Living it: Module 1 - Studies 1 to 3
Study 1: Building faith
In Matthew 17 is the story of the transfiguration of the Lord Jesus. Following that is the incident when Jesus and the three disciples, Peter, James and John, come down from the mountain to be confronted by a man whose son is possessed by a demon. The remaining disciples have been unable to cast out the demon. Jesus immediately casts out the demon and later instructs the disciples that it was their lack of faith that led to the lack of authority over the demon. Jesus says that even with faith as small as a mustard seed, "Nothing will be impossible for you."
There then follows a curious incident. Peter is challenged by the collectors of the two drachma Temple tax, "Doesn't your teacher pay the Temple tax?" Peter replies that He does. As they arrive and enter the house where they are staying, Jesus addresses Peter on the issue, and shows him that the sons are exempt from the King's taxes. Then Jesus instructs Peter, "But so that we may not offend them, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for My tax and yours."
That seems such a long, drawn out process - and more like a conjuring trick than a miracle. Why didn't Jesus just say something simple like, "Peter, put your hand in your pocket and you will find there a four drachma coin."? Could it be that, following on from a teaching about the importance of faith, the two incidents are linked and Jesus specifically chose an exercise that would test and build Peter's faith? Did Peter think it was a silly exercise? Did he wish he didn't have to do it? Did he wrestle with doubts and questions on his way to the lake? Of course he did! We know that from the very beginning, in the Garden of Eden, the devil seeks to undermines our faith with his doubts and questions. What was Peter's response to anyone who asked him, "Where are you off to Peter with just a single fishing rod?" "Oh, I'm going to the lake to get the Temple tax from a fish's mouth." Did the fish jump onto the hook as soon as Peter threw it into the lake or did Peter, like most fishermen, have to wait a while - giving the devil more time to point out the foolishness of the task? We don't know the answers; but we can be sure that the devil took every opportunity to attack Peter's faith.
There is a related story in 2 Kings 5. Naaman the Syrian - a great man and a valiant soldier, according to the Bible - had leprosy. He came to the prophet Elisha to be healed and Elisha instructs Naaman to, "…wash in the Jordan seven times, your flesh will be restored, and you will be cleansed." To Naaman this seems a ridiculous task, so he refused to do it. But Naaman's servant was a wise man and in his response to Naaman we can, perhaps, see the key to Jesus' instruction to Peter, and learn an important lesson for today. The servant says to Naaman, "My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, 'Wash and be cleansed.'" So Naaman washes and is cleansed of leprosy.
Maybe the real building blocks of faith are not those great challenges that sometimes cause our faith to falter - perhaps the building of faith is done through the small, day-to-day, perhaps seemingly pointless tasks that the Lord places on our hearts. A great man of faith, Smith Wigglesworth, was once asked how he had achieved such an amazing level of faith. He replied by quoting a verse from the Bible, from Mark 4, "First the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head." In other words, it starts very small and it grows. But even with that very small faith, such as Naaman and Peter may possibly have had, miracles can happen, and our faith can similarly grow and mountains can be moved.
Study 2: Getting through problems
Jesus said to His disciples, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give you.” It should be then that all Christians enjoy peace at all times; but, in reality, this is not the case. Christians have exactly the same struggles as anyone else and it can be hard to hold onto a sense of peace within us when the world has the ability to throw so many problems at us.
Many Christians are living through times of trouble and turmoil on a national scale, possibly with levels of violence and uncertainty that can create much fear and insecurity. For others, there are problems of how to survive when the cost of buying even the most basic supplies means that many will have to go hungry. For still others there may be news of an illness, or the loss of a job or some other completely unexpected development.
Jesus knew as much when He told His disciples that, “You will have trouble in this world.” And whether our troubles come to us as a result of Governments, finances, illness, family or simply troublesome neighbours, the fact is that there can be very few people who would describe their lives as trouble free.
