Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Four Means of Grace: Scripture

Why do we follow Jesus?

What is the purpose of the Christian life?

Do we become Christian in order to escape hell? Do we involve ourselves in religious activities for the same reason: to escape Hell? What is the ultimate point?

What are we ultimately trying to accomplish in the world as followers of Jesus?

Is our purpose to convince as many people as possible to agree with us mentally; to join us in our club meetings? Or are we involved in something much more significant?

In 1887, James A. Harding (for whom Harding University was named) lamented over what he called an unconverted membership who were only baptized to escape hell—but who had no idea about what living for Jesus entailed. He criticized the gospel or "protracted" meeting (some call them "Revivals") as nothing but a high pressure event merely used to gain converts—not to make disciples. He believed many had no concept of their purpose.

Just what is it that is important about following Jesus?

You cannot read the Bible without getting the distinct impression the Christian life is about bringing God’s kingdom into reality in the world. What does that mean? I am not talking about some pre- or post- or para- or whatever-millennial teaching.

Kingdom of God involves the transformation of the world: the transformation of communities and individuals. The idea is to make the world a place where God’s kingdom values dominate; a place where people are reconciled with each other; a place of forgiveness and peace; a place where the poor are cared for, the hungry fed, the sick healed. As John Eldridge puts it: Jesus’ miracles are illustrations of what the kingdom is supposed to be about: lame healed, dead raised, the blind seeing and the good news being proclaimed!

The word for this is transformation. Following Jesus is not primarily about fire insurance or protection from Hell. Our goal is to allow God to transform us into the image of Jesus! Jesus is the personification of the Kingdom. The church is his body—his presence on earth. As individuals and as a community of believers we are to be the presence of Jesus wherever we live, move and breathe.

But how does that work? I'm not even close to the kind of person Jesus is! It seems Kingdom values are so far from me at times! I'm impatient, selfish, uncaring. I'm too materialistic and self-centered. How do I become transformed into the image of Jesus?

The early preachers of the Churches of Christ turned to Acts 2:42-47 and discovered four disciplines which they called “four means of grace.”
[1] These were not activities that gained God’s favor or somehow earned salvation. One writer described them in this way. They were

appointed means by which God dynamically acts among in and through his people…[they were] modes of divine transformation through which God graciously sanctifies believers. [2]
In other words: these activities served as the environment where the Holy Spirit works to make us more like Jesus.

In Acts 2:42-47 Luke writes about how the first disciples grew in their walk with God. The four disciplines or activities found in this passage are: 1) Scripture, 2) serving others—especially the poor, 3) intentional community that included the sharing of the Supper, and 4) regular and constant prayer.

Right now let's focus on just one of these items: involvement with scripture—or the sacred writings. Specifically we want to discuss reading, contemplating, and hearing God’s word.

I don’t suppose we should be too surprised to discover the Bible is literally filled with texts extolling the virtue of reading, hearing and meditating on the words of scripture. Psalm 119 is the longest discussion in the Bible upon the benefits of contemplating scripture—176 verses in all, this poem praises meditation on God’s word. The psalmist declares a blessing on anyone who meditates on it day and night, who recites it, who lives by it. Paul tells Timothy how the writings make one wise into salvation; how they are God’s tool to train God’s people to do God’s will. He tells Timothy not to neglect the public reading of Scripture—something that is not practiced as often among non-liturgical churches as should be. Joshua was told to meditate on God’s law day and night. Israel was expected to gather every seven years to hear the entire Law read out loud. From the earliest days of the church it was a regular practice to read the writings of the apostles and the Old Testament as long as there was time.

There were few personal copies of scripture. There were no printing presses. Paper was expensive. The Old Testament had to be hand copied. Hand copying meant the hiring of an educated laborer and that cost money. The first 1,000 years of the church a people could not easily obtain their own copies of the Bible in their own languages. Yet people took seriously the command to meditate on the word. Jewish children memorized Genesis through Deuteronomy by age four. By age twelve they had memorized the rest of the Old Testament. Adults constantly recited the word of God from memory as an exercise in meditating ("Your words will not depart from my mouth").

And I wonder.

How serious are we about this process of transformation?

