October 21, 2018
Most of us know, likely by experience, that new believers and new churches are much better at evangelism than older, established, seasoned, mature believers and churches. That is, the so called conversion-growth-rate is much higher in new churches than established church. What is the conversion growth rate? The number of new believers divided by the size of the church indicating a percentage of conversion growth – not growth by existing believers coming to the church – rearranging the saints, as it’s been called – but growth by new believers. It’s much higher among new churches. Why is that? The staff recently read a book together titled, The Unstuck Church in which the author suggests new churches are committed to evangelism by passion and necessity. By passion, because they are committed to the Great Commission, and by necessity because, if they want to grow and become viable, they need more people.
He then also suggests as churches grow and become established, they become more inwardly focused – on programs and maintenance – frankly, on themselves. And they forget the call to make disciples through evangelism and discipleship. Interestingly, I have a book in my library from seminary titled, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church.
Why is it that new believers are more passionate about sharing their faith than older, mature believers? I suppose I could ask it this way, why are new believers more committed to carrying out Christ’s last command, than mature believers? There are lots of reasons given: apathy, fear, lack of compassion, busyness, etc. You see, new believers have experienced the incredible grace of God afresh, and can’t seem to keep quiet about it. But, given time – with failure, familiarity, fear, and shame, they often join the ranks of mature believers. Does that seem backward to you? I recently read a blog entitled, “How to Douse the Evangelism Passion of a New Believer” by a youth evangelist. Intriguing title. The author began with this – it’s lengthy, but insightful:
“Have you ever been around a teen who has passed out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of light? Their eyes have been opened and they are thrilled about the new relationship with Jesus they’ve just discovered! The genuine joy and freedom that come from Jesus’ grace and forgiveness spontaneously bubble up out of their souls. It’s like they’ve just won the lottery and they want to tell everyone the good news!”
“What’s the typical response of the church to this unbridled new believer excitement? Why of course, we douse it. ‘Isn’t that cute,’ we say to each other, with a knowing smile, ‘I remember back when I was idealistic and naïve too…’ And then we quickly shove them into a 12 week discipleship course and exegete all the excitement right out of them. Our goal is to make them as boring as the rest of us, perhaps because we’re uncomfortable about our own lack of zeal for the Good News that long ago transformed our lives. We justify it by assuring the new Christian who’s on fire for Christ that there’s so much they need to know before they try to tell others about Jesus. ‘You’ll get eaten alive,’ we say protectively. ‘Someone might make fun of you and that might make you want to turn tail and abandon your new faith. So it’s best to wait until you’re older and know more before you try to tell others about the gospel.’”
So, it’s a well-intentioned dousing, isn’t it? I wonder if most of us can remember times of evangelistic zeal and passion. When come what may, we were eager to share. But then, as this writer suggested, we tried and failed. We tried and were eaten alive. Ridiculed. Opposed. Shamed. And so we matured. Or more likely, got distracted.
And yet, is not being ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ a mark of a true believer – or at least, an obedient one? Come what may? In our study of the book of Hebrews, we’ve found the author is writing to Jewish believers who had faced opposition for their new faith in Jesus. You see, early on, as new believers, they were apparently open, dare I say, excited about their faith. But it cost them. As a result, they were actually considering returning to Judaism – abandoning Christ and His gospel, and returning to Moses and the Law – which, by the way, never justified anyone.
And so the author writes to encourage and warn them. I won’t review all that again. But the warnings have been severe. The one last week, I know, troubled many of you. We were frankly reminded to walk away from Jesus and the truth of the gospel meant there remained no sacrifice for sinners to reconcile them to God. Oh no, there only remained a certain, terrifying expectation of judgment and a fire of God’s fury. The last words last week to these who were considering walking away – to those who had stopped meeting together. Oh, not because of the things that distract us – a focus on earthly, temporal things like wealth and pleasure. No, some had stopped meeting because of opposition. And by quitting, they were putting themselves at eternal risk. So the last words to them last week were, it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
It was a severe warning. But as he often does in this letter, having warned them, he immediately turns to encouragement. And here, he encourages them by calling them to remember past suffering and sacrifice – more, to remember how they responded to past suffering and sacrifice, proving the reality of their faith. Therefore, he calls them to endure again. Read the text with me, Hebrews 10:32-39.
Do you remember former days, when you first came to faith in Christ? Do you remember then, or perhaps since, periods of passion for Jesus and His gospel, come what may? Let me outline the text:
- Remember the Past (32-34)
- Endure in the Present (35-36)
- Hope for the Future (37-39)
He’s just finished his severe warning, and continues with the word, but. It’s a contrasting conjunction. It ties to what’s come before – it’s a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God, but remember. Remember the former days, when you had just been enlightened. He used that word back in chapter 6, the previous, severe warning – and we saw it refers to those who have been enlightened by the gospel. They’ve come alive in Christ – to saving faith in Jesus. They transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.
