Sexual Immorality; March 14, 2019

Acts 15:10-11 “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

The first major conflict in the Church was over whether Gentiles could be saved in the first place, (Acts 11) and here it’s between grace and legalism. Peter came down firmly on the side of grace, just as Paul did in Ephesians 2:8-9, and the council ended up agreeing, to our lasting benefit. However, today the conflict is between grace and libertinism. Grace doesn’t mean anything goes! Even in this Jerusalem Council it was agreed and stressed that sexual immorality is out of bounds. Even cursory research shows that the Roman empire was in no way behind our current society in terms of LGBTQ activity, not to mention prostitution and human trafficking. (After all, slavery was legal.) The Jewish believers were understandably concerned that such things might pollute the Church, and today they have indeed done so. Today we have churches that would be essentially unrecognizable to those early believers, to our great shame. Homosexuality is hardly the only issue. Marriage in general has been degraded to the point of being ignored almost in much of society, and sadly, the statistics are no better for the Church. After expounding at length on the wonders of grace, in Romans 6:1-2 Paul destroys the whole “hyper-grace” movement: “What shall we say then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Today many are saying that sexual immorality isn’t sin, and that lie is straight from the pit of hell.

This is extremely close to home for me, not only from my own history but also in the lives of people close to me. I cannot control their actions, but I can speak the truth in love. I cannot give permission, but I can forgive. So many are trying to make immorality normative, touting “tolerance” and “acceptance.” I cannot and must not accept that which God has made abundantly clear is bad for us and against His will. However, I likewise must not descend into judgmental legalism, but express love in all purity, even when that has to be very strong.

Father, I don’t have sufficient wisdom for this. You know those I’ve already run into on this trip, and those I will be seeing after this. I ask that Your Spirit through me would convict of sin, righteousness and judgment, (John 16:8-11) bringing repentance and release to those in bondage, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Freedom in Christ; March 12, 2019

Acts 13:38-39 “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.”

This is a very important passage for a number of reasons. From the standpoint of my father’s dissertation, it makes it clear that what we think of as “in Christ” can sometimes be understood more accurately as “through Christ.” Another point is that where the NIV says “justified,” the Japanese says “freed/liberated.” The Bible speaks many times of sin being a bondage, so that’s a very important point. The Law of Moses is essentially a diagnosis of our condition, but release and healing come through Jesus Christ. Diagnosis is very important. If you don’t know what your disease is, you aren’t going to deal with it accurately. Many people walk in bondage simply because they don’t understand that Christ has already freed them from their past sins. Peter calls such a situation being “nearsighted and blind.” (2 Peter 1:9) In the book of Romans Paul talked extensively about being a slave to sin. The thing is, in Christ the shackles are off and the doors are opened, but if we don’t understand and believe that, we will act like we are still slaves. That has been a problem ever since the 1st Century and it remains a huge problem today. The people Paul was talking to here at least did know the Law of Moses, but we deal with people all the time who don’t even know the diagnosis of their condition. That’s why the devil hates to have the Ten Commandments posted and taught. We do need to know what God’s righteous commands actually are, so that we will understand how thoroughly we have violated them. At the same time, we need to know that we cannot keep those commands in our own strength, but God has provided a way for His Spirit to do the “heavy lifting” in and through us. We have to believe that, as the song says, “Jesus paid it all,” and open our hearts to Him for the cleansing flow of His Spirit.

I am often reminded of how I had a time of being “nearsighted and blind,” just as Peter said, unable to shake off a besetting sin. It was only when I accepted that I had really been forgiven that I was freed from the powerful impulse to do it again. I still have that weakness and must not be presumptive, but I am not a slave to it because I know I have been forgiven, and the compulsion is gone.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Help me proclaim the liberty that comes from being a slave to Christ, bound by His love for me and mine for Him, so that many may be set free from the bondage of sin. Thank You. Praise God!

