by Pastor Norm Evans, Village Chapel PCA in New Bern,NC
Dear fellow believers in Christ,
I have wanted to write to you as an encouragement as we move toward the end of a year that has been very difficult to figure out and live through. From the serious Covid-19 threat to health and life, to the economy it has messed up with lockdowns and sickness, to students at home instead of in school (and parents figuring out how to work that out), to job losses, restaurant closings and supermarket shortages, and on it goes. We’ve seen friends (or ourselves) fall to illness never before experienced and we’ve wept over the graves of some who didn’t make it. I have personally felt the pain of not being able to visit an older lady I’ve known for over 20 years as her pastor as she lived her final months of her 93 years on earth. Only once in the hospital and once in a hospice home was I allowed to visit. She is now with the Lord and while I am sad for my loss I rejoice for her gain with HIM and apart from her suffering here.
There have been a few lighthearted moments in the midst of it all, as when someone remarked about going into the bank wearing a mask and asking for money and no one gets upset or arrested. Or the day the barber shops and beauty salons reopened and 100 million shaggy haired people got in line all over the US. Or the one about the grown son remarking that on this day, in April 2038, he opened the last packet of toilet paper his parents had horded from the 2020 pandemic shortage. Or the faithful church member who remarked it has been nice to wake up Sunday morning, get the cup of coffee and donut, sit in the recliner in pajamas, and watch the pastor preach while sitting at his dining room table. So relaxing! (Hope she was joking). Maybe a chuckle here and there but it has been difficult to figure how to live cautiously during this year. And 2021 – who knows what lies ahead…? (‘You just had to say that, didn’t you!’). We do need to be encouraged, if it is genuine encouragement.
If we place our hope in the improving circumstances of life or in man solving our problems (without creating newer more difficult ones in the process), our advice would simply be ‘hang in there, it will get better’. But the truth is it doesn’t often turn out ‘ok’ according to our personal hopes and wishes. Many therefore become addicted in various ways to the philosophy that says ‘eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die’. The writer of Ecclesiastes said, more than once, ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’.
But there is a genuine encouragement we can offer each other in hard times! It isn’t rooted in ‘things will get better’ or ‘we will figure it out’ but in Someone who is greater than we are, greater than all of us together, infinitely greater than the whole of Creation and the powers of it. Many of you know Who that Someone is and you have placed your life’s faith and trust in His Sovereign governing according to His perfect and purposeful will, and in His eternally present Compassion for His people in the saving and providing presence of His Son and His Spirit in and with us.
He is the Lord God, the One who created the heavens and the earth. The One True and Almighty God Who exists from all eternity, Triune as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In His Being He is Pure, Holy, Unchanging, always Faithful to all He says and promises. He reveals Himself and His ways to us in His Perfect Word, gives us life, limits our boundaries by His sovereignty, and calls us again to stand before Him in judgment. Out of His grace, mercy, and love He provides a means of salvation we need as sinners and rebels against Him, a salvation purchased by His eternally begotten Son in the person of Jesus, the Christ, as He calls us irresistibly by His Spirit to faith, repentance, trust, submission, and joy in turning to Christ. In this life He guides us, strengthens us, and encourages us in His ever present faithfulness. In the life to come, beyond the grave, He has laid up for us an eternal Home in His and the Father’s presence where there will not be the trials and sufferings of this life because all sin and its consequences will have been eradicated.
What more encouragement can we need or ask for? God has provided it all to those who look to Him through the Lord Jesus Christ. Hope and help for this life and an eternal and visible presence with Him in the life to come! Psalm 23 is true in every circumstance to those who look to Him in true faith. ‘The LORD is my shepherd. I shall not want’. Through the valleys of deep darkness He is with us. As the enemies gaze through the window He prepares the table before us to be nourished. ‘My cup overflows’ in the midst of our life’s circumstances if we are looking at Him instead of the darkness and the enemies. His goodness and mercy will be with us every step of the way and we will, later, dwell in His house forever’
Read Isaiah 40:1-30. Read it carefully. If you believe verse 8, the last three words of verse 9, and can answer the questions in verses 18, 21, 25, 26, 27 and 28 you will be encouraged. You will also be humbled and challenged by the truths about God reflected in the statements within those questions. And when you arrive at verse 31 you will literally sense, even feel, God’s strength and presence lifting you up. Consider the whole of Romans 8, but especially focus on reading, carefully, verses 18-39. Soak it in. Let it fill your mind and permeate your heart and it will revolutionize your life. Pray that God will make it happen in you. So, what is our response to God’s promises, God’s presence, and God’s purposes in our life’s circum-stances, hardships, and challenges? Faith and trust? ! Joy and peace? ! Hope and commitment? !
