A NEW TESTAMENT WORSHIP SERVICE

So what does worship in the early church look like? Paul gives us the clearest description in his letter to the Corinthians. He addresses them for two reasons: they had written him with pressing questions, and he had received inside information about serious problems.

In chapter 12 he takes up spiritual gifts, in 13 how the gifts flow out of love, then in 14 the two most common gifts, prophecy and tongues. In the second half of the chapter, he speaks about how these gifts find expression in worship. It does not look like the typical service we are accustomed to.

What strikes me is the level of trust in one another to pull off a service like this. But the trust is more in the Holy Spirit moving than in someone messing things up by saying something weird.

Jesus often chose the well-ordered worship services of the Jews in His day to change the agenda by healing someone. He was telling them that it was more important to show mercy to people than to give token worship to God, quoting from Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Matt. 12:7). If that Lord inspired Paul to write his letters, then we need to pay heed and go with the book rather than with our traditions.

ELEMENTS OF A SERVICE

Participation. Paul writes, “When you come together, everyone…” Pentecost leveled the playing field. This is not a one-man band. This extent of participation suggests a small assembly, house church size. We have drifted from this picture of highly relational and unscripted worship.

Relationship. This kind of service presupposes relationship and trust. Just as love remains on center stage for the operation of spiritual gifts, love for one another stays important for worship.

WEIGHING THE IMPACT

Liabilities. Opening up a service means that it will get messy. The person with nothing to say may speak too long. A pastor puts in many hours preparing a message. A person giving a spontaneous teaching takes one minute to gather thoughts. Some worship services may get a little thin. I have not, however, felt this way in the recent services of this kind that I have led. The prophetic words have hit their mark and have opened up rich ministry. The ministry times more than the instruction took center stage, because that seemed to be the greater need, echoing the words of Jesus, “I desire mercy…”

Advantages.

1) Release of gifts. We have seen slow growth in the maturing of spiritual gifts, because people have not had sufficient opportunity to develop them. Gifts grow when practiced. As faith grows, so do prophetic words, which further enriches the potential for engaging and encouraging worship services.

2) Ownership. People grow when they come to give rather than to receive. Congregations easily develop a co-dependent relationship with the pastor. See what John had to say about this (I John 2:27).

3) Growth of relationships. This service is charged with interactions, personal ministry, and words of exhortation and encouragement. It builds relationships better than the typical service, which provides little occasion for interaction.

Personal conclusion: I would rather deal with the messes of an open-ended service than miss what God has for us in Paul’s description. I have seen the gains when I have given it a try. In I Corinthians 14, Paul uses the word “edify” five times. He is concerned than the members are built up in worship. That has not been the main focus of our worship services. What could happen if it was? Let’s find out!

TURNING LOSSES INTO GAINS

So Paul lands in prison. God uses it for good. It’s all about a mindset.

We experience plenty of losses—freedom, sleep, health, time, money, relationship, hope. Our loss may really be a gain. What is devastating us has not devastated God. Before you make your experience a setback, look again; God may want to turn it around. To see God make setbacks into advances, understand that…

It’s not what happens to us; it’s what happens in us. Paul writes, “I want you to know brethren that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel” (Philippians 1:12). I read recently that God is not as concerned about where He takes us as what He makes us. Paul was confined—God was not. If we live circumstantially, our attitude will rise or fall depending upon what is going on out there.

Paul could have said, “Bummer” for the jail time and waited it out until release. Not even close. Imagine being chained to the apostle for a five-hour shift of guard duty. What does that solider talk to his buddies about later?!

Our outlook impacts others. “Most of the brethren have been made confident in the Lord because of my imprisonment and are much more bold to speak the word of God without fear” (14). As Zig Ziglar says, “Your attitude determines your altitude.” Paul’s friends decided that if he could preach the gospel inside a prison, they could certainly do it outside. Your attitude affects others, for better or worse.

We can build an immunity to discouragement. “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry…What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (15,18). I have urged our young adult leaders that when discouragement knocks at the door, don’t answer.

Paul’s competitors tried to antagonize him by preaching when he couldn’t, thinking to make him jealous or annoyed. Didn’t work. His friends just upped their preaching in light of Paul’s imprisonment.

In difficulty, we exercise faith, even when tempted to choose fate: “I’ll probably be here the rest of my life.” He said, “I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, this will turn out for my deliverance” (19). This is not “whatever will be will be” theology, turning prayer into a futile exercise. Often in trials we discount the power of prayer. Not Paul.

We obey regardless. We don’t control the outcome of our obedience. Paul determined that Christ would be honored in his body “whether by life or by death” (20). Survival was not the issue; surrender was. The Bible calls death an enemy, and the last enemy to be destroyed (Rev. 20:14). And yet even death itself was converted into a gain for Paul. He wrote, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (21). What a mindset!

We accept suffering as a gift. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict which you saw and now hear to be mine” (29). Peter and the other disciples, after being beaten, left the Sanhedrin rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer for the name” (Acts 5:41).

Bottom line: Paul got thrown for a gain. So will you. Just watch!

