The Early Church and me (Part 3 of 4)

(Go back to Part 2 of 4)

They prayed a lot, together.

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Our third observation about the Early Church is that they prayed, a lot, together.  One might think this would be a no-brainer, but it was an eye opener for me.  I pray a lot (at least I think I do).  But it says that they prayed constantly, and together. 

I’ve been tempted at times lately to be discouraged about our efforts to help our little church to grow.  My wife reminds me frequently that I can’t change anyone, that that is the work of the Holy Spirit.  She’s right. 

(Husbands, we need to all stop what we are doing right now and thank God for giving us spiritual women to keep us on track.  And if you don’t think so, then you need to pray for humility to see who God has given you to help you.)  

I’ve missed another significant characteristic of my spiritual predecessors that is so responsible for the transformational impact of the Church.  THEY PRAYED.  All the time.  Constantly.  Together. 

The Greek word you often find when it talks about how they prayed (it’s in Chapter 1, 2, and 4) is “homothymadon.”  It’s loosely (very loosely) translated as “together”.  That’s kind of like translating “gargantuan” as “big.”  Homothymadon from its root words literally means “the same passion.”  In Acts 1 we find the small group of one hundred and twenty believers all together constantly praying this way.  With the same passion.  Together.  While they wait for what Jesus and the Father are going to send them.  (Or rather Who they are going to send them.)  In the beginning of Acts 2, they are all still together.  Although it doesn’t explicitly say this, the implication from Acts 1 is that they are still praying together – that that’s why they were together.  They are praying together when the Holy Spirit comes.  Later in the chapter, after people are filled with the Holy Spirit, we find them passionately addicted to, among other things, praying together.  In Chaper 3, Peter and John are going together to the place of prayer.  And in Acts 4 when they are hauled in before the Sanhedrin, and threatened, what’s their response?  To go back to the rest of the believers and to pray together

It’s convicting enough what they don’t pray about.  Jesus told them before the cross in John 16 that they should ask the Father for anything in His Name and it would be done for them.  I think of what I would ask for if Jesus promised me that and it’s not what they asked for (see our second observation in an earlier post)

Prayer wasn’t just a personal, private thing that each of them did with the Father.  Prayer was something they shared, and something they all did with the same passion and zeal.  Does that describe my church?  Is that how I think about church?  Maybe the reason more isn’t happening at our church is because we don’t pray enough together. 

Most of the models of church I see are primarily about one person up front doing most everything (I’m guilty of this), and not so much about what they all did together.  In fact, when I think of church, usually the next thing I think of are sermons and Sunday services.  Other than the fact that they did meet together (much more frequently than on Sunday mornings), the Book of Acts offers us almost nothing about their “services”.  The only sermons we hear about are the ones preached not to the congregation but to unbelievers to help them to believe. 

We do, however, hear lots about how much they prayed together.

I’m further convicted because I don’t think the early Church prayed because that was good church growth strategy.  At least that’s not what I see in the book of Acts.  They prayed so fervently and so often together because they shared a common understanding of how desperately they needed God, and His Holy Spirit.  They knew that it was God’s Church, and God’s battle, and so they beseeched Him together.  With passion.  With the same passion.  All the time.

What about us?  Hmmm — again.

(Continue to Part 4 of 4)

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The Early Church and Me (Part 2 of 4)

(Go back to part 1 of 4)

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Our second observation from Acts chapters 1 through 5:

The overwhelming and consistent message of the Early Church was “You killed Jesus.” 

Peter’s message in Acts 2 was “you killed Jesus, whom God made both Lord and Christ.”  Then in chapter 3 when Peter’s miracle gathers a crowd, his message to them is “You killed Jesus.  You were ignorant, but that’s no excuse.”  When confronted in chapter 4 about healing the beggar, his response to the religious authorities is “You killed Jesus.”  Just in case it wasn’t clear to them, he actually says it twice.  Then in chapter 5 when the apostles are hauled back into jail (second time in two chapters) and threatened again by the religious leaders (remember, these are the guys who murdered the man they are following and preaching about), the apostles’ message again is “You killed Jesus.” The apostles don’t build up to it, ending their message with this.  This is how they begin their response, saying it right after the Jewish council, who is enraged and wants to kill them, tells them to stop saying it, again.  

Ok, so now I understand the level of boldness that the Holy Spirit empowered the early Christians with.  Not “here’s how Jesus can change your life.”  Not “Jesus loves you and let’s all sing kumbayah.”  Not “look at all the blessings that come with knowing Jesus.”  And decidedly not “just say this little prayer so you can be saved by Jesus.”  No.  Their message was “You killed Jesus.  Oh and by the way, this Jesus you killed, God raised from the dead and declared Him once and for all to be Lord – Master over everything – and Christ.”  That word “Christ” is the Greek equivalent word for the Hebrew Old Testament word “Messiah”.  It means “anointed one,” as in what happens when someone is made king.  So their message is “You killed The King.  The One.  You killed Him.”

Wow.  Again. 

I should probably tell you that I’m a preacher.  That small country church I told you about earlier –  I’m the new guy.  And when I think about what to preach, and what to keep preaching, the overwhelming thing popping into my head isn’t to tell our congregants over and over again that they killed Jesus.  When I think about “sharing my faith” with non-Christians, and how to best get into conversation with them, and where to take that conversation, it doesn’t even come close to my mind to tell them “you killed Jesus.” 

(Remember – we’re still working on getting people to sit together, and closer to the front.)

I’m convicted.  This is, after all, the gospel.  This is what Paul later wrote that he preached all the time (1 Corinthians 1 & 2) – Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.  He preached the cross.  He preached that we all killed Jesus.  We nailed Him to the cross.  Our sin is responsible for His death.  It was so simple for the apostles.  Why isn’t it so simple for me?  Why do I feel the need to dress it up, package it nicely, make it more palatable?  Why does it need to be made more practical?

