayer that we can practice to grow spiritually as we should.

Praying, especially for new Christians, is sometimes hard. Where do you start? Where do you go, once you’ve begun? Who should I address the prayer to? How do I end it? What’s appropriate and what’s not? As a starting place for prayer, so we can grow, the Lord’s own model prayer (sometimes known as the “Lord’s Prayer”) is a good place to begin. But not as a mere set of words to parrot almost mindlessly; rather as a model. Read it (Matt. 6:9-13), look at its parts, learn from the Master about prayer, and start filling in with what you want to praise, what you want to ask for, what you want to thank the Father for, etc. The Lord’s prayer covers all the basics, and it’s an inspired place to start.

The Lord’s prayer does cover all the basics, but there can also be a time for short, focused prayer, too. Not every prayer has to contain a list of requests for blessing; not every prayer needs to have a certain “quota” of praise. Sometimes our prayers can and should be just thanksgiving; just praise; or just intercession for someone in need. An occasional focus on praise, thanks, intercession in prayer allows you to go deeper and grow deeper.

Pray more than just at meal time. While thanking God for our blessing of food three times a day is great, we should talk to the Lord more than that. Relationships take communication. Think of Scripture reading as God’s end of the conversation, and your prayers as your end of the conversation. Take every opportunity you have to talk with your Heavenly Father.

And connected to the suggestion above, pray as you go. It is certainly true that finding a quiet place for prayer is often preferable, so that we can speak with God in a more undistracted way, there’s also a place for practicing prayer on the go. There are some great examples of men praying to God “on the fly” in the midst of asking an important question, or at a critical moment (e.g., Neh. 2:4; or Jesus on the cross). “Prayer as you go” is often less formal and more to the point, but also will also give us help in time of need and an important sense of God’s real presence all the time, every day. And this can be so important as you come up against temptations, challenges, and troubles throughout your every day life.

Pray in faith. This is about more than praying with a certain amount of fervor. Jesus defined prayer in faith as asking God for something and then forging ahead in faith as if you already had been blessed with what you asked for (Mark 11:24). It sounds sort of simple, but it is probably one of the least practiced parts of prayer. Our tendency is to ask and then wait and see if God’s going to do something. The Lord asks us to step out onto the water, but we want to wait for the lake to freeze good and solid first. Pray in faith and grow.

Pour out your heart. Did you know that God doesn’t mind your (respectful) emotion? Indeed, the inspired apostle Peter gives us a God-breathed, full-blown invitation to do so, “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:6, 7. Let God hear your heart and grow.

Keep a journal. You may be thinking, I don’t remember anything about a prayer journal in the Bible; but have you ever considered that the Bible itself could be considered a prayer journal that has recorded the petitions and needs of God’s people over the centuries and God’s faithful answer to them. That’s the power of a prayer journal, the recording of the prayers and the answers, resulting in a stronger faith in the Lord. Whether you keep a journal or not, remember God’s faithful answers to your prayers and grow from it.

Growth is a Christian’s lifetime assignment. Pray and grow.

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Key One to Spiritual Growth, Devotion to the Apostles’ Teachings

Last week we started a series on spiritual growth. This series will not be aimed just to new Christians, but to all of us in every spiritual stage from “infant” to “young adults” on the way to the maturity that the Hebrew writer urged us toward (Heb. 5:14). This series will be taking cues for this important aim of growth from what Acts 2:42-27 says the first Christians did; and the first thing mentioned is how they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings.

We don’t, of course, have any modern day apostles, since one of the qualities of apostleship is having been an eyewitness of the resurrected Jesus. However, we do have their teachings (life of Christ, how to become a Christian, teachings about the church, references to the OT, moral living, etc.) in the form of God word, the Bible.

First of all, please notice that we must be devoted to these teachings, in order to really grow. Devotion implies a love for, a loyalty to, and perseverance in. It is not a hit and miss sort of thing; rather, it is something done at every opportunity, something given a priority over lesser things, born out of an intense interest and love. So, be devoted, learn to love it, cultivate an intense interest in it, and “listen” at every opportunity.

