Courage To Go On

Courage to Go On

2 Timothy 2:1-13

Dr. Jim Denison

A friend recently sent me some ads which needed proofreading:

Nice parachute. Never opened. Used once.

Nordic Track $300. Hardly used. Call Chubby.

Semi-Annual after-Christmas Sale.

Snowblower for sale. Only used on snowy days.

Stock up and save. Limit one.

Wanted: Man to take care of cow that does not smoke or drink.

Dog for sale: Eats anything and is fond of children.

For sale by owner: complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica 45 volumes. Excellent condition. $1,000 or best offer. No longer needed. Got married last month. Wife knows everything.

Does she really? Does she know the meaning of life? Does she know what really matters? Do any of us?

“Affluenza” is the new term of the day—affluence which afflicts us with its demands, overwork and overstress.

I read this week that 80% of men and 62% of women put in more than 40 hours a week on the job. But all this work is not giving our lives meaning and fulfillment. 60% of Americans feel pressured to work too much; 80% wish for more time to be with their families and themselves.

We’re starting to realize that it’s just not worth it. We’ve climbed to the top of the ladder, only to discover that it’s leaning against the wrong wall.

Then the hard times come. How do you go on in the face of chemotherapy, job loss, single parenting, the divorce of your parents, peer pressure at school, demands which are pulling you apart, the general weariness of life?

It all comes to purpose. You and I will choose to go on in the face of suffering and sacrifice if the goal is worth such cost. When we find the right purpose, a meaning to life which is worth our lives, we’ll pay any price to fulfill it. There, in that purpose, we’ll find the courage to go on.

Let me explain.

Choose to please God

Paul gave his life for a reason, as he wrote this letter from the Mamartine dungeon: “This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal” (vs. 8b-9). Why? “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory” (v. 10). Suffering, going on, for a purpose.

Now let’s back up:

“You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 1). “Be strong” means to keep on being empowered. “Grace” simply means the “unmerited favor,” the power and help which God has given you. Now stand in this strength, not in your own. In his Spirit, in his power, and not your own. And lead others to do the same (v. 2; there’s an entire disciple-making strategy in this one verse).

“Endure hardship” (literally, “take your lumps”) like a good soldier, “to please your commanding officer” (v. 4). The Greek word means the person who enrolled you in the army and has been your leader ever since.

Don’t “get involved in civilian affairs”—the phrase means to get entangled, as when a soldier gets his weapons tangled up in his clothes. “Civilian affairs” keep a soldier from fighting the battle, winning the war. In other words, stay on purpose.

Compete as an “athlete”—the Greek is the word for a professional athlete, not the amateur for whom athletics is merely a hobby. This is to be our full-time work, the passion and focus of our lives.

Do so to “receive the victor’s crown” (v. 5). This is the “stephanos,” the victor’s wreath given to the winner of an athletic contest. Do so according to the “rules;” they related to the training of athletes as well as their competition. Greek athletes had to state on oath that they had fulfilled ten months’ training before they were eligible to enter the contest. Those who wish to run in the Boston Marathon must have a time low enough to make them eligible.

To use a different analogy, sacrifice as a hardworking farmer to “be the first to receive a share of the crops” (v. 6).

Now Paul quotes one of the first hymns in Christian history:

If we “died” with him (the Greek word is a completed action, referring to our salvation experience), we will live with him (present tense, here and now).

If we endure, we will reign with him.

If we “disown” him, he will disown us. Paul refers to a person who claims not to know Christ as Savior and Lord. If we do not accept his salvation, he cannot save us.

But if we are faithless, he is still faithful.

Here’s the summary: God rewards those who fulfill his purpose for their lives.

Here we find the courage to go on: the risen, living, active Christ will reward our faithfulness to his call, both now and in eternity. And he will help us fulfill it. He will give us his power, if we will fulfill his purpose. And we will pay any price, make any sacrifice, because the reward he gives is worth all it costs and more.

When Jesus Christ is real in our lives, we find in his power and reward the courage to go on.

Expect Jesus to help

But here’s the problem for many in our culture: we don’t make our choices as if Jesus Christ has anything to do with them. He’s a figure of history, a fact of our religion, a Sunday topic, but little more. When did you last choose to do something or not, to make a sacrifice or not, based on what Jesus Christ would do personally in response? Why should you?

Last year, I picked up a book whose thesis interested me: The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. No one had yet heard of it. Its basic idea was that Jesus was a great religious teacher, but only a man. “Christians” of the first centuries all knew this. But Constantine the Great, to unify his empire, in essence deified Jesus in the early 4th century. He and his cohorts purged all the records. And the Roman Catholic Church perpetuated the myth of a divine, crucified and resurrected Savior and Lord. People like Leonardo da Vinci knew the truth, and kept it alive through their paintings and secret society. We can find clues to this truth in these works of art and literature; thus the “da Vinci code.”


