The Three Priorities of Bethlehem Baptist Church
I hope that after these three messages on the priorities of Bethlehem Baptist Church, all of you who attend regularly will be able to give a clear explanation to others what we are about here.
- Two weeks ago we focused on priority one: We exist to reflect the grace of God back to him in worship for his glory.
- Last week we focused on priority two: We exist to apply the grace of God to each other in the church for our edification in faith and love to the glory of God.
- And today we focus on priority three: We exist to extend the grace of God to those outside the faith in evangelism for the ingathering of God's elect from every people, tribe, tongue, and nation to the glory of God.
In all these priorities we live from the grace of God and for the glory of God. Our great charter is 1 Peter 4:11, "Let the one who serves serve in the strength which God supplies that in everything God may get the glory through Jesus Christ." From his grace, by his strength, for his glory! God himself is the beginning, middle, and end of the life of this church. And our all-encompassing aim is to be saturated with God, besotted by God—from whom and through whom and to whom are all things, to him be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Inextricably Related to One Another
Let it be said very clearly on this last Sunday of the series that the priorities of worship and edification and evangelism are so organically related that they stand or fall together.
- Where worship is ignored, fellowship will become thin and man-centered and unspiritual, and evangelism will tend to call people to a social group rather than to a sovereign God.
- Where nurture is ignored, the deceitfulness of sin will run unchecked in the narrow ruts of individualism and the collective testimony of a loving people vanish will, and the united heart of worship will disintegrate into isolated struggles for private religious experience.
- And where evangelism is ignored, the recipients of grace become such living contradictions of the reality they profess that soon their worship feels like a sham, and their relationships are clogged by a nagging, unspoken sense of inauthenticity.
No church dare say, "We are a worshiping church. Others do evangelism." Or, "We are a caring, nurturing church. Others specialize in the vertical life of the soul." Or, "We are a band of witnesses and missionaries. Let others spend time teaching each other and singing spiritual songs." Parachurch groups may have the luxury of choosing among the priorities of worship, nurture, and evangelism, but the church of Jesus Christ does not.
And that church we are. The local church is a miniature expression of the church universal. What the church universal is called by Christ to do, we are called to do. Therefore we must call ourselves to account again and again in all three dimensions of life: are we growing in the truth and spirit of our worship? Are we growing in the biblical depth of our teaching and edification? And are we growing in the courage and clarity and earnestness of our evangelism?
The Priority of Evangelism and Mission
That's why we have regarded this series as worthy of three Sunday mornings, and that is why we turn now to priority number three—and the gospel of Luke, especially chapters 14 and 15.
I want us to see the familiar verses of chapter 15, about the lost sheep and the lost coin and the prodigal son, in the wider context of what comes before in chapter 14. These chapters are full of inspiration and guidance for our commitment to reach out to others with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I will make four points from the Scripture, then close with some practical applications for us here.
1. God's Invitation to All People
God's invitation to the banquet of his eternal joy is sent through the church indiscriminately to all people.
Let's read the parable of the great banquet in Luke 14:16–24. Jesus is at a banquet and one of the people sitting near him says, "Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!" So Jesus takes the opportunity to tell a parable about God's invitation to the kingdom of God—which I have called the banquet of his eternal joy.
16) A man once gave a great banquet, and invited many; 17) and at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, 'Come; for all is now ready.' [This represents God's sending of Christ to call the Jews, especially the religious leaders, to enter the kingdom.] 18) But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, 'I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it; I pray you, have me excused.' 19) And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen and I go to examine them; I pray you, have me excused.' 20) And another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' 21) So the servant came and reported this to his master. Then the householder in anger said to his servant, 'Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and maimed and blind and lame.' 22) And the servant said, 'Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.' 23) And the master said to the servant, 'Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. 24) For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.'
Is not the point of this parable that the invitation to God's kingdom is sent out through his servant to all indiscriminately? "Go out to the highways and hedges, and compel people to come in!" Until Jesus comes back, we may assume that the banquet hall is not full. But God aims to fill it. So the charge lies upon the church even now to go out, without any favoritism to race or color or class or creed, and "compel" them to come in—that is, to be urgent in our invitations and persuasions.
Some will throw away their invitation and go off to their real estate and cows and spouses. But that must not stop us. Find the poor and maimed and blind and lame! Beat the hedges! Look under the bridges! God WILL have his banquet hall full!
So the first point is that God's invitation to the banquet of his eternal joy is sent through the church indiscriminately to all people.
2. Partaking of God's Table
To enjoy the rare tastes of God's table, you must stop stuffing your stomach with the local cuisine.
If you get up Thanksgiving morning and eat a loaf of white bread for breakfast, Thanksgiving dinner will not sound attractive when someone calls you with an invitation at mid-morning. Some preferred land to God. Some preferred cows to God. And some preferred wives to God. And none of them will be at the eternal banquet, Jesus says.
To make this clear Jesus tells two more parables in Luke 14:25–33. We've seen that the invitation goes out indiscriminately to all. Then in verse 25 multitudes start to respond. "Now great multitudes accompanied him." But Jesus clarifies a few things before they get very far with their excitement. He says in effect, "To enjoy the table of God, you must stop stuffing yourself with the local cuisine."
26) If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27) Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. 28) For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29) Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30) saying, 'This man began to build, and was not able to finish.' 31) Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32) And if not, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. 33) So therefore, whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
Coming right after the open invitation to the banquet of the kingdom of God, the point of these two parables is surely something like this: The banquet hall is big! The food is delicious! The invitation to come is sent to all! But the entrance requirement is that you are more hungry for what God serves than for what the world serves—more hungry for God than for mother or father or spouse or child or siblings or your own earthly life. Anybody who comes to the feast of God with a candy bar in his back pocket will be turned away. "He who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple." TO ENJOY THE RARE TASTES OF GOD'S TABLE, YOU MUST STOP STUFFING YOUR STOMACH WITH THE LOCAL CUISINE. The taste buds of your soul must be born again.
