Seize the Summer for Christ


Seize the Summer for Christ

by Stephen Rhoda

As summer draws near, the challenge before us is to “seize the summer.”  Children and young people might be thinking about that essay they’ll be assigned to write in the fall answering the question, “What did you do over summer vacation?” and they might plan now to make the most of their time and opportunity.  But what about parents?  They might best prepare for summer by way of a different question.  Parents might seize the summer by asking, “What can I do over summer vacation to nurture and develop my child’s faith in Christ?”  And instead of just driving kids to Bible School, summer camp, and youth group outings, parents can plan their own strategies and activities for discipling their children.

So here are some ideas and suggestions:

1. Bible Reading ~  Implement a summer Bible reading program for your child or children.  Have them read for a half hour to an hour each day, perhaps five out of seven days each week.  Sit down with them and ask them to choose one of the Gospels and/or one of the narrative books of the Old Testament for their reading.  Check on their progress regularly, marking off chapters on a chart until they are finished.  Then ask them to choose another book of the Bible.  For children not yet reading, set aside time to read to them directly from Scripture.

2. Bible Memorization ~  Challenge your children to memorize a Psalm or some other passage of moderate length.  Perhaps you might start with around ten verses and see how long, with regular encouragement, it takes them to memorize the passage.  Another approach would be to choose one passage for the whole family and practice together each time you have family devotions.  Type and print the verses out on your computer so each member of your family can have their own copy.

3. Confessional Reading ~  Don’t forget to include the confessions in your child’s summer reading.  Remember that the confessions are a summary statement of the main teachings of God’s Word.  They must not replace our direct reading and study of Scripture, but they can greatly enhance and guide our learning of the central teachings of God’s Word.  Sadly many Christians who are members of confessional churches have never even read all the confessions of their church.  If this is you, challenge yourself to take up the confessions in your own summer reading.

4. Theological Study ~  Keep in mind that theology is simply the study of the central teachings of God’s Word.  By way of a concordance or a topical or analytical Bible, choose several passages, perhaps even up to a dozen, that together form a particular teaching of Scripture.  Have your child read and study the passages and form in their mind or even write down what the Bible teaches about, for example, justification, heaven and hell, or how God works by Word and Spirit, or who Christ is, etc.

5. Church History ~  Church history obviously isn’t Scripture, but it’s value and importance is huge.  Choose a character from church history, such as Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Knox or Spurgeon, or choose a specific event or era in church history, like the Reformation or the Great Awakening, and lead your child to explore and study the topic.  Searches on the internet and trips to a public library can provide some material, but Christian publishers are likely to yield the most accurate information.

6. List Memorization ~ There are certain lists or groups of things that our children just need to have memorized.  Such memorization will serve to instill in them the importance of knowing God’s Word and the history of redemption.  Choose one or more of the following to work on through the summer: Books of the Bible (Bible Index), six days of creation (Genesis 1), Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), twelve tribes of Israel (Genesis 49; Study Bible Maps), Beatitudes (Matthew 5), twelve disciples of Christ (Matthew 10:1-4), fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), armor of God (Ephesians 6:14-20).

7. “Porch Swing Discipleship” ~ No discipleship effort is complete, no matter how comprehensive, without simple conversation.  We learn this aspect of discipleship from Christ Himself as He spent time with His disciples, sometimes teaching them directly, but other times in more casual conversation and answering their questions.  Summertime might afford additional time and opportunity for parents just to talk with their children.  Use the things above, along with sermons and other Bible lessons, to prompt your questions.  Ask your child, “So what are you reading in your Bible this week?  What did you learn from the sermon this morning?  Are you remembering to spend time in prayer?  Have you been thinking about making a profession of your faith in Christ?”  Even comments making reference to trusting Christ, following Christ, and witnessing for Christ, can make a huge difference and have a significant impact upon a child’s faith.  In the end, all such conversation should become natural and inherent to our family life, as we are called “talk of [God’s Word] when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” (Deuteronomy 6:7)

Of course, these suggestions can also be taken as challenges in a parent’s personal discipleship as well.  We must be intentional and active disciples of Christ before we can have the greatest effect upon our children.  So are there books of the Bible that you’ve never read or haven’t studied for a long time?  Are there doctrines that you claim to believe but really couldn’t explain if asked?  Do you know where Scripture teaches central doctrines like the divinity of Christ, justification by faith, the Triune Being of God, etc.?  Being a disciple of Christ should not be a seasonal endeavor, but again, summertime might provide the impetus to recommit ourselves and launch new efforts to study God’s Word and glory in Christ Jesus.

