This month: 181 - Online Church
Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Matt Dabbs

Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

Homepage: http://mattdabbs.com

There must be a lot of churches trying to determine if they met the 2020 vision goals they set however many years back.

Vision is difficult because it is hard to know how to find it and how to be sure you found the right one. How do we know God has directed us in the direction we choose vs other directions? How do we know God is calling us to some things and not other things?

Vision is hard.

Vision is also exclusionary.

Once you have your vision, other things get excluded and it is far easier to be “yes” people. You let fewer people down that way. But who ever said ministry was about letting down the fewest people?

We have to be people of vision. This is hard for us because we are people of the past – the ancient paths and ancient order of things. For those of us who are of a restoration persuasion, vision is backwards-informed forward thinking. That is a hard combination!

We need our vision restored!

We need this in our churches and we have needed this at Wineskins. I believe those two can and do go together…that there are things we need to be about here at Wineskins that can help our churches with their vision.

The vision for Wineskins has been a real wrestling match for me over the last few years. There are so many things I want it to be but you can’t do or have everything. You have to get focused.

We will have a variety of articles this month on various topics from various writers but my intention is to lay out a more specific and focused vision for Wineskins during the month of January.

This more focused vision has come through a season of asking God what He truly wants and doing my best to discern where I believe He might be pointing this ministry.

So stay tuned! I am excited about what is ahead and I believe you will be as well.

In Luke 14 we find Jesus at the home of a prominent Pharisee. It was the Sabbath and one of the people in the house had an illness. Jesus healed the man in front of them all.

After that Jesus taught on not taking the seat of honor because someone greater may come in and you will have to give up your seat, bringing shame on yourself in their day and time.

Then Jesus gave instruction on who to invite to your house for dinner – not those who can repay you but those who cannot: ”
the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.”

Last, Jesus gave a teaching about a man who had a great banquet prepared but none of his initial guests could make it. They all had excuses. So instead he decided to have his servants go out and find people with these instructions,

“Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.” (Lk 14:23).

All of this from a man who was born into the world as a king but only had shepherds show up for his birth.

When you think of shepherds, don’t think of Willow Tree figurines. Think of outcasts. Think of the unclean. The Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 25b) put shepherds on the naughty list.

Jesus was accustomed to inviting the right people and his right people won’t always be our right people but we need to work harder and harder to align our list with his.

God wants everyone at his table. God wants everyone in his kingdom (2 Peter 3:9). People have all kinds of conceptions of God – many of an unloving God who allows so much evil and hurt in the world. Or a God who is so holy that there is no possible way they can belong with Him. The truth of the matter is this – God wants you. You have a place where, no matter what you have done, God still wants you…God still loves you. You belong.

God doesn’t allow us to do whatever we want. There are house rules. But God wants all of his kids to come home regardless of what they have done and God is willing to sort through some messy stuff to make this happen. Think *Jesus on the cross* kind of messy.

We can picture God as a king high up on his throne. That is valid. We can also think of God as the loving father waiting to see his son walk back home. The problem is that we, like that son in Luke, aren’t really sure God will have us back but I can assure you that no matter what you have done – you still belong with your Abba!

If you still belong with your Abba, it means you also still belong in church. We churchy people have a hard time with that. We don’t like being uncomfortable on Sunday. Maybe if we got more uncomfortable the other days of the week by engaging with those we have the hardest time accepting, we might find it easier to do on Sunday.

We can’t both say God loves all and wants all to be with him but we don’t want the same thing in the church. We have to conform to Him and that means our guest list will be far more inclusive than we could have imagined.

As a kid, Christmas was one of the most encouraging times of the year. I knew my family loved me. I knew God loved me. Presents didn’t hurt either.

As I have grown older Christmas is still very special to me but things have changed. The desire for the presents has diminished. And a new visitor has arrived. One I had never seen around the table for Christmas dinner before.

Grief.

Many of us wrestle with grief at this time of year. Maybe you are like me and lost dear loved ones at Christmas time, years past. Or maybe there are other things you have lost or never had to begin with that Christmas shines a great big spotlight on, reminding you year after year of what you never had or what you had and lost.

There are a lot of reminders of loss this time of year. We shouldn’t ignore them but they aren’t the WHOLE story either. We need to pay attention to our blessings, while also paying special mind to the feelings of loss, grief, etc.

Christmas isn’t either a happy holiday or a sad one. It can be both at the same time. Much like the lament psalms, what begins on a note of despair can end on a note of joy.

