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THE CHRISTIAN'S DUTY IN A HOSTILE WORLD
As today's world makes the transition to living in the twenty-first century, many people still have as one of their mottos, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Although there is an element of truth in that adage, we need to understand that many things are changing much faster than we may have realized and that man's sinfulness is more acute than ever (2 Tim. 3:13). The spiralling downward described in Romans 1:18-32 has occurred in our culture and we have reached the lowest level — "the reprobate mind." The Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), however, remains unchanged, as does the truth of our Lord's words, "The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest" (9:37-38).
But the church's focus on Christ's commands to evangelize has become more and more blurry, and many professing believers have not been faithful in witnessing to a hostile world. Instead, many believers' attitudes have increasingly reflected those of some of the churches in Asia Minor, including the one in Ephesus, to whom Christ said, "But I have this against you, that you have left your first love" (Rev. 2:4). He also severely admonished the church in Laodicea, "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth" (3:15-16). As a fast-changing society becomes more hostile and more sinful, and as the church becomes weaker and more like the world rather than distinct from the world, we could well adopt this revised slogan: "The more things in the world change, the more intently and urgently we need to proclaim the unchanging truths of the Gospel to the unsaved."
THE CHURCH'S GREAT NEED
What then does the church, and all who profess membership in it, need in order to be faithful to the God-given mandate of evangelism? The answer is, a spiritual revival and renewal in which individual believers, enabled, freshly motivated, and reenergized by the Holy Spirit, focus their attention on the glory and majesty of God, and out of love for and delight in Him eagerly fulfill their spiritual duties and conscientiously follow the divine blueprint for the church. This means reversing the trends that have made the evangelical church a popularized institution that continues to eliminate every offense from its message. It means not ministering on the basis of pragmatism, psychology, or simply what feels right but rather according to biblical principles. It means opposing the trend toward a "seeker sensitive" ministry that employs all the most useful secular marketing strategies in attempting to reach the "felt needs" of today's culture, and, thereby, affirms the culture.
The contemporary church has grown content with a user-friendly, problem-solving approach that allows people to remain in their comfort zones without seriously being challenged to live righteously. Such an environment encourages "easy believism" (the view that says becoming a Christian is "easy" — simply give mental assent to who Jesus was and what He did for you, and don't necessarily be concerned about repentance from sin or obedience to Christ). Therefore many men and women who identify themselves as evangelical Christians are not really believers at all. They know little or nothing of God-honoring worship, holy aspirations, biblical obedience, or careful expository preaching, and have little expectancy for the Christian's future hope, which is the return of Jesus Christ. Absent is the Christ-centered faith and God-centered life that enable us to endure the difficulties and opposition of a hostile world and proclaim the Gospel effectively to it.
THE BELIEVER'S INCENTIVE
One of the ways the church can recapture a zeal for evangelism is by a serious focus on the reality of Christ's return — one that fosters an expectancy that at any moment of any day we could "be caught up ... in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord" (1 Thess. 4:17). Prominent church leaders throughout history have had a profound sense of awe and expectancy when contemplating Jesus' second coming. Here is what John Newton (author of "Amazing Grace") wrote in the first two verses of a 1774 hymn:
Day of judgment! day of wonders!
The apostle Peter, in his first letter to believers in Asia Minor who were struggling to live for Christ in the midst of much persecution, reminds them and us that the end of the age and the glorious return of Christ are imminent. Peter then uses the incentive of that twofold truth to exhort believers to live faithfully, no matter how difficult the circumstances: "The end of all things is at hand; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer. Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins" (4:7-8).
The End Times Are Already Here
For members of the early church, such as Peter's audience, who were scattered around the Mediterranean world in the first century, the realization was emerging that, since the arrival of Messiah, they had already entered the last days. In addition to Peter's assertion, other Spirit-inspired New Testament letters make that fact clear. The apostle Paul stated such when he warned Timothy with a detailed description of the apostates who were then beginning to threaten the church: "But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; and avoid such men as these" (2 Tim. 3:1-5; cf. 1 Tim. 4:1). The apostle John told his readers, "Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have arisen; from this we know that it is the last hour" (1 John 2:18).