Ouch.  It’s not that I don’t think other lessons can be appropriate for the church, especially as needs grow more specific and diverse.  But this one lesson – this simple message – is not enough at the heart of my messages.  Maybe not even enough at the heart of my heart.  After all, Jesus did say out of the overflow of my heart, my mouth speaks.

(Continue to Part 3 of 4)

 

 

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The Early Church and Me (Part 1 of 4)

As swinging bridgeour family has been reading the Book of Acts together, we have asked the question – what was the early Church known for?  We have also asked what is the Church known for today, and what are we known for?

I wish I could say that the answers to these questions were all the same.

When I think of church today, generally my thoughts go to modern churches which are struggling to make their buildings and their messages more relevant, more appealing and attractive to their audience.  I think of the large churches with rock concert-like music and casually dressed pastors who share a message that is insightful or thought provoking, but not too challenging or invasive.  I think of big impressive buildings with lots of cool amenities.  And I also think of the multitude of smaller churches around them that are vying for the same audience and wondering how they will compete, or coming up with reasons why they shouldn’t (which often but not always are borne out of jealousy, though few would really admit it).

Then I think about randomly surveying our neighbors about church.  I used to walk around asking people “what’s been your experience of church?”  The responses I got were not surprising, and even mirrored my own sentiments at times during the past several decades.  Some said boring or irrelevant (or at least their faces said it), but many had very strong reactions of how they had been mistreated or ignored at the hands of professing church goers, including members of their own families (harsh fathers being a big one).  I also heard lots about the most common characteristic of church today:  division.  I live in a rural area that has maybe 9000 people in it.  Yet a perusing of our local yellow pages (does anyone even really use them anymore?) reveals over 300 churches in our little rural community.  That’s one new church – that largely doesn’t agree with all the others – for every 30 people.  And that assumes that everybody actually attends church (which we all know they don’t).  Not a very encouraging picture.

How about our church?  Our church is known as a struggling country church that has been shrinking and aging, and that has its share of bad stories and reputation in the community.  We’ve gone through a lot of preachers – some their fault and some ours – trying to find a good one.  Overwhelmingly what people want are some good messages each week, with some good music, not too long, not too early, and in a format that is welcoming to new people.  We have a good location and a nice building, although there always seems to be a floating idea that we might do more with the property.  When a new preacher (yes, another one) came in recently suggesting some changes, it created a ripple of different reactions through the congregation that are still being felt.  One of those ideas that generated controversy was that we should actually sit closer together and more toward the front during worship services.

So, what about The Church, whose beginning, history, and deeds are recorded for us in the book of Acts?  What was it known for?

Our family is only five chapters in (actually we start chapter 5 today) but here are some of the very obvious themes we’ve seen so far:

The Early Church was all about the Holy Spirit. 

 

Jesus promised Him in Acts 1 (He’s a he not an it).  Jesus told His apostles to wait for the Holy Spirit and not to do anything until He came.  In fact, before Jesus went to the cross, He promised His guys that He would send the Holy Spirit, and that it was actually better for them that Jesus go away, so that He could send the Spirit to them.  Not surprisingly, you find the Holy Spirit all throughout the book of Acts, very conspicuously at the very beginning.  He comes with the sound of a rushing wind that all Jerusalem could hear in Acts 2.  When crowds gather asking what is going on, Peter refers back to Old Testament prophecies that God would send His Spirit to all people.  He preaches a sermon about Jesus, in it saying that Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit whom they are all seeing the evidence of, and then concludes his sermon saying that the promise of the Holy Spirit is for everyone who responds to Christ.  No longer would the dwelling place of God’s Spirit be in the holy of holies in the temple, but rather we would become the new holy of holies where God would dwell in us through His Spirit.

I had always thought of Peter’s message being about Jesus, and it is.  But I had missed how he begins, ends, and fills in the middle with a message about the Holy Spirit.  That God, through Christ, was coming to live not just with men, but in them.  And that He would accomplish that through His Holy Spirit.

Three thousand people respond, repent and are baptized, and receive the promise, are filled with the Holy Spirit.  What was the result?  Contrary to what some might expect, you don’t find everyone speaking in ecstatic utterance (or even in intelligible earth languages) but rather you find a much more profound demonstration of the Holy Spirit in their lives.    Everyone becomes devoted (literally “addicted”) to the fellowship (sharing their lives together), the Apostles’ teaching (God’s Word, the Bible), the breaking of bread (worship), and to prayer (this is a big one, mentioned in more detail later).  Then you read five more verses about how much they sold for each other, sacrificed for each other, spent time daily together, and continued to grow in number. 

Not exactly the picture of empty pews I’m used to fifteen minutes after “church” is over.

So, a big manifestation of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives was (and is) a very real devotion to the things the Holy Spirit cares about – the relationships in the church, the Bible, worship, and prayer.  These become things that the earliest Christians couldn’t go a day without, that they had to have, that they couldn’t imagine not having, not participating in, every day.

Another big theme in those five short verses?  Gladness.  People were actually excited to be together at “church”, full of joy at the thought of more of it, not just getting their time in so they could move on to the rest of their important lives.  In fact, the vast majority of these early 3000 were likely from very far away, having come to Jerusalem from all over the world to celebrate the Pentecost.  But they didn’t go home.  Ever.  They sold lands and possessions, and re-arranged their lives, families, homes, careers, around being the church together in Jerusalem.  Not because Peter and the other apostles challenged them to it – this was a fruit of the Holy Spirit living in them.  Wow.

So, where do we next find the Holy Spirit?  In Chapter 3.  And Chapter 4.  And Chapter 5.  And what is the overwhelming manifestation of the Spirit in these chapters?  Again, it’s not speaking in other languages.  It’s not even other miraculous signs, though there were more miracles (interestingly noted as being done by the apostles and not by everyone).  The overwhelming, and repeated, evidence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the early Christians was – are you ready for it – great boldness in continuing to speak about Jesus despite opposition.

