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Posts Tagged ‘Obedience’

 

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One night recently, my wife Diana and I returned from a long trip and took the Flyaway bus from the LAX airport to our home in one of Los Angeles’ suburbs. The bus was about a third full when we boarded, but quickly filled up as additional passengers came on at other stops around the airport.

I soon became aware of the conversation between a man and a young woman in the seats across from ours. Since the aisle was very narrow and the man was less than three feet away from me, I could follow snatches of their conversation, even though they were speaking softly. He looked to be in his late forties or early fifties, with an East European accent, she in her late teens or early twenties.Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 7.26.03 PM

At first the conversation reflected that of two people meeting for the first time, he asking her questions about where she was from, her reason for coming to Los Angeles, her name, family life, likes and dislikes. She was from South America, visiting the USA for the first time, traveling alone, and contemplating attending college here.

He complemented her on her beauty, said that he was a photographer who had been responsible for giving many models and actresses their start in Hollywood, showed her his iPad photo portfolio of glamorous young women, and started pitching her on how he could do the same for her.

I glanced across at them and saw how smoothly and charmingly he was making his pitch, and how innocently and engrossed she was in what he was offering.

I suddenly became very concerned for her.

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 8.11.37 PMOver the years there had been many criminal cases of girls and young women coming to Los Angeles to seek their fame and fortune, only to vanish, be murdered, drugged, enslaved, and forced into prostitution here or abroad by sex traffickers. Many of them were met and befriended at train and bus terminals or at airports by smooth-talking men who convincingly weaved their webs of promises and visions of glamor, only to entrap and ultimately destroy them.

Was he one of those men? Was she one of those gullible young women? Had he targeted her as a lone traveler outside the airport? Why had he chosen to sit down beside her when there were so many empty seats when he came on the bus? Were those photos on his iPad legitimate photos that he had taken of real women, or were they copied from websites and magazines and used as his own to ensnare women?

Were my questions and concerns baseless, just wild imaginings from my jet-lagged mind? Or were they promptings from the Holy Spirit who gives us the gift of discernment and leads us into all truth? (1 Cor. 12:8-11; John 16:13)

I shared my concern with Diana, and together we kept watch through the remainder of the bus ride. Our concern grew when we saw them exchange cell phone numbers.

When we were about five minutes from the bus terminal, the bus driver announced over the intercom that passengers needed to have their bus tickets ready in order to pick up their suitcases and exit the terminal. If they didn’t have a ticket, they could use their credit cards to buy one at the terminal. Cash would not be accepted.

The young woman exclaimed, “Oh no, I only have cash!”

He assured her, “That’s all right. I’ll pay for you.”

She thanked him, and he went on to offer to give her a ride to anywhere she wanted to go.

Their conversation tapered off soon after that, and I looked over at him and saw something that startled me and deepened my concern even more—his eyes were closed, his head was tilted back against the headrest of his chair, and he sighed deeply and smiled as he gently stroked his chest, as if congratulating himself.

The image was of a man who knew that he was about to reel in his catch, that his prey was undoubtedly about to be snared. He exuded total confidence that he had caught this one.

No longer was I unsure about this man. I believed that he meant to harm her. But what was I to do?

I did not want to leave the bus terminal and leave her with this man, and I didn’t relish the idea of confronting him when we got off the bus to reclaim our luggage, but if I had to, I would. But what would I say? How would he react? No doubt, it would create a scene in front of the other passengers, bus driver, and baggage attendant.

So I prayed. I asked God to surround the young woman with his protection and to keep her from being harmed by this man. I asked God to give me the boldness and the words to intervene when we got off the bus. And I asked God to protect me from harm in what I was about to do.

Screen Shot 2016-01-23 at 9.51.10 PMWhen the bus arrived at the terminal, we all disembarked to wait for the attendant to unload our suitcases from the bus. I was about to approach the man when the young woman saw a friend waving to her from behind the railing. In the friend’s hand was a bus ticket!

The young woman ran to the friend, hugged her, took the ticket, and went back to get her luggage.

I quickly went over to the friend and said, “Excuse me, your friend met a man on the bus, and I couldn’t help overhearing what they were talking about. Please tell her that she should not trust him and should not go anywhere with him. If she does, her life could be in danger. She should have nothing to do with him!”

The friend’s expression was one of surprise when I suddenly approached her, but as my words and urgent tone sank in, her expression brightened and she thanked me profusely.