The more astute Jewish Christians in the early church also would have known that technically the last days began with Christ's first coming because His coming marked the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant and the ratification of the New Covenant, the key to God's plan of redemption. The Lord's death, which ratified the New Covenant, necessarily signified the end of the Jewish sacrificial system. The Old Testament system of priests, rituals, sacrifices, and offerings was swept away when the Lord Jesus offered the full and final sacrifice for sin and all believers became priests with access to God. This privilege was symbolized when the temple veil between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies was miraculously torn in two from top to bottom (Matt. 27:51; Heb. 10:14-22; cf. Matt. 24:2; Heb. 9:26-28).
The Imminence of the Second Coming
When Peter wrote of "the end" (Greek, telos) being near (1 Pet. 4:7), he was not just referring to a cessation or to chronological termination. The word actually means consummation, an objective that is fulfilled or attained. In this context the apostle is alluding to the return of Jesus Christ when "all things" will be consummated. Earlier in the epistle, the apostle refers to this great event when he assures Christians they are protected by God's power "for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (1:5), "at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (v. 7).
Peter identifies the climax of history as being "at hand" (1 Pet. 4:7). The Greek verb tense denotes a process consummated, with a resulting nearness. In this case it means Christ's return is imminent, which implies that believers should live and minister with expectancy because the Lord's Second Coming could occur at any moment. Such an attitude is a sign of faithfulness, as various New Testament passages underscore.
An eagerness for Christ's return was part of the good report Paul received about the church in Thessalonica: "For they themselves report about us what kind of a reception we had with you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, that is Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come" (1 Thess. 1:9-10).
James encouraged believers to persevere in light of the certainty that Christ could return sooner than they realized: "Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand" (Jas. 5:7-8). The expression "is at hand" reminds us again that Jesus' coming for the church is to be anticipated by all believers in every age. That reality ought to be the focus of our hearts and minds as we serve Him daily. Just because He did not return during James' time does not invalidate the apostle's exhortation to the early Christians or to us.
God in His sovereign wisdom has chosen not to reveal to us the time of the Second Coming. During His incarnation, even Jesus did not know the time set for His return: "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone" (Matt. 24:36). He reminded the disciples just prior to His ascension that it was not God's will for them to know when He will come back to establish His kingdom: "It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority" (Acts 1:7).
It is best we don't know the precise time of Jesus' return; otherwise our motivation might be compromised. We could either become complacent, knowing it might be centuries before His return, or panicky, knowing He's coming back tomorrow. But living with a scriptural sense of imminence eliminates both extremes and allows us to live and minister with an attitude of expectancy.
How Should Christ's Imminent Return Affect Our Living?
The truth of our Lord's imminent coming should motivate us to be godly, watchful pursuers of righteousness. Such a desire to please Him is the mark of every genuine believer. One important incentive to obey Him is the realization that someday we will stand before His judgment seat and give an account for what we've done: "Therefore also we have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:9-10). Our sins won't be judged at that time — that judgment already occurred at the cross. However, Christ will assess the effectiveness, dedication, devotion, and usefulness of our service (including evangelism) for Him. Therefore, we should want to meet the Lord with joyful assurance (1 John 2:28), knowing that a divine reward awaits those who look forward to His second coming (2 Tim. 4:8; cf. Phil. 3:14; 1 John 3:2-3).
A second incentive is that our Lord Himself warned His followers to be ready. You don't know the moment of His appearance, and therefore it is prudent for you to "be on the alert, for you do not know which day your Lord is coming. But be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what time of the night the thief was coming, he would have been on the alert and would not have allowed his house to be broken into. For this reason you must be ready too; for the Son of Man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will" (Matt. 24:42-44).
But Jesus did balance that sober warning with the promise that He will serve those disciples who have been watchful and ready for His return: "Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them" (Luke 12:37). And that ought to be incentive enough for us to live righteously and tell others about Him.