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Freedom in Christ; March 13, 2019

Acts 13:48, 52 When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.
And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

I don’t know if John Calvin was particularly fond of this passage, but the wording certainly seems to agree with the concept of predestination. We do not have God’s perspective, seeing the end from the beginning, so we need to work as though everything depended on us, but at the same time we need to realize that actually everything depends on God, and so rest in Him. That’s what Hebrews is talking about when it says, “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.” (Hebrews 4:11) We can’t save anyone in our own strength, but God chooses to use human agents to draw people to Himself. That’s that same tension between His actions and ours. Here, Paul and Barnabas were earnest in declaring the Gospel, but it was those who were “appointed for eternal life” who received that message with faith. (The Japanese expresses that as “entered into faith,” but I don’t know if that follows the Greek or simply reflects the Japanese idea of “joining a religion.”) What struck me about the last verse is that it says “the disciples.” To me, that includes not only Paul, Barnabas, and those with them, but also those who had newly committed themselves to Jesus in faith. Discipleship is a lifelong commitment, but it starts at the moment of salvation. We tend to forget that and not expect it, of new converts or even of ourselves. That’s much like the term, “saints.” Paul’s usage of it makes it very clear it applies to all believers, not some special class of people who are to be venerated. We all need to grow in our obedience (discipleship) and holiness (sainthood), but positionally we are already there by faith in the completed work of Christ; we just have to live it out. (Philippians 2:12)

This of course applies to me as much as it does to anyone. I am certainly no more perfect than Paul, (Philippians 4:12-14) but I have the same Holy Spirit working in me that he did, (Philippians 2:13) so I have no need to be anxious. I strive to bring all into a right relationship with Christ, but it is God alone who knows who is “appointed for eternal life.” That work can be heartbreaking at times, when people stubbornly resist submitting themselves to the Holy Spirit, but I must keep speaking the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and trusting God.

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You for all You are doing in and through us on this trip. May we continue to grow in our availability to You, so that indeed, all who are appointed for eternal life may enter into Your full salvation, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Believing Prayer; March 11, 2019

Acts 12:5 So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

I have always loved this story for its drama, but it’s not just a fun story for Sunday School, it also has a lot to teach us. The point that this verse teaches us is to keep praying, even in the face of “impossible” situations. James had just been executed at Herod’s order (verse 2) and Peter had been arrested, with Herod having every intention of doing the same to him. I’ve written recently about finding Pilate a sympathetic character, but I don’t find Herod to be so at all. The believers had every reason to think that Peter would follow James in martyrdom, but as the Japanese specifies, they kept praying earnestly. We tend to pray for/about something for a while and then stop, but these believers were applying what Jesus had taught through the story of the persistent widow. (Luke 18:1-8) There are times when what we ask for isn’t God’s best for us, but too often we give up too early. In this particular instance, God’s answer was so unexpected and so miraculous that it reached the point of comedy, with first Peter himself not believing it was real (verse 9) and then it was the very believers who had been praying not believing it was real. (verse 15) In other words, God answered their prayers to a higher level than their faith. We tend to downgrade our prayers, recognizing that our faith isn’t very strong, but here God answered far above the level of their faith, and He can do the same for us. We read things like, “The prayer of faith will heal the sick,” (James 5:15) and think that our weak faith puts us out of the running. However, God isn’t limited by our faith, or lack of it, and He desires good for us. We need to grow in trusting that He really is bigger and stronger and smarter than we are, and He really, really loves us.