So he says, remember the former days, after you became a Christian, you endured great conflict of sufferings. Why? Well, clearly it was because they had become Christians. Jesus promised it over and over – if they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. The NT is full of promises of suffering. Paul said, it has been granted to you, not only to believe in Jesus, but also to suffer for His sake. Opposition, persecution, sacrifice and suffering is part of the Christian life. Notice, it was a great conflict of suffering. It could be translated a great contest of suffering – the word contest is the word from which our word athletics. NT authors often liken the Christian life to an athletic contest – why? Because of the discipline and hard work required for success. Here, this was a great contest of sufferings – plural – this was serious opposition. Now, we’ll learn in chapter 12, they’d not yet experienced martyrdom. But it was coming. And understandably, they were struggling.
So the author encourages them by reminding them of past sufferings. Notice, he doesn’t say, remember when you first came to faith in Christ, how good everything was? Life was happy and good and prosperous. This is simply a bump in the road. No, he says, remember your past suffering – more, how they had endured before. And I would say to many of you who suffered in the past for being open about your faith – it may have cost you, but you’re still here. And it was likely in those times of suffering you grew more faithfully and steadily. You see, God’s grace was sufficient, then, and it will be, now.
And just how had they suffered? He tells us in verses 33 and 34. Partly by being made a public spectacle. The opposition to them was put on public display. This is the word from which we get or word theater. That’s interesting – your opposition was like watching a TV show – everyone saw it. They were publicly reviled. Through reproaches – ridicule, taunts, disgrace, insults. But it seemed to go beyond public ridicule – it included tribulations or afflictions as well. That could actually speak of physical harm – violence, loss of job or livelihood, loss of property/possessions, as we’ll see in a moment.
Further, even if they weren’t the targets of the verbal and physical attacks, they became sharers with those who were so treated. How? They identified with those being persecuted, and as a result, no doubt then received their own share. One way they identified was to show sympathy for those in prison. Their hearts went out to those in prison, such that they did something about it. They had compassion on them. Now, we need to talk about that a moment.
Back then, prisoners were not well-cared for. In fact, they received only the bare minimum to survive – and in many cases, less than that. Prisoners were not pampered, they were punished. They were actually dependent on friends and family to visit them and take care of their physical needs. Literally, bring them food and water, or they wouldn’t have it. Later, in chapter 13, he will say, remember those in prison, as though with them.
But, to do so was to identify with that prisoner. Now here, it’s clear these prisoners were so because of their faith. And so, to visit them, to meet their physical needs, was to identify with their faith, and put yourself at risk. This, by the way, is what Jesus meant when He said in Matthew 25, when I was hungry, you gave Me something to eat, when I was thirsty, you gave Me something to drink, when I was a stranger, you invited Me in, when I was naked, you clothed Me, when I was in prison, you came to Me. You know the rest of the passage – they asked, when did we do that to You, Jesus? And He responds, inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, My brothers, you did it for Me.
Please don’t miss that – My brothers – other Christians. Just this week, Tana and I went to a Christian concert down in Charlotte with some friends. As is often the case, in the middle right before intermission, there was a presentation of some great needs for a village in Mozambique. The presenter began by reading the Matthew 25 passage. Then he talked about how village children needed clothing and food and clean water. They needed monthly sponsors. He had lots of videos that no doubt tugged on our hearts. He read the text again, this time, leaving out those important words, My brothers. He then pleaded with us to give. He finished with, the first thing he was going to do with the money was to provide clean water. No doubt, a need.
But I had two challenges with his very long, heart-felt presentation. First, it was completely devoid of the gospel. Now I suppose he may take the gospel with him – but there was no mention of that, at all. Second was his misapplication of the text. Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, My brothers. Jesus is talking about Christian care for others as we suffer for the gospel. Now to be clear, we should be involved in so-called social justice. We should – and in fact, Christian do lead the way in providing medical care and clean water and food, etc. But we should be sure to take the gospel with us – and we should not misapply the Word of God to motivate and manipulate Christian hearts.
So, these people willingly put themselves at risk of personal harm by visiting other believers who were in prison for their faith. Further, in addition to showing sympathy to the prisoners, they accepted joyfully the seizure of their property. So somehow – he doesn’t spell it out – but somehow, these believers because of their faith – through personal reproaches or tribulations – or identifying with those so treated – they accepted the loss of property. What is that – goods? Houses? Lands? Possessions? He doesn’t spell it out. Was it official action? Was it mob rule? We don’t know. There is lots of evidence of communities at this time running out certain people – like Jews or Christians – who then subsequently lost their property. This really happened. Because of their faith, they lost their possessions. Was it wealth? Meager belongings? I don’t know – but it seems to have been significant loss. Those things we work all our lives for and hold dear.