If you are feeling down this Christmas, I encourage you to talk with someone about that. Email me if you like. I also encourage you to look more and more for the good because it is all around too.

We will never get back many of the people, things and ideas we have lost over the years but we can embrace new blessings, new opportunities and fresh starts.

I wish you God’s richest blessings this Christmas even if they come through periodic tears.

You can learn a lot about Jesus based on the accusations people made against him.

They accused him of being in league wit the devil for casting out a demon on the Sabbath and forgiving a man his sins (Mark 2).

They accused him of being a sinner for hanging around tax collectors and sinners (Matt 9:11 & Luke 5:30).

He was accused of eating and drinking too much (Matt 11:19).

He was accused of welcoming the wrong kind of people (Luke 15:1-2).

They grumbled against Jesus that he invited himself to Zacchaeus’ house (Luke 19:7).

They accused him of blasphemy…of being the prince of demons…of threatening the temple…of being a king like Caesar…receiving anointing at the hands of a “sinful woman” and I am sure we don’t know the half of it.

You can learn a lot about Jesus based on the accusations made against him. A lot of the accusations had to do with belonging and acceptance.

Jesus loved people who some didn’t believe deserved to be loved. Jesus’ compassion moved him to heal people in spite of the fact that some believed it was the wrong day to heal on. Jesus’ desire to be around the unloved moved him to table fellowship with the outcasts and the unclean.

Jesus was inclusive in an exclusive world. We can learn a lot from Jesus on this. Jesus helps us understand where the lines are and where they are not. He helps us understand that people are to be loved and encouraged and that is done best through care and concern rather than through condemnation and criticism.

What is the world accusing you of? Is it because you are doing anything similar to Jesus?

When does the world look at you suspiciously? Is it because you are acting in ways people aren’t used to seeing? Or are we looking with suspicion on those Jesus would be welcoming?

We have a lot to learn from watching and imitating Jesus.

What would Sunday morning look like if we lived like Jesus? Who would be there who is not there? Why would they come then when they won’t come now?

I am humbled by watching how Jesus dealt with people…how he viewed them…how he loved them. Jesus challenges my suspicion. He challenges my selfishness. He challenges my comfort zones. If I had been alive when Jesus was on the earth would I have accepted his actions or would I have been among the accusers? I am afraid I may have been in the second group. Heaven help me!

How about you?

This world can be a messed up place. There is plenty of hurt to go around. I cannot begin to tell you how many times there have been people I knew well who were hurting in some deep and troubling ways that took years to be aware of or even begin to understand.

Sometimes the church itself is the cause of some of the hurt. There is so much good Christianity and churches do that gets overshadowed by the tough spots, we shouldn’t overlook the good…but we should also understand how we contribute to the problem and the solution.

There are few things harder than living life of abandonment and feeling utterly alone. It is good to know that God made us to belong to Him.

Human beings will never perfectly embrace us. We will struggle with division until the day Jesus comes back. In Christ we don’t have to be in that position. We have a family even when our bio-family leaves us. We have brothers and sisters…fathers and mothers…even when those we grew up with left us over various issues or departed in death.

You belong with God and that means you belong in God’s family, the church. It takes great care to navigate how to help people belong in the midst of situations and struggles that can so easily exclude people. This takes prayer. This takes patience. This takes a long hard look at our own struggles to see just how many things God overlooked to accept each and every one of us.

Last, we Christians are not universalists, so how do we jive God’s overarching desire for our belonging with his instructions in scripture that seem to exclude? We will examine this and and a host of other issues in our December issue of Wineskins!

Thanks for reading!

I made mention a while back that the word disciple is used nearly 300 times in the New Testament, all in the Gospels in Acts. The word is never used again after Acts. Meanwhile, the word “church” is used only a couple of times in the Gospels while it is used repeatedly in the epistles.

Here are the numbers:

Here is where the word “disciple” occurs in the New Testament (NIV)

Matthew – 78
Mark – 59
Luke – 50
John – 81
Acts – 26

Here is where the word “church” occurs in the New Testament (NIV)

Matthew – 2
Acts – 19
Romans – 5
1 Cor – 22
2 Cor – 9
Gal – 3
Eph – 9
Phil – 2
Col – 3
1 Thess – 2
2 Thess – 2
1 Tim – 4
Philemon – 1
Hebrews – 1
James – 1
3 John – 3
Revelation – 12

If we focus on Paul over the gospels and Acts we will be more focused on the church than we will about being a disciple. I wonder if the same thing is true when it comes to fasting.

