“Much Tribulation”

21 And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch,

22 Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. Acts 14:21-22

What would you rather have preached in your church?

Today, the church has a wide range of choices when it comes to what people want to hear. But this wide range of choices is a dangerous thing for all these things cater to the flesh. The Apostle Paul warned his young protégé Timothy:

“3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; 4 And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.”

To which he added an admonition:

“5 But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.”

Notice that “endure afflictions” is firmly tucked in there. We may have a choice today, but the early church did not have the luxury of hearing what they wanted to hear. No doubt they, just as much as we, would have liked to hear a “soft” gospel, one which promised them a comfortable and trouble-free life here on earth and eternal life in the hereafter. But God would not allow that, for in surrendering to the flesh there is no life.

The apostles were men sent of God. They had in their hearts a revelation of Christ, Christ crucified. They therefore had only one message to deliver:

that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.”

I wonder how you can reconcile this Biblical message with the man-made messages of financial and material prosperity, promotion and whatnot. In today’s gospel setting, it seems you are not allowed to upset people. It is more important to talk about the “abundant life”, whatever that is, than the suffering that we are to endure for the gospel’s sake.

But if we live, we live for Christ, and if we die, we die for Him also. This is borne out by the example of the Apostle Paul himself who, when addressing Timothy, writes:

“16 At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me… 17 Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me; that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion.” (2 Timothy 4:16-17)

It would have been wonderful to read that God delivered Paul from harm in order that Paul could continue living his own life. But this account states otherwise. It says here that God preserved Paul in order that he might continue preaching the gospel. God preserves us for a purpose – His purpose. There is no place in scripture to believe that God preserves us in order that we might continue doing our own thing here on earth. God preserves us in order that we might preach and live the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is for this reason that God brings the cross into our lives. The cross is God’s plan for mankind. The cross involves all the things listed in 2 Corinthians 12:10:

“Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.”

In this gospel, people will stamp on you and you will tried and tempted in many different ways. And God expects us to take all that patiently.

The Bible makes clear that you can enter into the Kingdom of heaven minus many of the things that we think are important in our lives – financial success, promotion at work, healing; Jesus even said you can enter with one eye and one hand (Mat. 5:29,30) – but you cannot enter the Kingdom of God without living out the cross in your life. The Bible says that we must through much tribulation enter into God’s heavenly Kingdom. That means suffering and bearing with a lot of negative things in our lives as believers.

That being the case, how about we begin thanking God for the problems instead of wishing them away. We might have been taught otherwise in the mega-churches; but we just might find we are on the right track here. Actually, the Bible says we are.

“Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.”

To exhort means to encourage. You encourage someone when they are undergoing challenges and hardship. The Christian life is a challenge. Living the Christian life is actually the greatest challenge there is in life. The reason for this is because this challenge is not necessarily about physical or material deprivation. Rather, it goes deep into the nether parts of our souls and challenges us there. Here, the deepest things of our hearts are challenged. Here, our pride is challenged. If you are white, your whiteness will be challenged. If you are an African, your Africanness will be challenged. If you have a greed for material wealth like the rich young man we read of the other day that will be challenged also.

These and other carnal traits are the things that make up the un-Christlike character in us, and God wants them out of our lives. God sends us His servants to exhort us to bear with hardships for the gospel’s sake. They encourage us to die to self and to our lusts. After we are truly and fully dead, the grace of God – which is the life of Christ – will increase in us, and we will be able to please God in every area of our lives.

[What would you rather have preached in church?]

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“Troubled On Every Side!”

8 We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;

9 Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;

10 Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. 2 Cor. 4:8-10

One time, not too long ago, I was in a jam – financially, spiritually and virtually in every area of my life. Spiritually, I was hanging by a thread, literally. I couldn’t pray and I couldn’t read my Bible. I would spend all of my devotion time looking into space. The worst time was when it came to ministering in church. I preached while looking at the clock, willing the time to pass quickly. I reckoned that if I made a lot of ‘spiritual’ noise within the allotted time, no one would notice that there was not a shred of the Spirit in my sermon. (Surprisingly, the services were always extremely lively!)

As my condition worsened, I soon found myself blaming myself for each one of the problems I was facing. As far as I knew I hadn’t done any express sin that warranted this downward spiral in my life. But I couldn’t put my finger on the reason nothing seemed to be working in my life and I could not find anyone else to blame. I was also ‘smart’ enough not to blame the devil.

It was then that the Lord, out of mercy for me, came to my rescue; and He did so in the most unexpected manner.

Early one morning, at exactly 6 o’clock, a brother 600 miles away called me as I lay in bed. For the last three hours, I had been lying on my back worrying about all the problems I was going through. At the exact moment that the brother called me, I was just beginning to doze off in fatigue. I was therefore none too happy as I made a belabored effort to answer his call.

