Contending for the faith | Making Disciples | Equipping the Saints for Ministry

    As the age of the dispensation of grace winds down, the days are filled with an intensity that can be felt, while spiritual darkness is growing more ominous. Because the greatness of this darkness is overshadowing the world we live in, we must ask ourselves if this present state has paralyzed us with fear, or are we becoming complacent because of indifference and hopelessness; or, are we preparing to run what remains of the “race” with the same intensity in order to complete the course?

      In last month’s article I wrote about how the Christian life is a race. The Apostle Paul said this at the end of his life, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).   I will deal with the first and last part of this Scripture in later articles, but right now I want to focus on the second part of his statement, “I have finished my course.”

      Not long after this statement, the Apostle Paul was beheaded for his faith. One minute he was present in his body, but in a matter of seconds, he was ushered into the glorious presence of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:8). Can you imagine the wonderful homecoming he experienced? How he must have been rejoicing as he looked into the beloved face of his Lord.

      It is clear by Paul’s statement that as he honestly faced the end of his physical life, he could say that he indeed had finished the course before ever stepping across the finish line marked by heavenly glory. As I read Paul’s statement, I asked myself if I would be able to make such a declaration. I’m aware that in the past I have spent valuable time chasing after worldly dreams, pursuing fleshly agendas, and taking various detours along the way in an attempt to make life fit according to my terms. As a result, at times my Christian walk was sporadic and powerless, and if I did manage to run towards some goal, it proved to be fleshly and worldly, which caused the victory to become elusive or temporary at best, while proving to be aimless in purpose, and utterly worthless in significance.

      It was as I matured in my Christian life that I realized that the Christian race was not about competing with others, but running my own personal course, designed just for me by my Creator. Even though the goal is to receive the prize in the end, much of the Christian race in this present age has to do with staying the course, ever pressing forward in spite of the hardness of the path, while avoiding the ever-present temptation to waver from the ordained track.

      The challenge to stay the course is clear when it comes to running the race, but in our initial state as Christians, the idea of Christianity being a grueling race that tests resolve, character, and devotion is lost in the original zeal of immaturity and religious assumptions.  It is not unusual for new Christians, when they learn that the Christian walk is a race, to attach romantic notions to it that fizzle out in times of testing, while others may make a mental note of it, but store it on some shelf for a later date. In time the mental note eventually becomes buried in the dust of lifeless intentions as the Christian settles down into a comfortable state of religion, parking in a particular pew, spiritually falling asleep while being enfolded in the security blanket of doctrine, and pacifying self with so-called “good works” such as attending church, giving a helping hand, paying tithes, occasionally reading the Bible, and praying in times of desperation.

      I can’t help but ask, “Is this truly running the race?” To run any race requires forward action. However, there is a difference between simply “running” and “running a race.” Running can be nothing more than physical exertion, while a race implies there are specific goals and a finish line. A person can run anywhere, run from something, or run towards something, but the one who is running a race has a set course that will clearly discipline the steps he or she takes.

      This brings us to the next question. How many Christians are simply running (busyness) when it comes to religious activities, and how many are pacing themselves as they run the race? To me the biggest issue for Christians, when it comes to running the race, is not their unwillingness to be participants, but their confusion and despair in not knowing how to run the race. They do not know what is expected of them, and some fear they might become lost along the way because the path is unknown, uncertain, and untried.

      The biggest reason for Christians not running the race is because they have never really learned to walk the walk. The discipline of running begins with learning the discipline of walking. Discipline is a big part of any race. When Jesus called believers to be His disciples it was to bring about the necessary discipline to prepare them to run the course set before them as His followers. Jesus clearly set the pace for every runner by becoming a living example of what it would mean to run the course, leading a believer in the right direction. The key is that believers must choose to become devoted followers of Christ. If they do not see Him leading, they will stop to avoid becoming lost. If He gets too far ahead, they need to speed up in order to keep Him in their sight, and if He slows down, they need to make sure that they don’t pass Him by.

      Since there seems very little personal challenge for American Christians when it comes to the Christian walk, complacency has taken Christians captive. Sadly, much of this captivity comes out of pure “boredom.” There is no inspiration or lasting satisfaction when it comes to the Christian walk. It is more of a weekly duty or an emotional “fix” that one must participate in to get on with life or get through the week, than a satisfying way of living. Instead of feeling fulfilled, lethargy becomes the norm, as seething frustration slowly seeps through the cracks of despair.