Gospel Movements and Servant Leaders

Gospel Movements and Servant Leaders:

Changing the Culture for the Kingdom

Dr. Jim Denison

Religious trends in the Western world are not encouraging. According to the latest American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), the number of Americans who describe themselves as “Christian” has dropped from 86% to 76% since 1990. At the same time, the number who says they have “no religion” has nearly doubled to more than 15%. The number who call themselves “atheist” or “agnostic” has quadrupled, and is now almost twice the number of Episcopalians in our country.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released their “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” The survey reports that more than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion, or no religion at all. Among Americans ages 18-29, one in four say they are not affiliated with any religion.

Spiritual trends in Europe are even more troubling. Harris Interactive conducted a large survey of religious beliefs on the Continent. Its results: in Italy, 62% say they believe in “any form of God or any type of supreme being”; in Spain, 48% of the population agrees; in Germany, 41% affirm the existence of “God”; 35% in England and 27% in France concur.

Why is Western spirituality in this condition? How can servant leaders change our culture for God’s Kingdom?

Why do we think the way we do? Explaining the “postmodern” context

The first Christians held a clear and positive view of biblical authority, so that Paul could say that “All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). Today, nearly half of all Americans say that the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Book of Mormon all teach the same truth. What has caused our shift from objective authority to “relative” truth?

The medieval world

In the generations following apostolic Christianity, the authority structures of the Christian movement shifted from the Bible itself to the Scriptures as they are interpreted by the Church. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch argued for the authority of the bishop over the church and a “college” of bishops as the ruling authority of the universal Church. Irenaeus further identified the Roman Church as the “preeminent authority” in Christendom, with her leaders emanating from Peter and Paul through the bishops who have succeeded them.

Soon (ca. 250) Cyprian of Carthage had separated the “clergy” from the “laity” and made his famous claim, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” When Constantine made his conversion to Christianity in 312 and subsequently legalized the church, the institutional authority of the Christian movement was clearly defined as the Roman Church and her leadership.

This concept of ecclesiastical authority molded greatly the patristic and medieval concepts of Scriptural authority. As God gave the Scriptures through the Church, so (it was argued) he guided the Church through her leaders to the proper interpretation and application of his word. Creeds, councils, and papal rulings became the means by which the biblical materials were understood and transmitted.

And so the foundation blocks of the modern world were set in place: objective truth and absolute authority structures, centered in the teachings of the Church.

The Reformation project

In shorthand, the Protestant reformers sought to relocate authority with the Scriptures as they are interpreted by the individual believer. Martin Luther made the famous claim, “Only the Holy Scripture possesses canonical authority.” He discounted in turn the claims of magistrates, church councils, church fathers, bishops, and even the pope to authority over the Scriptures. John Calvin agreed: “God bestows the actual knowledge of himself upon us only in the Scriptures”; “Scripture has its authority from God, not from the church.”

With the reformers’ achievement the Protestant foundation blocks of the modern world were laid: a Bible which possesses objective meaning, theological positions which are certain and true, and Scriptural authority which is final and absolute.

The “modern” mind

While the religious world was experiencing this monumental conflict between ecclesiastical and Scriptural authority structures, the philosophical world was undergoing a struggle equally foundational and far-reaching.

Rene Descartes, a Catholic mathematician with an intense personal need to find foundational truth, sought that truth which he could not doubt. He determined that the existence of the thinking self was the first truth which doubt could not deny. As a result, he defined the human condition as one centered in the autonomous rational process. The “rationalist” worldview followed Descartes’ location of authority within human reason.

The empiricist reaction focused upon personal experience as the true authority for knowledge. John Locke asserted that the mind is born not with innate ideas (the Cartesian system) but as a blank slate, a tabula rasa. David Hume claimed that this empirical method cannot lead to true and certain knowledge. Every belief is derived from an object; our minds connect these objects into patterns on the basis of the appearance of unprovable causal relations. We cannot defend our reason by reason.

Immanuel Kant forged that merger between the rational and the empirical worldviews which organized the foundational building blocks of modernity into their final form. In short, his truce between mind and senses combined both into a larger whole: the senses furnish “raw data” which the mind organizes according to categories within itself, and the result is

“knowledge.” However, according to this system we can have certain knowledge only of the “phenomena” (those objects which are present to the senses of the knower), not of the “noumena” (objects lying beyond sense experience). This distinction would prove to be crucial for the later shift from the “modern” to the “postmodern” world.

With the Kantian synthesis the philosophical foundation stones of the modern world were laid beside the Catholic and the Protestant. In all three, truth is certain and available, and epistemic authority is clear and absolute. Whether authority resides in the Church, the Scriptures, or empirical knowledge interpreted rationally, there is no question in the modern mind about its objective character.


Learning to Live in the Spirit

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Learning to Live in the Spirit:

An introduction to the book of Acts

Dr. Jim Denison

Book of Acts overview

West Texans know the difference between a “flush-pump” well and an “artesian” well. A flush-pump well is drilled down to a water source; the tubing and pump handle are installed; and the handle is pumped until water is forced to the surface. An artesian well is quite different: when it is drilled to the water source, the underground pressure forces the water through the hole to the surface.

Many of us live a flush-pump faith. We pump ourselves up by studying Scripture, praying, attending worship services and religious events, and striving to grow in our faith. But an artesian well faith is possible. We can live in Christ so that his Spirit flows through us in victorious and power-filled daily experience. Who would choose the former when the latter is available to us?