Just as quickly, I stepped back and returned to Diana who had been watching the man hover around the young woman as she waited for her suitcase. Our luggage was the last to be unloaded from the bus, and by the time Diana and I gave our tickets to the gate attendant and headed for the taxi stand, the young woman and her friend were gone.

The man, however, was frantically trying to get his credit card to work at the automatic teller machine, which seemingly wasn’t cooperating.

During the short taxi ride to our home, I silently praised and thanked God for how quickly he answered my prayer and averted the young traveler from having to go with the man into the night. And I prayed that she would heed the warnings I gave to her friend, especially when the man undoubtedly would try to reach her on her cell phone.

Since then, I’ve continued to pray for God’s protection over her and that she might come to know Jesus Christ as her savior. And I’ve prayed that the man, whatever his intentions that night, would also repent of his sins and follow Christ.

I might never know if her life was in danger that night, but over the years, as I have grown in my faith walk with Christ, I’ve learned to obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit, for sometimes it really can mean the difference between life and death.

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While Scripture passages such as Romans 8:31-39 assure us that nothing can separate us from God’s love, there is always the temptation for us to accept God’s eternal salvation in which our sins are forgiven and we are assured a place in heaven, yet be reluctant to go deeper in our walk with Jesus because he might demand too much of us in this life.

We enjoy the benefits of our Christian faith and participate occasionally in church events—Sunday services, Easter and Christmas celebrations, weddings, baptisms, funerals or memorials—but often avoid commitments that demand more of us than we are willing to give.

Unwilling to move out of our comfort zone, we give minimally of our time, our resources, and ourselves to God, the church, and to others, leaving the bulk of God’s Kingdom work to the very few dedicated souls among us.

To all of us who claim to be followers of Jesus, he says, as he did to his disciples:

“So why do you keep calling me ‘Lord, Lord!’ when you don’t do what I say? I will show you what it’s like when someone comes to me, listens to my teaching, and then follows it. It is like a person building a house who digs deep and lays the foundation on solid rock. When the floodwaters rise and break against that house, it stands firm because it is well built. But anyone who hears and doesn’t obey is like a person who builds a house without a foundation. When the floods sweep down against that house, it will collapse into a heap of ruins.” (Luke 6:46-49; see also Matt. 7:24-27)

Jesus is not comparing Christians and unbelievers, but two types of Christians—those who listen to his teachings and obey them, and those who listen to his teachings but do not obey them.

What we do with the words of Jesus—especially his Sermon on the Mount teachings about the characteristics of being his disciples (Matthew 5-7)—determines how we respond to life’s hurricanes of crises:

• Obedience to Christ’s teachings creates a strong foundation that will withstand life’s crises.

• Disobedience to Christ’s teachings inevitably leads to major collapses amid life’s crises.

While life’s storms and hurricanes are sure to strike every one of us at some time or another, obedience leads to protection in the midst of these crises. Disobedience doesn’t.

When we read Matthew 5-7 and understand what Jesus teaches and what he calls us to become and to do as his followers, we soon realize that he is calling us to be a unique people whose values are a complete reversal of the world’s value systems.

For example:

• Jesus calls us to both care for people who are poor in spirit, heartbroken, and powerless, and be willing ourselves to be poor in spirit, heartbroken, and powerless, for to such belong the kingdom of God. However, those who are not poor in spirit—the proud, the self-assured, the powerful, the arrogant—are not in God’s kingdom.

• Jesus blesses those who are gentle, meek, and lowly. But the world rejects such qualities as weakness, and places no value on such people.

• Jesus teaches us to seek God’s praise. The world teaches to seek its praise.

• Jesus calls us to seek the Father’s eternal treasures. The world entices us with money, fame, and earthly success that soon fade.

• Jesus calls us to purity of heart and truth. The world persecutes the pure of heart and opposes the truth.

How seriously do we consider such teachings of Jesus? Do we see them as impractical in today’s fast-paced, complex, and sophisticated world? Do we see them as unrealistic? Irrelevant? Too hard?

Or do we, like Peter, consider Jesus’ teachings and respond, “Lord, you alone have the words that give eternal life.” (John 6:68)

Yes, through the love, grace, and mercy of God as expressed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Savior, we have eternal life—now and forever. And yes, we have Jesus’ assurance that no one can snatch us out of his hands (John 10:28).

But we must never forget that not only do the words of Jesus give eternal life, they also contain many warnings to those of us who are prone to ignore them.

