We are about to dive again into the pool of the School of Joy. Before we do, as we near the coming season, I am almost afraid to give you this news out loud, but I am compelled by the Word to do so. Brothers and sisters, we are sick. Some disease pathogens have spread throughout the Christian community, and we have found ourselves suffering in the ranks all across our nation. They are not entirely new pathogens – but there is a new virulent strain in them that our tried and true strategies no longer seem to slow. The world has never loved the REAL message of Jesus – they prefer the greeting card Jesus. The real One challenges us, and He is the only actual and effective treatment for the broken and the lost… Yet something is different in the time and place WE are living. Our population is dramatically changing around us. The Biblical foundations beneath us are being washed out to sea and the incoming tide is replacing them with a viciously anti-god, anti-Bible, anti-anything that seems derivative from the moral system of traditional Christianity. The difference is not in them – it is in the church’s response. It is in the church’s readiness to stand.
Now that’s a heavy set of truths, and it promises to set up a “heavy-hearted” message – but it doesn’t. All is not lost – and God is not in trouble. His grip is as firm as it has ever been on our world and our lives. JOY is the assurance of that truth – and rejoicing is the physical expression of JOY.
Key Principle: Times of trouble may be designed by the enemy to bring doubt, but God desires they to become times of renewed joy.
Before we go deep into our lesson from the School of Joy – let’s take a breath and be human, vulnerable and real with each other. Let’s honestly admit some things that are really uncomfortable…
• First, the Holiday season is a time of physical demands for many of you, and many of you will pass through a time in which you will feel physically drained.
• Add to that the season also is emotionally challenging. For some, they will pass through this Christmas and it will sting, because a loved one has gone to be with Jesus, and you, frankly, deeply miss them. Christmas feels like a family time, but only SOME of our family is HERE – and as they relocate to Heaven, we feel sweeping waves of nostalgia and pain. For some in our congregation they are at the FUNNEST time for celebration, with little children that will love both the gifts and the boxes and wrappings they come in! Do you recall that? Others will feel the stress of failing to meet expectations in others, or having to deal with that part of your visiting family that is most difficult. The fact is, for both the lonely and for all the others this is an emotionally draining time.
• We aren’t even going to mention the financial stresses that some of you are under right now, and how that plays in. In the midst of this draining time it is easy for the enemy to slip in to your life and really get you down.
I believe the enemy takes special delight in making believers sad and even mad at the time we choose to celebrate Jesus’ coming to earth.
Just about that time, the attacks roll in as our energy wanes… we enter the time when all the pagans rage about how entirely “too Christian” the country is, and how unfair that is to their rights. Apparently the message of the wise men kneeling before Jesus has caused serious psychological damage to some who are now coming forward and must be protected. The use of public property to celebrate traditions that ANYONE in the room might not be a part of is now deeply destabilizing to their balance. You don’t have to go far to look for the argument. In the past week the news has been flooded with dozens of examples of them.
• Hawaii News Now reported this week that a “threatened lawsuit had put a halt to what’s become a Christmas tradition for members of the Moanalua High School orchestra. For the past six years, the award-winning group together with volunteers from the New Hope Church have raised more than $200,000 for a charity that treats poor people in Africa. But that all came to a halt on Monday when the Department of Education decided to cancel the concert just four days before the event, because of “…entanglement between a public school and a Christian church”. After all, isn’t it obvious that only the government has the right to give away money in our modern day? Heaven forbid that someone who follows Jesus participate in the process of helping others…
• From Albany, N.Y. comes a story of a cadet quitting West Point less than six months before graduation says he could no longer be part of a culture that promotes prayers and religious activities and disrespects nonreligious cadets. The compromise for his mental anguish and suffering after being forced to stand silently before meals? He gets to quit, take his credits and not have to pay anything for the education. After all, all that standing in silence during prayer time has really been tough on him – so he gets rewarded with a free education worth scores of thousands of dollars – with no obligation to pay back.
• New members of our Congress in Washington describe the open threats made against the Congressional Prayer Caucus – where new members have been warned that if they join the prayer caucus, they will be sued – because the act of a public official praying is so devastatingly bad for the country. Now mixing church and state means that the man or woman of faith should stay away from Washington, because they do so much better without God’s help.
I won’t do more of the dozens of stories… we don’t need to be pushed down. Here is my point: the open full-throated attack on our faith that was at the foundation of this country at its inception is openly underway – and unless our Master blocks it from Heaven, His church is about to experience a tremendous rise of persecution. All this – and I am speaking to people who are going to be drained physically, emotionally and many, fiscally. These things are happening, and God has removed the blocks from them. What is different is the church.
What can we do? How should we handle it?
