Welcome to Leaving LaodiceaThe Survival Manual for the Coming Underground Church
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Once we move past identifying the characters in this teaching (Jesus is the vine, God the Father is the vinedresser, and we are the branches), we can clearly see the focus is on bearing fruit (more fruit, much fruit, and fruit that remains). But the key to having a relationship with the Lord that allows us to bear the kind of fruit that brings glory to the Father (John 15:8), is being able to “abide” in Him, in the vine. In fact, we find that phrase repeated over and over again in this amazing discourse. Consider the following:
“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.” (John 15:4)
“If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” (John 15:6)
“If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” (John 15:7)
“As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; abide in My love.” (John 15:9)
“If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” (John 15:10)
So the concept of abiding is not something to be taken lightly. Obviously, it is a description of the relationship Jesus has with the Father, and the relationship all Three share in the Godhead. And the amazing thing is that He commands us, no, He invites us to abide in Him the way He also abides in His Father. What a wonderful privilege He offers each of us.
But let’s address the elephant in the room, the $64,000,000 question. What does abide in this passage really mean?
For the past two months, our nation has been held in the grips of, as President Trump said, an “invisible enemy.” But this “invisible enemy” is not Covid-19. Nor is it the loss of jobs and the bankruptcy of thousands of small businesses and the inevitable collateral effect that will have on our economy for years, maybe even decades, to come. No, the “invisible enemy” we face is fear. And fear is a result of a lack of faith, and a lack of faith renders even the strongest believer useless as His light-bearer (Matt. 5:14-16).
But we know that. Yet, for some strange reason, it doesn’t seem to have any effect on us. Why?
Because many of us as believers in the West have surrendered our rights and privileges as children of God (Romans 8:16-17), in order to live comfortable lives in this fallen world. We have made ourselves, as James tells us, “an enemy of God” because of our “friendship with the world” (James 4:4). Just spend a few minutes on Facebook and you can see the narcissistic cancer that runs unchecked in our culture today… even in the church.
These are truly desperate times.
But what are we to do? How can we prepare ourselves for what the Lord is allowing to happen? And what lesson is there to be learned from watching Him bring our evil and proud society to its knees by events beyond anyone’s control? What do we need to do?
Simply this: We need to grow in our faith and our relationship with our Lord like never before. Like there is no tomorrow. Because there might not be. We are not guaranteed tomorrow (James 4:13-16). No one is.
Now is the time for serious soul-searching. Now is the time to put Him first in all things and to lay up for ourselves “treasures in heaven” and not spend our lives collecting trinkets and toys on earth (Matt. 6:19-20). And the best way to do this is to truly understand what our life is all about and why God created each of us in the first place.
Welcome to John 15.
Right now, we as a nation and as the church are in the midst of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic that has some unfortunate, unforeseen circumstances. We are currently mandated by our government to stay at home and practice social distancing. Which, in effect, means no corporate church services. No normal business activities. No hugging our grandchildren or shaking hands with a friend. No picnics at the park, no day trips to the mountains, no shopping at the mall, no having friends over for dinner. All of that has changed.
But so has our culture. Our economy is in a free-fall. Unemployment claims are greater, much greater, than in the time of the great depression. Small businesses are closing at a rate unseen in our lifetime and the future looks dim, at best. Liquor stores and abortion clinics are deemed essential, but churches are not. And since lawlessness has increased greatly, “the love of many,” as Jesus foretold, “has grown cold” (Matt. 24:12).
These are truly desperate times.
But could God be trying to tell us something by all that is happening around us? Is He trying to get a message to us, a warning? And, if so, what is that message and why are we as a people so obstinate and hard of hearing?
We know, from Scripture, that God warns His people primarily in two ways. One, by sending them a prophet, a prophetic voice in their generation to proclaim the words of the Lord. God often sent a Jeremiah, Ezekiel, or John the Baptist to bring His people back to repentance before He chastised them for their sins. Unfortunately, because of our collective pride, we in the West are not particularly open to a modern-day Isaiah or a proclamation of “Thus says the Lord!” from anyone.
So often God warns His people the second way, by a remedial judgment. He allows storms, plagues, war, famine, or pestilence to bring us to our knees and allows us to realize that God is God and we are not. God often humbles us by showing us how much we are not in control.
Could that be what is happening right now? And, if so, what warning are we failing to heed? And what changes do we need to make in our lives right now?