Today there is a glut on the Bible market. There are literally hundreds of English translations. Bibles are inexpensive—you can even get copies free if you just search for them on the internet! There are audio Bibles, video Bibles, MP3 players with nothing but the Bible loaded on them.

But do we spend any time in the Bible?

Do we read our Bibles with any regularity?

Do we listen to any recordings of the Bible? Do we set aside regular time to meditate or contemplate the word of God? Why? To earn brownie points from God? No! We do it to hear God’s voice, to get a glimpse of this one who loves us, to enter into the environment where the Holy Spirit can work to make us more like Jesus!

I'm not talking about reading John MacArthur, Max Lucado, Chuck Swindoll, John Eldridge or listening to Christian radio. [3] They may be helpful for you—but when you read them you are only reading about the Bible—you are not reading the Bible. As long as I limit my intake of God’s word, I will continue to be anemic and malnourished. I will not grow the way God longs for me to grow. If we are going to mature—if we are going to become more like Jesus, then we are going to have to enter where God can do his work. We are going to have to enter the world of the Bible.

So what do we do? I have some ideas that may be helpful. These are just ideas—they are not set in stone. These are not the final answer—they are merely handles to grasp.

First of all begin by reading the Bible.

Wow, that’s deep.

What I mean is get an easy to read version like The Message or The New Living Translation and each evening read through a book. Don’t just read a chapter. Take a small book like Philippians or Ruth and read through it in a sitting or a couple of sittings. Get the feel of it. You might want to set a schedule so you will be certain to read through the entire Bible in either a one year, two year or three year time frame. (This isn't a contest to see how soon you can read through the Bible, OK?)Start with this. Read it right before you go to bed at night or right when you get up. Don’t worry about depth study, just read it like you would any book. Now if this is somewhat of a problem—maybe you’re not the greatest reader in the world, maybe your eyes are going bad. That’s ok: buy the Bible on CD and listen! It works was well—may be even better!

Secondly, every day set aside time for biblical contemplation. If you can’t every day, at least once or twice a week, take the time for more in depth study. Take a smaller text—a chapter or a dozen verses and spend time digging into it to determine what God is saying. Use your lunch break or get up a bit earlier—whatever it takes, make the time for this. Ask yourself questions such as: What is this passage saying? What does it mean? What am I discovering about God? About myself? What is God’s message for me? Every day I send out a daily devotional outline on the email which is designed to help people meditate on Scripture and pray. If you need an outline, follow that one (you can contact me and give me your email and I'll send it to you). If that doesn’t work for you, use something else. Just try something!

Thirdly, include a brief reading at supper time with your family (you can combine this with the first suggestion). If you have children, incorporate them in the reading. Take turns and read. Make this into a fun time with your family. Read expressively. There are dozens of Bibles divided into daily readings especially with children in mind. In this way you introduce your children to the discipline of Bible reading.

Finally, be patient: do not give up. This is not a two week program to make you suddenly spiritual! This is a life-long commitment to place yourself in front of God—to listen to him and to allow him to take you and shape you into the image of his Son. Like exercise, you don’t exercise two weeks and end up becoming ultra-ripped and muscular! It is a life-style. It means you’ll have to say no to some other things. You may have to watch less television or get off the internet sooner. I would suggest if you are serious about this following Jesus, you will make the time you will sacrifice to spend time in his word.

So, again: Why do we follow Jesus?

I hope we follow Jesus to change this world—to transform it into a place where the Kingdom flourishes. I hope we follow Jesus in order to be like Jesus. Jesus once said a disciple when he becomes fully mature becomes like his teacher. Are you willing to discipline yourself and to give God the chance to form Jesus in your heart?

Let’s commit ourselves to be more than Christians in name. Let’s commit ourselves to being followers—disciples of Jesus: people who seek to become just like him.

[1] John Mark Hicks and Bobby Valentine, Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James A. Harding (Abilene: Leafwood Publishers, 2006), pp 75-76.
[2] Hicks and Valentine, p 76.
[3] This is not a criticism of any of these men or of Christian radio. I think it would be safe to say proponents of Christian media and the above mentioned authors would be very upset to learn their readers read them exclusively and neglected reading the Bible! The problem is not Christian devotional literature. The problem is our lack of discipline!

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