Not speaking in tongues but speaking about Jesus, even when it got hard.  Even when faced with threats of imprisonment and bodily harm.  When the Church prays in response to being threatened by the Jewish religious elite (the same guys who crucified Jesus two months earlier), they don’t ask for comfort or deliverance, they ask for boldness to continue speaking about Jesus.  And the Father answers their prayer how?  By filling them all in even greater measure with the Holy Spirit.

So I’m forced to ask – does that describe “church” today?  That everyone is speaking all the time with great confidence, great courage, great boldness about Jesus?  Does that describe me?  Does that even describe the guys who are paid to talk about Him on Sunday mornings, of how they spend the rest of their weeks?

What does that say about the presence of the Holy Spirit?

Hmmm.

Which brings me to our second observation:  (Continued in Part 2 of 4)

 

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Fettered –

Yesterday, in a flurry of activity, our family relieved our home of four boxes of books and videos, some bags of donations and several other bags of things to sell.

And still my home groans under the weight of “stuff.”

As our family continues to read and study the Book of Acts, one thing is obvious.  Nothing has the power to transform lives and hearts like the Word of God.  I have read so many books and commentaries over the years about the Bible.  They were good and insightful, but nothing has ever produced in me or our family the changes that we experience when we read and study the Bible verse by verse, chapter by chapter for ourselves.

Our lives, though radical and challenging to some, do not even come close to resembling the lives of the early Christians.

And so, borne out of a desire to simply obey the Scriptures and imitate Jesus and His disciples, we are unfettering ourselves.

What does that mean?  What does it look like?

In Acts 5:41, we see that the Apostles are freed from prison after being beaten and commanded not to talk or teach any more about Jesus.

Their reaction: “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. 42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”

You see, I am not like this.  I rejoice when my house is clean.

I am Martha.

I do not want to be.  Not any longer.  And I will do everything in my power to break the ties that bind me to things that drown me and my ability to be fruitful for the Lord.

Listen to the interaction between Martha and Jesus in Luke 10 when Martha is distracted and doesn’t have time to be with the Lord:  The Lord answered her,“Martha, Martha, you areanxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”

I am so like Martha.  I am anxious and troubled about many things.    And these things rob me of my joy.  They rob me of my time.  They rob me of energy to go from house to house and proclaim that the Christ is Jesus.

You see, I have fields to mow, houses to look after, a business, animals, stuff overflowing in closets and on shelves, things that need washing, dusting, repairing……

I believe, though I am ashamed to admit it, that I can reach more people in today’s society if I am “one of them.”  I can relate better and gain more respect in the eyes of the world if I look the right way, dress the right way, say the right thing, the right way, with the right tone and in the right time.”

But what about the disciples?

They were poor in possessions, yet they were rich in Christ. They were uneducated men, but rich in wisdom.  They boldly pointed out the sin in others and called them to repent.  Wherever they went.  Whenever they went.  They didn’t try to “win people over” with wise words or eloquent speech, nice homes, fancy degrees.

And what about what Jesus says over and over in the Scriptures in various ways,

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his lifespan?  And why do you worry about clothes? Consider how the lilies of the field grow: They do not labor or spin.  Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or

‘What shall we wear?’ Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own.

 

  • How many dresses do I need for church?
  • How many articles of clothing do I need to live?
  • How many books do I need?
  • How many dishes, pots and pans are required for cooking and eating?
  • How many toys do my children need?

You see, though I live in a home much smaller than most, I have waaaaaaaay more than I need or can even possibly use.  I am drowning in my possessions and  I have become a slave to them.

Are there poor people around me who might benefit from these things?

Maybe.

But I honestly don’t know.

Would Jesus define someone as poor that has cable t.v. and a cell phone?  Even the most poor around us seem to have these things and much, much more in abundance.  I have delivered meals to people who live in mobile homes and trailers that are overflowing with things to the point of littering the yard.

But it is so obvious that there are many people around me who are utterly poor in Spirit. Every where I look I see sick and hurting souls who need my time and attention and love. Maybe this is what I should give them instead of more “stuff.”

Maybe I am a rich American not because I deserve it, but because God wants me to use my wealth to give to those that are truly poor and without basic necessities like clean water or food or shelter.

How has my mind become so warped to think that I need a vacation, a vacation home, savings for a rainy day or a retirement cruise, when brothers and sisters around the globe are homeless or starving?

I have believed a lie fed to me by the Father of lies.  I have believed his words over the Words of Christ.

  • I have believed that these things are owed to me.
  • I have believed that these things give me security.

In Acts 2 we can so clearly see how the believer’s lived.  How can anyone with a heart for God argue with these words of Scripture?

44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day,attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Today I repent.

Lord-willing I will keep changing

and purging

and believing that Jesus will supply my needs.

I need only sit at His feet and learn from Him.

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Characteristics of the Early Church and Christians

Today we begin in Acts of the Apostles chapter 1.  The letter was written by Luke around 62-64 A.D.  It is written to Theophilus.   In Greek, the name  means  “dear to God; loved by God,” from theos “god” (see Thea) + philos “loved, beloved” (see -phile). Theophilus is to whom Luke dedicated both his Gospel (Luke 1:3) and the Acts of the Apostles.  While it is a proper name and could be addressed to a specific person, it may also be a general reference to those who love God.

The Book of Acts forms a bridge between the 4 gospels and the New Testament and records for us the response of the apostles and the early Christians to ascension of Christ.

When Jesus walked the earth, many were disappointed in Him because He did not look or act the part of the long awaited King.  The Jews anticipated the coming of their Savior who was to redeem them from bondage, who would lead a revolution, who would save them from their enemies.  But Jesus did not fit their mold.  Jesus went against their expectations.  He wasn’t interested in power.  He wasn’t interested in subduing Rome.   Even after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when the people hailed Him as King and laid their cloaks and palm branches at His feet, instead of grasping for power, he took off his outer garments , tied a towel around His waist and embraced the role of the lowliest servant by washing a bunch of dirty feet.