In fact, in case we have any doubts, Jesus made it very clear what sort of troubles His disciples could expect. He says to them, and to us, “You will weep and mourn while the world rejoices.” And the Bible says elsewhere that Christians are “…aliens and strangers on earth.” God makes it very clear that Christians are simply passing through this life on their way to something far better.
So how can Jesus tell us that we can know the peace He has left with us, and yet tell us life will be full of troubles? How can we know His peace in the midst of turmoil? The answer lies in looking ahead. Jesus, when reassuring His disciples, said to them, “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no-one will take away your joy.”
We can have peace today by looking to our sure and certain future with Jesus. He has made so many promises that He will return and will bring healing to those who are sick, right all wrongs, place the lonely in families, bring justice where there is injustice, wipe away every tear and put an end to death, mourning, crying and pain.
It is because of this that the Apostle Paul says of himself and his companions – and Paul was a man who knew great hardship – “We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” And of the Lord Jesus Himself the Bible says, “…for the joy set before Him he endured the cross…”
Keeping our eyes, and our thoughts, firmly fixed on our futures will not take away our problems but it will help us through them, will help us keep those troubles in perspective and will enable us to live in that “…peace that passes all understanding.”
Study 3: Serve, and live
All Christians long for the return of the Lord Jesus Christ – and how wonderful if that should happen in our lifetime. But, at the same time, in the run-up to the Lord’s return, things will become pretty tough. It is, as they say, going to get a lot worse before it gets any better! And it is for this reason that we Christians must make sure that we have a good understanding of the Word of God – so that we can understand what is happening as events unfold, so that our faith will remain steady and so that we can discern the signs of the times. The following passage illustrates the need to be able to do all these things. It is 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12
“Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to Him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don't let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God's temple, proclaiming himself to be God. Don't you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of His mouth and destroy by the splendour of His coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.”
The passage starts with one of many warnings against deception. One of the hallmarks of the times leading up to the Lord’s return, as we will see in this passage and elsewhere, is deception. The Lord warns against deception in Luke 21. When talking about the last days He tells the disciples, “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in My name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them.” The Apostle Paul warns Timothy, in 2 Timothy 3, that, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.” So, hard times for the Christians, and ever increasing deception. And one of the areas of deception that the Bible warns against is self-deception. The Apostle James says, “Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” And the Apostle Paul, in Romans 16, writes, “For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I am full of joy over you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.” This seems to tie in with what James says, in that immediately after writing about the deception of naïve people, Paul compliments the Romans upon their obedience.
It may be that, as the times progress towards the end, Christians will need to pay much more attention to the Word, and much more attention to living out its teachings, if they wish to avoid deception and even self-deception. There is a danger, at least in the West, that we have had many decades of preaching and teaching of a form of Christianity that requires no real sacrifice, that allows life to go on essentially unchanged – an easy Christianity that actually bears no resemblance to so many of the teachings of the Lord, and the writers of the New Testament.
Paul has already warned Timothy, in 1 Timothy 4, that: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.” And this warning is clearly aimed at Christians. This matter is clearly something that Paul considers significant because he says in this study’s opening passage: “Don't you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things?” So in both his letters to Timothy, a young man whom Paul loved as a son, the Apostle has warned the young disciple about end time deception. And in his letter to the Thessalonians he brings up the matter again, and reminds them that this was a message he had shared verbally when he was with them in person. And perhaps surprisingly this deception will not all be satanic in origin! In 2 Thessalonians it says that “...God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie…”
With such clear teaching from the Lord, and such an emphasis from Paul, perhaps Christians today should pay more attention to the possibility of deception – and the only sure way to avoid it, which is knowledge of and obedience to the Word of God.
And surely part of the lie is that we can both be a Christian and yet keep our lives for ourselves? And is that part of the reason that the Church is not impacting this world in the way that it should? Is that part of the reason that the majority of unbelievers simply ignore the message of Christianity – because we have failed to demonstrate the teachings of Scripture, and they see very little difference between the way we Christians live, and the way they live? Yet Jesus clearly taught, in Luke 17, when speaking of the coming Kingdom of God, that: “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.”