The word typically translated fasting is used 20 times in the New Testament in 15 verses:

Matthew 4:2 – Jesus fasts 40 days and nights in the wilderness
Matthew 6:16-18 – Jesus instructs on how to fast.
Matthew 9:14-15/Mark 2:18-20/Luke 5:33-35 – Jesus asked why his disciples don’t fast.
Luke 18:12 – The Pharisee in the parable, boasting of his righteousness.
Acts 13:2-3 – The disciples were fasting and praying when the Holy Spirit sets apart Barnabas and Saul/Paul for mission work.

We don’t get the word after Acts 13. I wonder if our emphasis on Paul has resulted in our missing how fasting is part of the a disciple’s life? If Paul had addressed fasting in the same verbiage Jesus used “When you fast” or “in those days they will fast” would we have a better track record on fasting than is typical today?

My theory is that the American Restoration Movement that we come out of in Churches of Christ came about (and thrived) at a heavily Christian time. In some circles, the discussion wasn’t about reaching non-believers (people were already convinced about Jesus) as much as it was what makes one distinctive from other churches/believers (they had to be convinced on how to do church right, correct doctrine of the church, etc). If you want to engage those discussions you go to Paul rather than to Jesus. You go post-Pentecost rather than pre-Pentecost. Again, discipleship (in my opinion) was lost through the audience at hand and the topics our conversations focused on. In our emphasis on church we missed some important teaching on what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus.

The same may be true about fasting.

Jesus fasted. He is our example (as his disciples) so should we.

Jesus’ disciples fasted (after he left) and they serve as an example. So should we.

The early church fasted (Acts 13) and they serve as an example for us. So should we.

Fasting is an essential component of the life of a disciple/follower of Jesus. Some note we don’t do it because it isn’t directly commanded. But when did that stop us from doing other things that aren’t explicitly commanded?

What is more, if you read the above passages it is very clear that Jesus wants us to fast – “When you fast” (it is expected). In another instance (Matthew 9:14-15/Mark 2:18-20/Luke 5:33-35) Jesus says his disciples will fast after he departs. Jesus said, “In those days they will fast.”

One might conclude Jesus is only talking about when he is arrested or when he ascended. But as you read Acts you notice that “those days” gets us all the way to Acts 13!

The New Testament is clearer on God’s expectations that disciples fast than I ever understood. Obviously, there are some precautions that come along with this like if you have health issues or concerns, you should consult your doctor. But that doesn’t negate the fact that the first Christians fasted. It was part of their Jewish roots. It was part of Jesus’ teaching. It was how disciples lived. Remember the great commission where we are told making disciples entails both baptism and teaching people to obey all Jesus taught.

Fasting will be crucial to the future of the church. It will put us in a better position to determine the will of God. It will spiritually form and shape us.

Don’t start swinging for the fences. Start small and go from there. Watch and see how God shows up!

I have been a Christian since 1991 and a minister since 2002 and I have just recently, for the first time, gotten into a regular rhythm of fasting and it has truly blessed me life and ministry. Let’s do what we can to normalize fasting for disciples of Jesus. Before we can do that, it seems, the first step would be to normalize discipleship because a disciple will do what they see their teacher doing (see Matthew 4:2), not for 40 days but on some level.

My first exposure to fasting was in undergrad. I had to write a paper for a gen ed Bible class and I choose fasting. If it tells you anything I was stunned by how normal fasting is talked about in the Bible in general and the New Testament in particular but didn’t engage in the practice myself until quite some time later.

That is one of the big temptations when studying the text – the disconnect between thinking and doing. I could tell fasting was important but not important enough for me to change my behavior.

Unfortunately fasting isn’t nearly as normative now as it was then. Maybe we missed it because it wasn’t commanded? I don’t know. Maybe even if it had been commanded it would have entered the realm of holy kisses and holy hands – something for them, not for us. We will never know.

But we can make it a regular practice of our faith.

We will be talking about fasting and prayer this month at Wineskins. My prayer is that the articles during this month will encourage you to move past thinking to doing! You will be richly blessed if you do.

I love reading books about how to read the Bible. I guess I love that because I love meta-cognition, thinking about how we think about things. There are so many treasures in the scriptures and, as Bobby Valentine has written in the last two articles, the closer we come to understand things about their world the better we will understand the Bible!

Here are my favorite books on how to read the Big Book!