The book of Acts describes Christianity as God intends it to be lived. Here we meet those who laid the foundations upon which the Church has worked to build the Kingdom across more than twenty centuries. These men and women were closest historically to Jesus; many of them walked personally with him in his incarnate ministry. His Spirit used them to initiate the most powerful spiritual movement in human history.

Let’s remember the purposes and priorities which motivated the apostolic Christians. Then we will live in the Spirit and continue the Acts which he empowers.

What is the book of “Acts”?

Who wrote the book?

Nowhere does the book we title “Acts of the Apostles” name its author. But reading the book, we encounter an interesting phenomenon beginning with Paul’s trip west to Macedonia (Acts 16:10-17): the writer describes Paul’s group as “we.” He includes himself in the missionary team again when they moved from Philippi to Troas and Ephesus (20:5-16), on their journey to Jerusalem (21:1-18), and to Rome (27:1—28:16). So in identifying our author, we are looking for a missionary associate of Paul.

We know that Luke the physician was a close companion of the apostle. Paul calls him a dear friend and doctor (Colossians 4:10-14), his “fellow worker” (Philemon 24), and lists him among his companions at the end of his life (2 Timothy 4:11). In addition, early tradition names this doctor as the writer of both Acts and the Gospel of Luke. Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 180) and the Muratorian Canon (end of 2nd century) are among the important historical sources. By the 3rd century, the Church held the unanimous opinion that Luke is the author of our text.

So who was he?

He was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ earthly ministry (cf. Luke 1:1-4, where he states that he interviewed eyewitnesses in preparing his book). He was a man of excellent education; his Greek is the most advanced in the New Testament, and his use of medical terms is unique in the Bible (cf. Acts 3:7, where he describes in medical language the healing of the cripple).

Luke was a Gentile, probably the only Gentile writer in the New Testament (excepting perhaps the author of Hebrews). He makes clear that the gospel is for Gentiles as well as Jews (cf. 2:21; 10:43; 13:46-48; 15:16-18; 28:28). He shows God’s care for all persons in need (cf. the beggar of ch. 3, Cornelius in ch. 10, the sailors of ch. 27). Women are important to him and to the Kingdom (cf. Dorcas, 9:36-42; Lydia, 16:11-15).

He wrote to a world filled with skeptics against his faith. For instance, Tacitus, the greatest Roman historian wrote (A.D. 118), “The Christians got their name from one Christus, who was executed by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus when Tiberius was emperor; and the pernicious superstition was checked for a short time, only to break out afresh—not only in Judea, the home of the plague, but in Rome itself, where all the horrible and shameful things of the world collect and find a home” (Annals 15.44).

In a very real sense, Luke is more like us than any other biblical writer. We are not eyewitnesses to the incarnate Christ; we are Gentiles; we live in a world of modern education; we work in a global economy and share universal concerns; and we face a skeptical culture. The God who used Luke’s work to change his world will use ours in the same way, if we learn to live in the Spirit as he did.

How was Acts written?

The traditional title of our book, “Acts of Apostolic Men” or “Acts of the Apostles,” was given to the work in the mid-second century. The original text, as with all the book of the Bible, was untitled. This title is not entirely accurate—only four apostles are mentioned in the narrative (James, 12:2; John, though he never speaks; Peter; and Paul, the primary figure from ch. 13 forward). A much better title is “Accts of the Holy Spirit.”

The book, like the Gospel of Luke, is dedicated to “Theophilus” (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1). His name means “lover of God,” but his identity is otherwise unknown. He may have been a Christian whose given name Luke wishes to keep secret for protection. He might have been a high government official whom Luke wrote in attempting to defend Christians against persecution. It is possible that he was Luke’s former master (doctors were often slaves). Perhaps Theophilus released Luke, and the physician wrote and dedicated this book and his Gospel to him in appreciation. Or he may have been Luke’s financial sponsor for his project.

The unidentified recipient of the book makes the narrative even more universally relevant. You and I are not Romans or Philippians; no book of the Bible was written specifically to us. But if we are a “lover of God,” this book is for us.

The book seems dependent upon the Gospel of Mark, and thus would have been written after A.D. 45. It does not record Paul’s death, which occurred before Nero’s demise in A.D. 68. Tradition places the origin of the book at Antioch, Paul’s headquarters. But Rome is possible, as the book ends there, as is Ephesus, a major focus of the narrative.


Making Loneliness Your Friend

Making Loneliness Your Friend

2 Timothy 1:13-18

Dr. Jim Denison

A man who felt constantly dominated by his wife went to see a psychologist, who gave him a book on assertiveness. He read it and then drove home, pointed his finger at his wife, and said, “I want you to know that from now on, I’m in charge around here. First you’re going to cook me a delicious dinner. Then you’re going to make me a sumptuous dessert. Then you’ll draw my bath so I can relax. Then, guess who’s going to lay out my clothes and comb my hair?” She replied, “The mortician?” The man then needed our topic today.

This morning, I want to talk with you about loneliness.

Less than 4% of US mail is personal cards and letters.