I hope the summer of 2010 proves to be a significant time for you as a parent and disciple of Christ!

A Discipleship of Presumption



A Discipleship of Presumption

by Stephen Rhoda

We have been enjoying some great springtime weather, which makes me want to get outside, and for whatever reason, spending time outdoors makes me think again of being a disciple of Christ.  I can picture the disciples in fair weather plodding along after Jesus, sun on their faces, wind in their hair, going from town to town, where He preached and performed miracles to confirm His authority and identity as the divine Son of God.  Wouldn’t you love to have been there?

But there’s really no reason why only good weather should remind us of this image.  Surely there was bad weather to endure.  We see as much in Mark 4:35-41, when the disciples are in a boat battling to survive a severe storm on the Sea of Galilee while Jesus slept in the stern.  They woke Him, asking, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  It was then that Jesus did what may have been his greatest miracle, perhaps second only to His resurrection.  He rebuked the wind and commanded the sea, saying, “Peace!  Be still!”  And the disciples went from fear to fear.   Instead of being afraid of dying, they were suddenly afraid of living, living, that is, in the presence of this man who “even the wind and sea obey.”

The point is to realize and remember that faith is a matter of following Christ, and by the example of the disciples in the Gospels, that in following Christ, there is no promise of avoiding storms nor even of a roof over our heads at night.  The disciples entrusted themselves completely to Christ, which is what discipleship was and is, a full and utter dependence upon Christ.  They left everything to follow Him, and He was faithful in feeding and sheltering them to keep them alive.  In the end, Jesus spoke this word to His Father- “Of those whom you have given me, I have lost not one.” (John 18:9)

So is it not the case in our own day that those who claim to be Christians often presume much more than Christ has actually promised?  American Christianity is guilty of great presumption, presuming, for example, that we must have a roof over our heads.  But who says?  In Matthew 8:20, Jesus said to a man who offered to follow Him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  In other words, Jesus was essentially homeless, sleeping outdoors or staying in the homes of those who supported Him.

American Christianity presumes that we must have three meals a day.  But who says?  In Matthew 12:1 the disciples of Jesus were hungry enough to eat raw grain right out of the field.  Had Jesus failed them?  No, they had grain to eat. Think about that tomorrow night while eating your four-course supper as the third meal of the day.

And American Christianity presumes upon the freedoms we have enjoyed in this country for several hundred years now, but such a state of blessing and comfort is hardly the norm over the course of two thousand years of church history.  And again, what did Jesus actually promise?  Did He promise freedom and protection from severest persecution?  Hardly.  In fact, Christ promised the opposite.  “The hour is coming,” said Jesus, “when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” (John 16:2)  And in the book of Hebrews, we are told of those who “joyfully accepted the plundering of their property” (10:34) and of others who “suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword.” (11:36-37)  Of these, the Holy Spirit says, “The world was not worthy.” (11:38)

So we can thump our Bibles and cry foul when the church or the world violates and contradicts the Scriptures, but what about us?  Do we know our Bibles to know what faith is as defined by God’s Word?  Do we know the teachings of Christ and of the apostles?  Do we know the real promises of the Gospel?  Or are we guilty of syncretism, merging the Christian faith with the American dream?

So why be a Christian?  If there’s no promise of a roof over our heads and food in our bellies, why follow Christ?  For the only reason that true faith has, because we need Him desperately to escape the wrath to come and because we love Him deeply as the One who endured our punishment for sin and delivered us from all condemnation now and forever.  Do you have such faith?  Seek it in prayer today and study the Word to receive true faith as a disciple of Christ.

The Problem of Indifference


The Problem of Indifference

by Stephen Rhoda

A study of church history will reveal the consistent presence of three categories of people in the church.  In every given day of struggle for truth in the church, there are, 1. those who are committed to preserving and proclaiming the true Gospel, 2. those committed to corrupting and silencing the Gospel, and, 3. those who are indifferent.  It’s this third category of people that has most captured my thoughts and grieved my soul within my years of ministry, because the contribution of indifference to the loss of the Gospel in the church is hardly less than of outright unbelief.

Let’s be clear that there will always be a struggle within the church in this age that is passing away.  Jesus warned us, “In the world you will have tribulation,” and He gave this assurance, “…but take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).  So even though God has “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Christ]” (Colossians 2:15), yet the result in this age is a struggle.  We are not called to gain the kingdom of God for ourselves but to receive the kingdom that has been bestowed upon us.  We are not called to win the victory for ourselves but to live by the victory that Christ has won for us on the cross and in His resurrection.  In short, therefore, we are called to “work out your [finished] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).