There is grace in “once saved always saved,” but there is also the caveat: “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

The Christian journey, therefore, involves the duality of living with both certainty and caution; assurance of eternal salvation and warnings; balancing God’s gift of grace with our individual responsibility to live obediently in response to that grace.

This duality is expressed beautifully by the New Living Translation of Philippians 2:12-13 where Paul writes:

“Dearest friends, you were always so careful to follow my instructions when I was with you. And now that I am away you must be even more careful to put into action God’s saving work in your lives, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire to obey him and the power to do what pleases him.”

May we embrace the duality of following Jesus as today’s disciples—assured of our salvation but always careful to live obediently with deep reverence and fear.

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None of us has escaped those passages of life during which we are troubled, confused, drained of all vitality and direction, or plagued by self-doubt and ineffectiveness.

Recently I have been suffering from writer’s block as I try to work on both a novel and this blog. Among the doubts that seem to be blocking my efforts to write are: Am I good enough? Do I have anything significant to say? Will people read what I write? Will my writing inspire people to journey with Jesus Christ? Will my life or my work for Christ matter?

I was therefore encouraged when I came across I Corinthians 15:58:

So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and steady, always enthusiastic about the Lord’s work, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.” (New Living Translation, NLT)

This verse comes at the end of the 15th chapter in which the Apostle Paul responds to critics who claim that the resurrection of Christ is a lie and that the Christian faith is empty and useless.

Paul reminds the Christians at Corinth that:

• The resurrection was factual—that Jesus was crucified and died for our sins, that he was buried in a tomb, that God raised him to life on the third day, that he was seen by Peter and the disciples as well as over 500 people, including James, the brother of Jesus, and Paul himself. (I Cor. 15:1-10)

• Because Jesus was raised from the dead, all who are related to Jesus by faith will also be raised from the dead. (verse 22)

• Because Jesus overcame death and ascended into heaven with a new heavenly body, all who are in Jesus Christ will also be resurrected with new bodies fit for his heavenly kingdom. (verses 42-53)

• Because of Jesus’ resurrection, death is no longer a source of dread or fear for those who follow him, for he has defeated death and gives us hope and assurance for life beyond the grave. (verses 54-56)

For all these reasons, Paul insists that nothing we do is useless in light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we have each been called to share the good news of his life and resurrection in all areas of our lives, and we should not be discouraged during those passages of life when we are troubled, confused, drained of all vitality and direction, or plagued by self-doubt.

Instead, Paul encourages us to be strong, steadfast, and enthusiastic in all that we do—for it is by remembering and celebrating Christ’s resurrection that we find meaning , strength, and reason to face the challenges of our lives.

We should not worry about the results of what we do for Christ, for that’s up to our Lord. Our responsibility is to be obedient to the Lord and to the tasks or call that he has given each one of us.

It is enough for us to be assured that nothing that we do for him is useless or in vain.

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On a recent ocean voyage in the Pacific, I had the pleasure of daily observing schools of playful dolphins that accompanied our ship, and, on one occasion, we ventured close to a pod of whales.

The sight of the whales reminded me of the story of Jonah, the reluctant prophet, who tried to run away from the mission to which God had called him, but was swallowed by a “great fish,” presumably a whale.

So I decided to reread the book of Jonah, and as I meditated on the story, I was confronted by the following considerations and insights.

The first was that, whereas I had always accepted the traditional interpretation that Jonah was alive in the belly of the great fish for three days and nights, a comparison of Jonah 1:17 and Matthew 12:40 led me to consider the possibility that Jonah died in the belly of the fish but was resurrected after the fish vomited him out onto the beach!

When the religious teachers and Pharisees asked Jesus to show them a miraculous sign to prove that he was from God, he replied:

“Only an evil, faithless generation would ask for a miraculous sign, but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so I, the Son of Man, will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights.” (Matthew 12:39-40, New Living Translation, NLT)

Since Jesus was predicting his own resurrection from death to life after being in the grave for three days, was he implying that Jonah, too, was dead for three days and was brought back to life?

And what about Jonah’s own words that seem to imply an experience of death and resurrection?

“I called to you from the world of the dead, and Lord, you heard me!” (Jonah 2: 2b, NLT)

“I was locked out of life and imprisoned in the land of the dead. But you, O Lord my God, have snatched me from the yawning jaws of death!” (2: 6b, NLT)

The language of Jonah 1:17 – 2:10 is ambiguous in the sense that it could be interpreted either way—that the prophet was alive in the belly of the fish, or that he died in the belly of the fish and God restored him to life when the fish vomited him onto the shore.