But notice, he said, they joyfully accepted the seizure of their property. What? How could they do that? We are reminded of two other NT passages – one, instruction from Jesus, the other, a story of the early church. In Matthew 5, Jesus is giving His famous beatitudes, and ends with this one:
10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.
12 “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great…”
Really – we are supposed to be happy, joy-filled – rejoice and be glad when people persecute us for our faith? The second passage in the NT is a story found in Acts 5. I’ll summarize it. The apostles were performing many miracles and preaching the gospel. Don’t miss that – they were doing good and preaching the gospel. They were arrested by the high priest who put them in jail overnight. An angel opened the gates and rescued them. What did they do, run? No, they went right back to the Temple and kept preaching. The temple police went and brought them back to the Sanhedrin, who questioned them, then flogged/beat them and ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus anymore. They released them. Then we read these incredible verses:
41 So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name.
42 And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
Wow. How? How in the world did they not only keep preaching, but rejoice they were considered worthy to suffer? How in the world are we supposed to rejoice and be glad when persecuted? How in the world did the first readers of Hebrews accept joyfully the seizure of their property? The rest of verse 34, “knowing that you have for yourselves a better possession and a lasting one.”
There are two things to notice about the possession we have that awaits us. First, it is better – one of the author’s favorite words. It’s better – better than what? Whatever you have, or whatever you pine for, whatever you want to have, whatever you covet when you see the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Whatever you want, what you already have promised is better. Second, it is a lasting possession. You want to confiscate my stuff? Take it – I have an inheritance that will never pass away – it is lasting. All those things we want and even covet in others will one day be mothballed. In a dump. Rusted and rotted away. But the possession we now have, for which we wait, is lasting. Eternal. It’s completely opposite of the world’s philosophy, by the way. We say, buy now, pay later. God say, sacrifice now, receive later.
All that is the past, I’ve got to cover the last two in a couple minutes. Point two – endure in the present. Notice verse 35 begins with the word, therefore. Having remembered the former days in which you endured, do not now throw away your confidence, that is, your confidence in Christ and His gospel. Hold on to it. Persevere. Don’t discard it. Don’t throw it away. Because it has a great reward coming. The NT never shies away from holding the promise of reward as motivation for persevering. The best is yet to come. Hold on. Don’t give in now.
And then he says, you have need of endurance. You need to remember past endurance, and use that as encouragement for present endurance. Now remember the context – they were considering quitting Christianity because of their suffering. He reminds of their past suffering as an encouragement to continue in suffering. To endure. You did it before – now keep doing it. By the way, that presupposes that we don’t give up meeting together – meaning, we don’t keep our faith secret. Incognito Christianity. No – it cost to share your faith in the past – now, keep on sharing and suffer joyfully. Why? So that, when you have done the will of God – remaining faithfully committed to Jesus – you may receive what was promised. You have an eternal inheritance that awaits.
Please do not miss endurance, perseverance in the faith is necessary to prove the reality of your faith, and to receive the reward of eternal life.
Point three, keep your hope fixed firmly on the future, verses 37-39. As he does, more than any other, he quotes the OT for biblical support. Here, he quotes Habakkuk 2. In verse 37, he reminds us, in a very little while, He who is coming – actually, I like the literal translation better, the Coming One will come, and not delay. What does that mean? It means that Jesus, the One who promised to return, will come. Yes, it’s been awhile. But in the grand scheme of eternity, in a little while, the Coming One will come.
And so, verse 38, My righteous one shall live by faith, trusting the promise of His coming to make all things right. I know it costs you, but continue to live by faith, believing. Because, if he shrinks back, God says My soul will have no pleasure in him. Just a little warning to remind us of the earlier warning – to shrink back from the Christian faith is to invite certain, terrifying judgment – because God will have no pleasure in the one who rejects Christ.
But, verse 39 – and here’s the encouragement – we are not of those who shrink back to destruction. We are not those who will desert Christ and His gospel. No, we are of those who have faith, resulting in the preserving or saving of our eternal souls.
We are out of time, and I knew we would be. But last week, I challenged you to not be ashamed, but to share the gospel with one person. Did you? Did fear, failure, familiarity, shame, keep you from sharing? I pray not. We are not of those who shrink back – we are of those who share Christ, who declare we are followers of Christ, come what may.