What’s in a Name?

In my Bible reading recently I noticed how Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, used different titles to designate the early Christians. Seven of these terms appear in one narrative. As I pondered the question of why Luke did this, it occurred to me that these were not merely stylistic flourishes. He was hinting at what Christians really are supposed to be.

For example, in Acts 9:2, Luke refers to Christians as those who belonged to “the Way.” Later on in Acts, Luke would use this descriptive term at least seven more times. Jesus said, “I am the Way” (John 14:6).

Christians are called “saints”  in verse 13, or in the words of the New International Version, “holy people.” This is the identity of those who are set apart for God’s purposes.

Then in the same chapter, verse 14, he refers to “all who call on your (God’s) name.” Luke is quoting Ananias, the leader whom the Lord commissioned to baptize Saul of Tarsus at his conversion. Saul (later to be called Paul) has been persecuting those who call on the name of Jesus. Now he has become one of them!

Next, Luke uses the term “disciples” to refer to Christians. Verse 19 says Saul spent time with the disciples in Damascus after his conversion. A disciple is a learner, a follower of a worthy instructor.

Luke uses the language of family love to call Christians “brothers” (sisters is implied) in Acts 9:30. (The most recent edition of the NIV uses the gender-neutral “they.”) In this narrative, Saul’s fellow-Christians were seeking to protect him from assassination by enemies of the gospel. That is what brothers and sisters do for each other.

They are called “the church” in verse 31. This is an inclusive term to designate all followers of Jesus in a large region of Israel at that time: Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.

Finally, in Acts 9:41, Christians are called “believers.” They are the ones who have faith in Jesus as savior, who trust the message of the gospel.

What’s in a name? Luke’s descriptive language in Acts 9 uses different shades of meaning to convey important truths about a Christian’s true identity.

Jesus is “the Way,” and those who believe in him are on the only way to God, and to eternal life (Acts 16:17, 18:25-26). As “saints” they are called to be “made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (2 Timothy 2:21).

Christians habitually “call on (God’s) name” in prayer. In all circumstances, they “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). They are to be “disciples,” those who learn the Word of Christ and obey it. Jesus said, “Learn from me” (Matthew 11:29).

” Brothers and sisters” are members of the same family. The obvious implication is that the spiritual ties that bind Christians together are very much like (and are often deeper than) the natural bonds uniting a human family. In Luke 8:19-21, Jesus said this would be true.

The “church” is literally an assembly of believers called together to worship God in the name of Jesus his Son. Paul used exalted language to describe the majestic importance of the church (1 Timothy 3:15). Christ loves the church so much that he “gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). True Christians are to love the church (John 13:34-15) and assemble as the living church gathered in Jesus’ name (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Acts 9 closes with a story of many people believing on the Lord Jesus through the ministry of the apostle Peter. “Believers” are people who no longer trust in themselves or their own efforts to gain eternal life. They trust only in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. This is a term Luke uses throughout the book of Acts to teach that salvation is through faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone (Acts 4:12, 15:11, 16:31).

In his descriptive language, Luke is showing us different aspects of what it means to be a Christian and to live as a Christian. Does he describe you?

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner





The Myth of Moral Neutrality

This past week Coach Brad Self suspended indefinitely one of his University of Kansas basketball players for his part in a brawl at the end of a game against Kansas State. The Big Twelve Conference swiftly suspended three other players for their part in the melee. The fight earned reprimands for both schools from the league. Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby said, “This kind of behavior cannot be tolerated and these suspensions reflect the severity of last night’s events.”

Playing by the rules is something everybody understands. We know that there are boundaries and rules that apply to both sides. That’s what is behind the instant replay timeouts that interrupt football and basketball games these days. It’s a desire for the right call to reward the right players for playing the right way, according to the rules of the game.

This is true of life. It is impossible to play the game of basketball unless it is played according to the rules within the boundaries of the court. In the same way life is to be lived in cooperation with the moral standards which God has built into his universe. Morality is living life in agreement  with God. The game has to played within the boundaries.