James Lynch, a medical researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital, is convinced that loneliness is the number one killer in America, the primary factor in deaths due to heart attacks and cancer. We look self-sufficient and happy, all the while being stung to death by loneliness.

This epidemic is only getting worse. Glenn Cartwright, a researcher with McGill University, warns that the Internet makes it possible for us to develop our own parallel identity. We can choose a body, gender, and role through chat rooms, Instant Messaging, and games which are amazingly real. He concludes: “The twenty-first century may well be the century of technologically induced disaffection, characterized by an increased sense of loneliness, alienation, [and] powerlessness.”

I read through several books on our subject this week. The best definition of “loneliness” I found was this: loneliness is “the feeling of not being meaningfully related.” It’s not the same thing as being alone—you can feel lonely in a crowd, sometimes more so. It’s feeling that you’re not “meaningfully related” to people, to enough people, to the right people.

It’s a feeling we all face. Every one of us, more than we know. Let’s try to understand the problem, then find ways to live with it in hope.

Understand loneliness

Erich Fromm, the eminent counselor, once wrote: “The deepest need of man …is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness…. Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions…. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome…. Man overcomes his conscious despair by the routine of amusement, the passive consumption of sounds and sights offered by the amusement industry; furthermore by the satisfaction of buying ever new things, and soon exchanging them for others.”

Fromm wrote those words in 1967, before the Vietnam War came to its bitter end; before Watergate; before September 11. Today sociologists describe our society as “cocooned,” withdrawn into ourselves more than ever before in human history. Gone is the front porch—no one even builds them on houses anymore. Gone is the evening stroll with the neighbors. Gone are extended families—most are scattered across the country and beyond. In their place, 25% of the populace experiences acute loneliness at any given time, and nearly all of us face it with regularity.

Why?

Loneliness starts early: as infants we feel unwanted, even though we are. Every time we are left alone when we want to be picked up from the crib, or the babysitter, we become afraid. Afraid of being alone.

By adolescence, our greatest fear is that others will not like us. That’s why we dress to conform, act to conform, and are more concerned with who “likes” who than anything else in our lives. We fear being unpopular above all else, and learn not to risk loving people or seeking their love. We’d rather be lonely.

As adults, we learn that we are what others think of us—of our performance, appearance, possessions. We learn to fear their rejection above all else. We are afraid to love and seek love, because we may be rejected. Then our children grow up and move away, and we feel less needed. We grow still older, and it seems that the world knows us or needs us even less. And our loneliness grows.

At the root of it all, we believe that we are not worthy of love. Not really. People may like us, appreciate us, need us, use us, but we don’t deserve to be loved. And so we make ourselves lonely as a result.

People turn to technology and the Internet to find companionship. Or to pornography to fantasize that they are wanted. Or to drugs or alcohol to dull the pain and find people who share our problem. Or clubs, social groups, sports teams, hobbies, churches to avoid loneliness. But we can be lonely in a crowd—some of you are this morning.

What do we do? Our text offers us steps which are so simple, every one of us can take them today.

See yourself as God sees you (vs. 13-14)

First, we seek our worth in God. One of our Father’s names in Hebrew is “Jehovah-Shammah,” which means “the God who is there.” He is.

What you have heard from Paul, and from the rest of the biblical revelation, keep as the pattern of sound teaching (v. 13). Believe that it is true. Believe that Jesus died on the cross to pay for your sins and failures. Believe that nothing can separate you from his love. Believe that he loves you without condition, that he has forgiven every sin you’ve confessed to him, that he’s on your side. Have “faith and love in Christ Jesus.”

Then “guard” this “good deposit that was entrusted to you” (v. 14a). “Guard” means to protect it, to preserve it from all thieves and attack. See yourself as God sees you, his created child, one died for by his Son. No matter what the world says you are.


Power from Heaven!

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Power from Heaven!

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 2, Ephesians 5:18

Robert Louis Stevenson, then a child of six or seven years, was standing at his window one night watching a lamplighter at work. One by one, the man would light the streetlamps as he walked down the road. Young Stevenson watched with fascination. His nurse asked what he was doing. The little boy answered, “I am watching a man making holes in the darkness.”

We need holes in the darkness today, don’t we? Terrorist threats continue; airline flights are changed or cancelled as a result of homeland security issues; presidential campaigns always bring a certain level of uncertainty to the future. Many are still in need of employment; hurting hearts and homes are on every side. Where do you most need a touch from God today? Where do your class members most need to feel his grace?

The light we need is available to us. In fact, every believer already possesses all the power and help of God. What the Holy Spirit did for the first Christians, he is waiting to do for us. Let’s learn to make your class and each heart the Upper Room this week.

Receive God’s Spirit (vs. 1-4)

Here’s the situation. Jesus’ followers number around 120, in a hostile world of more than 25 million. The very people who executed Jesus are now the enemies of his followers. What they did to him, they stand ready to do to them. Yet Jesus has charged them with reaching that hostile world in its entirety—all 25 million. One third of our world claims to follow Jesus. .0006% of their world did.

If we were in their shoes, we’d be doing something. We’d organize strategies, start ministries, plan programs, do all we could. They knew better.

