Archives For God

By Eric Reed

Garden of Gethsemane.Jerusalem

Garden of Gethsemane.Thousand-year olive trees, JerusalemPassing through Gethsemane

A Baptist pastor said in an article I read recently that Maundy Thursday has become his favorite day of the Easter season. That was surprising, he admitted, since he didn’t grow up observing the day before Good Friday as anything special. Nor do many Baptist churches. But as he was called to pastor a church with a unique Thursday night Lord’s supper service prior to Resurrection Sunday, he took on the observance and came to appreciate it deeply.

I understood his experience. A couple of churches I served added Thursday services to their pre-Easter observance. At first, it was a matter of convenience for those who would travel on Good Friday to spend the weekend with grandma. But eventually we found we ourselves needed more time in the garden before we stood at the foot of the Cross, and ultimately at the vacated tomb.

“Maundy” Thursday may sound mournful, but the name itself comes from the Latin for “mandate.” A new commandment I give you, Jesus told his disciples in the upper room on that night, that you love one another. Maundy is a manmade term, as is the “Good” of Friday, but as for the events that happened that night, they are by God’s design.

After donning the servant’s towel and washing his followers’ feet, then giving them his body and blood in the first Lord’s Supper, Jesus led the crew, minus Judas, to the olive press on the other side of the temple grounds. Calling it Gethsemane, we forget that this was a working vineyard, where the crop was grown and at its maturity harvested, then crushed to release its treasure and fulfill its purpose. (Makes you have new respect for that bottle of oil in the cupboard, doesn’t it?) There, kneeling among the gnarled trees and the stone pressing floor, Jesus appears at his most human: suffering, knowing greater suffering was just ahead, wrestling, and yet willing.

And if we left the account there, we would miss several deep truths that make the events of Thursday night crucial to our understanding of Sunday’s victory. We might be tempted to think of Jesus as somehow less than fully human, that his deity abated his agony, if we did not see him wrestling in prayer while even his closest supporters a few yards away abandoned him in favor of sleep. We might miss a point of deep personal connection to Jesus that we need in our own times of crisis.

For Jesus Gethsemane was no rest. It is the place where one last time, his obedience and his surrender to the plans of his Father were tested. It is the place where God’s purpose and his own mission surpassed a momentary desire for relief from the pain of the night. And, blessedly, it is temporary.

In Gethsemane, the Father prepared the Son for the cross before him. Luke, who diagnosed Jesus’ suffering as bloody even in the garden, also tells us that God sent an angel to minister to Jesus.

The agony won’t last forever, but God knows we need help to get through it. And he sends it by his holy messengers. In our own seasons of crushing, we are lifted with the news that God has a purpose for the suffering he allows, and that it is temporary. God knows we hurt; God sends help; God sets a time limit.

In those times, it helps to know that Jesus suffered too. He cried over Lazarus. He cried out on the cross. And he endured in the garden where any remote possibility that he might put his relief ahead of our need was crushed: Not my will, but Yours be done, he said to the Father. We speak of “The Lord’s Prayer” as our model prayer. It, too, says, “Thy will be done.” But in Gethsemane, the prayer is tested and proven, and Jesus comes out the other side fully committed to finish his mission—at all personal cost to himself.

Finally, Gethsemane points to victory. To know the exhilaration of Jesus’ triumph over Satan and hell and sin and death, we must endure with him in his Gethsemane—and ours. In trial, we can be assured that Jesus has been here before. And though it hurts—a lot—we must not rush past Gethsemane, or we miss the magnitude of the victory, when the darkness of Thursday night surrenders to the brilliance of Sunday morning. And that light you see is the Son.

Eric Reed is editor of Illinois Baptist media. 

By Adron Robinson

Read: Psalm 25

When facing the dark days of life, to whom can you trust your soul?

We don’t know the exact circumstances of this psalm, but we know that David wrote it at a time when he was being attacked by his enemies. The attacks left him isolated from friends, hated by foes, and discouraged in heart. Yet, in one of the darkest times of his life, David made up his mind to trust in God.

Because God alone is able to deliver him from his enemies, David pleads for the Lord to save him from the shame of defeat (Ps. 25:1-3). David knows that God has a track record of faithfulness, so he puts his soul in the hands of the only one whom he could trust.
Next, David prays that God will direct him (vv. 4-15). He asks God to lead him into his divine will, while releasing him from the snare of his enemies.

