Priorities, priorities, priorities. Nothing shapes our lives more than our personal priorities. Many believers and many churches would tell you that sharing the Gospel is one of their top priorities, yet that is often not reflected in how they live their lives.
What about the apostles of the Early Church? Did they focus on dynamic meetings, church potlucks, and elaborate buildings? Was their priority to keep the Christians happy and make sure everyone kept tithing? Did they devote lots of their time to Christian conferences and the development of products they could sell to boost their income?
Paul the apostle was very clear about the top priority of his ministry and life: “For I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16) Paul also wrote: “And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” (1 Corinthians 9:23 NASB). Do you see the laser-like focus of Paul’s ministry? Could you say, as Paul did, that you do “all things for the sake of the Gospel”? If someone observed your conduct, your words, and how you spend your time and money, would they be impressed about the priority of the Gospel in your life?
Great Christians throughout the centuries have spoken about their passion to share the Gospel:
“The Church has nothing to do but to save souls; therefore spend and be spent in this work. It is not your business to speak so many times, but to save souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance. We have one business on earth – to save souls.” John Wesley
“I cared not where or how I lived, or what hardships I went through, so that I could but gain souls for Christ.” David Brainerd
“Some like to live within the sound of the church or chapel bells; I’d rather run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” C.T. Studd
“My one ambition in life is to win as many as possible. Oh, it is the only thing worth doing, to save souls.” R.A. Torrey
This has been the heart in the men and women of God throughout history who have made an extraordinary impact. Yet, I confess, reaching the lost has not always been the passion of my heart. The problem has not been that I became entangled in some overt sin; rather, I was religiously preoccupied with church programs and activities not at all geared towards reaching the world with the Gospel.
Many leaders and Christians are content with the church they have. Content with the growth they have already attained. They have little ambition to reach the lost as they are busy. And, they are not bothered by the fact that it has often been several years since anyone has been saved as a result of the ministry of their local church. They have lost sight of the heart of our Father, “who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4)
If you find yourself in a similar place today – maybe it is time for a heart transplant.
If you asked Peter about Jesus’ central message to the disciples, he might have pointed out that Jesus’ first challenge to them, at the beginning of His ministry, was that they follow Him and become “fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). And then His final words to them, just before ascending into heaven, was that they would be endued with power and become His witnesses (Acts 1:8).
Do you see the significance of this? Jesus’ first and last words to Peter had to do with winning the lost. Not only that, but many of Jesus’ parables illustrated the harvest and the expansion of the Kingdom. In Luke 15 Jesus told three stories to illustrate the priority of seeking the lost – even if it means “leaving the 99″ sheep which are safely in the sheepfold. He concluded that there was more joy in heaven over one sinner who repented than over 99 righteous people who had no need to repent. Do we see why there isn’t much joy in many of our churches today?
John 20:19-23 describes a scene with many parallels to our situation in the churches around the world today. The episode begins three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, before the disciples has encountered their resurrected Savior. They were hiding behind closed doors, because of fear of persecution. Jesus came and quieted their fears, but then He went a step further, giving them a bold new commission: “As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”
The haunting question of Isaiah 6:8 – “Whom shall I send?” – was answered by none other than the Son of God, Jesus Christ. From the foundation of the earth, He answered the Father, “Here am I, send Me.” In John 20:21 Jesus gave the identical commission to us, sending us to a needy world in the same way as the Father had sent Him, As Jesus was sent to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10), so are we. We have been commissioned!
As we continue to look at apostolic evangelism we would be remiss not to examine the river vision that Ezekiel records. As the river flows from the temple life is released . However, the same river, it is recorded, also fails to bring life to the swamps and marshes. From this amazing story (we will look at it today and tomorrow) we can learn how to break out of the “temple / church” bringing life to everything we touch as well as, hopefully, how to prevent simply creating another swamp.
Ezekiel 47 is one of the most glorious end-time prophetic chapters in all of Scripture. The prophet Ezekiel is shown a vision of the temple, with water flowing outward from it in ever-increasing depth. At first, the water is a mere trickle, then it progressively goes up to Ezekiel’s ankles and his waist – until the river is too deep to cross.
Not only is this a beautiful river, but it also has a dramatic impact wherever it goes. There is fruit, healing, and harvest. The toxic waters of the Dead Sea are healed so they can harbor “a very great multitude of fish.” Fishermen are drawn to this new fresh-water fishing ground: “It shall be that fishermen will stand by it from En Gedi to En Eglaim; there will be places for spreading their nets. Their fish will be of the same kinds of fish of the Great Sea, exceedingly many.” (Ezekiel 47:9-10)
Do you see what a wonderful picture this is of the Lord’s purpose for His Church? Like the temple that Ezekiel saw, The Lord wants us to literally “spring a leak,” so that the living waters of His Spirit can flow outward to a sin-sick world. He not only wants to bring renewal to us, He wants to bring renewal through us. A river of the Spirit should be flowing out from us in such a way that salvation, healing, restoration and fruit are produced in the lives of others (see John 7:37-38).
However, Ezekiel’s vision also included a sober warning. Immediately after seeing the incredible results that occur when the fresh water touches the needy world, we are given this sad commentary: “But its swamps and marshes will not be healed; they will be given over to salt” (Ezekiel 47:11). How could this be? How could this dazzling river from the sanctuary of God become, in some places, have absolutely no impact on what it touches, leaving nothing more than “swamps and marshes”?
Perhaps the swamps and marshes suffer from the same malady that has been the trademark of the Dead Sea for centuries: Water flows in, but doesn’t flow out. As a consequence, the water is “given over to salt” and is toxic either to humans or to fish.