      I don’t like to use the word “bored,” because when I was a child, my mother always warned me that she would give me something to do to silent my ungrateful attitude and fill my time with constructive activities; but, the fact is how many American Christians have seen the real move of God? How many are simply being entertained while being spiritually dulled down? How many in the upcoming generation have actually witnessed the power of God? How many are prepared to step up to the plate to be in the right position to carry the torch from the previous generation, or pick it up where it was dropped by one who has gone on to glory?

      The questions could continue, but I am sure you get the point. The whole purpose of discipleship is so that the generations that follow us will be prepared to take up the torch of the Gospel and carry it to the finish line. That is why the Apostle Paul stated, “follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1) More importantly, how many people who are following behind us actually witness us carrying the torch of the Gospel, while the love of God burns brightly in our hearts as the hot branding iron of godly devotion leaves an indelible mark on our souls, identifying us to our Lord and Master?

      I have come to understand as a minister of the Gospel that my sole purpose in this world is to prepare others to carry the torch of the Gospel, whether it is in their home, job, or some arena in society. I am saved because others have carried that torch down through the centuries and have passed it on to those who followed behind. That torch was passed to me by two women who were bold enough to share the Gospel with me and committed enough to faithfully carry the torch in front of me. It was clear to me that their Christianity was not something they tacked on; rather, it was something they believed, walked out, and were faithful to impart to others.

      To properly consider what it means to run the Christian race, we must consider how we view the Christian life. Do we see it as a religious burden of do’s and don’ts? Do we consider it a religious exercise that requires us to put on a certain hat, dress, and smile when we attend church to keep “God off our backs,” while the rest of the time belongs to us? At such times we can be assured that we are not running a race; rather, we are just putting in our time.

      If all we are doing is “putting in our time,” why attend church? What is the purpose of going to church if we are not prepared to do business with God to ensure a right relationship with Him, and worship Him in Spirit and truth so that we can come out with a greater sense of who He is? The purpose of church is for the edification of the saints—to build up, encourage and exhort one another to accept our high calling and run the race to the finish line (Ephesians 4:16-17). Hebrews 10:25 puts it this way, “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”

      How many churches are nothing more than a social club? What are Christians feeding on when they personally interact with each other? At such times how many Christians talk about everything but Jesus? They share about things instead of sharing their testimony about Jesus and what He has done for them in the way of salvation and what He is presently doing for them because He is faithful. How much excitement about Jesus is present when Christians come together?  Is the spotlight being constantly turned on Jesus in personal fellowship so that others are looking to Him, considering Him?

      What will it take for those Christians who are not really running the race to be inspired to do so? The answer lies in purpose. Purpose has to do with focus. The Christian life is full of purpose—to ever make an eternal difference. It satisfies the spirit, inspires the soul, and ensures discipline when it comes to the body. In order to live it, Christ must be our focus. He must be the one we fall in love with, become identified to, and constantly lifted up before our eyes and others. Like David, we must fix our hearts on Him to ensure He remains our focus (Psalm 57:7).

      In this world, it is easy to have a divided heart (idolatrous) that becomes half-hearted towards Jesus. A divided heart causes great conflict because it can only focus on one attraction at a time as it pursues one heartthrob at a time. It cannot be divided in loyalties without frustration. It cannot serve two masters without experiencing anger. A satisfied heart is one where the person has sold out, and consecrated all to the one true Lord and Master, Jesus Christ.

      Clearly, the main reason that Christians fail to run the race is because their hearts are often divided. A divided heart not only senses confusion and frustration, but it usually looks outward to the world to be satisfied. This is because the person has believed the lie that initial salvation or religious affiliation is enough religion. It may be true that one can get enough religious exposure, but one can never have enough of Jesus. Religion may be bound by doctrines, rules, and rituals, but Jesus is eternal. We can put much emphasis on certain doctrines, but we will never have the spirit that results in true fellowship, a fellowship that can only happen when people come together on one common ground for the purpose of edifying one another. That ground is Jesus, and it is on that ground where people will partake of Jesus together, experiencing true satisfaction.