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all in one place” (v. 1). Pentecost was the 50th day after the Passover Sabbath. Jews from around the world were crowded into Jerusalem for the religious holiday.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ church was crowded into a single room. Where and why? Earlier Jesus had assured them that when he left, his Father would send another Counselor to them, the Holy Spirit (John 16:7). Then he promised them, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Before his ascension, their Master told them one last time to wait in Jerusalem for the “gift” of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4).

And so they risked their lives to meet in an upper room of a Jerusalem house. First-century houses were often constructed with a large second-floor room which was used for meals and guests. It was cooler than the first floor, with windows open to the sky, and could accommodate a large number of people. Perhaps twenty were gathered in this setting (cf. Acts 1:13-15).

Here they prayed constantly for God’s protection and his Spirit’s power. For one long week, after Jesus’ ascension until the day of Pentecost came. Despite their differences, and the persecution which threatened their very lives, they prayed with one heart and spirit.

And God kept his word. “Suddenly” (immediately, without warning, unexpectedly) a sound like the blowing of a “violent” (turbulent, stormy, threatening) wind came from heaven (v. 2). It filled the entire house where they were meeting together. Jesus had earlier likened the Spirit to the wind (John 3:8). Both are more powerful than human strength, able to overwhelm us instantly. Both are unseen but very real. Neither can be produced or predicted. And both are essential to life.

Next “what seemed to be tongues of fire” came from heaven, then “separated and came to rest on each of them” (v. 3). Fire is a consistent metaphor for the holiness and presence of God (“Our God is a consuming fire,” Hebrews 12:29, quoting Deuteronomy 4:24). John the Baptist had predicted that Jesus “would baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11). The prophet Joel had earlier predicted such an event (2:28-29), a promise Peter would soon quote (Ac. 2:16ff).

These “tongues of fire” were emblematic of the anointing and empowering of God. And they came to rest “on each of them” (Ac. 2:3b), showing that each believer would be equally and similarly empowered. No clergy/laity distinction here!

Here was the result: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (v. 4). “Filled” means to be influenced by, to be controlled. It does not refer to quantifiable experience, but to a yielded and submitted life. We will meet this word again today.

Note that “all of them” had this experience. Again, each believer was empowered by the same Holy Spirit. Now each of them “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” This is not a reference to the “gift of tongues” or ecstatic prayer language described by Paul (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:28-30; 14:1-19). A comparison of the two experiences makes their differences clear:

At Pentecost, all experienced these “tongues”; at Corinth, not all did (Paul’s question is literally translated, “All do not speak in tongues, do they?” 1 Cor 12:30).

At Pentecost, no interpreters were necessary (“we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Acts 2:11); at Corinth, tongues were not to be used in public without an interpreter (1 Corinthians 14:27-28).

At Pentecost, the people recognized the “tongues” of the disciples as their own languages (Acts 2:11); at Corinth, the “tongues” used were not capable of human understanding (1 Corinthians 14:2).

In short, the Holy Spirit enabled the Pentecost believers to witness to their faith in the languages of those who had gathered in Jerusalem for the feast. It is no more true to say that we must speak in “unknown” tongues to have the Spirit than it is true to say that we must each witness immediately to our neighbors when the Spirit enters our lives.


Power from Heaven! (Part 2)

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Power From Heaven! (Part 2)

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 2

In late 1966, Herb Kelleher, John Parker, and Rollin King met at San Antonio’s St. Anthony Club to talk about the need for an air carrier in Texas. Their idea was simple: to connect Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. The result is the most profitable airline in aviation history. But their cause was their real genius: to make air travel affordable for people who could not otherwise fly. That cause is the reason Southwest Airlines is still the leading low fare airline, and that cause is their passion and purpose for being. From the chief executive to baggage handlers, their cause is their corporation. They do nothing which does not fulfill this objective and purpose.

God’s people should be even more passionate about fulfilling his purpose for our lives and our church. But we are distracted by every other priority the world can manufacture. The members of your class are tempted by every definition of success imaginable. It is the typical pattern of fallen human beings to seek God’s help with our agendas, our dreams and goals. But he will honor and empower only that which accomplishes his will. No loving father could encourage his children to do that which is to their harm.

Our Father wants his will for our lives, because that will is for our best and his glory.

The first Christians learned at Pentecost that God’s power is intended to fulfill God’s purpose and no other. Let’s learn how to experience that same power as we fulfill that same purpose.

Seize the opportunity at hand (vs. 5-12)

Immediately upon experiencing the empowering of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians found themselves in one of the most exciting ministry opportunities described anywhere in Scripture. Jews from all over the Empire gathered each year in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost; the universal Roman roads and peace made such travel especially plausible in the first century of the Christian movement.

And so the disciples found themselves face to face with people groups from fifteen different countries or locales. The peoples listed in vs. 8-11 spanned the known world, from Rome to the west to the Parthian Empire and Arabia to the east. The first Christians would have spent years in travel to speak to the same people who were now gathered at their doorstep (v. 5).