First, let’s admit the church isn’t ready. We have been feeding on light-hearted prosperity passages for so long, that many a believer isn’t a follower of Jesus as an end in itself. They follow Jesus because they see Him as a means to an end – but their end is self-fulfillment. They want to be perpetually full, and Jesus had an open bag from which they could snack. The real commitment doesn’t become clear until He closes the bag and expects something from His follower.
Now the good part of the message is at hand. Smile and open God’s Word to Philippians 3. Don’t paint the backdrop in the first century as pretty – it wasn’t. It stunk of urine and sulfur from the vats of the fullonica – the cloth cleaning center nearby. Remember that when Paul was sitting under house arrest, surrounded by a pagan populace and Christians that seemed on the whole a minor and weakened force. Yet, what Paul shared through the power of the Spirit changes us!
Step One: Deal with our Heart.
First, let’s deal with our heart – since that is where all the issues of life come from. Paul did not grumble. He dealt with their PERSPECTIVE and their HEART COMMITMENT. Paul pointed believers toward praise: keep rejoicing!
Philippians 3:1 Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you.
I love the part where Paul admits that this injunction to rejoice is a repetitive command. He isn’t stuttering, he is teaching… and our hearts get a new surface of hardness so very quickly when surrounded by senselessness and pagan pronouncements. We get angry, we get sad, we get fearful… and we should get back to rejoicing.
How can I rejoice when bad things happen when people are putting my faith and my Savior down? Jesus offered a hint in that very circumstance:
Matthew 5:11-12 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
In the context of persecution, attacking lies and evil words cast before a believer about his faith – he should not lose perspective. Jesus said the disciple should re-focus to gain proper perspective in the midst of painful and adverse circumstances – therein lies the clue to rejoicing. Jesus said: “Remember two important truths that will help you rejoice…
• First, remember this isn’t our permanent home – you and I are in a rental body and rental home. If they take it all, that is ok – you have a permanent one – and they cannot take that one! That isn’t ESCAPISM, it is allowing TRUTH to restore attitude. As the Master said it: “Great is your reward in Heaven!” He isn’t saying that you get a GREAT REWARD because you underwent persecution – that isn’t true. Our great reward comes because of His suffering – and all of us – those who are persecuted and those who are NOT – will still get a great reward by being in Heaven with Him! The issue isn’t what I go through in Jesus’ saying… but WHERE I WILL GO. I don’t belong here as a follower of Jesus – so my HOPE should not rest in some guarantee of a good life while this side of Heaven. My hope is in HIM, in HIS HOME, in HIS FAITHFULNESS to do what He said He would do. Believers who place their faith in Him based on peace and prosperity now won’t be prepared to stick when real persecution comes – because they weren’t taught enough of the BIG PICTURE of salvation… that Heaven isn’t here, and here isn’t my primary focus.
• Second, recognize that you and I are in GOOD COMPANY. If and when persecution comes, we must remember that many godly men and women have been persecuted before us. “So persecuted they the prophets” Jesus said. Ours is not the first generation to face a turning away from the faith – Europe did it before. We have seen this movie because it plays in other places. In a democratic country, a majority may in some sense rule, but majorities are seldom good at maintaining moral standards for very long – because of the heavy downward pull of men in an insatiable hunger to rebel against God. The “many” usually find a way to pull the standards lower. The “few” are left taking a stand once agreed to by “many” in times past… and that is approaching quickly…
The hard part of the words of Jesus and Paul like “Rejoice” and “Be glad” should sober us up in an instant. They require something of us deeper than the surface. They require discipline of the emotions and training of the heart. We must keep Heaven in view, and see ourselves as part of a long line of believers that want to please Jesus and tell His story. Don’t do it alone! Gladness and rejoicing invites Jesus’ participation in my daily walk. Sour faces come from sour hearts. Sour hearts come from doubting spirits. Trust IN Jesus flows out in praise FOR Jesus. Gladness adds the sweetness back to the journey on the way to reward.
My life is not a duty to carry, but a joyful expression of hope to come that I get to share with those around me.
• Young believer – learn that Jesus is closest when we are weakest.
• Adult believer – learn that Jesus is sweetest when troubles are largest.
• Senior believer – learn that Jesus is dearer when our own abilities fail us.
And all of God’s people – we must together learn the tenderness of a Savior that was both willingly wounded for us, and is now vigilant in defense to unfold His story. Rejoice. Let the assurance that God is still on the throne help you to carry you head high, and know that the rewards may not come in this life – but they WILL come.
Step Two: Keep your eyes and ears open.
Paul warned them to keep a sharp lookout for teachers who claimed to follow Jesus, but said and did things that weren’t Biblically sound. He immediately turned from their attention to their hearts and attitudes to warning them of INTERNAL departure from God’s Word in the ranks of believers and churches. Some were IN THE CHURCH that were disrupting it and making trouble.
