Author: Mark Johnson

Return Of The Sermon Discussion Session

Beginning Sunday, November 1, 2020, we are going to restart the sermon discussion session. The discussion session will be like what we were doing on Sunday afternoons before COVID. One significant difference is that I will not finish the sermon during the first part of the session; it will be devoted entirely to discussing material relevant to the sermon’s application.

This session will begin approximately ten to fifteen minutes following the dismissal of the morning worship assembly. For example, if the morning assembly ends at 10:15 AM, we will start the discussion session at 10:30 AM. If the morning assembly ends at 10:30 AM, then the discussion session will begin at 10:45 AM.

We are envisioning a time frame of thirty to forty-five minutes. The amount of discussion will determine the length of the session. Participants can plan on being finished by 11:30 AM, if not earlier. This session will be “in-person” only (it will not be available on Zoom or Facebook).

I envision an atmosphere where we are interacting with each other. My role will be that of “facilitator” or “moderator.”

I wonder if we can find a space for those of us who chose to participate in sitting in a physically distanced circle. It might even be chairs in the auditorium. The circle arrangement is more conducive to group discussion than the “person at the front arrangement.”

Discussion questions are provided for each lesson. One purpose of the questions is to help make relevant applications of the sermon. In this regard, you may want to plan on participating in this discussion with your other questions and observations than those provided. Some of the provided questions may go beyond the material included in the sermon.

I hope you will choose to participate in this spiritual opportunity. The discussion on Sunday will concern why we believe the Bible is God’s Word!

When Changes Come

Change is one of the constants of life. Life is swift and filled with changes.

Life is filled with unexpected changes. I prefer routine and predictability. I’m not a “thrill a minute” type of guy. So, I prefer stability to change. However, you may readily embrace change because you may be someone who likes “living on the edge.”

One of the hot words that have cropped during COVID is “pivot.” We told that we must become good at pivoting (changing as one goes).

What do we do when changes come, changes over which we have no control?

First, be thankful that God is constant, and Jesus is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Second, sometimes change stirs and moves us. Change can be uncomfortable and lead to unfamiliar territory. Being uncomfortable can be useful for us and help go about doing the things we need to do.

Third, sometimes changes teach us to trust God again. It is easy to misplace our trust (government, health, military might, bank accounts and investments, yourself, etc.).

When Moses and the Israelites were thrown into the desert, there was no one to trust except God. Because they trusted God, they were forced to do many new things that God told them to do (obtaining food in entirely new ways, new battle plans, and living, marching, and constructing things according to God’s design).

Like them, perhaps some of the changes that come to us help us to put our trust in God, where it truly belongs.

Fourth, sometimes changes force us to build again. After being displaced to Babylon, the Jewish exiles were allowed to return to the Promised Land. When they returned to Jerusalem, they found a burned-out city of rubble. God called them to rebuild the temple and to worship Him according to His revealed directives. Sometimes changes show us ways to start building the kingdom of God again in this place.

What shall we do today amid the changes all around us? Let us trust our God and set about obeying God in every way possible.

Mark Johnson

Unseen Threats

Many of us are getting weary of taking precautions against a virus. A virus that has not done much “damage” to people we know personally or to many of us. A virus about which there are conflicting reports does not seem important enough to make much a “to do” about for some (many) of us.

I wonder if our thoughts would change if the virus were more obvious, more visible? The fact that it is “unseen” (with normal vision, I am aware that it can be seen with medical equipment) contributes to how people regard it.

If only we could “see” it. If we could “see” it then we might realize that it is a wimp and there is has been much ado about nothing. If we could “see” it then we might realize that it is a monster and we need to treat it accordingly. If only we could “see” it.

I am not attempting to make any statement about the virus except for a correlation between our perception of it and its being “unseen.”

The real “unseen threat” that I am concerned about is the powers of darkness.

The Bible highlights the theme of conflict with the powers of evil. It is integral to the biblical worldview. Those of us who understand the Bible to be our authoritative and reliable guide to faith and practice need to seriously take this aspect of the biblical message. The biblical worldview, however, collides head-on with the modern worldview and its naturalistic assumptions.