Unfortunately, there are those who want to pretend there are no boundaries. A team of doctoral students went into the streets of Boston with clipboards and video cameras, interviewing people about their beliefs. One of the questions was, “How do you determine what’s right and wrong; are there moral absolutes?”

The answers they got reveal how postmodern views on morality have influenced our society. A college student was adamant: “I don’t think there’s such a thing as an absolute. I think society tries to give you their beliefs about what’s right and wrong, but really, you just have to bring it down to what is morally right for you.”

Another man on the street added, “I have to judge what’s right or wrong for me. No minister, no preacher, can tell me that.”

A young woman who was interviewed summed it up. “I don’t think there are moral absolutes. I think a person should just be able to do what they want and justify it because they want to do it. I don’t really think there is a right or wrong to anything” (Graham Johnston, Preaching to a Postmodern World).

Graham Johnston went on to say, “No wonder the tensions grow between the rights of the individual and the rights of society… . What gives any one person or any one system of morality the right to dictate to another? Someone put it this way, ‘When you lose the law of God, you end up with a society of lawyers.'”

Moral neutrality is a myth. All law is an imposition of someone’s morality. The ancient Greeks had a race in which a man would put one foot on the back of one horse and his other foot on the back of a second horse. He would then try to ride both of them standing up. This would work unless the horses separated. Then the rider had a decision to make. He had to choose one horse over the other.

American society is faced with a similar choice. We must choose to live by God’s moral agenda or we are left to fight it out among ourselves. The winners are the ones who can afford the best lawyers.

Moral neutrality is a myth. Everyone believes in standards of right and wrong. Charles Colson proved this with the following illustration. Suppose you see an elderly lady standing at a busy intersection. You have three options: ignore her, help her across the street, or shove her into the traffic. What is the right thing to do? We cannot say we do not know. Everyone knows what is right.

Where did that knowledge come from? It came from God. Philosopher Mortimer Adler once wrote, “More consequences for thought and action follow the affirmation or denial of God than from answering any other basic question.” If there is no God, or if his opinion does not matter, then  anything is acceptable. In that situation, sooner or later, society, families and individual lives dissolve into chaos.

Those basketball players in Kansas were penalized severely because they didn’t play by the rules. Playing the game of basketball according to the rules is pleasurable. Getting suspended is not. When we live life according to God’s loving commandments, we are able to live fully and joyfully, living in-bounds, playing by the rules, as we were designed to live, in the freedom of grace.

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner




Que Sera,Sera…So Why Pray?

The question is sometimes framed like this: “If God already knows what will happen, if he has a plan and he is in charge, then why pray at all? Whatever will be, will be.” This expresses the age-old tension between divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Thinking about this for too long makes my brain tired.

Tired, or just plain lazy? Is my sinful self just looking for an excuse not to pray? In a startling confession, C.S. Lewis admitted, “Well, let’s now at least come clean. Prayer is irksome. An excuse to omit it is never unwelcome. When it is over, this casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin. We are delighted to finish. While we are at prayer, but not while reading a novel or solving a crossword puzzle, any trifle is enough to distract us” (Letters to Malcomb: Chiefly on Prayer).

He wrote these words while contemplating human selfishness and spiritual weakness. He said, “The truth is, I haven’t any language weak enough to depict the weakness of my spiritual life.” This brazen acknowledgment of his sinfulness seemed shocking until I came around to admitting my own sinful inadequacy in prayer.

The stark truth is that prayer is a battleground and the enemy doesn’t readily yield territory to us mortals. This gets me back to my opening question: why pray? One reason is, in the words of Timothy Keller, prayer is “rebellion against the world’s status quo. Indeed, it is listed as a weapon in spiritual warfare against the forces of darkness (Ephesians 6:12).” We live in a world that is organized against the will of God. Prayer, then, brings our orientation back where it belongs: to God himself.