David’s prayer is for God to reveal his will so that David can pursue God’s will. David doesn’t want to live outside of God’s will, so he asks God to order his steps. And on our dark days, we should pray the same way. David Livingstone once said, “I’d rather be in the heart of Africa in the will of God than on the throne of England out of the will of God.”

Finally, David prays for God to defend him from his enemies (vv. 16-25). In his darkest days, David asks God to guard his life and rescue him from his enemies. He places his faith in God to be his refuge. Out of gratitude for all God did, David is determined to live with integrity and uprightness.

When dark days come, don’t turn from God, turn to God. He alone is faithful to protect your soul.

Prayer Prompt: God, thank you for being the always faithful presence in our lives. May we turn to you on our darkest days, and may you lead us in the way everlasting.

Adron Robinson pastors Hillcrest Baptist Church in Country Club Hills and is president of IBSA.

In times of crisis, this heady Christian doctrine can become deeply personal—and reassuring.

By Eric Reed

Empty tomb

The empty tomb. Pastor Jon McDonald of First Baptist Church of Casey led a tour of Israel in January. His wife, Lindsay, is a gifted professional photographer. She shared from her album some scenes that serve to illustrate this article.

Prologue
May I tell you a secret? When I close my eyes, I still see my wife on her deathbed.

Please stay with me. This article gets much more upbeat soon, but I have to start at this point so you will know why resurrection is so important to me right now. And it’s not because I want to get a jump start on the Easter celebrations. My need to understand resurrection has become very personal.

It’s been five months since my wife died. We spent her last three weeks in Room 101 at the hospice here in town. When I close my eyes, I sometimes—make that often—see her laying on the hospital bed in silhouette against the window. Each day as the sun passed over the building toward her west-facing window, the outside light would become quite bright. And I, sitting on the opposite side of the bed in a vinyl chair, would stare at her, and beyond her into sunlight.

I can muster other scenes from those weeks: Her sister sitting on the sofa under the window texting relatives. Our dog coming for a visit. Friends praying and doing their best to cheer us. One couple bringing a guitar and my wife singing hymns from memory, even third verses, when she was unable to say much else.

And I can see the night when I played Gaither songs on YouTube, and during “We Shall Behold Him,” my wife lifted both arms upward and pointed. “What do you see?” I asked. “A glimpse of heaven? Your mother?” Eyes closed, she nodded. She was eager to see her mother and old friends from the church where she grew up.

Then she lowered her arms and clasped her hands together. “Do you want me to pray?”
She nodded.

I prayed kind of like Jesus prayed on the cross at the very end, commending her spirit to the Father.

From that time, she hardly moved. I sat there for most of two days waiting for her body to catch up with her soul, staring across her prone figure into the light.
That’s the image I see.

That’s why resurrection has become not just a doctrine, but an urgency to me. The Resurrection of Jesus? Certainly. What is our faith without it? But also my wife’s resurrection, and my own. Whole libraries have been written on the Resurrection of Jesus, but relatively little on the resurrection of believers, and even less about resurrection as a necessary present-time action.

For me this year, Easter is not just a happy dance outside an empty grave, but a time of seeking earnestly the assurance of things to come, the affirmation of reunion, and a down payment on glory. In the meantime, resurrection—not as a future event, but here and now—becomes enough to get us through the here and now.

If you’ve wondered whether you can make it through today, much less tomorrow, then join me as we think about resurrection.

Gethsemane

Gethsemane

One word changes everything
Weeping outside her brother’s tomb, Martha insisted that if Jesus had hurried on, Lazarus would still be alive. His first words to her were cold comfort. Her response to the promise that Lazarus would rise again seems to be more a protest than an affirmation. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day,” she said. But she was more concerned about the present day.

Jesus’ reply turns her to the truth standing before her: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live, and everyone who believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

If the religious leaders standing there in the cemetery heard Martha’s statement, some would have applauded, others would have shaken their heads. The Pharisees believed the righteous dead would be raised at the end, while the Sadducees argued there was no resurrection at all.

Martha’s reply hinges not on the teachings of the major schools of Jewish thought, but on the words that Jesus has just applied to himself. He is life (zoe in Greek), and he is the very thing that guarantees life.