Even further, the call of Christ to follow Him is not the call to a life of ease and comfort.  To put it another way, the call to follow Christ is not the call to build an impressive financial portfolio and to retire to ease and luxury.  Instead, Jesus said, “Whoever does not bear His own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”  And He added, “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27,33).  If we find ourselves comfortable and at ease in our Christian faith at whatever stage in life, I am more and more convinced that it’s because we have ceased to struggle and have aligned ourselves with the ranks of the indifferent.

“The contribution of indifference

to the loss of the Gospel in the church

is hardly less than of outright unbelief.”

So who are the indifferentists?  They may or may not be true believers in Jesus Christ, but even if they are, they are illustrated in the disciples of Jesus on the night that He was betrayed.  It’s not that they were party to the arrest of Jesus (like Judas).  It’s not that they showed up looking for the opportunity to testify against Jesus (like the leaders of the people).  It’s not that they weren’t grieved to see Jesus treated so poorly (like the Romans).  But in the end, they were more concerned about keeping their own life and reputation intact than about honoring Christ and sharing His suffering and shame.  Thus in our own day, the indifferentists may go around saying, “Hrrrumph!” from time to time.  They may be willing to point out unbelief and unfaithfulness in the church on a certain day.  But they quickly return to their main concern, which is preserving their reputation, safeguarding their business relationships within the church and community, ensuring the affections of their spouse, and keeping up their pursuit of the “American dream” rather than a true following after Christ.

If you recognize yourself anywhere in this description, I urge you to repent, to take up your cross, and to seek strength and wisdom from Christ to be His true and faithful disciple.  Short of prompt repentance, however, I hope you will not prove my point by going merrily on your way with indifference.  The warning of Christ is clear: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). 

And what is the will of God?  To believe in Him whom He has sent!

And what is the mark of such faith in Christ?  The mark of true faith is a great love for Christ, in order to be willing to suffer with Christ and to take a stand for the Gospel.  The mark of true faith is a love for the Gospel, not just a willingness to use the word “gospel” and to speak generically of “God” and “the Lord,” but the eager willingness to confess to others the name of Christ and to uphold His honor and glory by preserving and proclaiming the true Gospel of sovereign grace.

May Christ Himself by His Word and Spirit stir the church out of her indifference!  As her hand is in the dish and she doesn’t even bring it back to her mouth, as she avows the imaginary lion in the street in order to excuse her place of ease and apathy, Christ calls His church to stand and preach the truth, to share in His suffering, and perhaps even to die for Him.

Question of the Year: Where in the Word Are You?


Question of the Year: Where in the Word Are You?

by Stephen Rhoda

I propose that this be the Question of the Year for 2010, “Where in the Word are you?”  As disciples of Christ, we should always be in the Word.  There should always be a book of the Bible that we are reading, there should always be a subject or theme that we are tracing out in Scripture, and there should always be a shorter passage that we are committing to memory.  So… where in the Word are you right now?  And where in the Word do you plan to be this year?

Parents, introduce this question to your children and let them know that you’ll be asking them regularly.  Each Lord’s Day start the week by asking them where in the Word they were in the past week and where they plan to be in the coming week.  

As we start a new year, here is the challenge to make plans and set goals for your reading and study of God’s Word in 2010.  Remember that reading our Bibles should not be a matter of “voluntary spirituality” but of survival.  In other words, it’s not about “getting fulfilled” or “scratching an itch,” but about persevering in faith to the end and saving your very soul.  Will your faith be stronger or weaker by the end of the year?  Will you be more or less sure of the reality of Christ’s kingdom?  Let us not be presumptuous in our faith.  For each of us, both faith and the perseverance of faith are not natural to us.  Faith was the gift of God to start, and faith will persevere only as we remain in prayer and in the Word.

Here are some suggestions for studying God’s Word in 2010:

1. Study Thematically ~ Choose a subject or theme and trace it throughout Scripture.  For example, study the theme of God’s presence with His people, starting in the Garden and finishing in the new heaven and new earth of Revelation 21-22.  A topical Bible can be helpful.  I have used one from Baker Books called Topical Analysis of the Bible, by Walter A. Elwell.