We pray because of who God is. Prayer forces our minds, and yes, even the posture of our bodies, to come before our Creator in praise, humble confession, thanks and asking for what we need. E.P. Clowney put it this way, “The Bible does not present an art of prayer, it presents the God of prayer.” The more we see and know God for who he is, the more prayer will follow. Our understanding of God shapes our praying.

Then there is the way prayer changes us. Prayer positions us as persons who act as those who are known by and have value to God. Lewis wrote, “The passive changes to active. Instead of merely being known, we show, we tell, we offer ourselves to view. To thus put ourselves on a personal footing with God … we assume the high rank of persons before him.” And by the agency of the Holy Spirit, we are permitted to call God “Abba, Father,” in the most intimate way.

Such awareness, of God, of ourselves, of the world, of the powers of evil and of the nature of prayer itself, all prompt us to pray, and to pray boldly. Jesus illustrated this in a parable. He asked his hearers to imagine a man banging on the door of his neighbor at midnight. He has unexpected guests and no food to offer them.

The neighbor tells him to stop bothering him or he’ll wake up the whole household. He tells him to go away. Then Jesus asks, “Is that really how the neighbor is going to react?” His implied answer is no.

Because the man at the door is bold and persistent, he will indeed get up and give him the bread that he asked for, as much as he needs (Luke 11:5-10). Jesus says this illustrates how we should pray with “shameless audacity.” It is not that God is reluctant to hear and to help. It is that he values the kind of bold desperation described in the story. That is a lesson for me when my prayers are tentative and my faith is weak.

“Ask,” Jesus said. Asking implies a need and a recognition of God’s willingness to meet the need. Ask with audacious persistence. Ask, expecting an answer.

“Seek,” Jesus went on to say. Seek the Father’s will above all else, as Jesus taught us to pray. “Your will be done on earth” is a way of praying as the Lord Jesus prayed. Seeking also means pursuing the will of God in everything else we do.

“Knock,” implies persistence. It is not wrong to keep knocking on the door of heaven. In the language of the New Testament, the present tense of these three verbs implies continuous asking, seeking and knocking. The first verse of Luke 18 says, “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”

Why pray? If we pray for no other reason, the fact that Jesus said it is normal behavior for his followers, makes it a priority. We may not understand fully how our praying fits into the accomplishment of the sovereign will of God. But the fact that he commands us to pray says that it does. Reason enough.

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner






It’s a Beautiful Thing

It’s a beautiful thing when men meet together to pray. For many years I have participated in a monthly gathering of local pastors who get together to pray for each other, for our churches, and for our city and nation. We have supported each other when times have been hard, and we have shared each others’ happiness when life has been easier.

We represent different faith traditions, but we are united in our reverence for Christ and the gospel. Each month we meet in one of the churches and pray as expressed in the familiar hymn: Before the Father’s throne we pour our ardent prayers; our fears, our hopes, our aims are one, our comforts and our cares (“Blest Be The Tie That Binds” by John Fawcett, 1782).

The benefits are real. Praying together builds trust and respect among the ministers. It lessens the possibility of professional jealousy and undermines the unholy tendency toward competition between churches. We know and love each other. We really do. It’s a beautiful thing.

It’s a beautiful thing when friends get together to read books and discuss what they are reading. I belong to a readers’ group inspired by the men in the circle of friends that included C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They called themselves the Inklings and they met regularly in the Eagle and Child Pub in St Giles’ Street in Oxford, England, from 1933-1949.

At our meetings, a member brings a book for each of the other participants to read during the coming month. We come to the next meeting prepared to discuss the book, and related topics suggested by the theme of the book. There is food, banter, laughter, and deep friendship.

Our group is called the Penlights. We have been meeting for over thirty years. Our leader solicits personal letters to the group from the authors whose books we have read. These are shared at the midsummer meeting. These letters, often from well-known writers, usually express delight in knowing we have read his or her book in this context of friendship.

