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how God's word brings light, freedom, and action to His people
By Jonathan Leeman, Jim Vincent
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2011 Jonathan Leeman
All rights reserved.
the word invites and divides
Richard Elelu had no interest in actually reading the Bible. He was a Muslim, after all, and he lived in one of the strongest Muslim enclaves in Nigeria. Still, he did figure out one way to put the Bible given to him by a Christian to good use: its crackly thin pages were perfect for rolling joints and cigarettes.
"Papers for rolling our own cigarettes were expensive," Richard said. "So we would tear out pages from the Bibles and use them for our rolling papers."
On one occasion in 1978, Richard tore a page from the Bible for rolling a joint, but ended up stuffing it into his pocket. That night, bored and unable to sleep, he pulled the page of the Bible from his pocket and read these words from Psalm 34:8: "O, taste and see that the Lord is good; how happy is the man who takes refuge in Him" (NASB). For the next three weeks he could not get the verse out of his head. He returned to the Christian who had shared the gospel with him. One night, alone in his room, Richard prayed, "Lord God, I want to taste You like this verse says," and that same evening accepted Christ as Savior and Lord.
Richard's Muslim family and community did not respond very well. At first they expressed concern. Then they displayed anger. And then he received death threats. Richard was the first convert in the community, and so it felt like a grave threat to everyone. Local mosque leaders denounced him on the mosque's outdoor loudspeakers. His own father told him that he would rather see him dead. He had to spend every night at a different missionary's house because of the danger.
Richard left for another community in Nigeria to attend Bible school. Once that was completed, he returned to his home community to pastor a church of factory and government workers who had migrated there. The death threats then resumed at a rapid clip, as well as acts of vandalism against his church building. The police looked the other way. Richard eventually moved to the United States to protect his wife and children and to gain more Bible training. I didn't know him at the time, but Richard and I were seminary classmates.
It all started with a Bible verse on a wadded up piece of paper dug out of a pocket.
History's Great Dividing Line
There are a number of biblical ways to describe the change that occurred in Richard's life. We could say he moved
from non-Christian to Christian,
from unbelief to belief,
from being a lover of the world to a lover of God, or
from belonging to the kingdom of Satan to the kingdom of God.
But here's one more way to describe this change, and it's a change as dramatic as any of these others: Richard moved from being someone who rejected God's Word to someone who listened to it.
In a true Christian, all these changes work together. The person who truly loves God also trusts God, submits to God's kingdom rule, and listens to His Word.
That's not to say these different things must go together. Someone can believe that God exists, like the demons do, and yet not love God (James 2:19). And someone can listen to God's Word, or at least appear to, like the Pharisees who "search the Scriptures," and yet not really submit to God (John 5:39).
In spite of all that, it remains the case that a Christian, by definition, is someone who listens to God's Word because he or she loves God. And a non-Christian is someone who, regardless of appearances, does not truly listen to God's Word because that person does not love God.
This is the dividing line that runs through all history and humanity: God's people listen to God's Word; no one else does. Every human belongs to one category or the other. There is no third category. Trace the storyline of the whole Bible and you'll see that this is one of its main lessons. They are:
God sets the stage, but man rebels (Genesis 1–3): God created Adam to image God's own rule over creation. This meant submitting to God's words, represented by just one command. Adam and Eve didn't listen, and God condemned both for listening to someone else's voice (Gen. 1:26–28; 2:16–17; 3:17).
God promises salvation (Genesis 4–50): God still intended to use a people for His creation purposes—bringing His blessing and rule to the earth. God soon called Abraham, and Abraham believed God and followed. God's people in Genesis are those who believe God's Word and are willing to live or die by it, even if they have nothing else (Gen. 12:1–3; 15:6; Rom. 4:5; Heb. 11:4–22; James 2:23).
God calls His people to obedience (Exodus to Deuteronomy): God said He would use Abraham's children as "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" in order to present a picture of God's character and loving rule to all the nations, but only if they "obey my voice and keep my covenant." God reveals both His love and law through words, which He asked Israel to keep: "And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them ... and shall talk of them.... You shall bind them ... and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them ..." The Pentateuch's primary lesson seems to be, "Hear, O Israel" (Deut. 4:5–8; 6:4, 6–9; cf. Ex. 19:5–6; Deut. 28:1–2, 15).