A friend of mine phoned across the country to tell his parents their grandchild had been born, a beautiful baby they called Anastasia. The proud dad heard his own father, a seminary professor, laughing from a thousand miles away.

“Well, son,” the older man said, “that little girl will always stand up to you. And no one will ever back her down.” He chuckled some more. “You named her anastasis, the Greek word meaning to stand up again.”

When Jesus called on Lazarus to come out of the tomb, Martha and Mary and the crowd around them saw anastasis in action. Lazarus stood up again.

More important, that’s what Jesus did soon after at his own Resurrection—stand up again. It’s a simple phrasing for a complex event: anastasis describes plainly the pivotal point in history, for, as one observer said, without the Resurrection of Jesus, Christianity is quite literally dead.

The Father calls, Arise! and Jesus stands up. The One who lay down his life for our sake takes it up again and emerges from the place of death into life everlasting. As he does, Jesus proves to the world that he is the Christ.

Resurrection is proof that Jesus is alive. So much for claims that robbers stole his body: The grave was sealed and guarded. So much for the swoon theory: Jesus didn’t pass out, he died. The soldier’s gash in Jesus’ side proved it, as water separated from blood gushed out. And if more proof were needed, the grave clothes were still in the grave, and the head cloth was neatly wrapped and laid aside by one who sat up, stood up, and no longer needed it. So much for mouldering in the grave: He is not here, he is risen!

Jesus’ declaration that he is the resurrection was proven on Resurrection morning. But the question of what that means in our hour of need remains.

A down payment on our future
Baptists are not a creedal people, so not many of our churches recite the Apostles’ Creed on a regular basis. Yet, we find in those summaries of the Christian faith a statement that the early church fathers felt was crucial to their belief in Jesus: “I believe in…the resurrection of the body…” Likewise, the Nicene Creed lists “resurrection of the dead.”

From the fourth century onward, believers needed to state aloud, along with their systematic beliefs about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, their own hope for themselves. This was true in a largely illiterate culture, so leaders built the statements into the worship services. This was a necessary response to various movements in the early centuries of the church that denied or misconstrued the deity of Jesus, and belittled the future hopes of his followers.

“Jesus was raised from the dead, and we will be too!” If the worship service had been a pep rally, that would have been the cheer, starting in 325 A.D.

This simple statement affirming the resurrection is based on verses in the Gospels and Epistles, of which Paul’s masterwork is 1 Corinthians 15. What the apostle says briefly in Romans 6:5—“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his”—is unpacked in 58 verses to the Corinth church.

You can’t blame the Christians in Corinth for sounding a little selfish. “We believe in Jesus,” they might have said, “but what’s going to happen to us?”

Paul reminds them that his teaching about Jesus is of “first importance”—“that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day…” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). Whatever they may understand about their own coming resurrection is based on Jesus’ resurrection. Paul calls him the “first fruits” of the believers, in the same way that the first grains of the harvest forecast much more to come. (Around here, we would be more likely to talk about the first ripe tomato of summer or the first ear of corn.) There is such joy when the first fruits come in, because it’s only the beginning of harvest season and celebration.

Paul continues the agricultural imagery.

“‘How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?’….What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body….So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power” (vv. 35-38, 42-43).

“The analogy of the seed enables Paul to walk a fine line,” scholar Richard Hays wrote, “asserting both the radical transformation of the body in its resurrected state and yet its organic continuity with the mortal body that precedes it.”
That should be good news to us.

Sea of Galilee

Sea of Galilee

Will I know my mother?
In her final week, I asked my wife again if she was scared. Of death itself? “No,” she responded, “but dying is coming quicker than I expected, and dying isn’t so easy.” She knew that her faith in Jesus as Savior would see her through to heaven, “but,” she said, “will I know my mother?”

I was surprised by that question. I thought she knew that for certain, but now she needed reassurance. I rifled through my pastoral answers: Paul says, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV).

  • Mary recognized Jesus after his Resurrection when he spoke to her. The pair walking on the road to Emmaus recognized Jesus. He was somehow changed, but he was still Jesus.
  • Thomas saw Jesus a week after his first appearance to the disciples. Meeting them a second time in the upper room, the scars showed that his glorified body was still his body. In some way it was still his earthly body—changed, transformed, glorified, but still his.
  • From his boat, Peter saw Jesus at a distance barbequing a beachside breakfast. Realizing who it was, Peter jumped into the water to swim to him, and left the others to row the boat in.