PRIMARY DIMENSIONS TO CHRISTIAN LIVING
As vital as it is, the expectant hope that Jesus Christ will soon return cannot be our only motivation for testifying of our faith. We also need to exercise the day-to-day spiritual disciplines that build strength, courage, boldness, and spiritual maturity — that which makes the Gospel believable. Prayer and the intake of Scripture by reading, studying, meditating, and memorizing enable us to obey the revealed principles in God's Word. Only then will we demonstrate the power of Christ in our lives and be prepared to apply the truth in any situation when we have opportunities to witness.
With a view toward effective witness, the apostle Peter wanted believers to understand some specific dimensions of Christian character, those that help us achieve daily excellence in our spiritual disciplines. That's why he said, "Be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer" (1 Pet. 4:7).
"Be of sound judgment" is translated from two Greek words that mean "to keep safe" and "the mind." Believers must guard their minds and keep them clear and fixed on spiritual priorities. That's why Paul said, "Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth" (Col. 3:2).
Because we act according to the way we think (Prov. 23:7), it's crucial to guard our minds and focus them on God and what pleases Him. Otherwise, we easily lose our way and succumb to the various self-indulgent, deceptive, and demonic influences of the world.
Several well-known New Testament verses tell us, in effect, how we can avoid such a pitfall, protect our minds, and please the Lord (Phil. 4:8; Col. 3:16; Titus 2:11-12).
Making our minds captive to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5) and His Word (Josh. 1:8) keeps them safe and allows us to see things from God's perspective. That's how the Spirit gives us sanctified discernment and protects us from accepting doctrinal fads and errors or being foolishly indifferent toward the truth.
But Peter stresses that we need more than sound judgment — we also need to be of "sober spirit." That means we must be alert and take spiritual matters seriously. Jesus used the same term elsewhere to urge His followers to "be on the alert" (Matt. 24:42) and "keep watching" (26:41).
The combination of godly thinking and spiritual alertness is essential in any believer's life "for the purpose of prayer" (1 Pet. 4:7). We can't have a full and effective prayer life if our thinking is cluttered, confused, self-centered, or preoccupied with temporal pursuits instead of God's truth and His purposes. We will have a deep and satisfying communion with God only when we think biblically.
Continual communion with God that is informed by godly attitudes, which have been shaped by godly thinking, is therefore the foundation of a Christian's useful ministry. When you are diligent to absorb God's Word daily by reading, studying, and meditating, godly responses to all the challenges in your life will become second nature. When the three dimensions of sound judgment, spiritual alertness, and prayerful communion are present and working together in your life, you'll have an overwhelming sense of God's presence and will manifest spiritual power that will influence others for Christ and give integrity to your witness.
THE IMPACT OF REAL LOVE
A right relationship with God, as we have just described it, should result in a sincere love for other people. The apostle Peter makes that conclusion when he writes, "Above all, keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins" (1 Pet. 4:8). Here "love" mainly refers to believers' relationships with one another, but it also has an important bearing on evangelism. Jesus taught His disciples, "By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35). Love is the substance of the Christian's witness to the world.
Paul issued similar commands: "Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity" (Col. 3:14); "make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose" (Phil. 2:2).
The love Peter describes is called "fervent" and denotes the same kind of maximum effort a runner exerts in stretching and straining to win a race. Such intense love is sacrificial, not sentimental. It means believers must be prepared to love those whom it's difficult to love, even when it might sometimes be costly and seem irrational. It requires stretching all our spiritual muscles, even when those we reach out to respond with insult, injury, and misunderstanding.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Nothing but the Truth"
Copyright © 1999 John F. MacArthur.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part I: The Attitude for Evangelism,
1 The Christian's Duty in a Hostile World, 15,
2 Our Testimony as Salt and Light, 25,
3 Praying for the Lost, 35,
Part II: What We Proclaim and Defend,
4 Who Is God?, 49,
5 The Reliability of Scripture, 63,
6 Amazing Prophecies, 77,
7 The Reality of Sin, 89,
8 The Virgin Birth and Deity of Jesus Christ, 101,
9 The Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, 115,
Part III: Taking It to the Streets,
10 The Great Commission, 133,
11 How to Witness, 147,
Appendix: "Who Do You Say That I Am?", 165,
Study Guide, 171,
Scripture Index, 193,
General Index, 201,