John Eldredge wrote, “A boy has a lot to learn in his journey to become a man, and he becomes a man only through the active intervention of his father and the fellowship of men.” Many men today live their lives in isolation. They do not know how lonely they are. It was for good reason that Jesus and Paul joined their disciples into teams of men and taught them to pray together, to learn together and to encourage each other in living for God. It is a beautiful thing to share life with men who do this.

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner



Satan Will Eat Dust

Judging from recent history, the new heavens and new earth have not yet arrived. We get fresh reminders every day of the feverish activity of the great enemy of creation, Satan himself, and his demonic compatriots, “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12). It seems obvious to me that the authorities and powers of this dark world are on the loose and are carrying out a deadly agenda.

Hardly a week goes by when we have not heard yet another harrowing report of mass murder in a house of worship, or a school, or a public space. Some commentators use terms like “the new normal” to describe the frequency of terrorist bombings, ethnic violence and civil unrest around the world. It is as if the news media, without realizing it, are telling us there is a sinister cosmic power orchestrating an evil strategy.

I am glad to report that Satan will bite the dust. I refer to Isaiah 65:25 where it says that “The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox, but dust will be the serpent’s food. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain.” This picture of “new heavens and a new earth” (Isaiah 65:17) is a promise to be fulfilled when in the end times God restores harmony and peace to all creation.

I find the prospect attractive, especially the part about the serpent eating dust. This is an allusion to Genesis 3:14-15 where we read that the offspring of the woman (Christ) will ultimately crush the head of the serpent (Satan). This good news was proclaimed right at the beginning of the Bible, and it is repeated in various ways throughout. The concluding book of the Bible reminds us of the overthrow of Satan, the great serpent (Revelation 20:2, 10).

This raises an obvious question many people ask, “Why doesn’t God destroy Satan now and put an end to his evil works?” It is hard for us to grasp with our limited understanding, but there are scriptural answers that speak to this.

First, Satan, subject himself to God’s sovereignty, has been permitted to test and discipline some of God’s faithful servants. Job, Paul, Peter, and others were explicit targets of Satan within the permissive will of God. Their godly submission to these trials of life were public proof that God’s people love and serve him in spite of the attacks of the enemy. Jesus’ response to his temptation in the wilderness was a resounding defeat for Satan.

Second, every time an individual trusts in Jesus Christ for eternal salvation, Satan is defeated. The world is under Satan’s control for now (Ephesians 2:2). He uses its resources to oppose Christ and his gospel (2 Corinthians 4:4). So when people come to faith in Christ for salvation, this testifies to the beauty and attraction of Christ, and an individual’s rejection of Satan and his works. This brings greater glory to Christ than snuffing out Satan with raw power. John Piper wrote, “God’s aim is to magnify the glory of Christ through the gospel.”

Another reason why God does not immediately destroy Satan is to accumulate an indictment against those who eagerly follow him to destruction. They love sin and they choose to embrace Satan’s lies and corrupting influences. Romans chapter one makes clear that they will be without excuse before a holy God. Revelation 20:7-10 has a chilling description of how, even after a millennium of world peace and perfect justice, Satan will gather a final world army to try to make war against God before the final judgment. God will use Satan to prove the sinfulness of humanity.

The new heavens and new earth are not here yet, but they are coming. Isaiah’s poetic description is beautiful and comforting. He promises, “Dust will be the serpent’s food.” This agrees with Paul who wrote, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). God is the God of peace. His peace will finally come when he crushes Satan in the end. And peace with God is possible now for any person who trusts in the atoning sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.

There will be some battles against Satan in the year ahead. You and I can resist him and he must flee (James 4:7). Every time you see a cross this year remind yourself that Satan has lost the war and he will someday bite the dust.

    –  Pastor Randy Faulkner