As individuals and as families who are believers in and followers of Jesus Christ are we discouraged, falling behind in faith, or encouraged and humbled by God’s greatness and His love and provision through Christ and His Spirit? Are we strong in our trust, reliance upon, and hope in God’s presence and working or needing to commit ourselves afresh in our trust of His providing care and in His calling to us to be faithful servants and witnesses of the Christ who is our Savior, Lord, and King? The truths from God’s Word in the three passages above will stir us to such hope, trust, and joy through these days.
May I also address us as the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, the visible church here on earth. The church has always faced the onslaughts of Satan, the corruption of the world, and the often fickled and self centered hearts that live in us. The church, humanly speaking, is always in danger of failing, of being silenced, even eradicated from planet earth. The enemies against God’s people and church have always been present and working …… . No different today. But with God founding, guiding, and empowering His church it will not fall, be silenced, or eradicated from earth. The many parables of Jesus make that very clear.
But I do believe we, as Christ’s visible church on earth right now, need also to be encouraged, maybe humbled, and challenged for at least three reasons.
First, we need encouragement because the Covid pandemic is being used by the world to shut down the church from personal gatherings. The world doesn’t want to see Bible based churches flourish because they teach much that is counter to how the world wants to live (creation/evolution, abortion, and sexuality as examples). We have already heard how the church gathering is blamed for possible spreading of Covid in some communities, even when the churches have taken clear precautions. Disrupt the church by keeping the people physically separated will weaken the church and silence its presence and voice seems to be the plan some have. We need to counter that, with caution and care, by gathering to worship our God and caring for one another as a witness before the world that honors HIM and we can’t do that when we are separated and scattered.
Second, we need encouragement because our country may be on the brink of becoming a socialistic society and nation. After the upcoming elections we may find ourselves with many more socialistic leaders at the federal, state, and local levels of government promoting laws and judicial decisions that run counter to God’s ways. A strong church, standing on the truths of God’s Word, will be the main voice (and maybe the only Christ centered voice) in our nation calling it back to God’s Word and ways.
Third, we need encouragement because many believers have already adopted the idea that the church isn’t important to their Christian life and testimony and the Covid crisis has made that idea even more appealing to others. As a pastor now for over 40 years I’ve often seen how churches are weakened because so many have priorities in life that omit even regular worship and little involvement in each other’s lives even when there is hurting and struggle. We need encouragement and challenge to see the worship of God together and caring for one another as a body with a high, God given, priority in our lives.
The question is whether the church is important in our Christian life, and why? The answer will hopefully challenge some who do not see the vital importance and help those who know its importance to be a reminding encouragement and a help in encouraging others to have the same high commitment to Christ’s visible church on earth.
So, four reasons why the church is vital to our lives as Christians.
#1: God is worthy of the corporate and united worship of Him from all His creation, and that certainly includes the church! God is glorified in the gathering of His people before Him! And God calls for His people to commit themselves to serving Him as a body united in worship, caring, and proclaiming Him before the world.
Revelation 5:13, 7:9-12, 19:1-9, and 21:1-9 tell us of the great multitude in heaven worshipping God and 22:9 makes it clear it is God who is to be worshipped and is worshipped!
On earth we see throughout the New Testament churches being founded and believers together worshipping God and caring for one another. It would have been unthinkable for true believers to say they took no delight in such being together before God and with each other. We are challenged in Hebrews 10:23-25 because some did pull away ‘forsaking the assembling of themselves together’. The context speaks of encouraging one another in gathering, in holding fast the confession of our hope, in stirring up one another in love and good works, and especially as we see the ‘Day’ drawing near. In the Old Testament we see the regular gathering of God’s people to present offerings for sin, the feasts celebrating God’s goodness and blessings, and the Psalms are filled with calling the people of God to worship Him together (5:7, 27:4, 34:3, 42:4,66 (all) but note v.13, 84:1-2,95:1-2, 96:8-9, 100:4, 116:18-19, 122:1, 149:1)! It is again unthinkable that believers in the Old Testament would sense no need for the gatherings of God’s people to worship Him and delight together, encouraging one another in their daily labors and struggles. Indeed, throughout the whole of God’s Word we see the people of God together worshiping the Lord and serving Him as One people.
