Every day Johnson Kell visits is a good day. Today was a good day. Though we were initially talking about some sad and depressing matters happening currently within churches of Christ and particularly a west coast university traditionally affiliated with the church, Johnson cannot help but talk about good and wonderful things he’s seen and experienced within God’s family. He told the true story of how one positive experience has made such a ripple effect within our wonderful brotherhood. It centers around a young man steeped in a denomination but dissatisfied with their teaching. He had a friend, a love interest, who was from Wyoming. She attended a funeral in Casper and was so impressed by what was said and done by the local church of Christ there that she was converted. She told this young man, who had moved to work on a golf course in Ventura, California, where Johnson and Dorothy was attending at the time, about the church. He visited. The Ventura preacher, Floyd Davis, studied with Ken, who obeyed the gospel. Ken went on to marry, not the Wyoming girl, but another young woman attending with him at Harding University. He went on to get his doctorate degree in Texas and has built a fine Christian home.
That story by itself shows the power of the gospel upon an honest and open heart. When someone is searching for truth, he or she will find it! If one has no interest in God’s truth, no amount of persuasion or argumentation may be enough. The gospel still works, however dark our world seems to be getting.
Yet, as beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen is a heart seasoned by decades of trial and triumph. As Johnson relayed this story to me, he choked up several times in his elation over the conversion of the young woman and the young man. Never have I known one as touched by the gospel and its positive effects on others as Johnson is. Get him to talk about the cross of Calvary, heaven’s plan of salvation, the joy of Christian fellowship, or any such similar subject and tender emotion will follow. Listen to him pray. Tap into his vast reservoir of memories of the church and you get a transparent view of beautiful faith. Spend any length of time with Johnson and you know he’s spent lengthy time with Jesus. Every time we part company, I pray, “Lord, let my faith shine like Johnson’s.” Hebrews 13:7 seems to be speaking of elders, but the principle applies to this former elder: “Considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (7b). When it comes to Johnson’s life (and all those like him), that’s my advice!
In 2008, I traveled to Bangladesh and spent an unscheduled night in the Capitol city of Dhaka. It’s likely that I passed the eight-story tall Rana Plaza building on that trip, given its proximity to my hotel. I certainly saw many like it. But on April 28, 2013, during morning rush hour in one of the most densely populated countries of the world, Rana Plaza collapsed and killed well over 1000 people. It was the deadliest garment factory accident in history. Why it happened is an outrage. It was built on swampy ground. Extra stories were constructed without proper authorization. Costs were cut everywhere they could be. Because of this, a huge number of people paid the ultimate price.
Did you know there were warnings? Cracks appeared in the walls the day before and the building was evacuated. But five garment factory owners who had space in the building ordered their employees to go back inside Rana Plaza on that fateful day. This fact caused global outrage, spawned boycotts and led to calls for international sanctions. It was rightly considered unacceptable and inhumane for such conditions to continue to exist.
There is an infinitely greater problem invisible to the naked eye. Billions of people are building their lives upon a foundation guaranteed to fail. They have either never come to Jesus, or even more tragically they have heard Him and ignored His appeals and warnings for safety.
In Luke six, the point of Jesus asking, “Why call Me Lord, then do not do what I say?” is to teach that we must build our lives on the foundation of Him. In Jesus’ illustration there, the first builder is well protected. He has dug deep and laid his house on the bedrock foundation. The second builder has no protection. Incredibly, he builds on the ground with no foundation at all. In 1 Corinthians 3:11, Paul says there is no other foundation to build your life on than Christ. In that context, Paul warns against building on other foundations—the foundations of men. Our lives must be built on the bedrock foundation of Christ. The very foundation of the church (cf. Mat. 16:18) is the one we must each choose for our lives. “Storms” are coming, including the ultimate storm at the end. On that day, it will matter how you built.
Elders are identified with three broad terms. As Gary Hampton has put it, those who serve congregations in this honored way should not be offended that the term most often associated with them is the one that identifies them as old. Not only are they “elders,” but they are also “shepherds” and “overseers.” “Shepherd” describes their pastoral function: caring for the spiritual and emotional needs of the flock, knowing the sheep, and building relationships with the sheep. Too often, people confuse preachers as the ones associated with this role.
They are also “overseers.” In one way, this term is almost self-defining. They are to oversee the affairs and activity in the congregation they serve. In another way, there may often be confusion about what it means to oversee.
They should not be “over hearers.” They must be communicators and “contactors.” They cannot rely solely on hearsay and rumor. They cannot afford to be so detached from sheep life that they are uninformed. While they rely on information from preachers, deacons, and the “general membership,” that cannot be their sole means of information regarding church life.