God describes the blessed and wise life (the OT Wisdom Literature): Two kinds of people are presented at the start of the Psalms: the blessed man who delights in God's law and becomes as fruitful as Eden, and the wicked man who rejects God's law and is blown away like chaff. The Psalms as a whole then picture how the ideal man turns to God and His Word through all of life's circumstances. Proverbs, too, presents two types of people: the wise son who fears the Lord and obeys his father's words, and the fool who rejects them (Psalm 1).
God declares the ugly, disobedient reality of human nature (the OT Histories): The picture of an ideal God-listening, God-imaging people was shattered like a mirror into countless pieces by the actual history of Israel. God rejected them because "they would not listen ... rejected his decrees and the covenant ... followed worthless idols ... imitated the nations around them ... did the things the Lord had forbidden them to do ... [and] forsook all the commandments." Keep in mind, this ancient nation is a picture of all of us—a parable of humanity (2 Kings 17:14–16NIV; Rom. 8:7).
God promises to create a God-listening, God-imaging people by His Spirit (the OT Prophets): In addition to reporting bad news, the prophets offered good news: God would cleanse His people of sin, and enable them to keep His words: "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses ... I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules" (Ezek. 36:25, 27; cf. Deut. 30:6–8; Jer. 31:31–34).
The Word—Christ incarnate—comes, obeys, and makes commands (the Gospels): God's Word became flesh, obeyed the Father completely, and called a new people to abide in God's love by keeping His words. Jesus Himself lived on "every word that comes from the mouth of God," and then concluded His earthly ministry by telling His disciples to make more disciples, "teaching them to observe all I have commanded you" (Matt. 4:4; 28:20; cf. John 1:14; 5:19; 15:10).
God's new covenant people gather to hear God's Word (Acts): God's new covenant people, who receive the promised Holy Spirit, gather primarily to hear words from God and then to speak words back to Him in prayer: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." This is what church leaders should devote themselves to entirely: "But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word" (Acts 2:42; 6:4).
God's new covenant people gather to dwell in God's Word (the Epistles): "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Col. 3:16). The epistles, which look back on Christ's life and interpret it, help God's people to dwell in the Word of Christ and grow in God's love: "If anyone obeys his word, God's love is truly made complete in him" (1 John 2:5 NIV).
God's new covenant people will persevere in God's Word to the end (Revelation): Jesus equates keeping His Word and proclaiming His name. He said to one church, "I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name" (Rev. 3:8 NIV).
One of the main lessons of the Bible is that there are two ways to live: We can listen to God's Word or we can reject it. A man cannot serve two masters, said Jesus. Therefore, when He proclaimed His kingdom, He called all people to repent and believe. He was drawing a line in the sand: His rule or ours. God's Word or our own. It's one or the other. There is no in between. And Jesus will identify Himself with those who listen to God's Word, even more than with his family and nation: "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it" (Luke 8:21).
Now, God's people are not justified by their ability to keep God's Word, nor will they keep it perfectly. But God's Spirit changes their basic heart posture toward God's Word, so they fight to listen and obey, even if imperfectly. Their hearts become like the lover's, who eagerly anticipates a note from his beloved. Or the soldier's, who is surrounded by enemy fire and straining his ears for words of coming help. God's people want to hear from God, even if indwelling sin continues to fight against this new desire. Let me sum up all of this in four points:
God created Adam, you, and me to image Himself.
To image God, we must listen to God.
God's people, by definition, are those who listen. That's exactly what Jesus says: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." Those who are not his sheep don't listen: "I told you, and you do not believe.... You do not believe because you are not part of my flock" (John 10:27, 25–26).
God's Word, therefore, divides. It divides the Christian from the non-Christian. It divides the Christian in half, separating the "old man" and the "new man."
As the author of the Hebrews puts it, "For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Heb. 4:12).
The Temptation to Soften
If the Word of God divides, it's not hard to guess which temptations will lurk before Christians. First, we will be tempted to unite people around something other than God's divisive Word, like music, or style, or acts of service. We'll consider this in chapter 3. Second, we'll be tempted to water down God's Word. To soften it. Bringing up the Bible can be like walking into a room waving a sword. People are going to fight or flee! So keep it in the scabbard, right?
Of course not. When we do, we invite people to something Jesus is not inviting them to, like inviting friends to a basketball game when Jesus means to invite them to a wedding. Jesus has specifically invited people to a wedding, knowing that many will refuse to put on wedding garments (see Matt. 22:11–13). Believe it or not, Jesus means to divide people through His call to repentance (Matt. 10:34f). When we soften the invitation, leaving out the tough bits, we oppose His very purposes.