The very first thing I noticed as our family began to study this chapter, was that Jesus appears to the apostles with a different tone than in the gospels.  He has gone from training them to commanding them.  In verse 2 we see Him giving commands to the apostles.  In verse 4, He is ordering them.  When He is asked a question in verse 6, He tells them “it is not for you to know.”

Gone is the Suffering Messiah.  Here is the Conquering King.

Jesus, after His resurrection is behaving in a way that is much more characteristic of a powerful ruler.  There are no more parables.  There isn’t more time to walk with Him and train with Him.  Rather Jesus is giving orders and direction with the full expectation that they will be carried out.

His interactions with the disciples in this chapter remind me of  the military.  I personally know two Marines.   I know from them what it was like to go through boot camp.  And I know what it was like for them to be in combat.

Basic Training or boot camp – prepares recruits for all elements of service: physical, mental and emotional. It trains people and gives them the basic tools necessary to perform the roles that will be asked of them in combat.  The purpose of this training isn’t to “break” recruits. Instead it is designed to make individuals strong and capable – prepared for battle.

Combat is a wholly different scenerio.  When the call comes for deployment, there is a flurry of activity.  There is a sense of urgency.  There is a sense of dread.  There is expectation.  There is prayer.

And this is what we see in Acts chapter 1.  Jesus is forceful.  Jesus is commanding.  He is preparing His people for something imminent.

But then He says, “WAIT.”  Wait in Jerusalem.  (verse 4)

How hard it is to wait.  We’ve all been there.  Eagerly expecting something, but having to wait.  There have been poems and songs written about waiting.  “The waiting is the hardest part…..”  These are some song lyrics.  But we don’t need a song to tell us.  We’ve all experienced it in some form.

In these 40 days Jesus spent with the disciples before His ascension He speaks about the Kingdom of God and the promise that will be sent to them.   But they must wait for the promise.  They must trust.  After telling them He will send them the promise of the Father,  He was lifted up and taken from their sight.

It’s almost comical, isn’t it that two men appear and ask them what they are staring at?  Ummm…..well, Jesus floating away in the clouds…..  Wouldn’t you stare?

The angels were spurring them on…..”What are you staring at?  why aren’t you moving?  Didn’t you just receive orders?”

And their response?

They went up to the upper room where they were staying.

Then they fretted.

Is that what it says?

No, no, no!  That’s not what it says.

This time they didn’t lock the door like they did after the Crucifixion.

Instead, Jesus’ followers.,  with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, …..v.13-14

We sense their anticipation and tension. The phrase “with one accord” in Greek is expressed with the word “homothymadon” which means “with the same passion, with the same zeal.”  They weren’t just together in one place, but they shared a common passion.

In Greek, the word “devoted” used in this passage means, addicted, can’t go without. Think of a person on drugs.  Sadly, we have also had first hand experience with people addicted to drugs.  Drugs consume their lives.  There is nothing more important.  There is nothing more consuming.  The whole being is consumed with one thought.

This is how the disciples were.  They were all together in one place, with a common zeal.

And they were addicted to prayer.

Wow.

When in your life have you been like this?

Personally, it is usually in times of fear or sadness.  When I am afraid, I turn to God in a way and with a depth that I do not when life is going smoothly and as expected.

These disciples had a sense that something big and something important was about to happen.  They experienced Jesus now as they had “thought” He should be when He first declared He was the Christ, the Anointed one.  In fact, the question they ask Him in verse 6 reveals how they now perceive Him.

“Lord, will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?”

His demeanor as a commanding King was obvious to them.  Surely now their King, their Christ, was going to lead the revolution they had long anticipated.

But then, He disappears.  Into the clouds.

And they wait.  And they pray.  Fervently.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Happy Mother’s Day!

This is for my amazing mommy this Mother’s Day.  I ♥ U!

loantaka_brook_reservation_bikeway_horse_path_and_stream_and_reflections

The leaves are scattered on the ground  

the wind blows softly, gently

two voices in the woods are found

beneath the treetops bending

gray-divider

One girl with youthful eagerness

flits to and fro distracted

but she with focused purpose

points child to His walk perfected

gray-divider

Laughing, weeping, joy midst tears

the narrow road bears few

but at each bend, no matter when

each hums a happy tune

gray-divider

The child’s wanderings lead around

her hopes and life colliding

but mother knows where right is found

and with love keeps uniting

gray-divider

Few travel on this narrow road

pain’s appearance deceiving

but midst storms’ darkest, hardest blow

rain taps rhythms for dancing

gray-divider

This path may lead to right or left

woods may grow dark and sinister

but whether gale or gentle breath

she’ll walk with me as ever

gray-divider

I need this soul to guide and hold

down this path of my discipling

for God has shaped this mother’s mold

in His image to enlighten me

gray-divider

The two will trek, with every breath

mother and daughter joyously

for God above, in infinite love

sent Mommy for life’s journey

8czknolki

 

 

 

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Philippians 4

The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

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Relationships in the Church Part 3

All the studies that I share are borne out of our morning Bible studies together as a family.  Each morning, before Mark goes to work, we spend at least an hour together in the Word studying out various topics.  Currently we are studying out relationships within the Church. What I share comes from all the insights shared by various family members, even our youngest who is only 6 years old.  I take lots of notes, organize them a bit and share them with you.

For those that attend services with us in Meadowview, I apologize ahead of time if you may hear some of these stories and analogies again at some future time when Mark is teaching.  Much of the material he shares with the congregation comes directly out of our times studying the Scriptures together as a family. 😉

What follows below is much longer than other posts will be in the future, but this represents a week’s worth of Bible study.