In these scenes from Easter morning forward, we see that resurrection—his and ours—proves God cares about the person and our personhood. He’s not just keeping the ethereal, spirit-y part of us, but he promises the preservation of all that makes us us. The questions that come up about the deceased whose bodies are destroyed or lost or cremated are rendered irrelevant by these truths: We are all made of dust and to dust we will return, but God has promised to this dust that it will stand again. In the biblical examples we have, the person was known by those who saw him. Organic continuity.

My wife wanted to hear that. “Will I know my mother in heaven?” was a way of saying, Will Mom still be Mom? Will I still be me?

Frankly, it was a word I needed too. I needed assurance that at the resurrection of the dead, a body ravaged by cancer is somehow transformed into something immortal and incorruptible and glorious. God promises to raise us from the dead, preserves yet transforms us, and that action assures us we will be together again.

When and how, we don’t know for sure, but we’re sure it’s coming. And like my wife said, it seems to be coming more quickly than I expected.

“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).

As if there was any doubt. “I will arise and go to Jesus; he will embrace me in his arms,” the hymnwriter said. Or as Paul concluded his Thessalonian note: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

The Resurrection of Jesus foretells the resurrection of his followers. For me in recent months, that has proven to be a powerful, bankable promise from God. (See Philippians 3:10-11.) But what about the meantime? What does resurrection mean to us right now?

Baptism

The River Jordan

Throw some wood on the fire
Let’s be careful that this article doesn’t take a sharp, unwarranted turn at this point. That said, here is a road we should go down, if only briefly.
With Christ’s resurrection on one end of the timeline, and the promise of our own on the other end, what’s in the middle? I find an answer in that word we most often translate as resurrection: anastasis.

Literally the word means “stand up!” While linked theologically to life after death in many New Testament uses, it’s also a simple command to those who are sitting, resting, or, perhaps, lollygagging.

  • When Jesus called Matthew to be his disciple, the tax collector “arose” and followed him (Matthew 9:9).
  • Jesus told Jairus’s little girl to get up from her deathbed and she “arose” (Mark 5:42).
  • Jesus said the prodigal son came to his senses and “arose” to go to his father (Luke 15:18, 20).
  • Jesus told the one healed leper who returned to give thanks to “arise” and go his way (Luke 17:19).
  • The Holy Spirit told Philip to “arise” and head south for his divine appointment to share the gospel with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26).
  • And on the road to Damascus, Jesus commanded Paul to “arise” and go into the city for further instructions (Acts 9:6).

For those mired in grief, daydreaming about what might be, or lamenting what never was, this imperative is a big help. Stand up. In other words, until that final morning when we all stand up, there’s a lot of daily getting up to do and serving to fulfill Jesus’ mission.

There’s a lot of work to be done.

I’m still thinking about a story Pastor Ralph Schultz of Fieldon Baptist Church told at the Sandy Creek Association’s fall meeting. When he was a teenager, his family home was heated by a wood stove. Just before bedtime, his father would stoke the fire to keep the house warm overnight. Ralph would be snug in his bed and sleep soundly for several hours, but as morning approached, he would discover he was awake and thinking, “Someone needs to throw some wood on the fire.”

In a few minutes, Ralph’s father would call out from his own bedroom, “Son, get up and throw a log on the fire!”

“The house was cold, we needed someone to throw some wood on the fire,” Ralph said, “and I realized that ‘someone’ was me.”

Anastasis.

Epilogue
Maundy Thursday will mark six months since my wife died. On that day before Good Friday, I will retire some of my small grief rituals. Soon afterward, the dog and I will move to a new house in hopes of creating some fresh memories. And on Resurrection Sunday, I will arise and run with the disciples to the empty tomb, then beyond, seeking the Risen Savior.

“He is not here, he is risen,” I will hear.

And one day, by God’s grace, we will be risen too.

Eric Reed is editor of Illinois Baptist media and IBSA’s associate executive director for Church Communications.

By Mike Keppler

Open Bible

Growing Christians often make commitments to read the Word of God more faithfully each day. Some of that reading is done by reading the “whole of the Word” through a systematic read-the-Bible-through plan. Another way to read the Bible is in “small bites,” using a devotional booklet or app like Our Daily Bread.