Because Jesus likened Jonah’s experience to his own death and resurrection, I am inclined to accept the latter interpretation.

Second, I was reminded that God’s grace and salvation was—and is—offered to all people throughout the world, yet it was a concept that Jonah and the people of Israel found difficult to accept because of their belief that God’s salvation was reserved only for them as God’s special nation.

So when God called Jonah to take his message of repentance and salvation to Israel’s powerful pagan enemy, Nineveh, Jonah was so angry that God would offer grace and mercy to such a vicious and hateful people that he disobeyed God. Instead of journeying northeast to Nineveh to deliver God’s message, he headed down to the seaport of Joppa and boarded a ship heading west to Tarshish, presumably in or near Spain or Sardinia.

And as the familiar story goes, God sent a life-threatening storm that abated only after Jonah revealed to the ship’s crew that he was running away from God, and they followed his suggestion to throw him overboard to appease God and end the storm.

Jonah’s confession to the pagan crew (Jonah 1: 9-10), his description of the Lord as “the God of heaven, who made the sea and land,” and God’s powerful demonstration of immediately stopping the storm combined to cause the crew to turn from their pagan faith, pray for forgiveness, offer sacrifice, and commit to following and serving the living and powerful God of Israel.

Not only did Jonah’s act of running away from God inadvertently lead the pagan crew to receive God’s grace and salvation, but when Jonah finally reached the outskirts of the city of Nineveh and shouted, “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” he was amazed at the people’s immediate willingness to believe God, repent, fast, and wear sackcloth in mourning.

Waves of populace repentance radiated and surged inward from the suburbs and throughout the city that by the time Jonah reached the center of the city three days later, he found that even the king and his royal household and nobles had repented and had joined the rest of the city to wait out the forty-day period in the hope that God would spare them.

When God saw that they had stopped their evil ways, he had mercy on them and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened (Jonah 3: 10).

Thankfully, God’s mercy and message of salvation continues today, and we are the beneficiaries of his grace through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and through the witness of countless numbers of faithful servants throughout the ages who have faithfully answered Christ’s commission to go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone, everywhere (Matthew 28: 19; Mark 16:15).

Third, in looking at Jonah, we see some of his flaws and characteristics in ourselves. For haven’t we been reluctant to do something that we knew that God wanted us to do?

Haven’t we, at some time, been willfully disobedient in doing something that we knew that God wanted us to do?

Haven’t we been angry and raged at God when we didn’t get what we wanted, when he didn’t answer our prayers the way we expected, or when we felt that he failed us?

Haven’t we been jealous when God showed favor to someone other than ourselves, when we felt that we deserved God’s blessings instead of that other person or group?

Haven’t we been biased and prejudiced towards another person, family, group, race, nation, religion, denomination, school, college, or political party, thinking that we are better than they are, that we are God’s chosen, and that we are right and they are wrong? And haven’t we failed to recognize Jesus among them?

In Jonah 4, we see the fickleness, self-pity, self-centeredness, self-righteousness, and argumentative moods of Jonah as he waited outside the city, expecting to see the destruction of the city and people; we see his immaturity as he lashed out at God after losing his plant shade, and we sense that despite the fact that he finally fulfilled his mission and had been given a second chance at life and ministry, yet he hadn’t learned his lesson and he hadn’t grown in his spiritual journey!

Have we matured and grown spiritually?

The book of Jonah ends in the following way (Jonah 4: 9-11, NLT):

Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”

“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even enough to die!”

Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. And a plant is only, at best, short lived. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a city?”

In the same way, the Lord says to us, “There are nearly seven billion people on earth today. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such people?”

Let us not be reluctant when God calls us to minister to any of them.

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Having spent the last four weeks polishing the final draft of my memoir before sending it back to the publisher, I decided to watch the DVD of “The Hiding Place,” directed by my late friend and mentor, James F. Collier, whom I mention in the memoir.

Jim, as he was affectionately called, had the kind of Christian film career to which, I believe, God had called me. Jim had directed a string of successful feature films for Billy Graham’s Worldwide Pictures, that were instrumental in inspiring and leading many people to Christ.

