Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Two Things Every Church Needs

Copyright 2011 by Bob Rogers

This summer USA Today reported that Southern Baptists are in decline.

Church membership has dropped for four straight years in a row, even as the population in America has increased. The article interviewed Ed Stetzer, a researcher with LifeWay Christian Resources, as to why our denomination has declined. Among other things, Stetzer said that Southern Baptists are getting older, and the younger generation is not coming to the faith like their parents. (“Nation’s largest Protestant group faces ‘decline,’” USA Today, June 11, 2011, http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2011-06-12-baptisms_11_ST_N.htm).

Research has found that churches all over America are declining, and the trend is expected to continue for years. In 1990, on any given Sunday over 20% of Americans attended church. But in 2010, it was down to 17%, and if current trends continue, by 2050, only 11% will attend church on a given Sunday. (http://www.theamericanchurch.org/facts/27.htm)

There is a desperate need for the church to get back to the kind of life- transforming body that we find in the New Testament. And in the last chapter of Romans, we find some answers to that need: two things that every church needs.

At first glance, the last chapter of Paul’s Letter to the Romans just looks like a list of names. It’s tempting to skip it, but if we do, we’ll miss a wonderful lesson for the church, because in this chapter we see two things every church needs.

I. Every church needs a strong fellowship

In Iowa there was a storm that had flooded out a major city. People were gathering their goods to save what they could. One of the policeman saw something that touched his heart. He saw a little boy carrying another little boy on his shoulders, while also trying to carry goods and luggage. The policeman went to help the boy and said, “My, you’re trying to do too much. You’ve got all these bags and then you’ve got that boy on your shoulders. It’s too much weight for you. It’s too heavy.”

The little boy looked at the policeman and said, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.” When you know somebody is your brother or sister, it makes it easier to bear the weight of their burdens. (Tony Evans’ Book of Illustrations, p. 85)

After so many words of theology and instruction on Christian living, here in Romans 16, Paul spends a whole chapter focusing on personal remarks to the brothers and sisters of the church. What a reminder of the importance of Christian fellowship in the church! The church isn’t a building, it’s people; and this chapter reminds us of the importance of relationships.

A. Warmth for different people (v. 1-16, 21-23)

This chapter mentions all kinds of different people, warmly greeting them, thanking them and encouraging them. Quite of few of them are called a “dear friend.” Many are praised for working hard. Several are singled out as Paul’s “relatives,” which probably meant fellow Jews.

16:1 Phoebe, the “servant” (deacon?) who may have carried the letter to Rome. She was from Cenchrea, a port city near Corinth, and as Paul was writing from Corinth, it is likely she had the resources to board a ship and deliver the letter personally to the church in Rome. “Has been a great help” is literally the word for “patron” or “benefactor.” Apparently she was a generous financial supporter of ministry.

16:3 Priscilla and Aquila were a husband-wife ministry team mentioned in Acts 18. This couple became mentors to the great preacher Apollos, who was preaching powerful sermons but needed some correction. Acts 18:26 says when they heard him, “they took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately.”

16:5 Epenetus was the “first convert … of Asia” and may have been an older man.

16:6 Mary is mentioned alone, and may have been a single woman.

16:7 Andronicus and Junias could have been brothers or perhaps a husband/wife team (it’s unclear of its Junias or Junia, male or female name). Notice the NIV calls them “my relatives.” Literally, the word refers to either a relative or a fellow countryman, and likely means that they were fellow Jews. These two had spent time in prison alongside Paul, probably for their Christian witness.

16:8-10 Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys and Appelles were common slave names in Rome. They are likely mentioned in the “household of Aristobulus” because Aristobulus was a very prominent citizen, the grandson of Herod the Great and a friend of Emperor Claudius, so those mentioned here were probably household slaves of Aristobulus.

16:11 Herodion is mentioned alone, and may have been single, like Mary in v. 6.

16:12 Tryphena and Tryphosa may have been twins!

16:13 Rufus is apparently the son of Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross of Jesus. This would explain why Mark 15:21 mentions that Simon was the “father of Rufus.” If so, Rufus was an African and may have been black. Notice that Rufus’s mother was a great hostess, whom Paul called “a mother to me, too.” Imagine Paul spending the night and about to leave the next day, and Rufus’s mother says, “I don’t care if you are an apostle, Paul, you need your breakfast.”

16:15 mentioning a man and his mother in v. 13, we see a man and his sister in v. 15: “Nereus and his sister.”

16:21 Paul sends greetings to Rome from individuals who are with him, including his “son in the ministry,” Timothy.

16:22 is an interesting comment, not written by Paul! Paul dictated his letter to a scribe, and Tertius, the scribe, is so caught up in all of the personal greetings that he adds his own!

16:22 Erastus was a prominent citizen in Corinth, from which Paul writes. In Corinth, archaeologists discovered a block of stone in a paved square, with the following words in Latin: “Erastus, director of aedileship, bore the expense of this pavement.” An aedile was a publicly elected official who oversaw city projects and finances. This was probably the same man whom Paul greets.