#2: We are the body of Christ united in Him and with each other in this world and later in the glory of heaven! We are not simply individuals going it alone in this world, even if that might be our personal preference. This is a significant validation of the importance of the church gathered and working together as Paul reflects in I Corinthians 12:12-26. The church is described as a body with many members. When all the members (parts) function together the body prospers and accomplishes much. He speaks of the foot, the hand, the eye, and the ear, each needing to fulfill their functions if the body is to do well. When one falters the body falters. If one quits, the body is harmed. Each part (member) is significant to the body’s functioning as God designed it.
I do understand this better, now that I am older, than when I was younger and healthier. As I now type my hand shakes and cramps from some arthritis, so my typing has to be proof read much more carefully (I once told a friend through a text to tell his dad hello from me, but I failed to type the ‘o’ in hello. He laughed, text back, and wanted to be sure what I wanted him to tell his dad from me! The absence of one finger on one hand in that moment could have been very harmful.) When my heart goes into A Fib I cannot function well because the heart rhythm is off and oxygen isn’t adequately going through my system. When my thyroid went wacky some years ago some really weird things happened. I guess I’ve been ‘blessed?’ with enough illness to know well what Paul is saying. God has designed His church to function well, fulfilling His purposes, but all the members are important in those functions. When we pull away from the body we hurt the body, we dishonor God’s purposes, and we hurt ourselves also as we see in the next reason for the importance of the church in our Christian lives.
#3: Satan’s desire is to destroy what Christ is doing as much as he can. He is the predator and we are among the prey he seeks. He cannot destroy our soul if we are in Christ but If he can get us alone, away from the nourishing safety of the flock (church) his work of disruption and harm is often already done. Peter speaks of Satan as the roaring lion prowling around, seeking those he can devour (I Peter 5:8) and he is saying this in the context of speaking to God’s people. The church gathered is a place of strength, encouragement, and support but when an individual decides to ‘go it alone’ he or she will eventually turn further away from God’s Word, cease to spiritually grow, fall into further patterns of sin, and often reach a place of helplessness and hopelessness because they have removed themselves from God’s means of their earthly support and from the refreshing need to worship God with fellow believers. As the branch cannot bear fruit if detached from the tree and as the lamb will not survive the wilderness alone, so the believer will only thrive and grow in the God ordained fellowship of Christ’s church, not ‘going it alone’.
In my early years I rejected the church, simply saying ‘I will hold to Christ but not have his church’. I was wrong. As I was forced to examine what God’s Word said I realized God did not give me that prerogative. I could not accept Christ and reject His people. I could not love Christ and not love his people. I could not serve Christ and refuse to be in and serve in His church. I am glad God only took a short time to convince me I was wrong and He led me where I needed to be – in Christ and into His visible church on earth.
#4: The world needs to visibly see the transformational power of God’s presence as people from every economic, racial, and status of life gather in unison to worship the God Who loves them and whom they love, and that they love each other genuinely and deeply as they care for each other in the good and the hard times in life. This is the witness of Christ’s church in a lost and dying world, the salt and light Jesus spoke of, visible for all to see and many to be drawn to …..
It has been a tough year but God hasn’t fled His throne. We’ve been challenged and maybe discouraged at times but He is just as here strengthening, guiding, loving us as He always has. We may see possible disaster ahead but God sees the longer view of His blessing His people and preparing them to be Home with Him. We may at times feel like giving up but God calls us to trust Him with every circumstance that comes our way. We want to have peace and satisfaction in the here and now but God wants us to find our satisfaction, peace, and joy in Him and in His provision for now and eternity. We want to build our little kingdom here but God is preparing an unimaginable kingdom for us to dwell in with Him forever. We keep looking for answers from the world even while God says His Word, His Son, and His Spirit are all we ever need.
If we take our eyes off Him we can only gaze into the darkness of this world. If we look for hope apart from Him we have only a deep and empty pit to inevitably fall into. If we look to any other than Christ we face an eternity of separation from God and the horrors of that eternal separation from Him.
I know where my encouragement lies. In God’s presence, purposes, and faithfully carried out promises. I know where my life and future are heading. Thanks to the Father’s love, the Son’s atoning sacrifice, and the Spirit’s enabling power it is called heaven, my eternal Home with Him. I know where today’s hope, strength, and wisdom are found and it is in His care and provision.
I hope these are your encouragements, your humblings, and your challenges as well.
In closing, “Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13)