Both reading plans are good and balanced. They give us daily exposure to the inspiration and instruction from God’s holy Word.

May I suggest another, less common way to read the Bible? When was the last time you read God’s Word aloud? We know the Bible itself instructs us to “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4:13). Worshippers know the value of the public reading of the Bible in responsive readings and liturgies. But the value of using our voices in Bible-reading goes well beyond merely enhancing our participation in corporate worship.

By reading Scripture aloud, I have experienced a deeper blessing personally and corporately for some years now. Privately, I have made a practice of reading my weekly message and Sunday school lessons out loud. At first, I was embarrassed to have anyone hearing me read to myself. I would review the selected text for the week in hushed tones and whispers so as not to invite questions from family members at home or staff members at church.

An ancient practice is changing our Bible study groups for the better.

I soon got over being self-conscious, because I have found a specific benefit to reading the Bible with my voice: I “hear” truths that I miss when I only read a passage silently.

At first, I was surprised by these insights and mistakenly thought that maybe I was just being too careless in hurriedly reviewing the text. However, as I continued this exercise, I saw something deeper in the practice. It was as if God was speaking to me at another level…audibly.

Now, in truth, I have never had God speak to me through his mighty, audible voice, like he must have spoken when the world was created or when he would speak to the prophets of old. But, as I read the Bible to myself, audibly, I hear him “speaking” in new ways. Words that I would have just passed over before come to life with meaning I would not have “heard” in my silent reading. This was both refreshing and insightful as I began to practice reading aloud God’s Word during my private study.

With growing curiosity, I read online about the practice of reading the Bible out loud. There has been considerable research conducted on communal reading. Dr. Brian J. Wright, an author, popular speaker, and blogger who serves as an adjunct professor at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has written extensively on how the practice of communal reading dates back to the first century. Dr. Wright says that Justin Martyr, an early church leader, instructed believers during that period to engage in the communal reading of the apostle’s memoirs and prophetic writings on the Lord’s Day.

History tells us the Torah was passed down audibly from generation to generation, preserving Jewish traditions and teachings. Even Scripture itself speaks to the power of hearing the Word of God aloud:

“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

I started practicing communal reading during my Wednesday night Bible studies at our church a couple of years back. Our regular attenders seemed to readily take to the exercise and enjoyed it. In recent months, I have been leading our auditorium Sunday school class in the same practice. Not everyone chooses to participate, but those that do have sat up straighter and spoken out louder with more authority and respect as they have joined in the reading.

I am now convinced more than ever that this simple engagement through communal reading of the Word is blessing both study groups. It involves us and inspires us to hear the Bible passage read with our own voices.

I encourage you to make a renewed commitment to read the Bible aloud and try to involve your friends in this practice as well. This refreshing approach to the Word will bless your personal worship and study and enrich your disciple-making ministries. I am convinced that as you read the Word aloud you will discover hidden truths and insights you haven’t “heard” before.

Mike Keppler pastored Springfield Southern Baptist Church for 26 years before
retiring in 2018. You can read his blog at mjkministries.com.

By Heath Tibbetts

I was supposed to die on a Tuesday in 1977. My 15-year-old mother had been scheduled to have an abortion despite her objections, leading her into the high school counselor’s office the Monday before that dreaded appointment. After hearing my mother’s story, Mr. Sheets called her mother attempting some mediation away from abortion, but to no avail. He hung up the phone and asked my mom two questions.

“You plan to keep this baby, correct? You know you may not be going home tonight?”
To both questions the brave 15-year-old responded, “Whatever it takes.”

Mom lived in a few foster homes around town for the next several months before and after my birth. She continued to go to school and wrestled with the idea of adoption. As the due date drew closer, she had decided to keep her baby and to be able to support herself within a year, which she did. Many people claimed my arrival would ruin her future, but she couldn’t bring herself to end an innocent life to correct a previous mistake. My mom wasn’t a Christian then, but she had no difficulty recognizing her unborn child as a life.

Leading on life
Moses concluded his leadership of Israel by giving them a final call to pursue God diligently. He gives the people two choices: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live” (Deut. 30:19). As leader to the people, he called them to choose life for their sake and the sake of future generations.