Searching for the Pattern By John Mark Hicks. This book came out this year and fills a niche I had hoped someone would fill. It is an in depth look at how we read the Bible in Churches of Christ and some of the ways that has traditionally been inadequate. This is done with a great deal of care, kindness and humility. Then the book goes into another approach that can help us come to a better understanding of the text and the God behind the text. Excellent book and a must read if you are in Churches of Christ.

The Journey from Texts to Translations: The Origin and Development of the Bible by Paul D. Wegner – If you are going to understand the biblical text it is important to understand how the Bible came to be. This book gives you the breakdown in a readable, accessible way that doesn’t require a PhD to understand.

The Art of Biblical Narrative By Robert Alter – This book changed my thinking on the Bible in a significant way. It showed me how to better pick up on themes and how the biblical narrative strings in various themes as the stories go along that I had never noticed before.

Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson – Carson covers five fallacies people typically make when reading and interpreting the Bible: Word-study fallacies, grammatical fallacies, logical fallacies, and presuppositional and historical fallacies. Excellent book! For supporting material as to why this book is needed, check any discussion of the Bible on social media that has over 100 comments!

Scripture and Discernment By Luke Timothy Johnson – My favorite Benedictine monk writes prolifically about the New Testament and other topics like this book that tackles how to understand the Bible for application and decision making in the life of the Christian.

Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by Richards and O’Brien – I really enjoyed this book. It is eye opening about the presuppositions and biases we come to the text with. Again, I love metanarrative (thinking about how we think) and this book unpacks that extremely well.

God’s Holy Fire by Cukrowski, Hamilton, and Thompson (all from ACU) – skip Kenneth Bailey’s work and go right to this one. This book is a one-stop-shop for so many relevant topic on how to read ancient literature.

Introduction to Biblical Interpretation (Third Edition) by Klein, Blomberg and Hubbard – Excellent book! This book unpacks everything from you as interpreter to how to interpret various genres in the Bible. This is a must read for anyone who wants to get into hermeneutics (study of how to interpret the Bible).

Can We Still Believe the Bible by Craig Blomberg – I read this on the plan to Costa Rica a few years ago and got so much out of it. I love Blomberg’s scholarship. This book is basically a FAQ for how to read the bible, answering common questions from a theologically conservative perspective. Very helpful!

No list would be complete without Gordon Fee. Here are his three main books, the first is the most important:

How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth (Fourth Edition) – This book should top your list

How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth

How to Read the Bible Book by Book: A Guided Tour

I am sure you have had the experience. You say something that someone else twists all around to mean something you never intended. Depending on the severity of it all, you can feel pretty violated by such a flagrant act!

God has had that experience as well. Millions and millions of times more than we have. I doubt he enjoys it any more than we do. In fact, it is far more serious to take God out of context than it is a human being. Because, well, He is God and we are not. His words are the words of the creator of the universe, not the words of his created ones.

In Matthew 4 the devil takes God out of context when he quotes Psalm 91 to get Jesus to jump from the highest point of the temple. Yes, even the devil takes God out of context. It isn’t a good thing to do!

I have noticed over the years that we actually soften our language about this. I often hear people say, “You are taking that scripture out of context” as if the scripture is the entity being taken out of context. If someone took N.T. Wright or Francis Chan out of context would you say “you are taking that book out of context” or would you say “you are taking that person out of context”?

Words and communication are personal. When we take God out of context, it is personal. We can’t really soften the impact of it by saying “You are taking that scripture out of context” as much as we are actually taking God out of context when we do that.

Let’s keep in mind to always mind the context of the passages we are studying to be respectful of the One who inspired the words we have in the Bible. Once we make up our mind to find a way to make the Bible say what we want it to say we are doing the same thing Satan did in Matthew 4. That is not good company!

Steve desperately wanted to know God’s will for his life. So he determined that God would guide him to the appropriate passage of scripture. He opened his Bible to a random page, put his finger on a verse and read Matthew 27:4,

“Then Judas went and hanged himself.”

Frustrated, he tried again…flipping over a few more pages, he randomly opened his Bible to Luke 10:37,

“Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise.'”

This is obviously problematic for a number of reasons. First, we don’t pretend to think that we would get any sort of consistently accurate, personal message from God in this way. Second, it is reading the text devoid of context. Who would want to go the way of Judas rather than the way of Jesus?

Context is essential to our understanding. Far too many people ignore it far too often. Word studies are an especially dangerous place for ignoring context as are three point sermons.

Context is not just important in studying the Bible, it is also important in discussing the Bible – we have to understand others through the context of their statements.

This takes work, but it will pay huge dividends if we will try. Welcome to October and a discussion on the importance of context for greater understanding!