Philippians 3:2 Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision; 3 for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh, 4 although I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: 5 circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. 7 But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, 9 and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10 that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.
Though many were causing trouble – they weren’t all doing it the same way. Paul told the Philippians:
• Philippians 3:2 says “Beware of dogs”: The term dog or koo’-ohn was literally the term for a scavenging canine that was feared and hated in the Near East, it was figuratively used as “a spiritual predator” who moves about unaccountable and uncontrolled to feed off the labor of others. There is little doubt in my mind that these were men and women that CLAIMED to be believers, but they would not align themselves with any local church accountability. They moved about, and they couldn’t be pinned down. They had great criticism for churches and believers, but offered no regular help and commitment. They FED – but they didn’t provide. They are in our town, and in virtually every town – even today. It seems unloving to point it out, but it is a direct response to the words of the text – keep a watchful eye!
Some of the so-called “dogs” seem to be unbelievers that make their way into Christian circles but keep their lifestyle untouched. They learn our language, but not obedience to our Savior. Revelation mentions them in 22:15 “Outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the immoral persons and the murderers and the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices lying.” Notice that in that case they are involved in spiritual darkness, immoral lifestyles, hateful abuses and self-made gods. Notice what binds them together is that they LOVE LYING. They don’t just forget to tell the truth – they CHOOSE lying because it is something they LOVE. They sneak into the “religious community” and try to confuse people by saying things from the Bible, but not speaking, leading or acting Biblically. They open a Bible, quote some of its words and then deliberately LIE about what they read. They aren’t uninformed – they are deliberate. Be careful about what you hear!
We must be painfully clear: Christianity is NOT simply a thankful response to the message that Jesus loved us and died for us. We must be clear that Jesus requires REPENTANCE for salvation, and then SURRENDER for Christian growth.
Those who choose to live wrongly should be loved and invited by us. They should enter because of genuine warmth. At the same time, they should not feel comfortable continually living wrongly among God’s people very long – or the church is not properly addressing the real issues of lost life and sinful behavior. We have seen it: platitudes will draw crowds – calls to commitment will drive them away. We can peak interest with slogans, but growth comes with substance from Scripture. Few want to be told they aren’t good – but even fewer that they must yield in brokenness to God to experience Him as He desires for us. Don’t get caught in the trap that clear teaching of Scripture regarding yielding to God is some form of legalistic thinking… it is NOT! Rather, it is a fair and honest representation of the truth – that God loves us as we are, but won’t let us stay that way. His love IS the answer to our need, and our growing surrender to Him is the response to grabbing His hand in love.
Using the analogy again – not all the so-called “dogs” are of that same unsaved litter, however. Some are plants of the enemy to disrupt, but some of them are simply immature believers that have not been challenged and held accountable to learn and live God’s Word. They drift around in Christian circles, feeding wherever it is currently fashionable or convenient. They don’t build anything, they just use what others are building.
Let me plead plainly so that is cannot be misunderstood. Get involved, share your life, and become accountable, stable and useful as a believer in our town. Don’t drift about. Get off the edge – and pull your weight in a local congregation. Do it here or do it in another – as God directs. Don’t hop around and bop around and “just make friends” and not tie your life down to a body. You weren’t saved just to get your destiny changed, but to become an active tool in the hand of your Savior. Don’t just witness while at work and float around with no tied connection to a church body…I don’t want to stand before Jesus as a professional Christian tourist, that went from one place to another to see the sights and sample the spiritual food, offering a fickle critique when there was too much salt for my taste. I want to share life with others, pour myself out to share the Word and be accountable to brothers and sisters. I want others to lean their weight on me, as I do on them. When I hurt, I need them. When they hurt, I want them to know my heart will be with them.
• Next Paul warned the Philippians to “beware of the evil workers”: The terms “kakos ergatas” are directly translated, and refer to people who work at doing wrong. They are tunneling under congregations, and chipping away at foundations. They are in churches quietly teaching in small classes that the Bible isn’t really God’s Word. They are busy introducing questions into the lives of young believers and causing them to stumble by confusing them. They are deliberately seducing Christian workers and drawing them out of their active roles as leaders. They are offering temptations to trip disciples… and yes, I have met some of them. They have introduced false teaching simply by placing “religious” but unbiblical literature in the racks at the entryway, or pulled people aside and tried to pull apart their beliefs after a Bible study. They don’t connect with people who can answer their query – because they don’t work that way. They head for the weaker and try to trip them. I have a friend who called me after a woman came over his desk trying to grab him as he ran out of his office screaming for his assistant, and got the janitor instead. He said he never closed another door in counseling again! They are all over the place, and every elder and every deacon will need to PAY ATTENTION. They are on the prowl, and they are dangerous. This past year, at a Youth Conference, one man snuck in to tear apart the faith of young people – and he was a college professor at the school where the conference was held. He didn’t believe the Bible, and he wanted to be sure the youth that attended the conference didn’t leave that “naïve” either…so he said until we sat with him and made it clear that he stop or leave. He left.