John reveals in his first epistle that “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). Jesus spoke of Satan as “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). There was, then, some substance to Satan’s claim of dominion when he offered Jesus the kingdoms of the world (Matt. 4:8–9; Luke 4:6).

The opponents Paul emphasizes in his writings are demonic forces (see 1 Cor. 15:24; Eph. 1:21; 3:10; 6:12; Col. 1:16; 2:10; 2:15). The classic text in Paul concerning dealing with “unseen threats” is, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

If only we could “see” the “unseen threat” (the evil spiritual powers in the heavenly places), we would realize that we need help. We need the power of God.

Thankfully, God empowers His people for the unseen struggle. Paul urges the saints to recognize: 1) that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph. 1:3); 2) identify the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead and seated above all forces in the heavenly places is available to us (Eph. 1:18-21); 3) that God raised us and seated with Christ in the heavenly places at conversion (Eph. 2:4-6); 4)      that we can be strengthened with power in our inner being (Eph. 3:16); 5) that God can do much more than we can ever conceive (Eph. 3:20-21), and 6) that we can be strong in the power of the Lord (Eph. 6:20).

The saints need to take a position of advancement and a position of resistance to be victorious against the “unseen threats.” Progress takes place as the church makes known God’s manifold wisdom (Eph. 3:10). Resistance is accomplished through “standing” (holding our ground) clothed in God’s armor (Eph. 6:10-20).

“Unseen threats” are present can be defeated! We must stay diligent and not grow weary.

Reaching Out

Before the whole COVID 19 shutdown, we were positioning ourselves to launch Friend Speak. The COVID 19 situation disrupted our plans but did not cancel them. We are now moving forward with offering FriendSpeak to the community.

You may be asking what is FriendSpeak? It is reaching out to our neighbors and people we encounter who need help improving their English-speaking ability. We offer help with conversational English (this is not an English grammar course), friendship, and the Word of God. FriendSpeak gives people something they want but have difficulty finding – a friend who will help them practice and improve their conversational English. The material in the guidebooks we use to help people learn English comes directly from the Bible.

LUKE is the first conversation workbook in the FriendSpeak Series. Passages from the Gospel of Luke introduce the life and teachings of Jesus and generate meaningful conversations relevant to everyone – even people with little or no faith background. LUKE contains 31 sessions from the Easy-to-Read translation for international readers and a glossary.

Six of us have gone through FriendSpeak training and are ready to help teach people conversational English and the Bible. We have cards and flyers prepared to hand-out or post. This information is also posted on the church website and Facebook page.

There are two ways that every member can be involved in this outreach program.

The first way is to take some of the FriendSpeak cards and flyers and distribute them. There are people you know and places that you go to that no one else in this congregation has contact with. You are the key to reaching them.

Anywhere you go that has people who are not proficient in English is an excellent place to leave FriendSpeak information. You will want to emphasize that this is a free program and that we plan on using social media for the sessions.

“Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (John 4:35). Our context is different (the people from Samaria are moving toward Jesus and the apostles), but the principle is the same.

“So, neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:7). The original context deals with the factions around personalities in the Corinthian congregation. The truth remains that God gives the growth or increase and we are workers in God’s vineyard.

“As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies- in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Peter 4:10-11).

The second way is prayer. Please pray for the effectiveness of this effort. Pray for a harvest of souls. Pray that the people you give information to be open to God’s powerful word.

“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison” (Colossians 4:2-3).

“Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12).

Draw Near

“Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).

The inspired author of Hebrews indicates that Jesus makes it possible for listeners to “approach the throne of grace.” This is a metaphor. A metaphor speaks of one thing in terms of another, which creates incongruity at one level, while disclosing new meaning on another level. It is incongruous to think that readers could physically enter the heavenly throne room (Heb. 8:1; 12:2). The metaphor invites the readers to encounter God through worship in a manner as genuine as that of a priest entering a sanctuary. This “entering” or “drawing near” is done consciously and spiritually (“in the spirit”).

Drawing near to God involves physical actions (things like prayer and praise) but is more than physical actions. Drawing near to God takes place in the unseen realities through faith (Heb. 11:1, 6). Drawing near to God means going to the “throne of grace,” which is not a physical or geographical location. The “throne of God” is “in heaven” (Heb. 8:1). The “throne of grace” is where the people of God “go” by faith as we confidently “draw near” to God (Heb. 4:16).