Second, we need to realize that there are a number of approaches and “levels” in knowing God’s word. Let me list a few (in no particular order).

  • Knowing the names and order of the books (so you can follow your teachers as they direct you to various places in the Bible)
  • Learning and knowing the basic plot line of the whole Bible (knowing sequences of events, covenants, etc. is important)
  • Learning the outline of each book (a step toward knowing the teachings of the book)
  • Learning the outline of the life of Christ from the Gospels
  • Learning the major stories of the Bible
  • Figuring out what the stories (OT and NT) teach and how they apply to today
  • Committing to memory important verses for comfort, teaching, and guidance
  • Figuring out Biblical terms and their Biblical definitions (e.g., redemption, atonement, holiness, the church, etc.)
  • Getting to know the map of the Biblical world (places are often very important)
  • The ability to pull wisdom and practical guidance from Biblical examples
  • Getting/seeing the connections between various passages in the Bible
  • Seeing the additional information that different passages provide to a Biblical topic
  • Seeing and understanding the metaphors and parables (OT and NT)
  • The ability to pull teachings, stories, parables, etc. to teach, refute, and deepen understanding
  • Few of these things can be done in a day, unless you’ve got a photographic memory. Most of them take years of regular, devoted study and meditation, and the earlier in life you start, the better. But each effort is well worth the growth of our spiritual lives. Such studies and understandings armor and arm us better with each “link”.

Would you like to grow? Being a diligent, devoted student of the Scriptures is a major key to spiritual growth. And it’s about more than just coming to Bible study.

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Keys to Spiritual Growth

Everyone who is serious about their Christianity wants to grow beyond their baptism. Like babies, toddlers, pre-K, grade-school, tweens, teens, and young adults in whom there is a natural longing to advance to the next stage to being a grown-up; new Christians will naturally want to grow, too. But how?

Growing up in the natural world happens with virtually no effort. We eat, we sleep, we exercise; and before long we’re bigger, stronger, and more coordinated than we used to be. We are guided, corrected, and disciplined by our parents. We go to school and we learn about language, math, science, and more.  As a kid we grow in most ways through little or no effort of our own. Ask a young adult how they grew and they might shrug and suggest, “Passage of time, maybe?”

But not so with spiritual growth in two important ways. This is crucial for Christians to remember; you will not grow by merely the passage of time. First, spiritual growth and health will take time and conscious effort. You will need to make some deliberate, long-term choices with your spiritual growth in mind. A meandering, hot and cold, non-deliberate effort leads to stunted growth at best or spiritual death, falling away.

Second, spiritual growth will not be like natural growth in which the growth is complete in 25 years or so. Spiritual growth will be a life-long pursuit. Neglect of this fact often leads to a good spiritual start but a poor spiritual finish.

Acts 2:42-47 provides an inspired path to spiritual growth, practiced by the very first Christians, the 3000 baptized after Peter’s first Gospel sermon. Their growth resulted in numerical growth of the church as well as in the personal strength that it took to stand firm against tremendous persecution. And this path is one that produces growth in more than just baby Christians, it is one that should be used by “toddler, pre-K, grade-school, tweens, teens, and young adult” level Christians alike, since it gives the nourishment, relationship, involvement, and enlightenment needed at every stage of Christian growth. The growth combination found here boils down to…

Devoting themselves to

…the apostles’ teaching

…to fellowship

…to the breaking of bread

…to prayer

Involvement

Hospitality

Worship

I’d like to talk about each of these separately over the next few posts in an effort to encourage us in this growth. We just entered the summer season, a season of growth. Do more than just coax roses and daisies out of the flower garden of your yard; instead, coax the growth of “…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…” (Galatians 5:22, 23) in your heart and spirit.

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Are You An Alien?

Did you know that the Bible teaches about aliens? No, we’re talking about men from Mars, nor about immigrating from another country, nor about Lady Gaga. Instead I’m talking about what Peter said, “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul” (1 Peter 2:11 ); we’re talking about you and me—if you’re a Christian. We’re talking about feeling at home—or not.

