Thoughts from sermon prep

This Sunday’s passage for the sermon is 1 Timothy 4:1-5.  As I was going through it in the original language and some different commentaries dealing primarily with the original language, something one said concerning the last 3 verses caught my attention because it reminded me of something Dr. Hoch, my advisor and main professor in seminary said numerous times.  This is from the Expositor’s Greek Testament commentary: “Paul had come to realize how tyrannical the weak brother could be and he had become less tolerant of him.”

I remember Dr. Hoch talking about the weak brother and strong brother, specifically in connection with Paul’s words to the Corinthian church.  Dr. Hoch talked about how the “offense” of which Paul spoke by the stronger believer against the weaker believer was misunderstood.  The typical use was when someone did something allowable in Christ (like consuming alcohol in moderation, for example) that somebody else didn’t like, but would never actually do, that was an offense.  “I’m offended that you did that” would be the common statement.  The idea was that the “weaker” believer would now become the standard for what was appropriate to do or not do.

Dr. Hoch said that he had never actually seen a “weaker” brother, for just saying, “I’m offended,” didn’t qualify.  If a person didn’t drink alcohol because s/he thought it was a sin, but didn’t start drinking because of seeing another believer do so, that person has not been offended, biblically.  Therefore, s/he is not a weaker believer.  Dr. Hoch told us numerous times that he had never truly seen a weaker believer.  When confronted by someone who didn’t like what he did but he knew to be permissible in Christ, saying, “Well, I never!”, his response was, “Well, then don’t!”

A weaker believer is one who, at his/her current spiritual maturity level, believes any consumption of alcohol to be a sin, observes another believer more mature in the faith who understands that drinking alcohol in moderation is perfectly acceptable in Christ, and then drinks him/herself and is convicted in his/her conscience of having sinned.  It is only at this point that the more mature believer has truly offended a less mature believer and only if s/he is made aware of it.  The more mature believer cannot be restricted from the activity because there MIGHT be a less mature believer around somewhere who just MIGHT be offended.  That’s not how it works, but I have heard that as an argument for not participating in certain activities, like the consumption of alcohol.

The less mature believer is not to be the standard for what is acceptable in Christ.  The more mature believer is to teach the less mature believer why it is acceptable for a certain demonstrated behavior or activity, like the moderate consumption of alcohol and, thereby, helping that less mature believer become more mature, growing in the truth.

Some may find this harsh, but there are Christian groups still today who espouse views about what is or is not acceptable that mimic those Paul teaches against in 1 Timothy 4:3-5.  I can only imagine what Paul would write to them if he were still alive today.


A real example of yesterday’s sermon

I am currently preaching through Paul’s first letter to his protege’ Timothy.  Yesterday’s sermon was chapter 3, verses 1-16.  The common use of this chapter is as a checklist in order to remove potential candidates for leadership when it should be used as a guide to help Christians mature.  I say this because we all should aspire to a higher level of maturity than the one currently attained.  The word Paul uses for “eagerly seeks” literally means to stretch forth or up, desiring something more.  Everyone is to aspire to be more, to go deeper in the full knowledge of Christ which brings unity and deeper maturity.

I titled the sermon, “How to Kill a Church.”  If in an attack the leadership can be compromised or nullified, it is then much easier to attack the rest of the body.  If this occurs, the church is in danger of diminishing or even outright being “killed,” or no longer existing in a specific location.

For this reason, it is so important for leadership to be mature and continuing to grow in that maturity, and that maturity is to be shared with the rest of the body.  If it is not, the body is in danger of remaining immature and susceptible to attack from the enemy.  But when it is leadership that is not demonstrating and growing in maturity, the rest of the body is effected.

There is a prime example of this very thing currently occurring in Seattle with Mark Driscoll and the Mars Hill Church.  This situation saddens me, but is an explicit reminder to myself and other pastors.  We must always be growing toward maturity in Christ, which is done not as much through proclamation as it is through living it out in real ways in the presence of the body.

Paul said to the church in Ephesus that God gave certain gifts (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor/teachers) so that the church would grow in maturity and the full knowledge of Christ which would be expressed in love and unity.  If leaders aren’t not continually growing in maturity and going deeper into what it means to be a follower of Christ in real-life situations, then those leaders can only take the body so far, and then stagnation occurs.

To a specific point, Paul tells Timothy that the maturity level of “overseers” must be such that that person is not open to attack and has a good reputation with those outside the church in the community.  When those two points of maturity are lacking, as is seen from the article, that causes damage to the church.

May it be a new reminder to all who would aspire or eagerly seek the office of an overseer.

Today’s Significance

September 11, 1977; February 1985; November 1985; January 3, 1993; early May, 1996; January, 2000; early August, 2002; April 22, 2003; early August 2003; September 14, 2003.  What is the common denominator between all these dates and periods?  They all hold significance in my spiritual journey.