3. Those Having Ears to Hear
Even the greedy who live for money and the lustful who live for sex will accept the radical demands of God's invitation if they have ears to hear.
We see this in the way Luke makes the transition from chapter 14 to chapter 15.
34) "Salt is good; but if the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? 35) It is fit neither for the land nor for the dunghill; men throw it away. He who has ears to hear, let him hear." 15:1) Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to HEAR him.
You can be the salt of the earth—the divine flavor of the world—if you experience the renewal of the taste buds of your soul that causes you to renounce all that you have in order to eat the feast of God. Salty people are people who have experienced such a radical revolution in their desires that they crave the kingdom banquet of God's righteousness more than the temporary tastes of money or family or praise or power or sex or scholarships or friends or anything in all creation. When you meet that rare brand of person, you will suddenly discover that all other brands are bland and this radical brand alone is the salt of the earth.
Not everybody is willing to renounce all that he has to enter the banquet of God at the invitation of Jesus. Some will go away to their land, some to their oxen, some to their wives. But some will be willing—namely, "those who have ears to hear." "He who has ears to hear," Jesus says in verse 35, "let him hear." If you have never experienced a new birth that causes you to hunger more for the righteousness of God than for the rewards of the world, then every time you hear the Word of God, you ought to be praying with all your heart that God would give you ears to hear and not leave you deaf.
But there is such encouraging news for all of us in this passage! Look who have accepted the invitation of Jesus and are now eating with him and HEARING him (in 15:1). Right after the saying that he who has ears to hear should hear, we read, "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to HEAR him." Tax collectors—the lovers of money—and sinners—which usually included prostitutes—were coming, and hearing, and (as verse 2 says) eating with Jesus. The banquet of the kingdom has already begun, and even those who had devoted their lives to greed and sex have been given ears to hear and are welcome into the fellowship of Jesus. There is hope that you can enter this morning no matter what you have done. Take heed how you hear!
4. The Grumbling of Pharisees and the Joy of God
When sinners respond to the invitation of Christ, the Pharisees grumble but God rejoices.
Verse 2: "And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, 'This man receives sinners and eats with them.'" The religious representatives of God grumbled that Jesus was so indiscriminate about whom he was willing to receive at his table. So Jesus told three parables to set the record straight. The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin and the lost (or prodigal) son are Jesus' way of giving God's response to what is happening when Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees may grumble, but God and all heaven with him rejoice.
Verse 7: "Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."
Verse 10: "Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
Verse 22: "The father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to make merry."
So these are the four points that I wanted to make from the Scripture:
- God's invitation to the banquet of his eternal joy is sent through the church indiscriminately to all people.
- TO ENJOY THE RARE TASTES OF GOD'S TABLE, YOU MUST STOP STUFFING YOUR STOMACH WITH THE LOCAL CUISINE.
- EVEN THE GREEDY WHO LIVE FOR MONEY AND THE LUSTFUL WHO LIVE FOR SEX WILL ACCEPT THE RADICAL DEMANDS OF GOD'S INVITATION IF THEY HAVE EARS TO HEAR.
- When sinners respond to the invitation of Christ, the Pharisees grumble but God rejoices.
Two Practical Ways to Grow in This Priority
I close with two practical ways for us as a church to grow in our fulfillment of priority number three—evangelism, or the gladness of God.
1. Your Personal Witness
When all the programs and seminars and meetings have come and gone, the greatest means of compelling people to come into the kingdom of Christ will remain your personal witness to the truth and greatness of Jesus and how he meets your needs. YOU are the salt of the earth. YOU are the light of the world. Four exhortations: pray, portray, persuade, plead.
1.1. Pray everyday that God would give you good opportunities and power to commend Christ. And pray that he will be preparing others to be open. (Romans 10:1)
1.2. Portray Christ by the way you love others and by the humble integrity of your work. (Matthew 5:16)
1.3. Persuade those who are willing to talk and who have questions. (2 Corinthians 5:11)
1.4. Plead with those for whom God gives you a special affection and longing. (Acts 26:29)
2. Worship Services
I have changed my mind in recent months about the relationship between evangelism and the worship services of the church. Until recently I inferred that, since worship is something that only believers can do, it would be inappropriate to lay very much stress on the evangelistic potential of the worship services. Very seldom have I ever encouraged you to bring unbelievers to church. I have always said evangelism is a marketplace event. The worship of God's family happens in the church.
But more and more recently I have come to see the inconsistency of this. It is true that worship is for believers. And I will never stop doing my best to serve meat for your souls on Sunday morning. But it doesn't follow that the evangelistic potential of this event should be minimized.
Now my thinking goes something like this: good evangelism is directing people's attention to the truth and value of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. Worship is the gathering of God's people to celebrate the truth and value of the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore it may well be that for many, many unbelievers the decisive, culminating witness to the truth of Christ will come when they sit here in the midst of people whose intensity and authenticity of worship draws them irresistibly into the banquet hall of God's salvation.
Therefore let us begin afresh to pray daily that God would make the hour of worship an occasion for his regenerating work. And let us bring friends and colleagues who we sense are open to this experience. Consider the new Saturday night service with its adult electives beginning October 5. Could this be a new work of God to show us how in one evening all the priorities—worship, edification, and evangelism—can be brought together with dynamic fruitfulness in the power of the Holy Spirit? That is my prayer.