When you’re at home, you’re comfortable, feel loved and accepted, and that things are as they should be. When you’re an alien, on the other hand, you aren’t especially comfortable; the culture seems strange and sometimes even hostile; and we aren’t entirely sure that we’re really accepted.

So, do you feel at home in this world—or alien?

How comfortable are you with today’s sexual standards? Living together without marriage has become very common and in many cases, expected. Homosexuality seems to be practiced commonly, so that there’s not even a hint of blushing even among our politicians and religious leaders. Adultery has become such a comfortable practice that we’ve lost outrage about it. It may be worth a moment to stop and evaluate our hearts in comparison with the Bible’s teachings: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity… because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3, NIV). Are we at home here, or are we aliens.

How comfortable are you with today’s family values and standards? Are you embarrassed to voice support of or practice of traditional marriage, of the father being the head of his house, of the wife submitting to her husband, of children obeying their parents, of the appropriate disciplining of children, or of the tragedy of divorce? Do we need to reflect a moment or two on where we’ve been led in belief and practice (especially in view of Ephesians 5:22—6:4)? Are we at home here or are we aliens?

How comfortable have you become with modern language? If you’re over the age of 30, you are surely aware of the large number of words that used to be considered inappropriate, which are now used without hesitation. Vulgar references to bodily functions, vulgar references to body parts, and profane usage of God’s and His Son’s names are no cause for blushing anymore. Gossip, bitterness, and hyper-criticism have likewise become commonplace and even “delicious”. The inspired apostle Paul taught, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29, NIV). Do we need to stop, evaluate, and consider what words we’ve allowed ourselves to become accustomed to?

And what do you feel comfortable about watching these days? Granted, these days inappropriate entertainment can be found in surprising places—entertainment that would have had “X” ratings just a few years ago, but now is considered mainstream. Think of the TV situations that people were in (in bed), the subjects the talk shows discussed, or the jokes the comedians told (and you laughed at). Remember, the Scripture teaches us, “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8, NIV). There is truth in the statement, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

We cannot completely escape exposure to many of these things; but we can be aliens to them. We can stand against worldly sexual morals, refuse modern family standards, spurn unwholesome language, and decline polluted entertainments. We are citizens of God’s kingdom (Php. 3:20). Are we acting like it?

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Going from “No” to “Grow”

Titus 2:11, 12 “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age,”

Over 20 years ago Nancy Reagan rather famously responded to a question about what she would say to today’s teenagers to help them stay away from drugs. She said, “Just say no.” Some criticized her, of course, for a simplistic answer to a difficult problem; but actually that’s not a bad start in reference to any sin problem. But you need more than just “no” ; you also need “grows. Let me offer a few “grows” to help us overcome against the temptations we face as Christians.

Don’t say “yes” the first time. This advice would be primarily for young people who still haven’t said yes to some very dangerous things. Young people, you’re going to face some really alluring temptations in your life: sex, drugs, drink, gambling, and much more. And when Satan throws these temptations your way, he’ll usually also throw in, “Go ahead, just once. What will it hurt?” In a word, “Plenty.” Just once sometimes leads to pregnancy, death by drugs, or someone killed from drunk driving. But even more than this, ask any adult in the congregation (ANY adult), doing something just once is the doorway to doing it again and again. Temptations are far less powerful, if you never say yes the first time and give it the chance to get its claw into you. It is a preemptive strike” and enormous advantage “against sin.

Cultivate good thoughts. Jesus taught us, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matt. 15:19). We are told in Scripture that we need to think differently than the world (Rom. 12:2 & Php. 4:8). Your thought-life is terribly important, if you are really serious about overcoming temptations and difficulties in your life. Our thoughts are the origins of our sins or our righteousness. Feed our minds with goodness, and our words and actions will be good. Feed our minds with greed, lust, contempt, and jealousy, and our words and deeds will result in sin. We can change the “channel” of our thoughts and change the course of our lives.