      The truth is we will be learning for ages to come about the mysteries that surround the Lord’s grace that expressed itself towards each of us in His great redemption (Ephesians 2:7). It is for this reason that we are told to put our affections on things in heaven and not on things on the earth (Colossians 3:2). David put it this way, “Thou wilt shew me the path of life; in thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore (Psalm 16:11). Jesus is the one who sits on the right hand of the Father. In Him we can know the fullness of joy and glory in the pleasures that are attached to Him. Putting our affections in the right place is the only way we can ensure that the Jesus of heaven becomes our main and preferred attraction. However, to determine the direction of our affections requires personal discipline when it comes to our emotions and feelings.

      New Christians start out with worldly palates. Their emotions have been trained to be stirred up by sensationalism instead of the Spirit. Their feelings are triggered by sentiment or a false sense of expectation and euphoria instead of by the truth. As a result, a new Christian who is operating strictly according to emotion or feeling is not prepared to tune into reality and face the different challenges of life in light of Jesus Christ. When Christians insist on defining Christianity according to worldly palates, they will seek religious entertainment rather than true fellowship of the spirit. They will be attracted to worldly worship that makes the flesh temporarily feel good rather than desiring the move of God that causes the mind to soar upward, and the heart to align itself to the truth of God in unadulterated worship.

      This brings us to another aspect of focus and that is what one values. We only put our focus on something we think is worthwhile. For example, we focus on those whom we love, we only consider those things we think are worth our attention, and we concentrate on that which takes on personal meaning to us. When we focus on something, we emphasize it, lift it up in our mind, and direct our affections towards what has become our preference. And, what do we prefer the most—the right to live life on our terms, the world, or the Lord? In John 3:91-21 Jesus talked about those who prefer darkness over light because their deeds are evil.

      This brings us to the final aspect of focus, and it has to do with vision. Wherever our focus lands, that is the direction we walk in. The challenge, when it comes to focus, is that some Christians may unknowingly have eyes only for the world. Such focus is on temporary things; therefore, they can’t see afar off. When they consider the unseen world, it becomes a confusing blur, a point of contradiction because one can never bring the world and Christ together.

      The Apostle Paul talked about those who are blind to the light of the true Gospel in 2 Corinthians 4:3-6. They may have knowledge of spiritual things, but it all seems foolish or impractical when it comes to putting it into action. If Christ is going to be our focus, we must have the eyes of faith to see beyond this present world and sensitive hearing to discern when the Spirit is speaking to us about spiritual matters.

      The Apostle Paul encountered five reactions toward the Gospel in Acts. The first response we are going to consider came from Gallio in Acts 18:12-16. He was a decent enough official when it came to government matters, but he was indifferent to the spiritual matters surrounding God. He actually drove both Paul and the Jews away from his judgment seat because spiritual matters were not his concern.

      The next response that needs to be pointed out came from a man by the name of Felix in Acts 24:24-27. He showed some interest, or maybe curiosity towards the Gospel. Acts 24:25 even shows us that Felix was affected by the message that Paul shared with him, “And as he (Paul) reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when I have convenient season, I will call for thee.” (Parenthesis added.) Even though Felix was affected by Paul’s message, he was a procrastinator towards it because he preferred his devious ways. He was hoping that if given enough time in prison, Paul would offer him a bribe.

      The third response came from a man named Festus. Festus considered himself to be a rational man, and when Paul shared his testimony, he declared him mad (Acts 26:24). Spiritual truths are often deemed foolish by those who pride themselves with their worldly intelligence and rationality (Romans 1:21-28; 1 Corinthians 1:26-28).

      The fourth response came from King Agrippa. He knew about Jewish beliefs and could have related to what Paul was saying, but he would not allow himself to be persuaded by the Gospel. The reason why is because according to history he was in an incestuous relationship with his sister Bernice (Acts 26:28).

      The final group is made up of individuals like Lydia, Justus, and Crispus who believed the Gospel (Acts 16:13-14; 18:7-8). When you study the history surrounding Lydia, you know she carried the torch when her home became a meeting place for saints. According to the Revised Version, Justus was also called Titus, and some believe that he was the Titus who traveled with the Apostle Paul. Crispus was a ruler of a synagogue, and even though there is no record of what he did after his salvation, I can’t help but believe that as a ruler he was already established to make a difference within the Jewish community.

      Which of these groups are you associated with? I pray that every reader fully identifies with the fifth group—those who believed the Gospel, are saved by grace through unfeigned faith, and are faithfully carrying the torch in this dark world.