Our leadership today pales in comparison on the issue of life. In our state and across the country, officials work toward the expansion of abortion rights, like the law passed recently in New York that allows abortion up until birth. What leads people to applaud such a law? They have forgotten the value of human life.

America has long struggled to properly apply that wonderful statement from our Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” If this truth was self-evident, how did we refuse rights to the thousands of black slaves already spread throughout the colonies? The short answer is convenience. It was more convenient to exclude any mention of slavery from the Declaration, and later the Constitution, in order to unite the various states in one nation.

Issues of convenience continue to devalue life today. Abortion advocates regularly declare their concern for the health of the mother, but the top reasons for abortion in 2013 (as published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information) were “not financially prepared” and “bad timing.” Abortion is too often a procedure of convenience.

But the emotional scars carried by men and women who make this choice are anything but convenient. For years I couldn’t understand why I was my grandmother’s favorite grandchild. I’m not being a narcissist; everyone knew it was true. Only later did I learn Mom’s story and my grandmother’s role in it. My grandmother dealt with the guilt of even suggesting an abortion for decades after I was born, trying to make it up to me my whole childhood. Being able to tell her as an adult that I forgave her was probably the best gift she’s ever received from me.

“Pro-life” is being rebranded by opponents as “anti-choice,” but nothing could be further from the truth. I support every women’s right to choose avoiding sex if she’s not ready for a child. Children are rarely convenient. Even the married couple intentionally trying to bring children into their family quickly finds the dynamics of life and relationship have changed. Yet any parent will tell you these little lives are worth it.

The rest of the story
My mom was able to introduce me to her former high school counselor, Mr. Sheets, in 2002. I found myself imagining how his Monday changed when Mom walked into his office. What if he had been out sick that day or had decided not to get involved in a messy family situation? Mr. Sheets was the advocate that encouraged her to choose life, a life that became the first in my mother’s family to go to college, partnered to create the three coolest kids ever and has been used to impact lives, souls, and churches.

I often thank God for allowing me to escape the abortionist that Tuesday in 1977. My hope is to be an advocate for every unborn life in some way, attempting to convince people that every pregnancy is a creation of the Creator. I was not a choice. I am a life and every life matters.

Heath Tibbetts pastors First Baptist Church, Machesney Park.

By Nathan Carter

Like a growing number of churches, The Summit Church in Raleigh, N.C., cancelled services the Sunday after Christmas. Pastor J.D. Greear took some heat on social media for the decision, but should he? What’s wrong with skipping a lightly attended service and giving everyone a break after the holidays? What about the growing practice of occasionally cancelling a Sunday service in order to send the people into the community for outreach projects? Should we ever cancel “church”?

In order to answer the question, there are at least two prior questions we must settle in our minds:

First, is a weekly gathering on Sunday commanded by God? Regular Sunday services are a firmly established part of the Christian tradition. There is strong historical warrant for gathering on Sundays, but is it a biblical requirement?

The answer to that question depends largely on whether we believe the Old Testament commandment about Sabbath-keeping teaches an inherent seven-day rhythm to time and the setting aside of one day in seven for special use. Some Christians will point out that the fourth commandment is the only one that is not explicitly repeated in the New Testament. Others will argue that it was never explicitly annulled.

Is it OK to cancel services now and then?

It is clear that Christians are commanded not to forsake assembling together (Heb. 10:25). And there is an assumption throughout the New Testament that believers come together for meetings (see 1 Cor. 11, 14; James 2:2). But where did we get the idea that this expectation applies to every Sunday at the very least?

Well, Christ rose from the dead on the first day of the week and met with his gathered disciples that evening (John 20:19) and again on the next Sunday (John 20:26). In Acts 20 we read that Paul was in Troas for seven days and it was on the first day of the week that the believers all gathered together. 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 says to collect an offering “on the first day of every week.” Are these examples prescriptive, or merely descriptive? That’s an interpretative decision. Wherever we land, we must at least admit that the case for first day observance cannot be easily dismissed.

The second question we must consider is this: What is the purpose of the Sunday gathering?

We’ve all probably wrestled at some point with whether Sundays are for the saints to be edified or outsiders to be evangelized. I think we must answer, “Both!” Paul envisioned unbelievers having an encounter with God after walking in on Christians worshiping and ministering to each other (1 Cor. 14:23-25).