This is something I have learned over the years, and I’m still learning. Part of me tries to say that persistent prayer in itself lacks faith that I am being heard, but this story puts the lie to that. There are indeed things for which I have prayed for years that I still haven’t seen in the natural, but I must not stop praying. My father in particular prayed earnestly for revival in Japan, and he never saw it. I wouldn’t compare my accomplishments to his, but I too have prayed for an outpouring of the Spirit on Japan. I am not to grow weary in doing well, (Galatians 6:9) but trust that God is greater than my weak faith, because His power is made perfect in my weakness. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Father, thank You for this encouraging reminder. Thank You for all You did yesterday, anointing us as we ministered and giving us sweet fellowship with various people. Thank You for the huge encouragement of someone very close to You telling me that I have changed, and it’s good. That’s something I certainly want! I ask Your anointing for today also, as well as clear guidance as we do some shopping. May we indeed rest, relax, and rejoice in You, knowing that Your plans, on top of everything else, are far better than any-thing we could come up with. Thank You. Praise God!

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Christians; March 10, 2019

Acts 11:26 The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

This was a very significant development, particularly since this terminology has been used for almost 2000 years since then. Recently I’ve encountered a movement to get away from using the term, because it has been so diluted and shaded in various ways. At least one group wants to get back to using “disciples,” since that carries nuances that are sadly lacking in the average church member. That is true enough, but the Japanese rendering of this verse helps us understand more of what the original intent and meaning of “Christians” was, and should be today. The Japanese says, “Christ-persons.” The important thing is to think just what that meant. I’ve heard some English speakers try to render it as “little Christs,” but I don’t think that catches the idea very well. We aren’t little clones of Jesus as some people claim we are. We are indeed being “transformed into His likeness,” as Paul put it, (2 Corinthians 3:18) but that is a process that isn’t completed in this life. What we are, or at least should be, is people who are obsessed, consumed, with Jesus Christ. In northern Japan there is a grave said to be that of Jesus Christ, a person who came to Japan over 1000 years ago, married a Japanese woman, had children, and eventually died. I am personally convinced that he was a Nestorian missionary (you can Google it) who talked about Jesus so much that the locals associated him with the name. I would dare say he was a true Christian! That, I believe, was the origin of the term in Antioch as well.

I well remember that my most “painful” class in seminary was Church History, as we studied all of the things that have been done in Jesus’ name. He actually had nothing to do with a lot of it! That to me is the strongest reason for getting away from the term, Christian, but I think we rather need to reclaim the original meaning of the word. Many people around the world claim to be Christians, but they do so largely to be saying, “I’m not Buddhist or Muslim or Hindu.” It’s a social thing, far more than it is a statement of faith. Such people generally give Christians a bad name, because they carry the title without really seeking Christ at all. That is a genuine tragedy. Most of the attacks against “Christianity” aren’t really aimed at Biblical faith at all. Ministering in Japan as I do, titles are considered very important, and in the US, “identity politics” is rampant. I am not to accept titles just at face value, but rather seek to help believers in particular understand what those titles mean, or should mean. For example, a genuine “Christ-person” would never condone the Holocaust, but many Jews are convinced “The Christians did that to us.” That is tragic, and I’ve heard several stories from Messianic Jews about what the Lord took them through to overcome that. In my own ministry I need to raise up disciples for Jesus Christ, (Matthew 28:18-20) people who will live and die for Him, and not be deceived by any lie. To do that, I need to be sure I fit that category myself!

Father, thank You for this reminder. Thank You for Your faithfulness to us, expressed in so many ways. Thank You for Your protection in jet-lagged driving, and for the people we’ve been able to see so far. We speak this morning at the church where I was pastor for two years before we went to Omura in 1981. I ask that we would be “Christ-persons” indeed, accurately representing You to them and rejoicing in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, to build up the Body of Christ and give You glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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Persecution; March 9, 2019

Acts 5:41-42 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.