Making things even easier, the crowd “came together” because they heard the sound of the Spirit’s movement upon the disciples (v. 6a), and “each one heard them speaking in his own language” (v. 6b). The work of the Spirit created an event through which the Spirit could work. Charles Finney, the 19th century revivalist, was right: “When the church is on fire, people will come from miles around to watch it burn.”

The gathering crowds were shocked. They knew the disciples to be Galileans (v. 7), people with their own distinct language and dialect. But now these “country folk,” never known for educational interest, had somehow learned the native dialects of each of the people gathered from across the world. The crowds’ astonishment knew no bounds: “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (v. 11). And so they wondered to each other, “What does this mean?” (v. 12).

The language miracle of Pentecost was perhaps not primarily one which enabled the crowds to understand the speech of the disciples. Each of the groups listed would know the Aramaic which was native to Palestine; Greek was a common language understood across the world as well. Nowhere else do we find Paul or other missionaries unable to communicate God’s word because of language barriers, for the Aramaic and Greek they spoke was universally useful.

Rather, this was a work of the Spirit which made clear the miraculous nature of the Christian faith. The disciples could suddenly speak in the native dialects of the people, endearing themselves instantly to their audiences. They could build immediate emotional bridges and connections to the hearts of those they sought to win. And they could demonstrate an ability beyond the human, showing the divine nature of their message. Imagine that a bilingual American whose native language was Russian were to attend your class, and suddenly you could speak to her in her first language. This miracle would not be necessary to communicate the truth of Scripture so much as to demonstrate its divine nature through you.

The Spirit-filled disciples began to fulfill Acts 1:8 in the part of Jerusalem where they found themselves. You and I will always know someone who needs to know Jesus. There is a neighbor, colleague, or family member who represents our first mission field. Baptists have historically defined missions as crossing a cultural, language, or geographic barrier to share the gospel. But we are learning better: missions begins with the next lost person you meet.

Charles Spurgeon, the greatest of all Baptist preachers, was once speaking on personal evangelism. A fireman afterwards told Spurgeon that he didn’t know where to begin such ministry. Spurgeon asked the man if his captain was a believer; the fireman thought he probably was not. So Spurgeon concluded, “Begin today, with him.” Seize the opportunity at hand. Where will you begin this day? This week?

Anticipate reactions (vs. 12-41)

Human nature does not change, making the word of God perennially relevant. This fact also enables us to predict typical responses to that word. The first crowds to hear the gospel from Christian disciples demonstrated exactly the same reactions you and I can expect from those with whom we share the good news today.

Some will be confused (v. 12). The gospel will not be “good news” but “new news.” Only 2% of Americans are afraid they might go to hell; the vast majority thinks a Christian is a good person who believes in God. I do not know a single individual who has understood fully the Christian gospel and chosen to reject it. Typically our friends and neighbors refuse a pseudo-gospel, a message which convinces them that Christianity is about joining a church and practicing a religion. When we share the actual definition of a Christian, many will be confused and need help with understanding.


The Faith of the First Christians

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

The Faith of the First Christians

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 1

A friend once sent me some statements taken from performance evaluation sheets of government employees. Among them:

“His men would follow him anywhere, but only out of morbid curiosity.”

“Got into the gene pool while the lifeguard wasn’t watching.”

“Got a full six-pack, but lacks the plastic thingy to hold it all together.”

“Donated his brain to science before he was done using it.”

“If he were any more stupid, he’d have to be watered twice a week.”

“Some drink from the fountain of knowledge; he only gargled.”

“Gates are down, the lights are flashing, but the train isn’t coming.”

“This employee is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot.”

Fortunately, the Lord feels very differently about those you will teach this Sunday. They are his answer to the world’s crying need for hope, help, and home. They are his salt and light, his hands and feet. Each person you will teach is called to be his disciple—a fully functioning follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the Lord has called you to be their discipler. Your ministry exists to help them find and fulfill theirs. You are the one person in our congregation most responsible for the spiritual development of those you teach and serve.

The first followers of Jesus were in exactly your position. It would be their job to bring all who would follow their Lord into full maturity in the faith. How would they do it? How will we?

Walk with the Lord personally (Acts 1:1-5)

First, we must possess that which we intend to give. We cannot lead others further than we are willing to go. I still remember the impact Henri Nouwen’s statement made on me when I first encountered it: “The great fallacy of our age is to believe we can be led out of the desert by a person who’s never been there.” Your class will heed your words only if they can first follow your example. We must be what we wish others to become.

Luke begins his second book with the same dedication which began his gospel (see last week’s introduction to Acts). His purpose in the first volume was to tell Theophilus about Jesus’ earthly ministry, all that he “began to do and to teach” (v. 1). Jesus knew the importance of setting an example, as did Luke. He recorded first our Lord’s actions, then his teachings.

His Gospel ended with the ascension of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:2; cf. Luke 24:50-53). His second volume picks up where the first left off: with the coming of the Spirit. Before Pentecost, however, the Master Teacher spent 40 more days with his followers. He proved his resurrection to them (v. 3), as it would be the crucial fact upon which the faith would be built (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:17-20). Then he taught them further on the Kingdom of God, the central subject of his life and work (v. 3a).

