Saturday, January 11, 2014

Grace, Gladness, and a Good Man

"The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch.  When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.  And a great many people were added to the Lord." - Acts 11:21-24

I've been to a lot of funerals.  I've conducted a lot of funerals.  That means I've heard a lot of eulogies.  Had several "open mic" sessions, where friends and family stand and give testimony to the character and life of the person who has passed.  The stories make people laugh, cry, stay silent, think, etc.  One of the adjectives often used as people speak of their loved one is "good".  He was a good man.  She was a good friend.  Dad was always good at listening.  Aunt Sally was such a good mother to her a second mother to me.

But we describe people as "good" apart from funeral services.  Someone asks about your boss.  "He's a good man."  Your co-worker?  "She's a good woman."  A child may be said to have "a good heart," even though his/her actions seem to say otherwise.  Words that are used so often...can sometimes lose their meaning.

I ran across this word "good" today as I read Acts 11.  It's a word Luke uses to describe Barnabas.  If you're familiar with this man and his role in the book of Acts, then you know his reputation as an encourager.  Here, Luke says Barnabas was a "good man."  That identification stood out as I read.  And I don't believe Luke means it in the general way we sometimes use that phrase: "He's a good man."  He's not just trying to be nice.

In chapter 18 of Luke's gospel, he records an encounter between Jesus and a rich man.  The man comes to him with a question: "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Lk. 18:18).  Not just Teacher...Good Teacher.  It's a compliment.  It's nice.  It's a way to even gain favor with the person you're calling "good."  No problem, right?  Wrong.

Jesus doesn't begin by answering his question.  He begins by addressing this "good" business: "Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone" (Lk. 18:19).  Apparently, Jesus doesn't think slapping the adjective "good" on a person is a good idea.  There may be relative goodness in the acts that we do.  One man may be good when compared to the rest of his family.  His co-workers.  His neighbors.  His community.  Even the world!  But no one is good when we remember the ultimate standard of goodness.  God.  God alone is good.

You may be thinking, "Yeah, but Jesus is God in the flesh.  Why didn't He just accept what the guy said and answer his question?"  Here's why.  The rich man didn't know who Jesus truly was.  He knew Him only as a teacher.  Not as Messiah.  Not as Savior.  Not as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Just as a teacher.  Jesus knows that.  And if this rich man is assuming Jesus is just a man...just a teacher...then he needs to be corrected.

So, it is best to believe that Luke is doing something else.  He's not just paying a compliment.  He's saying something genuine and important about Barnabas.  So...what is he saying?  What does Luke mean by "he was a good man"?  Luke helps us answer that question in two ways.  First, he describes human goodness in relation to God.  Second, he describes human goodness at work.

First, Luke says this "good man" was "full of the Holy Spirit and of faith."  The fullness of the Spirit and the presence of a robust faith in Christ made Barnabas a good man.  This is the way Luke described another good man back in chapter 6.  The first Christian martyr, Stephen, was "a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 6:5).  These descriptions speak of one's relationship to God.  Both are marks of born-again Christians.

Apart from faith in Christ...apart from the Holy Spirit's regenerating's who we are: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one" (Rom. 3:10b-12).

But by God's grace, we have been rescued out of this condition.  Freed from the slavery of sin.  Made righteous in God's sight.  Our good God has made us good in His eyes.  The Christian life, then, is to "be who you are."  You are declared righteous in Christ.  You are saints, set apart by the Holy Spirit in Christ.  You are declared good and acceptable to God because of the person and work of Jesus.  That's what the Bible calls justification.

Now, being justified.  Live righteously.  Live saintly lives.  Live good and acceptable lives.  Not to become righteous, saintly, and good, but because God has declared you righteous, saintly, and good.  However, while this is true of all believers in Christ, Luke is not simply saying, "Barnabas was a Christian."  There's more here.  Luke's saying that Barnabas' Christian goodness was observable.  If you look at his life, you'll see the evidence of goodness.  You should see him and come to the same conclusion: "he was a good man".  Jesus says we'll know people by their fruits (Mt. 7:15-20), and Paul says that goodness is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

And that brings us to the second part of the answer to our question: What does Luke mean by "he was a good man"?  How was this basic Christian character observable in Barnabas' life?  Here's Luke's answer: "When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose" (Acts 11:23).

Barnabas had been sent to gather information about the supposed new church in Antioch.  The apostles heard a lot about them in Jerusalem.  If they had e-newsletters in that day, Antioch would have made the headlines: "A New Church Allegedly Planted in Antioch."  But, being good shepherds and wanting to protect the integrity of Christ's church, the apostles send Barnabas to make sure it's a genuine church.  Genuinely believing and preaching the gospel.  Genuinely marked by God's grace.

And Luke says that Barnabas arrives in Antioch.  He goes to the church.  And what does he see?  The grace of God!  What a captivating idea...he sees the grace of God.  In other words, Barnabas sees the evidence of God's grace.  He sees faith and works that can only be explained by the grace of God at work in their lives.  And how does he respond?  He's not suspicion.  He doesn't cast doubt on the story of their conversion.  He's glad!