Remember, God is sovereign. That doesn’t mean He is the cause of suffering and death. No, our sin brought that upon us. That blood is on our own hands. But what it does mean is that nothing happens in our lives, good or bad, without His permission. Why? Because He is sovereign. He is good and gracious and holy, but foremost, He is sovereign.
I love this quote, “The definition of a fanatic is someone who loves Jesus more than you do.” So true. But as a culture, we have always had a love/hate relationship with total commitment and self-abandonment. We admire those whose commitment leads them to do great things, like win an Olympic Medal or lose a tremendous amount of weight. And we applaud their commitment because we value the object of their goals. But on the other hand, we detest the commitment of terrorists, idealogues, and others like that. We brand them as activists, fanatics, or extremists.
But in Jesus’ day, this is exactly how the world saw His followers. They were activists who wanted nothing more than to see the entire world come to the same understanding they had regarding Christ. They were extremists who sacrificed everything for a cause greater than themselves. And they were fanatics, no longer interested in the things of this world because they had their life focused on something unseen, mystical, and illogical.
And of these, the Lord said the “world was not worthy” of them (Heb. 11:18). My, how we have changed today.
Today, the church falls into two main camps. One, the camp where our relationship with Christ is defined by rule-keeping and our ability to follow the law. And two, those who view their relationship with Jesus as something profitable to add to their already busy lives, much like sprinkles on a cupcake or sweetener to our coffee. But there is another option. And these are the ones whose relationship with Christ is not based on guilt, religious duty, the hope of heaven and eternal reward, or the fear of hell and eternal punishment. No, this select group is drawn to Christ because of His overwhelming beauty and glory and the irresistible power of His Kingdom. The very kingdom we are commanded to proclaim today. Remember? We are to proclaim, like Jesus, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). And we are to preach the gospel of the Kingdom.
And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all kinds of sickness and all kinds of disease among the people. (Matt. 4:23)
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people. (Matt. 9:35)
And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come. (Matt. 24:14)
But what is the “gospel of the kingdom”?
As we begin our study on John the Baptist, we are going to take the Scripture accounts of his life from all four gospels and merge them into one single narrative. But rest assured, all you will see is nothing but Scripture. Nothing has been added. This helps us get a complete view of John’s incredible ministry, the man Jesus said was without rival in all of humanity (Matthew 11:11).
The following is the beginning of John’s ministry as told from Matthew 3:1-12, Mark 1:4-8 and Luke 3:1-18.
(LK) Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.
(MT) In those days John the Baptist (MK) came baptizing in the wilderness (MT) of Judea. (LK) And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, (MT) saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, (LK) saying: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'” (MT) Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. (MK) Then all the land of Judea, and those from Jerusalem, (MT) and all the region around the Jordan went out to him (MK) and were all baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
(MT) But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, (LK) he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, (MT) “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (LK) So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?” He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.” Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.”
Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not, John answered, (MK) and he preached, (LK) saying to all, “I indeed baptize you with water (MT) unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry, [and] (MK) whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but (LK) He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.” And with many other exhortations he preached to the people.
But there is so much more. And note the substance of John’s preaching. It was of repentance and the coming Kingdom of Heaven. Are they both related? Absolutely.
Another Sunday is upon us and the church is still having to figure out how to worship together while practicing self-distancing. Awkward and uncomfortable, I know. But I believe our choice to forgo our right to assemble and worship for the sake of the least of these (those who are at greater risk), is proper and prudent. And I believe the Lord will honor the free sacrifice of our own rights for the sake of others.
With that said, the following message is from the first two chapters of the book of Joel. In fact, as we go through Joel together, I think you’ll be amazed and comforted at how the crisis in Joel’s time (locust invasion) parallels the crisis we are facing as a church and a nation today. For me, the most encouraging truth from Joel is the solution to their locust problem then is the same as the solution to our coronavirus problem now. And that solution, as always, is repentance.
We will specifically focus on Joel 2:12-13, which reads:
“Now, therefore,” says the LORD, “Turn to Me with all your heart, (how) with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the LORD your God, (why) for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness; and He relents from doing harm.
Note, the first sentence is a statement by God. The second is the application from Joel. And Joel’s words are timeless. They are just as valid and true in his generation as they are today. So take them to heart.
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“I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I could wish you were cold or hot. So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked.”