Under God’s covenant with Israel, worshipers could approach the outer limits of the sanctuary (Lev. 9:5) and ordinary priests could approach the altar (Lev. 9:7–8; 21:17, 21; Num 4:19), but only the high priest could approach the mercy seat (Exod. 30:10; Lev. 16:34). Those who enter into a new covenant relationship with God are enabled by the blood of Christ to enter spiritually and directly into the presence of God (Heb. 4:16; 7:19; 10:19-22).

In contrast to literal Mt. Sinai, the new covenant people of God draw near to God at “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Heb. 12:22-24). We go to God’s throne in the heavenly Jerusalem with angels and the spirits of the righteous when we worship.

This sounds like what John wrote in Revelation 7:9-12 “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’”

When We Assemble

Christian worship is of course a human activity. Christian worship is about drawing near to God in God prescribed ways. Christian worship is our response of praise to God. Christian communal worship is our active response of praise to God for His greatness and grace, His holiness and hope. When we assemble, we approach God through Jesus the Messiah in the Spirit (John 4:24; Philippians 3:3; Hebrews 12:22-24; Revelation 19:10; 22:3, 9).

Christian communal worship is not going to a concert and watching an artist perform? It requires active participation on our part to go together into the throne room of God. What matters is that we approach God in spirit. It does not matter if are in an auditorium, a house, or by a river. What matters is that we deliberately draw near to God as He has revealed to us.

We can be in auditorium with others and worship is taking place all around us, but if we have not drawn near to God in spirit then we have not worshiped God. We can in front of a computer screen using Zoom to connect with others as we worship God and if we draw near to God in spirit with our brothers and sisters in the Lord then we have worshiped. We can meet at a building practicing physical distancing and wearing masks, if we draw near to God in spirit then we have worshiped God.

What matters is that we go to the throne room of God in the spirit.

We are blessed to live in time when we can assemble in spirit online through Zoom or Facebook. Like Paul was with the church at Corinth “in spirit” (1 Cor. 5:3-4), as we gather physically and online, we are together “in spirit.” Some of us are currently in situations where online access is the best way for us for us to assemble with our brethren. Joining the assembly online with others is not “forsaking the assembly.” It is assembling.

I hope you agree with me that physically assembling is better. We hear our brothers and sisters sing. We are encouraged by fellowship with one another. It is easier to stay focused in our worship in physical assembly (no dogs barking, not just hearing our own voice singing, etc.). Assembling online requires more discipline, more focus. In our comfortable, familiar environments, it takes even more concentration for our spirits to go to God’s throne room.

The place where we assemble is not the home, the internet, or a church building. We assemble in the throne room of God through the communion of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 12:18-29; Rev. 4 & 5). When our souls sing and our spirits take us to the throne room of God, we join the chorus of angels around the throne singing “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Revelation 4:8). We come together in spirit to “Worship God” (Revelation 19:10; 22:9).

Our Time (part 12)

I am sharing some thoughts from God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994) by David Wells. According to Wells, this book deals with how “cultural factors influenced the evangelical church and what steps need “to be taken to reverse the situation” (ix).

The gospel of Our Time frequently is unthinking and superficial, frequently is believed and preached without urgency, and the reason is that it has yet to dawn on many in the church that God in his holiness is deeply and irrevocably set in opposition to the world because of its sin. It is time to recover the biblical emphasis on the fact that God is in his very essence holy (137).

God’s holiness carries with it the demand of exclusive loyalty to him (138).

God in holiness loves with the deep, exclusive passion of a lover who will tolerate no rivals. This is why worldliness in the New Testament—the infatuation with what is fallen and fading in culture—is characterized as unfaithfulness (139).

Throughout the ancient Near East, holiness was more commonly ascribed to people, articles, and places than to gods and goddesses. The Old Testament presentation of God’s holiness constituted a radical departure on this point, specifically reversing this arrangement. God alone is holy; whatever holiness is associated with persons, places, and articles derives not from what they are in themselves but only from the fact that they have been separated for use in the service of Yahweh (139).