Barnabas has always been a guy who is slow to suspicion and quick to rejoicing.  Remember when Paul was converted?  Nobody was ready to believe he was a Christian, but Barnabas came to his side.  Stood up for him.  He saw the grace of God in Paul's life and was glad!  This is observable goodness in Barnabas' life.

Again, think about Luke's gospel.  In chapter 15, Luke records three parables from Jesus about things that are lost: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son.  After the first two, Jesus says that there is great joy in heaven...rejoicing among the angels...when one sinner repents (Lk. 15:7, 10).  Then, in the third parable, a father throws a party to celebrate the repentance of his prodigal son (Lk. 15:22-24).  Joy is the right response to seeing the grace of God in others.  It is the heavenly response.  The godly response.  The good response.

So, Barnabas' goodness is observable in his response to seeing the grace of God.  It's also observable in what he does next.  He doesn't pack his bag and leave town.  He doesn't Skype with the apostles back in Jerusalem and tell them: "Looks like their good!"  No, he does something else.

Barnabas doesn't just see the grace of God.  He encourages them to continue in the grace of God.  "...[And] he exhorted them to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose..." (Acts 11:23b).  Barnabas speaks.  He talks to them about persevering in the faith.  He warns them about the danger of turning away and exhorts them to stay faithful.  But being faithful won't just happen.  It's not automatic.  It's not like setting the cruise control on your car.  These Christians have steadfast purpose.  They have to be intentional.

You see that?  That's goodness at work!  Christian goodness means caring about the lives of others.  Caring about their spiritual lives.  Caring enough to speak God's truth.  To speak it in love.  To speak God's Word so that our brothers and sisters will grow in goodness.  So that the fruit of the Spirit will observable in their lives, too.

Barnabas was a good man.  He was full of the Spirit and of faith.  And that goodness was observable in two things: (1) joyfully seeing God's grace in others and (2) faithfully exhorting God's people to continue in God's grace.  That brings me to a question: Am I a good man?  Are you a good man?  And like Luke, I don't mean, "Are we Christians?" (However, that's the right place to start!)

What I mean we rejoice in seeing the grace of God in others?  In seeing the evidence of grace worked out in their lives?  Do we suspect that it's not genuine, or do we celebrate what we see?  Are we encouraging other Christians to stay steady, to remain faithful, and to persevere in the faith?

More than what I think about me.  More than what I think about you.  What do you think others might say?  If someone were recording this time in your life.  If they observed you at your church.  And if they used the criteria that Luke mentions here.  What would they say?  Are you good?

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Sickness, Snow, and the Sunday Offering

[Even before you start reading, it's best to just say it.  Just seeing this post is a bit comical, isn't it?  A pastor.  Writing about giving.  On a week after there was no church service.  No offering.  Giggle to yourself.  I did.  Then I thought, "How should we think about these things?"  And I decided this question was worth the giggles...the rolled eyes...the criticism.  So, now that that's out the way, let's get started.]

We've all been there.  It's Saturday night.  The kids are bathed.  They're sound asleep in bed...or at least, that's what we're telling ourselves.  Eventually, we tuck ourselves in bed.  The alarm is set.  And we fall asleep looking forward to being with our church family the next morning. happens.  Either in the middle of the night or first thing in the morning.  The greater majority of the house has picked up the latest bug going around.  Wartime mentality sets in.  Quarantine the sick.  Get the meds.  Pull out the humidifiers and the gas masks.  And try to make sure the healthy remain healthy.  And...we can't go to church.  [Of course, there are times when our absence is not unexpected...say, if we're out of town.  Keep that situation in mind as you read this post, as well.  It's relevant.]

This past week, it wasn't sickness that kept me out of church.  It was snow.  A major storm was set to move into our area this past Sunday morning.  A different kind of wartime mentality set in.  Grocery stores were emptied of the usual supplies (i.e.- bread and milk).  But I also saw one cart with frozen pizza and a multi-flavored cheesecake.  It must have been a tasty couple of days for them!

Either way, the unfortunate reality set in on Saturday afternoon.  While getting to the church building would have been possible, getting home would probably be another story altogether.  So, for the sake of safety, we canceled our services Sunday morning.

One of our members commented on Facebook, "It just does not feel like Sunday morning!"  I couldn't agree more.  Sunday doesn't feel like Sunday without gathering with God's people.  Encouraging others and being encouraged by others.  Singing God's praise together.  Praying together.  Opening and hearing God's Word together.

That's the stuff we always think of, right?  Fellowship with one another.  Singing.  Praying.  Preaching.  But, there's one element missing.  We also give when the church gathers.  To promote gospel ministry in our local church.  To support missionaries all around the world.  To help meet the needs of those struggling financially, especially in my own congregation.