Hearing my testimony of how I became a Christian through a movie, “Angel in Ebony,” and how I left my career as a pastor to become a Christian filmmaker, Jim took me under his wings when I was a graduate film student at UCLA, and was always available to critique my scripts, advise me, and encourage me as a young filmmaker.

I tried for several years to find investors for one of my films, and when an investor finally promised to put up $1.5 million to make the film, it was largely due to Jim’s help and presence during my presentation.

But when the deal eventually fell through, I was so deeply disappointed and depressed, that I questioned my calling and considered quitting filmmaking.

It was at this low point in my life that God used Jim to bring a special word of encouragement to me. Though I don’t have Jim’s exact words recorded, his advice went something along these lines:

“My brother,” he said (he always called me brother), “one of the things that I have observed in life and in reading the Bible, is that God doesn’t always call us to be successful in the way the world views success, but he always calls us to be obedient. As a follower of Christ, you are successful when you are obedient to him. And in that obedience, you’ll have to wait on his timing for things to happen, not your time schedule; and in learning to wait and trust in God’s timing, you’ll learn patience.

“Don’t despair when God seems slow in acting. Just continue to obey him in your daily life. Be patient, and wait for him to act in his perfect timing, for he knows best. You might have to go through some tough times, but stay the course, be faithful, and trust him.

“Moses had to wait forty years tending sheep in the desert before God called him to deliver the Israelites out of Egypt. And David had to wait twenty-three years after God anointed him as king before he became king over all of Israel, and some of those years were spent as a fugitive, hiding in caves from Saul who wanted to kill him.

“So, my brother, wait, be patient, be prepared for a long journey, and above all, trust and obey the Lord through whatever difficulties he might lead you.”

Jim’s words of advice and encouragement have remained with me.

In May 1991, I received news that Jim had died at the age of sixty-two. He and his wife, Jean, had moved up to their ranch in Creston, north east of San Francisco, and while he was checking his property one night, fell down an embankment where he was severely injured. He lingered in the hospital for a few days, but died within a week.

I was greatly saddened by his death, and remembered clearly our meeting at which he gave me such encouragement when I was at one of my lowest points of my life: Wait. Be patient. Be prepared for the long journey. Trust and obey Christ as he leads through the difficulties of the long journey.

That message can also be found in Jim’s movie, “The Hiding Place,” the true story of Corrie ten Boom, who survived the Nazi concentration camps after her entire family was killed for hiding Jews in their home in Holland.

I encourage you to get a copy of the DVD and watch this very inspirational film. Or you can click the links below and watch it on your computer in the following order:

Trailer: watch?v=YWg47sLwlHk&feature=related

Clip 1: watch?v=hhVC9q_ZlDs&feature=related

Clip 2:watch?v=yRgD4z8F3rA&feature=related

Clip 3: watch?v=XoFwNeiAm04&feature=related

Clip 4: watch?v=rNG-L7wIibA&feature=related

Clip 5: watch?v=d-FYG-nTGx8&feature=related

Clip 6: watch?v=SJopT76slTw&feature=related

Clip 7: watch?v=VyXe4txpt9I&feature=related

Clip 8: watch?v=yKbIpfW3fa8&feature=related

Clip 9: watch?v=Qm_ruUyXThA&feature=related

Clip 10: watch?v=wHc_jmRXsMU&feature=related

Clip 11: watch?v=-EN3MlRBGHM&feature=related

Clip 12: watch?v=uj6M-AxQATA&feature=related

Clip 13:watch?v=xjRCuXoZUrA&feature=related

Clip 14:watch?v=aKHRVl5QMa4&feature=related

Clip 15:watch?v=kXYV435Fe3U&feature=related

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Last fall my church asked me if I would be willing to serve for the next three years as a deacon, one of approximately 60 deacons elected to “minister to those who are in need; to the sick; to the friendless; and to any who may be in distress” in our congregation. I agreed to do so, and began my term in January.

Recently I was reading Acts 6 about how the first seven deacons were chosen by the apostles to administer a food program in the rapidly growing church in Jerusalem after Pentecost. The seven men–Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas of Antioch—were chosen because they were “well respected among fellow believers and full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” Their task as Greek-speaking men was to administer the food and charity program to the Greek widows in the church so that the apostles could focus on spending time in prayer, preaching the Gospel, and teaching the word of God.

But although Stephen and Philip are featured in Acts (6:5 to 7:60; 8:4-40; 21:8-10), there is no mention of the remaining five deacons in other New Testament pages.