The brother had never called me that early in the morning, so I thought he had something important to tell me. But, as it turned out, he had absolutely nothing of any importance to tell me. After the initial greetings, he told me that he was rushing off to his job. He works as a casual construction laborer. Work was hard to find lately, he intimated to me, and life had become extremely hard.

“But”, he concluded brightly, “we are troubled on every side, yet not distressed!” Then he hung up.

It took me a split second to realize that the brother’s last words were direct scripture. I shot out of bed like a bullet. The good news was that my wife was not at home at that time, she had gone visiting. Otherwise, I would have had some explaining to do.

I hit all the lights in the house as I began making a frantic search for my Bible, which since the last Sunday service I had thrown into no-man’s land. When I finally located it, I almost tore out the pages as I feverishly scrambled to find the scripture. I knew it was exactly as I had heard it on the phone, but I just had to make double sure!

When I finally found it, I sighed with relief – and unbounded joy! The scripture lay there before me, exactly as the brother had spoken it. I trembled as I read the words.

“We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed” (2 Cor. 4:8).

Even as I read the words, I knew the Lord was speaking to me. I read the phrase over and over again:

“… troubled on every side”.

“… on every side”.

The joy that Lazarus felt after resurrecting from the dead wouldn’t have lighted a candle to the exhilaration I felt as those words rolled about in my heart. I can assure you, beloved reader, that on that particular morning, the biggest cloud ever lifted from my shoulders. I felt indescribably free and relieved! I realized that the devil – whom I had been desperately trying to shield from blame – was he who had actually been telling me that it was my fault that I was undergoing all these negative situations in my life. But the Lord came to my rescue by showing me through His Word that what I was going through was the perfectly normal Christian life! Trouble on every side! I couldn’t’ believe it!

Much of the time, it is like we want to have a ‘hedge fund’ in our spiritual lives. It is like we want to have the rights to lots and lots of breathing space. Somehow, it has been psyched into our minds that the Christian life is a trouble-free life and that, at the very worst, God allows us to encounter a few teeny weeny problems which we can easily brush aside while sucking on our chocolate bars.

But the Bible doesn’t say that. On the contrary, it says that we shall be “troubled on every side”!

I can assure you that if the Bible says trouble, it is talking of more real trouble than all the terror groups in the world can think of. It is talking of everything that the flesh, the world and the devil and all his hordes can throw at you. And, the Bible adds, we shall encounter this trouble on “every side” of our lives.

That is so Biblical. Jesus Himself said,

“In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (Jn. 16:33)

As children of God, tribulation is our portion in the world. The Bible concludes,

“Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind…” (1 Pet. 4:1)

Building Spiritual Character – Part 2

Now today, in church, because people are not taught the proper gospel, because they are not taught to deny themselves and to take up their cross and follow Jesus, they are not being built up in character and they are unable to take up the responsibilities and challenges that come with marriage. Grown-ups act like spoilt kids. People easily tire of each other. But, even worse, they go a step further and “take the law into their own hands”, as it were, and divorce. They feel free to just walk away from marriage because they cannot stomach the bad things their partner is doing to them.

This clearly reveals the fact that God’s people are lacking seriously in the grace of God. To a large extent, Christ’s sacrifice is being proven powerless in Christians’ lives. They forget that there are many factors that are involved in marriage: that probably God is teaching them patience, He is “raising them up”. And because God needs you to grow up spiritually, He will use any ‘instrument’ He wishes to ‘straighten’ you. In most cases God’s chief instrument of correction is someone’s own spouse.

It may be also that God is giving you the rare opportunity to give your life like Jesus did in order that a very rude, un-Godly person (your spouse) may receive salvation in their lives.

Many factors are involved; but the bottom line is that there is a big price to pay with marriage. That is why when one is carrying their cross and following Jesus, the thought of divorce is, to use an understatement, unthinkable.

It is appalling to behold the unbridled freedom that God’s people today give to their flesh in many other areas of their lives. Many Christians live as if now, since we are under grace and not under law, there are no rules to follow.

The problem, of course, is the kind of teaching that people are being taught in our generation: a cheap gospel that lumps together the spirit and the flesh and leaves people to literally  find their own footing on a very shaky spiritual foundation!

The Bible says in Galatians 5:13 that we “have been called unto liberty”; but right there it also says, “only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh…”

Elsewhere, the Apostle Paul says that he became “… to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ)” 1 Cor. 9:21. Notice that Paul says he was under the law of Christ. It follows naturally that if there is a law of Christ, there is also a law of the flesh. When we allow ourselves and feel free to live certain lifestyles where it is clear we are pleasing the flesh and not God, we should ask ourselves under which law we are.

The Apostle Paul had a law, a law that had no place for a worldly lifestyle. He loved the Lord with all his heart, his soul and his strength.