They should not be “over meeters.” I have heard it said that elders should visit two hours for every one hour they meet. Although that may be unscientific, is it not saying that personal contact with church members is at least twice the job that coming together and making decisions about those members is? How can anyone best decide about sheep with whom they have not spent quality time? Certainly, lengthy meetings are draining and frustrating to elders. Often, overseers are in danger of burn out from marathon sessions.
They should not be “over workers.” God has not placed the entire workload of the church on elders’ shoulders. Almost always, men are appointed elders because they have proven themselves diligent workers in various areas of church life. Yet, as it was in Moses’ day, when elders are overloaded with the church work “alone” (Ex. 18:14) what they are doing “is not good” (Ex. 18:17), it is “too heavy” for them (Ex. 18:18), and they “are not able to do it alone” (Ex. 18:18). That means elders should not be doing deacons’ work and deacons, by definition, should.
David E. Smith, an elder with the Birdville congregation in Heltom City, Texas, said, “Let me confess up front that I’m guilty. Guilty of not letting deacons do their jobs so I’ll have more time to do mine. I think most elders fall in this category from time to time. There is an urgent need for us to change our “modus operandi”! …Sometimes I get overly involved with our deacons’ work which distracts my attention from spiritual matters. And there is never a lack of spiritual matters needing attention” (“Questions Of Eternal Consequences,” Ft. Worth Lectures 1999, pp. 267-268). With regard to church work, let overseers be delegators of work rather than devourers of it all.
They should not be “overreactors.” Faith is vital to effective pastoring. Financial contribution is vital to church work. Disgruntled members are an unpleasant reality from time to time, and some can never be placated short of letting them always have their way. People are growing older. Most every church should be more evangelistic and all churches could be growing more. These are some of the burdens God’s shepherds must bear.
Elders no doubt regularly lose sleep and generate stress over such matters. Yet, as God makes elders overseers (Acts 20:28), He will supply their needs (Phil. 4:19). It is God’s work, and He blesses all Christians who step out in faith in service to Him. That certainly applies to the valiant work and oversight of His shepherds.
We cannot “over praise” elders. They are definitely not over-rated. They work over time. It is amazing that they are not overcome by the heavy task they execute. Let us all be reminded of what these special men known as overseers are truly called to do. It takes extraordinary men to do this heavenly task. “Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb. 13:17b).
I cannot imagine anyone present yesterday morning to witness Janice Lee baptized into Christ could have failed to be touched at a very deep level. J.J. and Lila Brennan had been studying the Bible with Janice, and she came to the conclusion that she needed to be baptized for the forgiveness of her sins. So, she came to the front after my sermon and made that desire known.
She was in a wheelchair because she suffers left side paralysis as the result of a stroke. She is also on oxygen. Several ladies and a few of us men took special measures to help her into the baptistery. She could walk, slowly, gingerly, and with much difficulty. The ladies helped her up the stairs, while we stood in the water to receive her and help her the rest of the way. Each step was tenuous and required the utmost effort on her part. Once she was finally in the baptistery, we carefully lowered her under the water and brought her back up. Very quickly, her deeply felt emotions gently bubbled to the surface. She softly cried, recalling difficult things from her past, and she said, “I forgive those who’ve sinned against me.” The joy and peace on her face is something impossible to adequately describe.
What did this new sister in Christ demonstrate yesterday? Resolve! Afterward, I found out not only that she had to deal with the consequences of the stroke, but she is afraid of water. Yet, she saw the need of her soul as preeminent over any obstacle she might have cited. The constant need of oxygen, the paralysis, and the phobia were outweighed by the Lord’s command. Her faith was so strong that they were not insurmountable barriers. She refused to let them be!
The difference at the Judgment, in part, will be that some will offer excuses for why they did not obey the Lord while others, through genuine, trusting faith, will not need to make excuse. They will stand before Christ, who will see His blood covering their transgressions. What does it take to go to heaven? A “no matter what” obedience!
Paul recounted his conversion on several occasions and spoke of his attitude toward Christianity before embracing it himself. Of the many ways he described his pre-Christian life, think about what he said in Acts 26:11. He describes it as being “furiously enraged” at Christians. He ravaged the church (Acts 8:3). He breathed out threats against them (Acts 9:1). He had the power and desire to punish them (Acts 22:5). He was a violent aggressor toward Christians (1 Tim. 1:13). What changed him?
The word of Christ did (Acts 27:14). Jesus taught that among the conditions of heart is the good and honest one (Luke 8:15). The teaching of Christ can change people’s minds and attitudes.