• The third group Paul warned about were “beware of the false circumcision; 3 for we are the true circumcision, who worship in the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh”.
There are two worlds: the temporal or physical one and the real or spiritual one…but that isn’t how the ungodly person thinks. Sadly, it isn’t even how many believers think on a daily basis… It is easy to get distracted. I am easily duped into believing the physical world is the one I need to pay attention to. The spiritual world seems distance. That sets us up to measure reality in the wrong way.
Look at what God instructed Philippi through Paul to watch. They were to be vigilant about the work or false teaching and EVIL men – those who set their focus on the wrong world and put confidence in the physical world’s accomplishments, understandings and way of thinking. These were people who put confidence in OUTWARD ACCOMPLISHMENTS.
Paul’s argument was not to discourage righteous living or accomplishment – it was NOT TO TRUST IN THAT for righteousness before God. Paul lived in opposition to that kind of thinking. Look at what he said:
• I don’t rely on anything I accomplished in the past, and I count them as a “distraction” or hindrance to right thinking (3:7).
• Every accomplishment is deliberately pushed aside in my thinking and replaced with one more important thought: “Am I knowing the Savior better today?” (3:8). I want to gain a growing knowledge, and a deeper relationship with HIM. (3:9-10).
• I delight in knowing Him more deeply when He is empowering my hands and work or ministry. I learn when I am hurt what His hurts were like. The more I see the other world as the REAL ONE, the more I understand what Jesus went through to come from that one to this one.
The aim is to get passionate about the inner man and the spiritual world! Our prayers should be MOSTLY for the spiritual lives of people – not just their physical pains. Our testimonies should be filled with how God is building our relationship with HIM, strengthening our inner man in spite of the failing outer man. Our encouragement to the younger believers must vitally center on the spiritual delight to walk with the Savior.
Step Three: Keep Pushing to the Goal!
Paul leaned into the future – pressing to grow to be what God truly desired him to become. The temptation to GIVE UP is very real, but needs to be checked…
Philippians 3:12 Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. 13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you; 16 however, let us keep living by that same standard to which we have attained. 17 Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us. 18 For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, 19 whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things. 20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; 21 who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself. 4:1Therefore, my beloved brethren whom I long to see, my joy and crown, in this way stand firm in the Lord, my beloved.
Focus on the reality of the spiritual world allows me to live an OPTIMISTICALLY and focused on the FUTURE GOALS in this life. I live with Christ, and when I die it only gets BETTER!
• Maybe you are asking: How can I press on, when I can’t walk very well – because my body is giving way… ask how Paul intended to press on without the ability to leave the house he where he awaited a meeting with Emperor Nero.
• Maybe you are asking: What prize can I seek, since I am not a person who is famous or incredibly talented… ask how Paul intended to seek God more fervently and love Him more fully without the ability to stand before the crowds right then – or perhaps EVER again.
Paul didn’t say that his future goal was about ACCOMPLISHMENT IN THIS LIFE – but rather about his honest and full surrender to Jesus Christ REGARDLESS of where that would lead him. He wasn’t saying he was going to DO great things for God that other men could see – but that he would reach out to the hand of Jesus in Heaven and grab it more deliberately, more strongly. That is something you CAN do, and that is something you MUST do. Put the past down! If you did great things, set the trophies aside. If you did little, stop focusing on past inadequacies…look to the future and grab His hand. What is He calling for from your life? What part of you is resisting God’s hand? Give Him your whole life, because you are a citizen of HIS REALM. Be honest about the need to truly follow Him. Men have lived LIES for centuries, and called them truth –don’t waste your life following that path. Listen to these wise words:
“The fundamental problem Jesus was exposing to Pilate and to the world is not the scarcity of available truth; it is more often the hypocrisy of our search.” —Ravi Zacharias
Truth is in His hands, and given in His Words. Sure, the tide may well turn against His message – but the rising tide may also be broken. That is in God’s hands to accomplish. What is in MY HANDS is to recognize the truth about trouble…
Times of trouble may be designed by the enemy to bring doubt, but God desires they to become times of renewed joy.
Who knows if our joy won’t once again challenge the lost world – it did in the past. Listen to this:
Achieving our ends in a post-Christian nation will require us to step out of our boats and onto the shore of an unclean culture… And if we, like Jesus and His earliest followers, are willing to do that, the time may come again when Christianity topples a secular empire. – John Stonestreet.
That’s true. We have to stretch to reach them. But it will only work if we do it with JOY, not fear, blame and anger.