The Apostle John put it this way: “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.” 1 Jn. 2:15

Loving the world consists of many things, but it is dependent on the condition of our hearts. And what John is talking here is not law. That is simply loving the Lord. That is true grace.

Many Christians today feel free to do nearly everything they want to do especially when it comes to answering to the desires of the flesh. And, because of a lack of revelation of the Word of God in their hearts, they use those same scriptures to justify whatever they are doing! It is like some Roman Catholic friends of mine who challenge me to show them where it is specifically written: “Thou shall not drink beer”. They have many scriptures, both from the Old Testament and the New, which ‘prove’ that God allows Christians to drink beer!

Once you begin listening to the flesh, you cannot draw the line between right and wrong.

Tribulation – trials and testing – brings character and maturity into our lives. Nothing else will bring these valuable standards into a Christian’s life apart from that hard and difficult narrow road which Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount. This is a road where you will be tested and tried in every way. You will be despised, rejected, reviled, hated, beaten; a road where you will know hunger, and where you will lack many things in this life. Not that going through these hardships in itself is Christianity; but as you go through all this and you know your position with God, you will know these things are preparing you for the glory ahead.

The Bible says no weak thing shall enter into that Kingdom, only the strong. Here God is not talking about the toughies of this world (because people are always mis-interpreting scripture). He is talking about a different kind of toughie – one who has allowed their flesh to be dealt with by the cross of Jesus and who are living a life not their own, but another’s, Christ’s.

Building Spiritual Character – Part 1

Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God. And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us. Rom 5:1-5

The word ‘experience’ here could be substituted with the word ‘character’. In other words, we could say, “Patience builds character”, and still do justice to the above scripture. That word, ‘character’ is what I want to talk about today.

The path of a righteous man has never been easy, and it will never be. It is a costly one; and yet, it is this very costliness that gives God’s call on a man’s life its value: it makes the person to appreciate and respect God’s call upon their lives.

If you look at the lives of Saul and David in the Book of 1 Samuel, who both were kings of Israel, you notice a big difference in their characters. Saul was not a disciplined man. He lacked patience. He would, for example, not wait for the prophet Samuel to come and sacrifice as per God’s word but, unable to bear seeing his men leaving him, he went on and did the sacrifice himself.

Lacking in that inner discipline that comes from patience, Saul was also a severely temperamental man. He took badly to David’s victory against Goliath, and he allowed himself to develop a deep hatred towards David. He went on to hunt him down like an animal.

Time and time again Saul failed to obey God. He failed to respect God.

But, you know, we cannot blame Saul too much for this lack of a spiritual character in his person. Why? Because he was handed the kingdom without being prepared. He had not paid any price to receive it. He was handed it, as they say, on a silver platter. He did not know its worth or value. As a result, he failed to guard the position he was so graciously granted. In the end, God had no option but to take the Kingdom from his hands. The prophet Samuel told Saul, “The LORD hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day, and hath given it to a neighbour of thine, that is better than thou.”1 Sam. 15:28

Notice the word ‘better’ there. You do not become ‘better’ because you have dimples on your cheeks.

When we look at David we see someone who, long before he became king, had to go through a very difficult period. In the first place, David knew and loved God. Secondly, he was humble enough to allow God to mold and shape him. Thus by the time he became king, David was ready to take his position and rule his people justly and in righteousness.

With the exception of the issue with Uriah’s wife, David was a capable and effective king who knew and taught God’s people the ways of the Lord. In many ways, David proved himself ‘better’ than Saul. He had been tested and tried.

In today’s Christian world, the virtue of character is lacking to a very great degree. There are many areas where this virtue is lacking. One area where this is clear is the area of marriage and divorce.

Even without salvation, our parents and grandparents never contemplated divorce. Poor folks, seems they were not civilized enough! Today’s generation, on the other hand, is a ‘liberated’ generation. In some countries I hear there is such ‘liberation’ that in some circles the word ‘marriage’ has been deleted from their vocabulary. It has been fossilized. Words like ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ are unknown. Instead, there are ‘partners’. In these ultra-modern settings, people live together on a contractual basis, each ‘partner’ having their ‘rights’ fully guaranteed!

For those of us who still believe in marriage, we also are not safe. Women have been to Beijing and back, and they are now fully aware of and ready to fight for their ‘rights’. Men, on the other hand, have had their manhood so undermined to the extent that they take out their frustrations on the object nearest them – which invariably happens to be their wife!

All of the above is okay if you are of the world. But in church, we must talk a different language. Marriage is such a serious issue with God that He does not allow divorce unless under the most extreme of circumstances (adultery); and even then the wronged party, if they cannot forgive, are not allowed to re-marry until their spouse dies. Marriage is literally a “till death do us part” affair!