Even more fundamentally, however, we must reckon with the very essence of what it means to be the church. Most scholars agree that the word “church” (ekklesia) means “assembly.” This would imply that when the church assembles it is being most true to its identity.

So is gathering together simply one (among many) practical means of achieving edification and/or evangelization? Or is holding a public meeting a declaration of what it means to be the church, sinners reconciled to God and each other through the blood of Christ? These are important questions church leaders must resolve in their minds before calling off a corporate gathering.

My conviction is that there is something sacred to Sundays, not as a legalistic box to check to be right with God, but as a time for the church to gather as the people of God and be regularly reminded of what indeed makes us righteous and what alone has the power to save—the work of Christ. If workers need a break, find temporary replacements or schedule a simpler service. Cancel Christmas Eve, but stick with Sundays. And if only two or three show up, his presence is still among us.

Nathan Carter pastors Immanuel Baptist Church in Chicago.

By Meredith Flynn

Of all the buzz words floating around churches over the past decade, “community” might be the buzziest. Biblical community is something many churches aspire to now. It can take the shape of small group meetings, monthly dinner gatherings, or a simple encouragement to show hospitality. “Community” can also be used to describe in general the way we want to feel about church. We want community. The Bible tells us we need community. Right?

What about the family who struggles to make it to small group during the week? Or the newcomer who doesn’t feel comfortable sharing personal details with relative strangers. And are “older” forms of community—like Sunday school classes—still a valid expression of the concept?

I’ve felt those tensions in my own life and family. As a single adult, community wasn’t difficult. An evening meeting with people in the same stage of life was a welcome break in the middle of the week. But as a married mother of two preschoolers, it’s often difficult for us to get out of the house on a weeknight, and even harder to arrive in an attitude befitting community as we’ve come to understand it.

Is it a command for all Christians, or just people who are wired for it?

Our current situation begs the question: What is the value of community with fellow Christians, even when a particular set of circumstances or stage of life makes it challenging?

Thankfully for us, the Bible has much to say about community, even if the authors don’t use the term like we do. By exploring how Scripture describes early Christian community, we can start to define the characteristics that ought to mark ours:

1. Community encourages. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul tells the church there that he longs to see them so he can “impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you.” His aim isn’t just one-way encouragement. The apostle says he wants to be encouraged by their faith too.

When we put this in context, we can draw a parallel between their time and ours. Christians in Rome were being persecuted. The level of our persecution now is drastically less severe in most cases, but there is a connection. We as believers can encourage each other to continue in the faith, even when the circumstances of our lives are difficult, or the culture moves farther away from a real understanding of God’s plan for the world.

2. Community shares the load. “Carry one another’s burdens,” Paul tells the church in Galatia. He’s talking about sin burdens, commentaries note, but Charles Spurgeon extended the metaphor this way: “Help your brethren….If they have a heavier burden than they can bear, try to put your shoulder beneath their load, and so lighten it for them.”

Many burdens have been shared in community groups I’ve been a part of over the years. Depression, career disappointment, death of a parent or a sibling or a child. These burdens were shared verbally and then figuratively, as group members prayed for each other and kept in close contact.
Community gives believers an extra shoulder to bear the weight when it’s too heavy to bear alone.

3. Community provokes (in a good way). The writer of Hebrews encourages Christians to “watch out for one another to provoke love and good works.” Whereas the encouragement we see in Romans 1 undergirded the early church, the encouragement referenced in Hebrews 10:24 spurred it forward.

In a recent community group discussion about hospitality, I listened as my fellow group members shared humbly about how God is opening doors to share Jesus, simply because they’re inviting people into their homes. I was encouraged and “provoked” to do the same so that the gospel can go forth.

4. Through community, God builds his church. Acts 2 paints a glorious picture of the church. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer….Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42, 47, CSB).

Living faithfully in the context of community drew people to the truth of Christ. The same thing happens now. At a recent baptism at my church, two couples shared how they came to understand their need for Jesus in the context of their community group.
Scripture’s depiction of biblical community puts the emphasis on God’s graciousness to us. The gifts of community—encouragement, burden-sharing, good works, and the opportunity to see God build his church—are gifts from God himself. It’s far more about him than it is about us.

Meredith Flynn is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist and a member of Delta Church in Springfield.