Colossians 1:15-18 “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.  For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.”

I am sure you have all seen little kids draw stick figures – a big round head with a stick body and stubby arms and legs – haven’t you?  Well, as I read this passage of Scripture, it is that kind of a figure that comes to mind.  If I could via email, I would draw one for you here.  The head would receive the label JESUS.   The body would receive the label CHURCH.  That’s what the Scripture above says.  What a simple picture of the relationship between Jesus and the church.  But I wonder, how deeply we have ever thought about this relationship.  Personally, many years ago, I had never given it much thought even though I had grown up going to church and had been taught about Jesus.  I never truly understood the intimate relationship between the two until I studied the Scriptures for myself. 

The Scriptures often use parables or analogies to help us understand some truth.  Let’s consider the metaphorical use of a physical head and body in Ephesians. When you consider a human head,  what is it’s function?  Even if we don’t have a degree in anatomy and physiology, we know it is home to all the body’s major sensory organs.  Our head takes in nutrients and air and has the senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling, and smelling.  The head also provides communication.  Although the nose, ears, tongue, nerves, and others parts are important, without a functioning brain, they’d all be useless.  The brain monitors and controls the human body. No head no life.

The two are inextricably connected.  A head cannot be severed from the body.  The body will not live. What then does this say about the church?

Ephesians 1:22-23 says “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”

 When you think of church, do you think about it in this way – that it should represent who Jesus is?    The transliteration of the word “fullness” in Greek in this Scripture, is “pleroma” and means the” super abundance of” or “totality of.”  All of the essence of who Christ is, is captured in His church.  

This past Sunday night at the evening service, Mark talked about the heart of Jesus revealed through His last prayer to the Father before His death.  Here is a small excerpt:

  John 17:20-23 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. ” 

In some of His last words, Jesus prays about what is most on His heart before His death.  He prays for His followers.  He prays for His church.  He prays for unity, for oneness of mind and thought and purpose.  He prays for the same closeness He shares with His Father in heaven.  Over and over again throughout that prayer, He says that world will know Him – if His followers are one as He and the Father are one.

So, is this oneness what characterizes church today?  Think about the congregations you have attended throughout your lifetime or the one you are a part of now.  Was there/is there a oneness of mind, thought and goals?  I believe that we all must sadly acknowledge that unity is not what comes to mind first thing when we think of church.  In fact, most would say just the opposite.  There are thousands of divisions within Christendom.  The phone book is just one place we can look.  Hundreds of denominations within Abingdon alone.  The church has split time and time again to the point where we basically have, as Mark said Sunday night, “Burger King religion” or in other words, “have it your way….”  Want to grab breakfast at church, go to…..,  want a good worship band, go to…….,   want to meet at a later time so you can sleep in on Sunday morning, go to……, want no instruments during worship, go to……..don’t think you need baptism, go to….. think you need baptism, go to……….  want a happening youth ministry, go to……On and on it goes.  Division after division.

I think if we are honest with ourselves, we as individuals pretty much do things based on what we feel is right.   We are often led by our desires or our emotions.  As a people, especially in our “politically correct” society,  we also have an especially hard time accepting the fact that not everyone can be right.  We are led by our emotions and we want to believe that what someone else believes is okay for them as long as what I believe is okay for me.  We are conflict-avoiders and would rather leave a situation that doesn’t align with our point of view.  I know from personal experience that it is so hard to actually listen to someone who thinks differently than I do on a subject.  Frequently I find myself already formulating in my mind all my reasons and answers I can give as to why they are wrong.  ;-(     Am I the only one who does this?

But what do the Scriptures say?   

Ephesians 4:2-6, 15 says: “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”

Wow, there is just so much in this Scripture that goes against everything society and our nature tells us.  Don’t run away.  Bear with one another.  Be gentle.  Be patient. There is only one Lord.  There is only one faith.  Not all roads lead to heaven.  

Ephesians 2:19-22 says, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens,but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being  the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.  In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

There are three things we will focus on from these Scriptures:

1. We are members of the same household: We are family.  Calling each other brothers and sisters is not just a nicety.  We have actually become family through the blood of Jesus.

2. This household must be built on the right foundation :the teachings of the apostles (found in the New Testament), the teaching of the prophets (found in the Old Testament) and have Jesus as the cornerstone.  In the construction of a masonry foundation, the Cornerstone is the first stone set and it is important since all other stones will be set in reference to this stone, thus determining the position of the entire structure.

3. We, together, are being built into the holy temple of the Lord.  Together weare to represent His fullness.

Jesus prayed for our unity and the answer as to how we can achieve that unity is found in these Scriptures above.

First, we must recognize that it is not God’s plan for there to be lone Christians.   In the same way that Jesus on earth was the representation of the fullness of God to the world, today, the church is the organism thorough which Christ is made known to the world.  This is His plan.  By following His plan, all will see and know Jesus.  Believers living and working and meeting together in unity – make Christ manifest to the world.

In our morning Bible study, we asked Joy if she would like to have a lego to build with.  She laughed and said “what can I do with one lego?”  Even young children get it that you can’t build anything magnificent with one lego or even a few legos.  Let’s say a local congregation has a few hundred believers counted among its members, but only a few come to the meetings of the church during the week.  Wouldn’t this be similar to giving your child a few different legos on different days of the week?  Let’s say Wednesday we give Joy 4 blue legos, 2 white legos and 4 green legos but on Sunday she get 3 yellow legos, 4 gray legos  and 3 blue legos.  What can she build on either one of those days with a sum total of 10 legos?  Meanwhile 90 other legos  are lost somewhere in the house?  Imagine what a grand building she could make if we gave her all 100 legos to work with instead of just 10?  Hmmmm…. then what does that say for the church?