2. Study with a Commentary ~ Choose a book of the Bible and get a commentary for that book.  Read a passage or chapter and then the commentary to deepen your understanding of that portion of God’s Word.  You can find access to many commentaries online or order one for your shelf.  Buy with confidence anything from Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing or Banner of Truth Trust.  Check out Banner of Truth’s “Let’s Study” series for something fairly accessible to the average person.  However, don’t shy away from reading Calvin and the classics of Reformed scholarship, including Spurgeon and Matthew Henry.  You may not understanding everything, but I trust you’ll understand most of what you read.

3. Study with a Map ~ In your love for Christ, you might trace His path on a map as you read the account of His life and ministry from one of the Gospel writers.  You can find such maps in the back of a Study Bible or online.  Otherwise, make your own map and fill in the locations as you come across them in the text.  This method reminds us that our study of God’s Word is about loving Christ and finding communion with Him.

4. Cross-Referenced Study ~ Choose a book of the Bible and read one passage or chapter per day.  From each reading, commit to checking all the cross-reference passages given for one or two verses.  In time, it will come more naturally to cross-reference words and expressions that are difficult or especially meaningful to you. Note: You will obviously need a cross-referenced Study Bible.  I recommend the English Standard Version, but regrettably its cross-referencing is not nearly as strong and thorough as the NIV.

5. Study with the Standards ~ Acquire a version of your preferred confession/catechism with proof texts.  In my experience, most copies of the Heidelberg Catechism will have the proof texts, but most copies of the Westminster Standards will not.  Why is that?  Read one Article or Question & Answer per day, tracing the teaching to God’s Word via the proof texts.  Once in God’s Word, follow cross-references to other passages and write them in as your own notes.

6. Study to Sing the Psalms  ~ Study a psalm per week in order to be more conscious of Christ in your psalm singing on the Lord’s Day.  Even further, sing at home on your own or with your family as you study each psalm.  Parents, share with your children what you’ve learned before singing that psalm as a family around the table.  Note: You will need a least one copy of the Psalter or Psalter Hymnal, but a worthy investment to have even two or three.

7. Read through the Bible in a Year ~ This is a rather ambitious goal, requiring you to read four chapters a day for every day of the year.  It’s worth doing, but my recommendation is to be just as faithful in reading one or two chapters a day and finishing in two to three years.

Regardless how we study, we ought always to have a specific answer when asked the question- “Where in the Word are you?”  Read the Word.  Study the Word.  And glory every day in Christ!

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas


It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas!

by Stephen Rhoda

I’ll confess that I have a weakness for the traditional holly and ivy of Christmas.  I like the scenes of Currier & Ives and Norman Rockwell.  In my opinion, Bing Crosby sings the best “White Christmas,” Perry Como does the best “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays,” and Ella Fitzgerald the best “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”  And, of course, nobody really sings “Blue Christmas” except Elvis.

I realize that all such truck can be a great distraction from what Christmas really is.  I also agree that the celebration of Christ’s birth, along with our knowledge of His death and our joy at His resurrection, belongs not just to a single day of the year but to the entire year in every day on the calendar.  In the end, December 25 is no more “Christmas” than July 25!  At least, it shouldn’t be for those who love Christ and live consciously in the day of His fulfilled coming and realized kingdom.

So when we hear the words “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” we probably think of lights and decorations, the colors red and green, and some snow on the ground to make “the dream” come true.  However, let’s rethink this expression.  If Christmas means the coming of Christ to save His people, to give them new birth, to fill them with His Spirit, and to carry out His ministry through them, then it will begin to look a lot like Christmas whenever we see the church gathered in worship and wherever we see the church ministering to the world with the love of Christ.

I hope you all enjoy this season as much as I do, but I hope even more that the birth of Christ fills your mind, lifts your heart, and raptures your soul every day.  And may it look like Christmas in the church all year long. 

Thankful to Whom?


 Thankful to Whom?

A Devotional Reading for Thanksgiving Day

by Stephen Rhoda


Scripture Reading:  Psalm 116;  James 1:16-18

As we celebrate another Thanksgiving Day, I am reminded again of how popular this holiday can be and yet how empty of true Christian meaning.  In particular I am thinking of the practice of giving thanks without ever naming who is being thanked.  You can hear this all the time on television shows and throughout our culture in general.  The scene might show a group of people sitting around and sharing their thoughts of thankfulness.  One after another they say, “I am thankful for…” as they name something or someone significant and meaningful in their life.  With a falling tear, one says, “I am thankful for my family.”  Another with breaking voice says, “I am thankful for my friends.”  To add a little humor, a third person says, “I am thankful for indoor plumbing.”  And so, having had our emotions stirred in several different directions, we can easily come away feeling “touched” and thinking that this is really what Thanksgiving is all about.  Swept along by the emotion, we might never realize that nobody really gives thanks in such scenes, and we might never notice that God is never mentioned.  At best, it’s just a matter of generic spirituality.  At worst, it’s a matter of godless sentimentalism.