Furthermore, Jesus' words work. They accomplish their purposes. His sheep listen, as we just saw (John 10:16, 27). Those who don't belong to His flock don't listen (v. 26). When we as Jesus followers call out with His voice, people will accept us or reject us depending on whether or not they are His. This is how the apostle John puts it in one of his letters: "Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us" (1 John 4:6).
What does this mean in practical terms? It means the life of the church must begin with something very simple and basic: an invitation.
Richard had to be invited. For him the invitation started with a torn and wrinkled piece of paper with words written by a man three thousand years ago. "Taste and see the Lord is good."
For my fellow elder Matt, the invitation came from an open-air preacher on his college campus. Many Christians today may cringe at the idea of a street-side, soapbox preacher, and for two years of college Matt mocked him as well. Then, in a third year, Matt listened, repented, and believed. Today, the Word reverberates through Matt as an elder as well as director of a Christian ministry to other churches.
For my fellow church member Israel, the invitation came from a stranger on the street when he was stationed with the army in South Korea. A guy walked up to him and started talking about Jesus. That's not a popular evangelistic strategy these days either. But Israel eventually attended this man's church, repented, and believed. Today the Word reverberates through Israel as he performs Christian hip-hop. He's produced several albums.
For my friend Claudia, who works as a magazine editor in Washington, D.C., the invitation came from a middle-aged Southern Baptist pastor named Mark who wears suits and ties on Sunday, hardly the hip picture you would find on the cover ofRelevant magazine. Mark led Claudia through a series of Bible studies in the Gospel of Mark, and she repented and believed. Today you can see evidence for the reverberations of God's Word through Claudia in Bill. Bill thought he was a Christian because he had been raised in church. But shortly after her conversion Claudia told him what some say you should never say: "You're not a Christian." She invited him to repent and believe, which he did. Today Bill and Claudia are married and both are members of our church.
How do you build a church from scratch? Through the evangelist. The evangelist might be a page of the Bible, a zealous Christian on the street, or a tie-wearing pastor. But someone must share the evangel, the good news of Jesus Christ. Someone must speak words. And these words must do four things:
explain how good and holy God is;
explain the predicament of our corruption and guilt and God's just wrath;
tell about the king who came to reintroduce His life-giving rule in the lives of a new people by living and dying for their sake, bearing the penalty for their sin, and then conquering death through His resurrection; and
invite them to confess that Jesus is this Lord and King, to trust entirely in His finished work on the cross, and to follow Him.
The beginning of John Bunyan's great book The Pilgrim's Progress gets it just right. The main character named Christian happens upon a book that warns him of his impending death and judgment, which reduces him to tears and panic. His family scoffs at him, unable to understand his consternation. Then the character Evangelist appears and tells him, "Fly from the wrath to come." A little later he tells him, "The just shall live by faith." And he reminds him of the Lord's words, "Strive to enter in at the straight gate."
This is where the life of the church begins—with the evangelist. The evangelist proclaims the good news and invites people to receive it.
How Beautiful the Feet!
I admit it; evangelism is hard. Not too long ago, I was on a game preserve in Africa, sitting in the front seat of a Land Rover next to the driver for several hours. In between the driver's explanation of the differences between rhino and giraffe digestive processes, I was asking myself how I could possibly turn the conversation to the gospel. At one point I started to, but he interrupted, "There's a chameleon!" He slammed on the brakes. We piled out of the car and looked at the lizard. We piled back in. And I began wondering once more how I could get back to the topic. Bottom line: I didn't. Why not? There are probably a number of reasons: fear of man, wrong priorities, underestimating how important it is.
Another reason I didn't share the gospel is because I forgot what the Bible says about evangelists. It says they have beautiful feet! Listen to this: "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, 'Your God reigns!'" (Isa. 52:7 NIV).
You can almost imagine standing on the streets of a city living under the threat of war, looking up at nearby mountains, and seeing a lone runner descending toward the city shouting, "Peace! Salvation!" How beautiful are those feet! The word for "beautiful" is the same word used in the Song of Solomon to describe the beauty of the beloved, her cheeks, her face, her mouth. These things are good to behold.
Paul presents the same emphasis on the messenger in Romans 10 when he quotes this verse from Isaiah. He writes, "How are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'" (vv. 14–15). Paul knows that "faith comes from hearing" (v. 17).
Excerpted from reverberation by Jonathan Leeman, Jim Vincent. Copyright © 2011 Jonathan Leeman. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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