Together then we must be committed to building on the teachings of the Old and the New Testaments, which taken together are the Bible. – that is, the whole Bible – not bits and pieces, not the only the New Testament, or not only the Old Testament, but the whole Bible. His church is built on this solid foundation, with Christ as the cornerstone from which all measurements are taken.  We must constantly refer back to Him, the cornerstone, to make sure we are building correctly.

I wonder, what was it like for you if you grew up in church.  For me, although I grew up attending services at various congregations, I did not have a knowledge of the Scriptures.  I mostly relied on what others told me. I listened to pastors, ministers, Sunday school teachers, parents, grandparents, I even read books about religious and spiritual things.  But I never spent much time in the Scriptures myself.  Some of us might remember this analogy from a previous sermon – Does sitting in front of a piano  make you a pianist? Or if you park yourself in the garage, do you become a car?  Silly to think that way, right?  Similarly, reading books about brain surgery does not make you a brain surgeon.  You become these things only after lots of study and actually putting into practice what you have learned.  So what does this say about Christians?  Does showing up at church make you one automatically?  Or does just studying The Book make you one?  Hmmmmm….obviously NO!

And this is where the problem begins.  How many people going to church today do you think actually have a knowledge of the Scriptures? How many of us study the Scriptures for ourselves and draw our convictions from the totality of Scripture, rather than from something we may have heard from our parents, from the pulpit or seen on a bumper sticker?  Getting our hands on the Scriptures is easier now than ever.  What if a day is coming when we will no longer have access to them?  Or how many people are there that call themselves Christians and even study the Bible, but don’t actually put into practice what it says, but rather put into practice what they think it should say?

Can we all be following the same book if there are over 20,000 so called “Christian” denominations?  If the Word is truly our standard than how can there be divisions? If Jesus calls us to be unified and we are all claiming the name of Christ, then can we all be right?   If God, as our loving Father is truly concerned about getting His children home to Him, then do you really believe that he would make salvation so complicated, so difficult to understand?  Put more simply, if your child were staying with a relative in California and you were trying to get them home to you in Virginia, what kind of instructions would you give to the child and to those relatives watching over the child?  Would they be clear or convoluted?  If you, who are not perfect, know how to give clear instructions to get your child home to you, then what do you expect our perfect and loving heavenly Father to do?

Let me give you another very simple example that I believe we can all relate to in this fast food society.  Who among us has eaten at a McDonald’s Now, has anyone been to a McDonald’s in another country? What was it like?  What did it look like, what food did they serve?  Let’s make it even easier in case there are those who haven’t traveled to another country?  Have you ever been to a McDonald’s in another state?  What did it look like?  What food did they serve?  I have indeed eaten in a McDonald’s in several different countries and several different states.  And guess what?  They all look the same!  And they all serve the same foods!

Or perhaps you prefer Chick-fil-A?  What do the employees say to you regardless of which establishment you visit?  “My pleasure – is there anything else I can help you with?  Wow!  How in the world can this be?  Thousands of miles apart and yet they all do the same thing!  Well,did you know that each franchise has a manual that they must follow? This quote is taken directly from a franchise manual:  “Maintaining unity within a franchise system is paramount if a brand is to succeed. ”   Now how, does this apply to church?

Think about it – where do you see more unity – in the church or in a McDonald’s franchise?

We all know the answer – Corporations are achieving greater unity than those professing to follow Christ. We see this everywhere – KFC. Taco Bell, you name it…..

Is this what Jesus died for? Unity in business endeavors?

Friends, those of us professing to follow Christ proclaim that Jesus is Lord of our life.  But is this truly what is born out by our example in our daily lives?  The reality is that franchise owners know and follow their manuals more precisely than we know and follow our Bibles.  How incredibly sad.  How incredibly scary!

Jesus must be our head.  He must be our control center – the one calling the shots.  Let’s make it personal – is he that for you?

Here’s a question to help you answer that.  What do you say is the best flavor of ice-cream?  Vanilla, chocolate, butter pecan, strawberry or something else?  We did this simple exercise in our family one morning and guess what came back?  5 people with 5 different answers!  Imagine that.  Then we changed the question slightly to, what if Jesus said that the best flavor of ice-cream was vanilla?  Joy, our 6 year old said, “well then, I would have to say it is vanilla.”  Wow, out of the mouth of babes!

Are you willing to do this with the Bible? You see, there are certain things that are non-negotiable.  The plan of salvation is non-negotiable.  God came up with a plan for us to be saved by.  He gives us directions on how to make it home to Him.  (Just like in the California example above).  This plan is clearly spelled out in the Word of God.  But ask 20 people professing to believe in Christ how to be saved and you will probably get at least three different answers.  Can they all be right? Of course not!  There cannot be three truths.  There is only one truth.  And that truth is contained in the Word of God.  And here we must ask ourselves honestly, are we each willing to go to the Word of God together and seek out the answer and live by what it says?   How much effort are you willing to put into seeking out the truth for yourself? It is oh so much easier to be spoon-fed.  Let me just take someone else’s word for it.  Let me just pull out a verse here and a verse there that says what I want it to say to prove my opinion.  Let me read a book about the subject.  But where will that lead me?  You see the only one any one of us will be standing in front of on the day of Judgement is Jesus, the embodiment of the Word of God.  There will be no grandma, parents or pastor by my side feeding me the answers or handing down the judgement. The Word of God will judge me.

God says there is only one church.  When He looks out over the earth and the myriad denominations and congregations meeting together (sometimes just right across the street from one another), what He sees is His one church, His family, His body, which is made up of  those people that are actually taking direction from Him.  Our thoughts our attitudes, our goals, our desires, our relationships, in short, everything – should be governed by the head, that is, Jesus.  If He is not the head of the church, or if He is not the cornerstone from which everything is measured and put in place, then it is not His church.