Finally, he urged them not to leave Jerusalem to begin their ministries until they possessed the “gift my Father promised” (v. 4), the “Holy Spirit” (v. 5). They could not serve their Master until they possessed his power.

Neither can we. We must walk with Jesus as fully as did his first disciples. He proves his resurrection to us when we meet with him each morning in prayer, Bible study, and worship. During the turbulent 60s, a reporter asked Billy Graham what he thought about the popular assertion, “God is dead.” Dr. Graham replied, “God is not dead—I spoke with him this morning.” We learn that our Lord is risen and alive every time we meet with him.

As we commune with him, he teaches us more about his Kingdom through his word. And he empowers us to live in that Kingdom and extend its reach as we depend upon his Spirit. Each day we are to ask the Holy Spirit to show us our sins, then confess them by faith (1 John 1:9). Then we are to yield that day to the Spirit’s control and guidance (Ephesians 5:18). When we take these daily steps, we experience the presence and power of Jesus as fully as did his first followers.

In the midst of a stormy sea voyage, one young soldier could stand the dread and anxiety of the ship no longer. He rushed to the control room and watched the captain wrestle with the controls of the huge ship. With skill and strength, he guided the vessel to clear water. Then he turned slightly, looked at the frightened sailor, and smiled. The young sailor returned below deck and assured the crew that the danger was over. “How do you know?” they asked. He answered, “I saw the face of the captain, and he smiled at me.”

Look on his face daily. And those you teach and influence will want the faith and joy you possess.

Seek his purpose passionately (vs. 6-8)

Perhaps you’ve heard the old story about the famous country farmer marksman. His aim with bow and arrow was legendary—he never missed the bulls-eye of his targets. A reporter went to investigate. He found arrows stuck all over the side of the farmer’s barn, dead-center in the bulls-eye. Then he watched the farmer shoot. He would let fly the arrow, then paint the target around it. The axiom is still true: if we fail to plan, we plan to fail. Only when we seek God’s purpose passionately can we fulfill it.

Jesus wanted his followers to understand clearly this purpose. They, like us, were more interested in predicting the future (v. 6); he is always more interested in redeeming the present (v. 7). None of us was placed on the planning committee, but on the preparation committee. We are to live each day as though our Lord will return this day. And one day we’ll all be right.

Remember the essentials of God’s plan for his people:


The Sin of Anger

The Sin of Anger

Dr. Jim Denison

Billy Martin, former manager of the Texas Rangers among other teams, told in his autobiography of going hunting in Texas with Mickey Mantle. They went to a ranch owned by one of Mantle’s friends. Mantle told Billy to wait in the car while he checked in. The friend asked Mantle to do him a favor. He had a pet mule in the barn who was going blind, and he didn’t have the heart to put him out of his misery. He asked Mantle to shoot the mule for him.

Mantle decided to play a prank. He returned to the car, pretending to be furious. He told Martin that his friend wouldn’t let them hunt on his ranch. “I’m so mad at that guy, I’m going out to his barn and shoot one of his mules!”

He drove like a maniac to the barn. Martin protested, “We can’t do that!” But Mickey was adamant: “Just watch me!” he shouted. When they got to the barn, Mantle jumped out of the truck, ran inside, and shot the mule. As he was returning, he heard two shots. He saw that Martin had taken out his rifle, too.

“What are you doing?” he yelled. Martin yelled back, face flushed with anger, “We’ll show that guy! I just killed two of his cows!”

Anger is a problem in our culture today. Eighty one percent of students said they had bullied classmates during the last month, according to a recent survey done in an Indianapolis middle school. Seventy five percent of the bullies said they’d been taunted themselves. More than 80 percent of computer network managers report that users have become abusive–smashing monitors, breaking keyboards, or kicking hard drives. Women are far more likely to suppress, repress and deny anger, leading to higher rates of depression.

Frederick Buechner’s description of “anger” is my favorite single theological definition: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 2).

In this section we’ll study the most fun, and perhaps the most dangerous, of the Seven Deadly Sins. The recently deceased pastor and Bible student Charles Thrasher’s radio talk on our subject was titled correctly: “One letter from ‘danger.'”

Defining “anger” biblically

All proper treatment begins with the proper diagnosis. Webster defines “anger” as “A feeling of displeasure resulting from injury, mistreatment, opposition, etc., and usually showing itself in a desire to fight back at the supposed cause of this feeling.”

Six biblical words are translated by the single English word “anger.” Ap in Hebrew denotes either divine or human anger; the term means “nostril,” which was considered the locale of anger. We get a picture of someone who is “fuming.” The Hebrew verb hara means “burn,” as when Balaam “was angry and beat [his donkey] with his staff” (Numbers 22:27). The Hebrew word za’am means “indignation” or “enraged”; ebra means “boiling rage” (used of Haman vs. Mordecai, Esther 1:12).

Thymos in the Greek is associated with the word for “burning” and describes a passionate longing to injure. And orge is the human emotion caused by jealousy or other harm.

“Anger” is the emotion of being displeased or upset with something done to us. This by itself is normal and human; as we will see, God feels “anger” against sinful actions. “Anger” becomes sinful when it leads to sinful actions, when it causes us to hurt those who hurt us, leading us to wrath, vengeance and revenge. It is thus a “deadly” sin because it leads to murder, injury, and vengeance.