So I dug through my library and discovered from early church history and Byzantine art that Prochorus was the amanuensis or secretary to whom the apostle John dictated the Fourth Gospel around A.D. 80-85, and that he was also the bishop of Nicomedia.

I found no further information anywhere about Nicanor, Timon, and Parmenas, and I assumed that these men went on to quietly and faithfully work and worship anonymously within the early life of the church.

But what I discovered about the seventh deacon—Nicolas of Antioch—surprised me.

One of the early church historians, Irenaeus, stated that Nicolas of Antioch founded the Nicolaitans, a heretical group that “lived lives of unrestrained indulgence” (Against Heresies, I.26.3; III.11.1). Another early historian, Hippolytus, added that Nicolas departed from the correct doctrine of the faith (Philosophoumena, VII.36) and “was in the habit of inculcating indifference to food and life” (Refutation of Heresies, 7.24).

Although some early historians believe that it was another Nicolas that influenced the Nicolaitan sect, many scholars tend to accept the statements of Irenaeus and Hippolytus.

So, it would seem that approximately 60 years after Nicolas of Antioch was first described as well respected and full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, he and the Nicolaitans became known for leading believers astray by introducing into the churches pagan teachings and practices from Greek-Roman society, such as eating food sacrificed to idols and practising immoral sexual acts.

This led Christ to declare in Revelation 2 that he hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans who had infiltrated three of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation—Ephesus, Pergamum, and, by implication, Thyatira. The leaders at Ephesus had denounced the Nicolaitans in their midst, but the leaders of the Pergamum and Thyatira churches tolerated them, especially a self-styled prophetess espousing pleasure and self-indulgence.

Although the seven churches were facing persecution from the Roman emperor Nero, the greater danger was from within their midst—from the influences of the Nicolaitans who were corrupting the beliefs and practices of the church by including immoral elements of the Greek-Roman society.

They were leading believers astray—and Christ hated their deeds (Rev. 2:6). It wasn’t that Christ hated the Nicolaitans themselves, for he loved mankind enough to have sacrificed his life to save us (John 3:16). He hated what they were doing. He loved the sinners, but hated their sinning!

That’s why Christ showed patience and mercy when he told the church at Thyatira:

I know all the things you do—your love, your faith, your service, and your patient endurance. And I can see your constant improvement in all these things. But I have this complaint against you. You are permitting that woman—that Jezebel who calls herself a prophet—to lead my servants astray. She is encouraging them to worship idols, eat food offered to idols, and commit sexual sin. I gave her time to repent, but she would not turn away from her immorality. Therefore I will throw her upon a sick bed, and she will suffer greatly with all who commit adultery with her, unless they turn away from their evil deeds. (Rev. 2:19-21, New Living Translation)

As I reflected on this passage and on Nicolas and the Nicolaitans, I wondered about how this could have happened. If the Nicolaitans came into being because of Nicolas of Antioch—the deacon who was well respected by the believers and full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom—what happened to change him? Why did he begin to introduce heretical beliefs and practices into the church and corrupt the teachings of Christ? How and when did he stop allowing the Holy Spirit to lead him in making wise choices?

And was it a gradual process—a “slight edge” descent into the dark erotic side where he could attract a growing number of followers with a popular message of religous freedom to experience God while indulging in the pleasures of culinary and sexual delights?

And why did some of the churches tolerate this growing subculture within their midst? Were their leaders afraid to speak up against what they were doing? Were they being swayed by arguments that the church needed to be less restrictive and more like the surrounding society in order to attract more followers?

However the changes came about in those years between A.D. 33 and A.D. 90-95, it was enough for Christ to reprimand those churches and to say that he hated the deeds of the Nicolaitans!

And what about us today?

Might the Risen Christ be saying the same to us today—“I love you, my church, but I hate what some of you are doing”?

Churches and denominations are facing dangers from within as we fight over attempts to blend the ways of God with the ways of a secular world.

We are being split apart by attempts to rebrand and redefine the Bible’s view of God and the person of Jesus Christ into images, beliefs, and way of life that are more compatible and acceptable to an increasingly secular society.

Are we leading people astray when we emphasize the prosperity gospel and fail to teach that the Kingdom of God also involves the cross—suffering, sacrifice, and servanthood? How many people turn away from God when the prosperity that preachers promise fail to materialize?