It is possible to see elements of deception in the lives of Christians even today. There are those who have believed that Christianity is all about self-improvement, setting aside the sufficiency of the cross and living an inward-looking, self-critical life. Such a person is so intent on their own personal battle against the sin in their life, and so caught up in their determination to be “a better Christian” that the needs of the lost, the poor, the lonely, the outcast, the hungry, the homeless are never addressed.
And at the other end of the spectrum are the Christians who have believed that because everything is by grace, then a life of service would represent falling back under Law, so there is no need to do anything. And their lives go on with just token gestures towards a faith that is simply fitted into all the other activities of a fundamentally unchanged life. The daily Bible reading, the regular church attendance, the eliminating of coarse language and drunkenness, the helping of the needy when it doesn’t detrimentally affect their own lives. To avoid legalism, they avoid service – and are so deceived. And the needs of the lost, the poor, the hungry and homeless, once again, are never significantly or sacrificially addressed.
Understanding of the Word, study of the Word, would enable Christians in either of those two positions to have a correct understanding of what it is to be a Christian. We are saved by grace, the sin issue is completely dealt with, we do not need to spend our lives in a fruitless attempt to be “better” – the Bible says that God sees us as perfect. But the Bible also teaches, very clearly, that we are saved to serve. Legalism is not an issue because the motivation for such service is gratitude for salvation, not an attempt to win or enhance salvation. And if that service-inspiring gratitude isn’t there, that is a cause for concern. The Apostle John, in 1 John 3, puts it this way: “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in His presence.”
Hard times are coming! Much harder times even than those which exist today in some countries around the world. The Bible makes it very clear that there is still a war going on between God and the devil, a war that very much involves mankind. And the Bible teaches that leading up to the Lord's return this spiritual war - that is being fought in both the spiritual and the physical realms - will reach a climax of suffering and hardship for the Christians. We need to know these things, so that we do not weaken in our faith as the times do get harder.
Wars, if they must be fought, are best fought when both sides wear a different uniform and everyone can clearly see who is a friend and who is the foe. It is clear cut: to win the war we have to beat the people who wear a different uniform. With different uniforms we can see clearly how the war is progressing, we can see where greater effort is needed, we can see where we are winning. But what if the enemy is wearing the same uniform as us? It can become very confusing, very de-moralising. Who is truly my friend, and who is the real enemy - when everyone is wearing the same uniform?
Unfortunately, in the end times - which, according to Acts 2, we are in - the enemy, satan and his army, will be wearing the same uniform as the Christians. Listen to what the Apostle Paul writes in this study’s opening passage: "The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing." Miracles, signs and wonders - aren't these the things of God? Well, no; unfortunately, the enemy can counterfeit them. Not surprising really when the Bible tells us, in 2 Corinthians 11, that, "...satan himself masquerades as an angel of light."
In John 17 Jesus prayed, "Sanctify them by the truth; your Word is truth." The Bible is the truth of God revealed. Those who do not love the Word are open to all kinds of deceptions. Times are going to become harder as the war hots up and the end approaches. Deceptions will increase. The only way to stay safe is to love the Word of God – and to live the Word.
It is time to live out what we believe, to live out what the Bible teaches. The world desperately needs radical Christians for whom the revealing of Christ, and the defeat of the work of the devil, is what motivates them and provides their reason for being. And it is, in an age of increasing deception, for our own benefit to live out our faith in such a life-changing way. The Apostle James writes: “You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did.” Abraham’s faith was made complete by what he did; so is ours. We cannot afford to be idle Christians; we dare not be content to be sitting on the sidelines. With deception an ever present, and increasing, threat we need a faith that is rock solid, unshakeable, complete. And that, according to Holy Scripture, only comes through faith and action working together.
We serve our God, and ourselves, by serving others. And in every country around the world, today’s need is greater than ever.