  • September 11, 1977 – the day I gave my life to Jesus Christ
  • February 1985 – I hear my call into vocational ministry
  • November 1985 – have a prophetic word spoken over me about the meaning of my name: “Jim, you will be a warrior for God who steals the souls of people from the grasp of Satan.”
  • January 3, 1993 – I begin my ministry with the First Evangelical Free Church in Grand Rapids, MI where I serve with the Rev. Dr. Fred Moore, who became my mentor in ministry.
  • Early May 1996 – Pastor Fred dies at the age of 46 and I hear from a fellow pastor and mutual friend this: “Jim, what God wanted to teach you through Pastor Fred has been taught; time to spread your wings and fly.”
  • January 2000 – I move into full time operations management at UPS.  I didn’t understand the spiritual significance of this at the time, but later on, God used this move to reveal something crucial to my development for and in ministry.
  • Early August 2002 – My wife’s grandfather unexpectedly dies from a massive heart attack.  Because of this man’s influence on my life, his death causes me to move into a period of introspection which lasted over 9 months.
  • April 22, 2003 – I leave UPS.  God reveals to me that I had made money my god and that was why He allowed me to have peace when I moved into that position in January 2000.
  • Early August 2003 – I tell my wife, Mary Jo, that I believe God is calling me back into vocational ministry.  She tells me that it was about time.  She had known that since I left UPS, but was not allowed by God to tell me.

Then we come to September 14, 2003.  Let me give some necessary background which lead up to why this date was so significant.  I was taught growing up that a man provides for his family.  This was good in the sight of God.  It was and is.  Therefore, after leaving UPS, I searched for ways through which to provide for my family.  I became licensed to sell insurance, but that didn’t work out.  Even after realizing that God was calling me back into vocational ministry and had started sending out resumes to different churches, I continued to look into the classified ads in the newspaper for work.  So, that was what I was doing as Sunday, September 14, 2003 dawned.

In September 2002, Mary Jo and I had helped plant a new, multi-racial church in Muskegon, MI where we lived at the time. Both the senior pastor and I, the associate pastor, were volunteers.  This church worshiped in the African-American tradition.  It was “active” worship.  Also, within the African-American church tradition, church anniversaries are a big deal.  September was our one year anniversary.  So, to celebrate, other churches were invited, one at a time, to join us to help us celebrate.  We would eat a meal together, then the other church would lead us in worship.

The church invited to join us for September 14, 2003 was my home church, Calvary Baptist (now Four Winds) of Marshall, MI.  A friend of mine from seminary and UPS was the pastor there and the gifts of the Holy Spirit had broken out in that church a few years prior.  As I sat with my friend, Mike, I told him about everything that had been happening to me over the past few months.  After sharing, Mike told me that he wanted me to talk with someone who had come with him who had the gift of prophecy.

After worship, I spoke with Rhinehart. After sharing, he told me that he wanted to pray with me, but wanted his wife and Joe, the senior pastor, to join us.  So we gathered and began to pray.  When Rhinehart concluded his prayer, he began to speak in words unintelligible to me.  Meanwhile, his wife began sharing a vision that the Holy Spirit had just given to her.

The vision was of an ox.  This ox had yoke on it and, even though it was a good burden, it was holding the ox back from moving forward.  If the ox would just realize that if it took a step back, the yoke would fall off, it would then be able to move forward.  When she finished, Rhinehart stopped speaking in the tongue and said that the vision was the interpretation of the tongue and that I was the ox.  He asked me if I knew what the burden was.  I said I believed so but didn’t feel like sharing at that time.  We concluded and I went home.

Now, I need to say that something like this had never happened to me before that day.  And, understandably so, I was freaked out over it.  I was still buzzing with it when we got home.  The kids had gone into the house and Mary Jo and I sat in the van in the garage as I relayed to her what had happened and what I thought the burden was.

I no longer remember what I thought the burden was, but what I do remember is Mary Jo telling me that I was wrong.  She then proceeded to tell me that the burden was my concern to provide for my family.  God was reminding me that ultimately it was His job to provide for my family, not me.  Mary Jo further told me that everything she said to me she did so sentence by sentence as a voice in her head (not her own) told her to tell me.

The fact that I had been sending out resumes to churches while also searching the classifieds for work showed how that burden was holding me back.  Even though I believed that God was taking me back into vocational ministry, to which He had called me back in February of 1985, I had not fully committed to that path because of the burden to provide for my family and that, therefore, was holding me back from moving forward into what God had for me.

It was an important and significant lesson for me to learn.  It indeed was a pivotal point in my spiritual maturity.  My response was that I was done searching the classifieds for work and was demonstrating a full commitment to what God had revealed to me the previous month.  The following morning, I was having my devotional time in Proverbs 16, when I read this in verse 3: “Commit to the LORD whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.”  I said to God, “I got it, I got it.”

By the end of that day, I had had contact with two churches, one just a little north of where we lived and the other in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania.  And, in 10 1/2 weeks, I am in Pennsylvania as the new associate pastor of the Greenfield Baptist Church.  After serving there for 6 years, during which time I became ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA, I was called to north central Iowa to serve the First Baptist Church of Fort Dodge as her next pastor, where I currently am still serving.

But if it were not for that day, September 14, 2003, in which God spoke and moved powerfully and I listened and responded, I really don’t know what the past 11 years would have been like.  Because of that day, I have served two churches in vocational ministry with all of the experiences thereof.

And that is why today is significant in my spiritual journey and one of those important markers on that path.