This is a fascinating story to me for a number of reasons. For one, the wisdom expressed by Gamaliel makes me wonder if he didn’t later become a believer himself, particularly after his famous disciple Saul encountered Jesus and became the Apostle Paul. The other factor is what is expressed in this little passage. How many of us to-day would consider it joy to be “counted worthy to suffer disgrace for the Name?” They immediately expressed that joy by doing exactly what the authorities had forbidden them to do! Being flogged isn’t a minor thing; today there would be screams of “police brutality!” However, they had seen what Jesus had gone through for them, and they knew that their own suffering was minor by comparison. I wonder how many of the people who are currently being sued and/or charged for not toeing the “politically correct” line are rejoicing? I’m sure that after vindication by the Supreme Court there is rejoicing, but how about before then? There are many preachers who tell people life will be “your best life now” if you become a Christian. In one sense that may be true, but not as far as this world is concerned, and that is where they place their emphasis. Their “converts” disappear when they encounter persecution. We aren’t to go looking for persecution, but neither are we to let the risk of persecution hold us back in any way from full obedience to Jesus Christ.

I wouldn’t call what I have experienced persecution as such, but I have had some uncomfortable/inconvenient times as a result of my obedience to the Lord. Frankly, they haven’t been so joyful in the middle of them, but I have been grateful in looking back on them. The sad thing is that the biggest opposition I have encountered has been from Christians! I am never to allow such opposition to cause me to hate such people, but rather let it spur me to pray for them more, in all humility. I have no real idea what this trip is going to bring, but my premonition is that we are going to get a lot of support, spiritually and maybe in other ways as well. I am not to let any of that go to my head, but rather give God all the praise and glory, knowing that it’s all about Him, and not about me.

Father, thank You for getting us here safely. It was a long trip, and we still have jet lag to work through. Thank You that a total stranger we happened to talk to as we waited for our ride to the hotel gave us $2! That was a total surprise, and though the amount is not significant, I believe it is an indication of Your provision for us. Help us walk in such fellowship with You that Your provision flows through us unhindered, on all levels, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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Tolerance; March 8, 2019

Acts 5:29 Peter and the other apostles replied, “We must obey God rather than men!”

This is a magnificent statement of faith, but it has also been abused by people who haven’t wanted to submit to authority, period. The apostles here were in pretty safe territory, but personality differences in an organization, such as a church or ministry, are much less cut and dried. When the “men” in question are entirely secular and obviously not submitted to God, the choice of “civil disobedience” is a clear one. However, when both sides are Christian, sensitivity to the Holy Spirit is demanded. Even Martin Luther agonized over his various decisions, finally declaring, when put on Church trial, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” Most of us aren’t faced with such dramatic choices, but many are, even in America today. Those promoting abortion and immorality have a sadly outsized voice in society, and there have been high profile cases of people paying a high price for obedience to Biblical principles. Cases like that might seem obvious to genuine believers, but there are many more, far more subtle pressures to follow something other than the Lord. “Peer pressure” is notorious, and rightly so. However, “everybody’s doing it” has never been an excuse that would stand up before God. In Japan, society practically demands that we go with the group, and individuality can be punished in many different ways. For a disciple of Jesus Christ, the choices may not be easy, but they are always ultimately rewarded, however painful the immediate consequences might be.

I was raised very much as an individual, and responsibility for all my choices rests squarely with me. I have never been in an active situation of civil disobedience, but I was in college during the Civil Rights era, and I thought about it. When the church where I was pastor asked me to resign from the ministerial association because it was interracial, I resigned from the church instead. That wasn’t an easy decision, but I’ve never regretted it, and the Lord taught us a great deal in the aftermath. I have never been particularly comfortable with the authority the Lord has given me, in this church and actually in this city, and I am still growing in that area. I’ve had to choose to obey what God was showing me, rather than do what some people in the church wanted me to do, and that has caused turmoil. I am to stay in as close fellowship with my Lord as possible so that I may know His will and obey it, not putting other people down but always speaking the truth in love, even when that love requires discipline. I am far from perfect, so my focus must be on the only One who is.

Father, thank You for this reminder. We leave for the US this morning, and we are leaving behind various situations that are far from settled. Help us release each one to You and walk in peace, submitting to You in our emotions as well as in other areas, so that You may be free to do all that You desire in and through us, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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