GOD DOES NOT KEEP SCORE (Psalm 130)

Imagine if God kept record of sins. Warehouses of files, stored as evidence of our foolish behavior, our shameful thoughts. What if He decided to expose all of it? The court is in session.You, the guilty one, seated and ashamed, await the verdict.

Breaking the dreadful silence, the judge announces that the records have been destroyed, never to be retrieved. The action against you is closed and will never be reopened. Case dismissed!

You are stunned to hear further that the judge himself wiped out the files. The one you feared is responsible for your release. Strangely, it causes you to fear him, honoring his greatness and kindness.

The psalmist cried out, not as one calling to a casual friend, but one pleading for mercy from a holy God: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy” (Psalm 130:1,2).

Then revelation breaks through: “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared” (3,4). Peace replaces anguish.

Those who see God as righteous and discover afresh free forgiveness do not take advantage of this kindness. We don’t pull out the forgiveness card every time we step over the line, so we can step over again. God’s goodness has led us to repentance.

Then the posture changes from crying out in need to waiting in confidence. “Wait” occurs five times in two verses: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning” (5,6).

How do they wait? Actively, hopefully. Morning will dawn shortly, anchoring the soul in mercy rather than dread of revenge. Those who think God is punishing them for something they did a decade ago are not worshiping the God of the psalmist. He hopes for what he knows—a rich future in sync with compassion.

He grows so confident that he wants to go public: “O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love, and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins” (7,8). Why keep this news to himself? He knows of others oppressed by guilt, weighed down by shame. So he is crying out again, but this time to fellow Israelites, that sins need not keep a broken sinner from a merciful God.

We don’t ignore the need to cry out as if sin doesn’t matter. We avoid the tendency to muffle it with busyness, food or success. Guilt can drive us crazy, so we go to the one place where it can be properly disposed. And once again, contrary to our condemning heart, we find a God who quiets the fear of a criminal sentence. We discover afresh a deeply liberating truth—God does not keep score! So by sheer grace, neither do we.

ONE HOLY PASSION

 

I must admit, I am sometimes uncomfortable with zealous people. I’m part of a culture that prefers cool to hot. Tolerance rates high, while fervency ranks lower on the charts. Not true south of the border!

Here’s my confession; I need more passion. I don’t want to pastor a church offering Christianity Lite. Passion makes sense in worship when we consider the love with which we have been loved. Cold love doesn’t compute in light of Calvary. Passion makes sense in prayer when we remember the promises of God. It is the antidote to an encrusted heart. What kind of passion would require death on a cross for one’s enemies?

We may balk at the talk of passion, because it is used negatively about emotions gone wild (Romans 1:26). Solomon writes of this over-the-top surge: “A tranquil mind gives life to the flesh, but passion makes the bones rot” (Proverbs 14:30). Hardly something to market.

When I speak of passion, think zeal. Jesus owned it. After the temple cleansing, His disciples remembered: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (John 2:17). Should His disciples have calmed Him down?

The passion of Jesus echoed His Father. He “wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak” (Isaiah 59:17). It was the passion of God that established a kingdom through His Son, and the prophet said, “The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:7). Jesus had it; God’s got it—I need it!

We are urged, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor” (Romans 12:11). Where does fervor, literally “fire,” come from? The Holy Spirit. Remember the flames of fire at Pentecost? There you have it: the holy Trinity, an all-consuming fire. Think burning bush or Mount Sinai, ablaze with flames to heaven (Deut. 4:11).

Passion is not hype, charismatic flair, nor contrived emotion. The fire is not self-ignited but comes from the altar of a God who is fire. Fire burns, refines, renews, destroys, transforms.

We don’t naturally possess it, which is why we fear it. Passion throws people off balance; it makes them go over the edge or try being religious. The passion that God lights burns with a different flame. Passion enables people to persevere, overcome difficulties, take risks, give their all. The passion of Phinehas enabled him to serve well. “He and his descendants will have a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites” (Numbers 25:13). He stands in contrast to his uncles Nadab and Abihu, whose casual presumption led to their demise.

Unbounded passion is as dangerous as fire out of control, but lack of passion is a greater liability. Jesus said about the last days: “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:12). Five foolish virgins allowed their oil level to get low, and they missed the party. Cars and Christians cannot run without it. Jesus has an aversion for those who cool off and lose their passion (Revelation 3:15). When the soul reads “low on oil,” a change is needed before the engine is ruined.

To grow in passion, sit with the all-consuming fire—and thaw out. Trust the passionate Spirit to light your fire. As He does, spend your life for others, live sacrificially, and do what my friend George often said, “Until further notice, celebrate everything.”

STORMS, PERFECT AND OTHERWISE

I don’t like storms, especially internal ones. They blow in unannounced. Life isn’t the smooth ride I thought it was going to be. But I’m learning (slowly) to thank God for the storm—even when in it.

Jesus planned to use His disciples powerfully, so He gave them tests. Two took place at the center of the lake. One tested their endurance (Matthew 14); the other threatened their lives (Matthew 8). In one, Jesus was praying up above; in the other sleeping in their midst.