There are other things not specifically spelled out for us in Scripture, which I will call “non-essentials.”  These are things that do not effect or change the purpose, goal or plan of salvation.  They encompass things like what time to meet, where to meet, how long to meet together, what kind of music to have, whether or not to build a fellowship hall, what color to paint the sanctuary, etc……….  And do you know, can you believe that these are things that congregations have actually split over? How in the world is it possible that Christians split over these things if they are humbly and patiently bearing with one another and earnestly seeking unity as directed in the Scriptures?  Could it be they are not Christians?  You see, just like a physical body severed from its head cannot survive, neither can a church survive if it is severed from its head, namely Jesus.

God gives us freedom to choose, but in that freedom, he also tells us to bear with one another and seek unity above all else.  In matters of opinion, we must humbly and patiently defer to one another- not divide!.  In matters spelled out in the Scriptures, we must defer to Christ., the head.    If we all follow the same blueprint than how would there be deviations?   You see, just like McDonald’s, the church should look the same here, as it does in Africa.  It should look the same in Africa as it does in Japan.  Regardless of where in the world we are, we should all be in agreement on how to get to  home to our Father in Heaven.  He only gave one set of directions.  One building, the church, built up using one blueprint, the Bible.

Please hear this –  I love the Church.  Christ established the Church.   But I absolutely hate it when congregations claim to follow Christ, but are full of bickering and dissension over things that are not essential to salvation.  The world mocks such congregations and Christians because of refusal to unite under God’s Word.  Rightly so!   As believers we each need to pause and think about our own lives and our own convictions and ask ourselves how we are contributing to the problem. 

 Ask yourself:

  • “Do I know the Word of God well enough to defend my beliefs, or am I simply following a tradition handed down by my family?” 
  • ” Do I earnestly study the Scriptures to seek out Jesus’ plan and blueprint of the church and for my life?” 
  •  “If I have questions about a hot topic, such as baptism, homosexuality, politics, abortion, just to name a few….. have I searched the Scriptures myself to study out what they say or do I just accept what has been passed on to me from others?” 
  •  “In what way am I personally not accurately representing who Jesus is?”
  • “Am I calling my family to be a microcosm of the church, meaning together,as a family are we unified and accurately reflecting Christ to those around us?”
  •  “Am I willing to let go of my opinions for the sake of unity on those issues that are non-essential?”
  •  “Can I prove from the Scriptures what God’s plan of salvation is?”
  •  “Am I able to teach others using the Scriptures, how to get “home” to their Father in Heaven?”
  •  “Am I willing to sit with other professing Christians around the Bible and study out those things that we do not agree on so that we can come to unity on the essentials?”
These are things Jesus expects from His followers.  No where in the Scriptures does it say that these are the responsibilities of pastors and ministers only.

Over the years, Mark and I have studied the Bible with many different people, in several countries and in a few different languages and it is common when first talking with people about God, to hear people say that the Bible so hard to understand or that it contradicts itself.  But if we press people to give examples of where or how, they will usually admit that they haven’t read or studied it themselves and they can offer no explanation for why they believe the way they do other than the fact that they were raised a certain way.  Take these same people and give them each the Word of God opened up to passage of Scripture, and they will all say it says the same thing, regardless of the language or the country we are in.

God has given us the blueprint for His church in His Word.  This is the blueprint we must follow.  Not our feelings, not our ideas, not our traditions, not what grandma or grandpa did or said…….We must follow the directions coming from THE head.  Anything not attached to the head, taking commands from the head, will wither and die.  It is true for the physical body and it is true for those professing to have faith in Christ. 

We must recognize that we cannot be committed to one (Jesus the head), without being committed to the other(the body, the church).  Before I began reading and studying the Bible about 25 years ago, I felt, that I was able to have a close relationship with Jesus without being committed to church.  Church was something optional to me.  But how can I be connected to Jesus without being connected with the body?  The Bible teaches it is impossible to be connected to Jesus without being connected to the body.  Yet how many people have you heard say,  “I love Jesus, I just don’t need church?” Or,” I love Jesus, but there are other things I have to be at during the time church meets?”  Most of us have to deal with children’s schedules in one way or another – “do we rearrange our schedules to be at soccer practice, baseball practice, swim meets, ballet rehearsal, work etc….?  Would we dare say no to a coach or a boss when it comes to missing practice or work, especially on a regular basis?  Then how is it what many so easily say no to God?

Society screams at us to be independent and not rely on anyone but ourselves.  But God’s Word very clearly states that we each need others and others need us.  It is together that we grow up into the fullness of Christ. The church is most powerful, most grand, most beautiful when the individual parts come together in unity and peace, declaring to the world that yes, indeed it is possible to love this way!  You are wrong!  Jesus is right!  He empowers us to live this way, to make right choices, to sacrifice our wants, our schedules, our lives for the greater good – namely portraying an accurate picture of Christ to the world.

We can never change anyone else, but if we say we love Jesus and belong to Him, then must change ourselves to be aligned to the head  We must be willing to give up our feelings, give up our ideas, give up our traditions and give up ANYTHING that does not agree with the Word of God.

We cannot have it our way and His way too.

-April 22, 2016-

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Relationships Part 2 Hebrews 10

I encourage everyone to read the Scriptures for yourselves from the Bible.  It is never a good thing to take someone else’s word for it.  We must all come to our convictions based on personal study of the Word of God.  If you are already familiar with the Scriptures, please try to approach them as if for the very first time. Read it for yourself in the Bible and try to read with fresh eyes, placing yourself into the story as it unfolds.  In our last study through the Book of John, we came away amazed out how much our preconceived notions and past teachings effected how we thought of Jesus.  Once we were able to approach the Scriptures as if for the very first time, we were shocked to see a very different Jesus that the one frequently portrayed in paintings or bumper stickers.  Though commentaries and books may have their place in Bible study, I have found that all too often, we rely on or take for granted that which others tell us to be the truth.  Please pray that the Lord would lead you as you seek to find the truth for yourself from His Word.
Some background:  The book of Hebrews was written around 60-70 AD to the Jews who had converted to Christianity.  It was written to encourage them during a time of intense trials and persecution.  It was around this time that Nero had burned Jerusalem to the ground and many horrific atrocities were committed against the Christians. 
 