This loftiness in Yahweh, this burning purity, goes hand in hand with tenderness—another marked contrast between him and the pagan gods and goddesses (139).

These two themes—the unblemished purity of God for which he is so exalted and the consequence of this, his tenderness and compassion, increasingly appear together and are joined in the covenant (140).

It is God’s holiness that reveals sin to be sin, says P. T. Forsyth, it is also God’s holiness “that necessitates the work of Christ, that calls for it, and that provides it (14).

God’s holiness and majesty belong together and interpret one another. There is also a profound moral aspect to this majesty. The reason that God is separate, high, and lifted up is his consuming, burning purity (140-141).

The New Testament encourages a bold confidence in our access to God through Christ’s holiness and by his work, but in our confidence we must never be careless of the purity of God or the requirements he has established for his people. The holiness of God begets and requires in those who approach him the echo of his holiness (141-142).

God in his holiness is deeply intrusive, cutting to the very heart of our inner life. His truth is “sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” He lays claim to the entirety of our inner life; all is open and “laid bare before the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:12, 13). Specifically, he demands that the external expressions of our inner life be fully in accord with the fact that we belong to him through Christ, consistent with his truth, and obedient to his moral law (143).

What do you think? This is the final installment of this series.

Our Time (part 11)

I am sharing some thoughts from God in the Wasteland (Eerdmans, 1994) by David Wells. According to Wells, this book deals with how “cultural factors influenced the evangelical church and what steps need “to be taken to reverse the situation” (ix).

Why does God’s holiness weigh so lightly upon us? I see three main reasons. First, it should be remembered that God in general, under the conditions of modernity, weighs lightly on everyone, that he has been so marginalized that his character and revealed will make few real intersections with the stuff of everyday life. Second, the learning of virtue is so painful and haphazard an affair, attended by such a wild profusion of good intentions, grievous falls, unrequited hopes, gnawing regrets, shame, and embarrassment that we are often of two minds about the matter (133-134). Third, Christians in Our Time sometimes act as though they were the first to recognize that God is a God of love (135).

Faced with an epidemic of lying, theft, abuse, rape, and general depravity, we are more inclined to attribute the problems to the criminal’s bad self-image than to bad character (134).

The people of Our Time are strongly inclined to trace all internal confusion, pain, disappointment, or lost advantage back to someone else’s door (135).

This spiral into pervasive victimhood, now epidemic on college campuses and in other strongholds of the politically correct, marks a corresponding erosion of personal responsibility, and suggests that genuine moral discourse about what is right and wrong, irrespective of private interests, is increasingly less possible. Contemporary culture has so diminished our moral capacity, so robbed us of a concern to act responsibly, that we tend to resent moral demands from without or simply to dismiss them out of hand. To the extent that the church’s garments have been soiled by this aspect of modernity, it will be that much less inclined to dwell on the holiness of God (135).

If God’s holiness is his utter purity, his incomparable goodness, the measure of all that is true and right, the final line of resistance to all that is wrong, dark, and malignant, then love must be a part of this. If love is virtuous and right, it must be an expression of divine holiness, the essence of which is truth and right. God’s love is inescapably a manifestation of his holiness, as are his goodness, righteousness, mercy, and compassion. Holiness is what defines God’s character most fundamentally, and a vision of this holiness should inspire his people and evoke their worship, sustain their character, fuel their passion for truth, and encourage persistence in efforts to do his will and call on his name in petitionary prayer (136).

He is rarely perceived as the God of the outside who, in his awesome greatness, summons his people to worship, to hear that Word of truth that they cannot find within themselves or their world, to become agents of righteousness in a world that scorns this righteousness as alien and contrary. Robbed of such a God, worship loses its awe, the truth of his Word loses its ability to compel, obedience loses its virtue, and the church loses its moral authority (136).

God’s love seems less burdensome than his holiness. The church has succumbed to the seductions of our therapeutic culture, and in that context it seems quite natural to favor the relational dimension over the moral dimension, mysticism over cognitive conviction, self-fulfillment over personal surrender, self-image over character, pluralistic religious equality over the uniqueness of the Christian faith (136).

What do you think? More to come.