A changed view of Christ did (Acts 27:15). Though Scripture does not explicitly tell us his view toward Jesus before his conversion, His vicious reaction to “The Way” (Acts 9:2; 22:4) reveals that he was absolutely opposed to the view of Christ asserted by the disciples, that He is Lord (cf. Acts 2:36). Yet, on the road to Damascus, encountering Jesus, Paul immediately begins to acknowledge Him as “Lord” (see how Luke emphasizes the Lordship of Christ in Saul’s conversion in the account in Acts 9—1,5,10,11,13,15,17). A person will have a dramatic attitude adjustment toward Christ who comes to acknowledge and appreciate Him as Lord and Master.
A more profound life’s purpose did it (Acts 27:16-21). Christ outlines His purpose for Saul—a minister (16), a witness (16), opening people’s eyes (18) as his own were. Whatever the focus of a person’s life, it is not as meaningful as when Christ is in the center of that focus.
16th-Century Scottish historian, John Knox, wrote, “No one else holds or has held the place in the heart of the world which Jesus holds. Other gods have been as devoutly worshipped; no other man has been so devoutly loved” (Haythum Khalid). That is true for those who come to take Him as He is presented in the Bible. In the public marketplace where ideas are sold and traded, we will encounter people whose mindset toward Christ and His Way mirrors that of Paul’s before He was converted to Him. Our task is to live Him in our lives and, if possible, share His Word. If their heart is good and honest, the Word will change their view of Christ and their view of their life’s purpose. If that happened so frequently in the unfriendly environment of the Roman Empire of the first-century, it can happen in our current culture!
One of the more ingenious and amusing entrepreneurial moves I’ve ever heard is the company that offers to sell you a star. For a price, you can buy a star and name it for a loved one. The company will send you a gift pack along with registering the star in the name of the one you, the buyer, designate. I have never been able to figure out how that company earned the right to sell something no one will ever visit, hold, or otherwise show tangible ownership of.
When I think about some of the new, strange religious ideas along with some long held, established ones, it reminds me of the folks selling the stars. Preachers and whole denominations offer salvation on their own terms, altering and subtracting from the Lord’s established will as if salvation was theirs to offer. They urge people to pray a prayer or accept Christ in their hearts, guaranteeing them salvation by so doing. Or they tell a seeker that the Holy Spirit will irresistibly come upon them, filling them and by so doing indicate an experience of grace. Or they urge parents to sprinkle their babies, saving them from what they call inherited sin. The problem in all these scenarios is that people are offering what is not theirs to give. Christ has already established the plan that saves the lost person—hearing the gospel (Rom. 10:17), believing it (Rom. 10:10), repenting of sins (Rom. 2:4; 6:17-18), confessing Christ (Rom. 10:10), and being buried in water in order to enjoy the new life in Christ (Rom. 6:1-4).
The same things occurs with worship. People claim to stand in the place of Christ and tell others what is and is not acceptable to God. They propose changes in who can lead in worship (cf. 1 Tim. 2:11-12), how worship music is to be done (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), and when the Lord’s Supper can be taken (1 Cor. 11:23-26; Acts 20:7). Some would say that dance, weightlifting, incense-burning, drama, and the like are acts of worship God will accept, though they do so without a scintilla of appeal to the New Testament.
When it comes to the will of God, He has exclusive rights over that. Christ does not share His authority with anyone (Mat. 28:18). He makes the rules and determines right and wrong. Beware of anyone who is selling anything else (cf. 2 Cor. 2:17).
Melissa Smith contacted KGTV in San Diego, California, to make an interesting report. She had watched a pregnant woman and her little boy beg for money at a local shopping center. Many people gave the woman money. Melissa happened to watch the woman, who held a sign reading “Please Help,” get into a car with a man driving a Mercedes Benz. A follow up story, a few months later, found what appears to have been the same couple driving a brand new Mini-Van that still had dealer plates. The address for the Benz owner was an upscale apartment that rented for $2500 per month (10news.com). There are many people in legitimate need of financial help, and there are many more legitimate ways to contribute to their assistance than handing money out of a car window.
Yet, there’s an application I want to draw from this extreme case. As incongruous as it is for a Benz owner in a fancy apartment to stand on a corner and beg, there is something more out of place. In Colossians, Paul describes Christians as those qualified to share in an inheritance (1:12), attaining to all the wealth attached to that (2:2), partaker of all treasures (2:3), and owners of an unparalleled prize (2:18). Do we ever live like spiritual paupers? We do when we allow worry, doubt, immorality, fear, guilt, or any similar thing to cause us to live like and act like the impoverished world who has no access to these wonderful spiritual blessings. We have a place in glory reserved with Christ (3:4). We have no need to beg for the scraps the world can offer. Let us live like the rich children of God that we are!