Are we inviting Christ’s reprimand and chastening upon ourselves when we stray from the biblical standard for marriage, sex, and ordination of the clergy in order to gain the approval of a rapidly changing and indulgent modern society?

As people of God, followers of Christ, and leaders in a variety of roles within our churches and our families, we are being called to choose on which side of these issues we will stand and what legacy we will leave behind.

May we choose wisely.

Clicky

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Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011, was exactly 34 years since I came back home to the Lord.

As a teenager in Jamaica, I had first committed my life to Jesus Christ in 1961, and later attended seminary to study for the ministry. After graduation, I married my high school sweetheart and served as a pastor of a circuit of churches before immigrating to New York with my wife and baby daughter in 1969.

But my marriage ended in divorce, and with our denomination unwilling to employ me as a divorced pastor, I found myself adrift in New York City far from the anchors of family, friends, and home church that I had left behind in Jamaica.

As a new single man in New York, and feeling rejected by church leaders, I found a new career and growing recognition in the publishing field—and the sudden availability of women. After being sheltered in the church during my teens and my twenties, I soon succumbed to the allure of New York City’s swinging singles culture and promiscuous lifestyle.

This continued for several years, even when I moved to Los Angeles to study and work in the film industry. During all this time I stopped going to church and my attitude towards God was one of aloofness in which I gave God the cold shoulder. And I nursed a lingering hurt and resentment towards the leaders of my former denomination.

Despite this, I found myself attending Easter service for the first time at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in 1977. The small chapel was packed with worshipers, choir, and musicians, and from the very start of the service I felt that something was different.

I don’t recall much of what the minister, Dr. Donn Moomaw, preached about, but I remember that soon after I took my seat I became aware of God’s powerful presence, love, and joy in that room.

In particular, I felt God’s love for me, and I had an overwhelming sense of his forgiveness for my cold attitude and rejection of him, my anger and resentment towards the church leaders, my promiscuity, and my attempts to seek and embrace the sinful allures of society. There was no feeling of condemnation from him, just his welcoming presence and invitation to come back home.

And that’s when my tears began to flow freely throughout the service and my hard heart and emotions softened and melted.

As I sat through that service of celebration for the risen Christ, unable to sing along with the congregation because of the inner emotions churning within me, I thought of past Easters in Jamaica and the intimacy of celebrating the sacraments on Maundy Thursday nights, especially the washing of feet, and I sensed the Lord saying to me, “You came to Hollywood to pursue fame and fortune as a film director, but are you willing to be a lowly servant for me?”

I remembered the solemn Good Fridays in Jamaica, the holiest day of the year, when all commerce ceased on the island and many Christians contemplated the Stations of the Cross as we journeyed meditatively along the Via Delorosa, the Way of Sorrows, the route that Jesus took from his condemnation before Pilate to his crucifixion on the cross and his burial in a borrowed tomb. And with that remembrance, I suddenly felt the weight and guilt of my sins and backsliding, and sensed the Lord reminding me of how much he loved me enough to have suffered and died for my sins.

Amid my tears and remembrances, I began to tune into the theme and tone of the Easter service in the chapel that morning—celebrating the resurrected Jesus Christ. By the time the choir and congregation stood to sing the final hymn, the roof-raising celebratory “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” I could only stand and bow my head in submission and silent prayer to my heavenly Father, asking him to please accept me back from my prodigal ways. “Father,” I cried silently, “forgive me. I’m ready to come back home.”

I left the chapel that morning, clutching one of the Easter lilies that ushers had given out, and I returned to my apartment in Westwood. That afternoon, I called my friends and lovers and told them of my recommitment to following Jesus Christ and that my life had changed.

Much has changed in the intervening years. I remarried, and now have three grown children and four grandchildren, and have served God through a variety of careers. I continue to worship at Bel Air Presbyterian Church, which outgrew its small chapel and is now housed in a large sanctuary that serves several thousand members and visitors each week.

In fact, we have grown so much that for the past few years we have been celebrating Easter in the Hollywood Bowl where approximately seven to nine thousand people join us in worship.

So, it was with a grateful heart that over the past few days, this former prodigal son joined Christian brothers and sisters during Holy Week and participated in celebrating Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday in our sanctuary, then went over to the Hollywood Bowl where we raised our voices in praise to our Risen Christ.

It is my prayer and expectation that many other prodigals—sons and daughters—found their way home to our heavenly Father at Easter–wherever in the world they were.

*****

Clicky

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