Cultivate good substitutes. Paul taught, “that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.” (Ephesians 4:22-24). So much sin is a matter of habit that needs to be replaced to be overcome. This takes a little forethought, but it is really effective. Find better words than the coarse ones, when things don’t go so well. Find better ways to spend spare time than ways that are worldly and spiritually harmful. Find better ways to solve problems with spouse or children or neighbors than harsh words, angry tempers, or cold shoulders.

Cultivate good associates. Paul taught, Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Because we are social creatures, we are often influenced for good or ill by those that we spend the most time with—family, friends, neighbors. Don’t let them lead you away from God. And by the way, be aware of another influential associate, our TVs. Are they good or bad influences? And this is the very reason why spending time with Christian friends is so crucial!

Lastly, cultivate good motivations. Want a decent “motivations” list for doing right? Staying out of Hell. It’s good for me here and now! Faithful obedience leads to Heaven. Love for the Savior. Thankfulness for all that we have received. Appreciation for the new “clean slate” that we’ve been given. Understanding the seriousness of the covenant that we’ve been given. Or understanding the full impact of what Paul said, “For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” (2 Corinthians 5:14, 15).

Do more than just say “No”, “grow”.

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Are You Fully Redeemed?

The story of Zaccheus is found in Luke 19:1-9. He was a rich tax collector, but he was also short; so he climbed a tree to see the Lord passing by. Jesus called him and invited Himself to Zaccheus’ house, a privilege he was overjoyed to receive. In his joy, Zaccheus volunteered to give to the poor half of his possessions and repay anyone he might have defrauded four times as much as he had taken. In response, Jesus remarked, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham” Luke 19:9. For Zaccheus, salvation and redemption weren’t just his personal condition; he made everything in his possession “redeemed”, too.

Everyone who is a Christian has had the Zaccheus moment, when salvation came to us. We were redeemed: forgiven, given a home in Heaven, and given a new kind of life. It just makes us want to stand up and cheer—maybe like Zaccheus. But did we stop at personal redemption? As with Zaccheus, there’s more to our redemption.

There’s the redemption of our stuff: money, possessions, homes, cars, food, etc. Can stuff really be redeemed? It’s interesting how Romans 8:19-21 talks of the whole created universe longing for redemption, isn’t it? And if the whole creation wants to be redeemed, perhaps your stuff would like to go from being used for ordinary, sometimes sinful, purposes to being used for God’s purposes. Your contribution is redeemed stuff. Giving a ride to those in need is redeeming the car. Your home used for Christian hospitality makes it a redeemed home. Food provided for the hungry and clothes for the needy are all ways of redeeming our stuff. Grow beyond personal redemption, redeem your stuff, too.

Have you ever thought about redeeming your time? Paul wrote to the Ephesians that they should be “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:16, KJV). The book of Ecclesiastes has a lot to say about the time that we waste on things that won’t last (“vanity of vanities, all is vanity!”); but it concludes with what gives meaning to our lives, “fear God and keep His commandments” (Eccl. 12:13). While there are things that we ordinarily do that are truly important to sustain ourselves and meet the needs of our families, do I really need to list the many ways that tend to just “kill” time? Instead of killing time, let’s redeem it. Let’s use it to promote the Gospel, help those in need, encourage the church, and “…store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal” (Matthew 6:20). Grow beyond personal redemption and redeem your time, too.

And let’s also redeem our talents and opportunities. Moses had been trained in leadership in the palace of the Pharaoh, but by Exodus 3, he was content with using all that talent as a shepherd in the  middle of the wilderness. Esther had been elevated to queen of Persia, but when the chance to rescue her people first presented itself to her, she wanted to pass on it. The apostle Paul in Romans 12:6-8 encourages the Christian in Rome (and everywhere) to use the talents and opportunities the Lord gives to us with our whole heart and at full capacity in His service—redeem the talents and opportunities.

Full redemption is about more than a saved soul. It is also about living a redeemed life, using our stuff in redeemed ways, spending our time in redeemed hours, and engaging our skills, talents, and opportunities with redemption in mind. Live a fully redeemed life!

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