We might expect little more from our culture these days, but let us refuse to make the same error in our own giving of thanks.  As we sit around tables laden with food, as we gather in warm houses with comfortable clothes, as we enjoy the company of family and friends, let us say without fail, “I am thankful to God for all His blessings to me.”  What is the point if we are just “thankful”?  How is God honored if we simply acknowledge that certain things and people in our lives are valuable and important to us?  Thanksgiving Day is about giving thanks to God.  That ought to be a terribly obvious statement for mature believers in Jesus Christ, but sometimes we need the obvious put to us again in no uncertain terms.  So let me say it again- Thanksgiving Day is about giving thanks to God!

On this day and in every day, let us confess and declare that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights,” that is, from our Creator God (James 1:17).  To do otherwise is to a matter of deception (vs. 16).  And  among God’s many blessings to His people is His sovereign working for our salvation in and through Jesus Christ.  “Of his own will, he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”  There is nothing we have that does not come entirely from God: our lives, our bodies, our homes, our possessions, our families, our jobs, our strength and skill to work, but above all, the new birth and changed heart that brought us to saving faith in Jesus Christ!  How can we fail to give thanks for the riches of His grace?  And how can we fail to name the name of God and of Christ in our thanksgiving.

On Being Disciples of Christ


On Being Disciples of Christ

by Stephen Rhoda

One of two main emphases in the efforts of Ephphatha Reformation Ministries is the call of Christ to be His disciples.  We hear this call throughout the pages of the Gospels and again in the closing events of the inspired record in Matthew 28.  In the words of our Lord known as the “Great Commission,” we hear not only the church’s missional calling but also the calling of each individual believer to be a disciple of Christ.  “Go therefore,” said Jesus, “and make disciples….”  Surely there is great significance in the fact that even as Christ concluded His earthly ministry in the flesh, even as He was departing to return to the Father’s right hand, He renewed this call in the lives of those who believed in Him, and He called the church to echo this call in the ears of all those who would believe in Him.  Simply put, Christians are those who must understand and identify themselves as disciples of Jesus Christ.  But how conscious are we as believers of our identity specifically as disciples of our Lord?

A Personal Relationship with Christ

Of course, the first step for some will be to take up a more personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  I suspect that this expression, namely, a “personal relationship with Christ,” has gained a strong connection to a tradition of Christianity that is sometimes overly personal, to the extreme that for some who have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” their faith is just about “me and Jesus,” specifically in that order of priority.  And too often, it’s a “Jesus” of rather insipid character who does not command the fear and worship of those who claim to know him.  This is not what I mean by calling the reader “to take up a more personal relationship with Christ.”

However, the creeping error at the other end of the spectrum is “nominalism.”  In my experience and resulting opinion, this error has crept too far into the church.  Members of the church, those who would claim to be Christians, are yet Christian only nominally, that is, in name only.  If they are asked, “Are you a Christian?” they are taken aback or even offended by the question, and yet they have no daily communion with Christ through the Word and prayer.  They offer no confession of Christ in their conversation with others, even with other Christians.  The extent of their religious language is to make reference to “God” or to a generic “Lord,” perhaps to “the Spirit,” but strikingly absent, or at best latent, is a clear, eager, and joyful reference to and confession of Christ.

I certainly want to be charitable in evaluating the faith of others, and even as I just re-read the last paragraph, I found myself asking, “Is this fair?”  However, it just should not be — perhaps, it cannot be — that those who are Christ-ians rarely, if ever, confess the name of Christ with joy, yet alone, even mention His name in conversation.  Romans 10:9 says- “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  And Christ Himself said- “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

So I think it’s fair to say that underlying both emphases of Ephphatha Reformation Ministries — both the calling of parents to catechize their children and the calling of Christ to be His disciples — underlying and overarching everything is the deeper motivation of wanting to call the church back to Christ.  There are lifelong members of the church who need to ask themselves, “Do I believe in Christ?  Am I a follower of Christ?  If I do and if I am, why does He not fill more of my daily meditation and conversation?”  In this respect, the church can be a dangerous place, if it serves as the cleverest of hiding places for unbelief, leaving a person in the end apart from Christ and still outside the kingdom of heaven.  Even in the church, the Gospel must be preached.  And the call of Christ in the Gospel is to take up a personal relationship with Him.