Delving in:  Hebrews 10:19 talks about entering the holy places because of the blood of Jesus.  Before Jesus shed his blood, the presence of God remained shielded from man behind a thick curtain during the history of Israel.  Within the Holy Place of the tabernacle, there was an inner room called the Holy of Holies, or the Most Holy Place. It was a sacred room, a place no ordinary person could enter.

Whoever entered into the Holy of Holies was entering the very presence of God. In fact, anyone except the high priest who entered the Holy of Holies would die. Even the high priest, God’s chosen mediator with His people, could only pass through the veil and enter this sacred dwelling once a year, on a prescribed day called the Day of Atonement.

Even as the high priest entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, he had to make some meticulous preparations: he had to wash himself, put on special clothing, bring burning incense to let the smoke cover his eyes from a direct view of God, and bring blood with him to make atonement for sins.  Exodus 28 and 39 tells of the clothes he had to wear and the bells that were on his clothing so that as long the bells could be heard, others would know that he was still alive and that he had been accepted by God.  It was an incredibly fearful thing to approach the presence of God and some even suggest, though this is not found in Scripture, that a rope was tied around the ankle of the High Priest so that if he was struck down, then his body could be pulled out of the Most Holy Place.

However, Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross changed all of that. When He died, the curtain in the Jerusalem temple was torn in half, from the top to the bottom.  (Matthew 27:51) As the veil was torn, the Holy of Holies was exposed. and God’s presence was now made accessible to everyone.  Because of Jesus, those who have been washed in the waters of baptism and made clean by His blood, can now with confidence enter into God’s presence. Jesus’ sacrifice opened the way to have an intimate relationship with our Creator.

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh …let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.” (Hebrews 10:19-22)

Verses 22, 23 and 24 call us then to do certain things in view of this relationship – “Let us  draw near, ” “let us hold fast,”  and “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works.”  These are imperatives!  We should do these things together “Let us!”  Because we get to enter into the presence of God, let us consider (in Greek= kataoomen), let us ponder to a precise level of detail how to “stir up one another.”  Stir up in Greek = paroxysimon, which means to provoke, to incite, to jab in such a way as to cause a response.  One translation of the Bible says to “spur one another on.”  Have you ever considered that this is what our relationships in Christ should be characterized by?  Spuring on, provoking, inciting…… to agape love and good deeds?
Give thought to what a spur is used for on a horse.  What do you think about the fact that this is what we are called to be for one another?   Is this how you would characterize your relationships with other believers?  Is this what you have experienced in relationships within the church?
Verse 25 calls the believers to not neglect meeting together as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, all the more as the end draws near.   So it is not just about coming together to meetings.  Rather we are called to come together thinking about what we can do to provoke our brothers and sisters to greater love, “agape” love, which is love in its highest form and greater works.
Isn’t it interesting that there is emphasis placed on doing these things all the more as the Day draws near?  This is referring to the Day of Judgement.  We could think of this too as the time when we are nearing our Day of judgement.  It’s as if we are being told, don’t get lazy as you get older.  Don’t have the attitude that you can’t do anything anymore because of your age.  No, instead, you should do these things all the more as the end draws near.  Keep encouraging, keep spurring each other on, keep holding fast to faith, keep loving and working in greater and greater measure.
If these are not the kinds of relationships we have with other believers, we must change.  The Lord calls us to this depth of relationship with one another.  I pray that this is what we desire and what we will each strive for.
The next Scripture I will look at in more detail is Colossians 1:15-18.  I will always give the next Scripture I will be writing more about in the days to come so you can study along with me.
-April 15, 2016-
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Relationships Part 1. Hebrews 3

Today we focused on  Hebrews 3:12-14  
 
“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” Hebrews 3:12-14 
 
Our goal as a family has been to study out in depth what the early church looked liked as described in the Scriptures. Each day we examine a passage that tells us more about how often they met together, what their relationships looked like with one another and how they spent their time together. 
 
 Today we read all of chapter 3, because it is always best to have context for Scriptures, but we focused on the two verses above. What I saw in these verses is how much we need each other in our lives daily.  We are called to exhort one another daily so that we will not be deceived.  Jeremiah 17:9 teaches us, “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Our hearts deceive us.  We see this over and over in the Scriptures.  “So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!” 1 Corinthians 10:12   We need each other as mirrors to reflect the truth about who we are and how we are doing in our obedience to Christ, lest we be deceived and grow so hardened that we eventually lose faith and fall away from the living God. 
 
The example given further on in Chapter three, is that of the Jews who fled Egypt in the Exodus only two actually made it to the promised land, even though thousands of them had witnessed the miracles of God first hand.  Instead of helping each other stand strong through trials and hardships, they grumbled and complained and longed to return to the old way of life.  In short, they forgot what they came from and they didn’t trust God’s leading and promises.
 
I think it is somewhat funny that even though it is clearly stated above that we should be deeply involved in each other’s lives on a daily basis, it goes further to emphasize this point by saying, “as long as it is called ‘today.’  Basically, it is saying, uhmmm…. guys, just in case you didn’t fully understand that you should have these relationships daily,  well, understand that you should DO IT WHENEVER IT IS CALLED ‘TODAY.’  
 
So, “today,”  please know that I am grateful for each of you and am praying that you are cultivating these types of open, deep, caringrelationships with those who belong to the family of God.  “Solo”-christians are not a part of God’s plan.  We were made to be part of a caring and involved family.
 
Tomorrow our family will read in Hebrews 10, emphasis on verses:24-25 if you would like to follow along.
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