Of 28 people mentioned, most were Gentiles but at least eight were Jews (Priscilla & Aquila, Andronicus and Junias, Herodion, Lucius, Jason, Sosipater), one was a half-Jew (Timothy), one was an African (Rufus), at least four were slaves (Ampliatus, Urbanus, Stachys, Apelles), a couple of them were prominent city leaders (Aristobulus, Erastus), some were married and some were single, and about a third of them were women. So in the same chapter, his greetings run the gamut from common slaves to a city father, from families to singles, men and women, and different races and cultures.

What a beautiful picture of what every church needs: a warm fellowship made up of different people with different gifts to contribute to the body of Christ.

16:16 Paul encourages this warm fellowship with his instructions to “greet one another with a holy kiss.” Paul says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12 and 1 Thessalonians 5:26. Peter says in 1 Peter 5:14 to “greet one another with the kiss of love.” This sounds strange to us, but a kiss on the check is a normal greeting in many cultures. When I went to France, I had to learn to greet people with a bisou (pronounced beezoo), a kiss on the cheek. But whatever greeting a culture uses, the point is the same: every church needs a warm Christian fellowship, where people feel accepted and loved.

B. Warning for divisive people (v. 17-20)

A good coach knows that sometimes he can have a talented player on his team who can hurt the team more than help. He might be the strongest and fastest and most agile, but if he doesn’t have a team spirit, and if he undermines the coach, he can cause division on the team and end up causing more harm than good. The same thing is true in the church. We need people with a team spirit.

Just as the fellowship needs the warmth of different people, it also needs a warning for divisive people. Paul gives such a warning in v. 17-20. He urges them to watch out for people who do several things:

1. Cause divisions

2. Put obstacles in your way (works salvation)

3. Deceive people with smooth talk

After those warnings, he encourages them in v. 20 with an assurance that the spiritual warfare will be won, for “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” Genesis 3:15 had prophesied that, and Revelation 12:9 says Satan was thrown down from heaven, and Revelation 20:2 prophesies that Satan will be thrown into a bottomless pit.

II. Every church needs a solid faith

The last verses sum up the teaching of the letter, and remind them of their faith. As important as a good fellowship is, a church also needs a solid faith.

A. Focused on the gospel (v. 25)

Paul calls it “my gospel” not because he invented it, but because he preached it. As he says in 1 Corinthians 15, he passed on to them the same gospel he received from the apostles. Paul says in Galatians 1 that if anybody should preach any other gospel, let him be eternally condemned!

The gospel means “good news.” Billy Graham says, “The Gospel shows people their wounds and bestows on them love. It shows them their bondage and supplies the hammer to knock away their chains. It shows them their nakedness and provides them the garments of purity. It shows them their poverty and pours into their lives the wealth of heaven. It shows them their sins and points them to a Savior.” (Billy Graham in Quotes, p. 157) All of this is possible because God became a man in flesh, Jesus Christ, and died on the cross to defeat Satan and evil, pay for our sin, and overcome death and the grave by His resurrection from the dead.

The church must focus on the gospel of Jesus Christ and faithfully share it.

B. Faithful to the Scriptures (v. 26)

Notice that this message was “made known through the prophetic writings.” The gospel was a fulfillment of the Old Testament scriptures. When Paul preached in the city of Berea, it says they searched the scriptures to see if what he preached was true. Every church needs to be faithful to the Bible. It is so easy to go with the flow of our culture, instead of standing upon the truth of God’s word. It’s not a matter of being liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat, it’s a matter of being Biblical.

Liberals often emphasize the parts of the Bible that discuss social justice and care for the poor, while conservatives emphasize the parts of the Bible that defend the sacredness of human life against abortion and the sacredness of marriage against homosexuality. Both all of it is in the Bible! Instead of trying to be politically correct, we need to be Biblically correct!

The neighborhood bar is possibly the best counterfeit of what the church should be like. The bar is like an imitation of a good church, dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape rather than reality, but it is an accepting, inclusive fellowship. At a bar you can tell people secrets and they usually don’t tell others or even want to. The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heart the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved, and so many seek a counterfeit at the price of a few beers.

But the difference in a popular bar and a powerful church is that while both may be a place where you can find acceptance and fellowship, a powerful church is where you will also find life-changing truth. A bartender will usually tell you want you want to hear. A church will tell you what you need to hear. We have good news, a gospel of Jesus Christ, but we stand upon the moral truths and teachings of God’s word.

Oh, how the world is looking for churches like that: a strong fellowship and a solid faith. So many people have not found it, so they are turning to the bars, social media on the Internet, and wherever else they can find it. Yet we can offer it right here. Will we? (Adapted from Keith Miller & Bruce Larson, Edge of Adventure.)

Copyright 2011 by Bob Rogers.

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