And it is a revelatory moment. Anger is a mirror, showing us what is inside. When you squeeze a tube of toothpaste, you find out its content. And you can never put them back. You cannot unring a bell.

Know when anger is leading to sin

God is often “angry” in the Bible, yet he cannot sin (James 1:13): “Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us” (2 Kings 22:13); “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:12).

Other examples: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36); “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18); “For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (Romans 2:8); “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 5:6); “They always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last” (1 Thessalonians 2:16).

These instances show that “anger,” the feeling of displeasure at the actions of another, cannot in itself be sinful.

Anger is sinful when it leads us to sin. Not the emotion, but our response, is the issue. When is anger leading to sin?

First, when it tempts us to hurt someone: “On Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Genesis 4:5). Second, when it leads to jealousy: “Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. . . . And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David” (1 Samuel 18:8-9).


When You’re Afraid To Follow God

When You’re Afraid to Follow God

2 Timothy 1:1-12

Dr. Jim Denison

We’re talking this morning about fear. Apparently, the experts think we have much to discuss.

It’s a new year, so you could have Neophobia, the fear of anything new. Given your location, you might suffer from Ecclesiophobia, the fear of being in church. Most people find this phobia increasing as the offertory time draws near. You might earlier have experienced Melophobia, the fear of music. You might now feel Homilophobia, the fear of sermons.

I’ll try to help you avoid my favorite phobia: Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, the fear of long words.

Today I want to talk with you about Theophobia, the fear of God. More precisely, Fiduciatheophobia, the fear of trusting in God. As we begin the new year by seeking to live in the purpose and will of God, let’s discuss the greatest obstacle standing between most of us and such obedience: our fear of following God’s will.

The fact is that most of us, somewhere in our lives and stories, are afraid of what would happen if we were to trust God fully. Our Western culture likes to trust what we can see, measure, and predict. We like five-year plans and long range goals. We see history as linear, and the lack of contradiction as the test for all truth. We want our future to be planned and predictable. But we cannot see God. And we cannot plan or predict his will.

And so we’re afraid that he will ask more of us than we can give, more than we are able to do or give to him. He’ll ask us to teach when we can’t teach, or to give more than we can give. Or we’re afraid that he’ll ask more of us than we want to give, that he’ll lead us where we don’t want to go, that the price of following him will be higher than we want to pay.

Most of us have an area or person in our lives which we are afraid to surrender to God’s purpose and will. Do you? Where’s yours?

Remember who you are (vs. 1-7)

Fear of following God was young Timothy’s greatest problem in his life and work.

“If Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am. No one, then, should refuse to accept him. Send him on his way in peace so that he may return to me” (1 Corinthians 16:10-11).

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).

Timothy wept when the apostle left him in Ephesus on his departure to Macedonia (2 Timothy 1:4; cf. 1 Timothy 1:3).

His first fear was ours: we are unable. If we trust fully the will of God, he will want us to do things we can’t, to give more than we can give, to do more than we can do.

Moses stuttered, so he told God he couldn’t speak to Pharaoh. Jeremiah told the Lord he was too young. Isaiah confessed that his lips and life were unclean. When Peter saw Jesus perform a miracle he exclaimed, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Most of us feel the same way. If you surrender your life and year to God, he might lead you to do more than you can do, and you’ll fail. Here’s what to do.

First, remember who you are: a child of God (vs. 1-2).

Timothy was Paul’s “dear son” in the faith (v. 2). And he was the child of God before he was the “son” of Paul. So are you.

Your culture says you are what you can produce, or how you look, or how well your kids do, or what you own. God says you are his child: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16). And no good Father will ask his child to fail.

Next, remember where you’re from: your heritage in faith (vs. 3-5).

Timothy’s father was not a believer. The people of his hometown of Lystra stoned Paul and left him for dead; what might they do to this young disciple of his Lord? But God used his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois to lead him to Christ and nurture his faith. God protected him and then gave him the greatest apostle in Christian history as his ministry partner.

God has brought you this far. If your parents were godly, remember their gifts to your soul. Remember your salvation and those who helped bring you to Christ. Think of Sunday school teachers, pastors, friends who have helped you in the faith. Think of times and places where God protected you from harm. He didn’t bring you this far to leave you. He’s not going to fail you now.

Now, remember what he has given you: your spiritual gifts (v. 6).

Timothy was given spiritual gifts which are exactly what he needed to fulfill God’s will for his life. So have you. He has already given you whatever you need to do what he wants you to do.

But like young Timothy, we must “fan into flame” this gift. How do you fan a spark into flame? You feed it the fuel of wood and oxygen. You protect it from winds which would extinguish it. You continue to grow it, adding more and more fuel as it is able to use them effectively. You diligently focus upon it, not sporadically. You do this with urgency, for the fire is important to you in the cold or with the food to be cooked.

So with your spiritual gifts. Do you know yours? Are you feeding them through prayer, Bible study, and worship? Are you focusing upon using them to fulfill God’s will for your life? God’s gifts will not let you fail his purpose for you.