So, what do we do about our tithes and offerings?  Do we just let them go?  Do we simply forget that we had planned to give X% of our income in worship to the Lord?  But since we didn't gather, can't we just roll that into our spending?  Save a little extra this week?  I think these are important questions, and the apostle Paul can help us answer them.  Look at his words to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 9:7 - "Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."

Paul has been talking about a collection for the churches in Judea.  Those Christians were struggling, and Paul is getting churches from other regions involved in providing their needs.  In chapters 8-9 of this letter, Paul is exhorting the Corinthians to generously participate.  And while these chapters are about a special offering, we also learn a great deal about Christian giving, in general.

And that's what we have here in 2 Corinthians 9:7.  This isn't just about a special offering.  This is about the Christian's method and manner of giving.  Let's go backwards and start with the manner of giving.  That's in the second half of the verse.  "...not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."  That's how we should give.  Whether helping a struggling family, supporting a church planter in Pakistan, or putting my check in the offering plate each Sunday.

Giving is not to be a drudgery.  Just something I have to do.  It is a joy.  We'll see that we must do it, but we musn't do it reluctantly, under compulsion, or with a grimace in our hearts.  A few verses earlier, Paul makes it clear that the Corinthians' offering was to be "a willing gift, exaction [i.e.- a tax or payment for service]."  Also, remember John's words?  "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments.  And his commandments are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3).  That certainly applies to giving.  It is not a burden to bear, but a joy to experience.

Now, let's go back to the beginning of the verse to see the method of giving - "Each one must give as he has decided in his heart..."  Break that phrase down.  First, "Each one must give..."  This should go without saying, but Christians are givers.  The One who saved us is a Giver.  Jesus Christ gave Himself for us on the cross, so that He might give us forgiveness, reconciliation, and eternal life.  Through His poverty, we have become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).

Also, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about three deeds of righteousness...deeds that should be done properly.  "When you give" (Mt. 6:2).  "When you pray" (Mt. 6:5).  "When you fast" (Mt. 6:16).  He didn't say if in any of these situations.  Most people would agree that prayer is really not an option for the Christian.  It is, as Robert Lewis Dabney described it, the Christian's vital breath.  However, we don't typically put fasting and giving into that same category.  But Jesus does.  He's saying that His disciples are givers.  Christians are givers.  "Each one must give..."

The second half of the phrase says this, " he has decided in his heart."  Isn't that interesting?  Paul isn't telling Christians to give if they feel a certain way...if they feel moved.  Certainly, there are times when you and I are moved by a difficult situation.  Or by a missionary's work.  Or something else.  And we give.  But there are also times when we feel like we can't afford to give.  We don't feel like being generous.  We don't feel as moved.  Yet, we should still give.  Why?  Because Christians don't give based on feelings.  Really, we don't live based on feelings.

Don't get fooled by the word "heart" here.  It's not a reference to feelings.  In the Bible, the heart is not a factory of feelings, as it is in pop culture today.  The Scripture speaks of the heart as the very core of who we are as human beings.  So don't associate "heart" with only "feelings."

With that in mind, realize that Paul is calling us away from emotional manipulation.  Away from waiting on our emotions to get revved up before we write the check.  Away from thoughtless giving.  Instead, we must think.  Think about the generosity of Jesus Christ toward us in salvation.  Think about the generosity of God toward us in providing our needs...and beyond.  Think about the act of giving as worship.  Think about the fact that as I give, I am recognizing the greatness and faithfulness of God.

Now that we've taken a look at this verse, let's go back to the sick day.  Back to the snow day.  I've missed a Sunday.  Should we just let that offering go?  Use it for something else?  Well, based on this verse from 2 Corinthians 9, I would say the answer is, "No."

Here's why.  Before that missed Sunday.  Before the sickness.  Before the snow.  You and I made a decision to give.  In my home, we try to have a written budget every month, which is code for "it doesn't always get written down".  But written or not, giving is at the top of our budget, and we give every week.  You may give bi-weekly or monthly in your home.  Point is...we made a decision to give.

And Paul says, "Each one must give as he has decided in his heart..."  Because we have decided to worship the Lord through giving, we must give.  Our yes should be yes...especially to the Lord.  We should give the missed week's offering and the current week's offering together.  In our home, that will mean doubling the check written.  Not because it's a toll.  A tax.  A payment for the worship service.  Not under compulsion because we'll be behind budget if the snow day offering isn't made up...though that's true.  Not reluctantly because it's double what we normally give in one week.

But we should give as we have decided in our hearts because it honors the Lord.  We're recognizing that the provision during the week we missed church and the provision of the week we're back...both came from His hand.  God graciously gave us both week's provision.  And if we had decided beforehand to magnify Him through giving X% for every week of provision He gives us, then we should do it.  We must do it.  And we must do it with joy.  Because He is faithful.  He continues to provide.  He feeds the birds and clothes the fields with beauty, yet He values us all the more.

So, yes...we must give as we have decided in our hearts.  But really, why wouldn't we?  Isn't our God worthy of such giving?  Answer: Yes...and He's worth infinitely more.