Some storms find their source in God. Others come from the enemy. Some result from personal decisions, while others come simply from being in the human family. Regardless, God uses storms to build us, removing crutches so we are thrown upon Him. Ouch!

Because of their intensity, storms can bring new trust. But they can also defeat us. We don’t panic with a “3,” but an “8” changes the tone of our prayers. We face the danger of losing something precious—our reputation, our health, our job, our child. The storms the disciples faced were an “8” and a “10!”

One storm proved a defining event for all of the disciples, but especially for Peter. If we think we can avoid storms, we won’t grow. We must learn to fear God more than the fiercest storm. The disciples were terrified. When they discovered that Jesus controlled the waves, they relocated their fear.

The more mature the disciple, the bigger the storm. Sorry. Paul wrote, “Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked.” The mightier the storm, the higher the potential for influence. As is the storm, so is the grace to endure it and grow.

When confronted by a storm, we might want to ask questions like, “Did I bring this on?” If so, repentance would dispel it. Think Jonah. Like Jesus, he was asleep—but he was running, not resting. Throwing cargo overboard didn’t solve the problem; tossing the prophet over did. The sad truth is that our disobedience brings storms into the lives of those who are close to us.

Other questions: Is God sending the storm to guide me? To change my direction? Or is He adjusting something internal, like faith? Is God answering my prayer to grow in trust? Is He allowing me to be challenged so I will see His power? And we can trust God regardless.

How can we pass the tests that storms bring upon us?

  • Don’t make life decisions in the midst of a storm.
  • Hang on.
  • Let the storm address your inadequacy. Storms often cause some people to grow in fear rather than faith.
  • Get ready for them. Put in storm windows. Strengthen the deficient areas.We don’t pray for storms, but we do prepare for them by wise living and upgrading trust.

Try to remember three things during the storm that the disciples learned: Jesus is watching. Jesus is praying. Jesus is coming!

TRUTHS FROM OLD TESTAMENT REVIVALS

SAMUEL (I Samuel 7:1-15)

The ark proved a menace to the Philistines who had defeated Israel, so they returned it. While it remained at Kiriath Jearim, “the people of Israel mourned and sought after the Lord” (2). Samuel said, “’If you are returning to the Lord with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.’ So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the Lord only” (3,4). His pattern fits the whole book of Judges. Sadly, none of them passed the baton to another judge to sustain the revival: “When the judge died, the people returned to ways more corrupt than those of their fathers” (Judges 2:19). Even Samuel, the greatest of all judges, did not raise up godly children to follow him. Good leader in Israel—poor leader at home.

ELIJAH (I Kings 17, 18)

Ahab “did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him” (I Kings 16:30). His marriage to Jezebel brought in Baal worship and he built a temple for Baal in Samaria. Elijah challenged Ahab to a fire contest—and won! That was followed by the slaying of 450 prophets of Baal and maybe 400 prophets of Asherah, all of whom ate at Jezebel’s table. She didn’t like Elijah messing with her mealtimes and put out a contract on his life. Elijah had the momentum for an ongoing move of God, but missed the moment and went south. He could have prevailed over Ahab and Jezebel had he stayed put and led Israel. However, he was the only prophet who raised up a mentor to take his place. Success over the long haul requires succession, and Elisha, who asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, did twice as many miracles as his father in the faith. Good going, Elijah!

ASA (2 Chronicles 14-16)

“Asa did what was good and right in the eyes of the Lord his God. He removed the foreign altars and the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He commanded Judah to seek the Lord, the God of their fathers, and to obey his laws and commands (14:2,3). Asa deposed his grandmother because she made an Asherah pole, and the nation had 35 years of peace. The king of Israel went to war against Judah in the 36th year. Asa foolishly made a treaty with Ben-Hadad rather than consult the Lord. When he contracted a disease, he sought the help of doctors but not the Lord. He had 35 good years but finished poorly. His son, Jehoshaphat, likewise started strong, finished poorly.

HEZEKIAH (2 Chronicles 29-32)

Hezekiah reformed the temple practices and reinstated the Levites. Hezekiah invited the nation to come together in Jerusalem for the Passover. And “a very large crowd of people assembled in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread” (30:13). But Hezekiah made two terrible mistakes: he showed envoys from Babylon all his treasures, which brought judgment on his descendants, and he was a better king than a father, and his son Manasseh “rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had destroyed” (2 Kings 21:3). Terrible passing of the baton.

JOSIAH (2 Chronicles 34-35)

Young Josiah likewise celebrated the Passover (35:18). He brought revival when the book of the Law was found, bringing repentance and new commitment. He also made two great errors. He foolishly went to battle against the king of Egypt and was fatally wounded. And he did not raise up righteous sons like he was.

For revival to turn into vival, it requires a strong passing of the baton, from leader to leader. Call committees typically stall this process, and momentum is often lost. Better to mentor a replacement and pass the baton, so that momentum accelerates, as it did from Moses to Joshua, Elijah to Elisha, and most remarkably, from Jesus to the apostles! Let us learn from their successes through succession, which sustains revival!