Has this ever happened to you? Have you sat and soaked in the renewing river of the Holy Spirit – but bottled up the flow so long (by not sharing the Gospel with others) that it became rancid and swamp-like? Have you come to a place where you are puzzled that no”fish” (unbelievers) are attracted yo your waters and the river?
Ezekiel’s vision provides a breathtaking encouragement regarding the Church’s calling (your calling) to apostolic evangelism. Although the river may start as only a trickle, it is destined to become a mighty river. We can be confident that it will bring life and revitalization to everything it touches. The harvest of fish that once eluded us will suddenly surround us on every side.
We have been looking at the river flowing from the temple into the streets – a vision given by God to Ezekiel the prophet. The river flows out from the temple and the further it reaches from the temple doors the deeper the water and the stronger the flow or current. And everything it touches is healed and where there was no life (such as the Dead Sea) new life is found. And many come to fish – the harvest is great. We left off mentioning the swamps and marches that are not touched by the life-giving waters of this river.
Often, as believers, we find ourselves diverted from the river to a swamp or a marsh. Incredibly, we still think that we are part of what God is accomplishing in the earth and thus part of a renewal, a movement, or the ‘deeper life.’ The marsh, at times, has proudly proclaimed to represent the apostolic or prophetic restoration that The Lord has been bringing to His Church. We saw ourselves as more spiritual than those in the broader river. We thought we had discovered truths that evidenced superior enlightenment. We pointed to our extraordinary saltiness as a clear contrast to our brethren who had compromised with the world.
How could the awesome river of God be so grotesquely diverted into a lifeless swamp? It happens when the river collects in some side-eddy of doctrinal pride, rather than continuing to flow outward to a lost world. It happens when we pride ourselves on our rediscovery of the “fivefold ministries” of Ephesians 4:11, when we have totally neglected the priority of the Gospel – which is central to what these ministries is all about.
“But,” some would argue, “the Ephesians 4:11 ministries are primarily given to perfect the saints, aren’t they?” Yes, the subsequent verses show that the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers are given “for the equipping of the saints for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the Body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13).
However, there is a crucial point that is often missed when we promote the Ephesians 4:11 ministries: We forget to look at the preceding verse. The context shown in Ephesians 4:10 (NIV) is God’s eternal plan “to fil lthe whole universe.” Wow! Do you see the significance of this? The Lord not only wants to fill individuals or even the entire Church – He wants to fill the whole universe with His glory!
This is the direct opposite of what happens when we bottle up His life-giving river in the swamps and marshes of our little self-righteous cliques. Fortunately, this powerful river refuses to stay bottled up in the “temple,” and it certainly will not stay contained in a swamp or marsh.
The problem we face today is that often the Church is not a life-giving river, flowing outward. We have often been content with “Jacuzzi Christianity.” The rapidly moving Jacuzzi waters give us the sensation of being “in the river” – when actually we are only in a hot tub. As the warm waters swirl around is, we become more and more comfortable, and soon don’t have a care in the world.
I use to like hot tubs. They provide a great way for some people to relax and tune out the rest of the world. The Lord knows we need some pampering like that from time to time, when we temporarily retreat from the warfare of life and get rejuvenated. In the army it is called R&R. In John chapter five it is called the Pool of Bethesda, where the angel of The Lord periodically stirred the healing waters. praise God that He brings us to such places.
However, there is a great danger here. If we stay in the Jacuzzi too long, it’s easy to forget the rest of the world is even out there. We become :Jacuzzi Christians,” so relaxed and comfortable it’s hard to remember that the war continues and many people are still living lives of quiet desperation.
How tragic to smugly assume we are in God’s Ezekiel 47 river, when in reality we are only in a hot tub that keeps us isolated from the rest of the world. While the Jacuzzi waters swirl around us, we can lose sight of the fact that they are also supposed to be flowing outward to a lost world. Instead of being healed and then stirred to action, our pleasurable situation too often merely lulls us to sleep.
Instead of the sweet fragrance of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14), many of our churches today are filled with a terrible stench. Can you see why? Picture a Jacuzzi where the same people come week after week to get their “relaxation fix.” No water flows outward from the Jacuzzi, and rarely is any new water added. In time the waters will cease to bring healing – they will be putrid.
We must cry out to God that He would free us from Jacuzzi Christianity. But it is no easy matter. Many of us have already been in the Jacuzzi for a long time. It isn’t easy to leave, particularly to go back to war. Hot tubs and other comfort zones have strong gravitational pulls, making them hard to escape. Nevertheless, Jacuzzis always come with clear instructions, warning people not to stay in too long.
We need, as individuals and as churches, to rekindle our passion for Jesus which will, in turn, rekindle our passion for sharing the Gospel. A short time before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, a woman came and anointed Jesus with expensive perfume, worth an entire year’s wages. In contrast with the hostile religious leaders and the comparatively passionless disciples, this woman exemplified the sacrifice and devotion to Christ that marks true worship.
To the disciples, the woman’s act seemed quite a waste. They complained, “This perfume could have been old at a high price and the money given to the poor” (Matthew 26:9 NIV).
Jesus, on the other hand, saw the woman’s act as quite commendable: “I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Matthew 26:13 NIV).
Why must this story be told “wherever this gospel is preached”? Because without this kind of passion, the Gospel will never go out with full effectiveness. This is frequently the missing element of the evangelism taking place in the world today. To the extent that we share the Gospel at all, we often lack the kind of passion for Jesus displayed by the woman with the perfume.
When the perfume was poured out on Jesus, He was not the only one who experienced the fragrance: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the oil” (John 12:3.
The same can be true in our lives today. As we pour our lives out in true worship to Jesus, the fragrance of our passionate sacrifice can extend far and wide, filling the whole earth with the Gospel message.