The Relationship of Discipleship

The next step in answering the call to be a disciple of Christ is to understand that this is indeed the relationship into which He calls us.  In other words, it’s not just any relationship to which He calls us, nor does Christ leave each person to decide for themselves what relationship with Him they want to have.  Is this not the point of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3?  Is this not the point of Jesus’ challenge to the crowds in John 6?  As people came to Him wanting to relate to Him however they would choose, Christ consistently indicted them and confronted them with the challenge to take up a right and saving relationship to Him.

In our own day, “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Again, even in the church, people today presume to relate to Christ in whatever way suites them.  Perhaps He is their friend.  Maybe He is their teacher.  Or perhaps Christ is simply the bridge that one must cross and leave behind in order to “walk in the Spirit,” or to “be Spirit-filled,” but otherwise simply to have a relationship with “the Spirit.”  If at best Christ only receives honorable mention in one’s confession of faith, that person has given little indication that he or she stands in right relationship to Him.

Perhaps the clearest indicator of this problem are the ads that churches place as they seek a new pastor.  There are a striking number of ads that say they want a “Spirit-filled” pastor, whatever that means to them, but not one ad that I’ve seen that says they want a pastor who is “a disciple of Jesus Christ,” or who is “following Christ.”  Why is that?  Doesn’t Christ still call us to be His disciples?  Wasn’t His commission to the church to “make disciples”?  Two thousand years later, people are still trying to tell Christ where He fits in their personal version of meaningful spirituality.

Understanding Discipleship

Thus we arrive at the need to understand what discipleship is.  The point is not just to hold a title, nor simply to adopt a certain vocabulary and drop in the right words in conversation.  The point is to be, to act, to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ, and doing so will require understanding again from God’s Word.  Just as we are not left to decide what relationship we would have with Christ, so we are not left to decide what the discipleship relationship looks like.

Disciple as Student

First, a disciple of Christ is one who listens to and learns from Jesus.  There are few things more clear in the record of the Gospels than the identity of Jesus as Teacher and that of the disciples as students.  So in one sense, “disciple as student” is closer to the heart of discipleship than any other aspect of the relationship, so that the words “disciple” and “student” are virtually synonymous.

Perhaps here immediately is the reason why so few modern Christians are conscious of being disciples of Christ.  Having to learn something is exactly what many do not want.  What is desired is much more of a mutual relationship to Christ or a relationship of experience with the Spirit.  But learning requires submission, time and effort.

The story or scene that most comes to mind here is Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus recorded in Luke 10.  Martha was busy making preparations for their guests while Mary sat listening to the teaching of Jesus.  The story teaches us several important things.  First, it teaches us that while the twelve disciples were men and while Christ still calls ordained men to lead in the church, yet both men and women are called to be disciples of Christ.  Second, I think the sense we are supposed to gather is that Mary found sitting at the feet of Jesus irresistible.  It seems likely that Martha’s negative reaction stemmed not from her poor relationship with Mary but from a cultural expectation that Mary should have been doing what Martha was doing, and she very well might have been, if not for the irresistible opportunity so close at hand to sit and listen to a sermon or lesson from her Lord right in her own living room.

The parallel is obvious.  Today, disciples of Christ do not sit at the physical feet of Jesus, but they actually have more opportunity to listen and learn from Jesus than Mary did.  With the Word of God square in our hands and with modern technology freeing up huge blocks of time compared to our forefathers and mothers, we might very well be spending an hour or more a day as students of Christ.  It might actually be an indictment against us if we have never been accused of “just sitting there” as Mary was.  Ministers must deal with this from certain members of their congregations who feel “led by the Spirit” to confront a pastor who spends too much time in his study, or so they allege.  But others too as disciples of Christ ought to bear this attack to show that they are getting closer to spending as much as they should in the Word of God.  In the very least, disciples of Christ should be those eager for an hour to spend at the feet of Jesus.

Disciple as Dependent

However, there is definitely more to being a disciple of Christ than being a student of Christ.  For example, the disciples did not just show up for their classes every day, meeting Jesus at the temple or synagogue.  Instead, they followed Jesus, they lived with Jesus, they depended upon Him daily for their subsistence and livelihood.  This is the implication and impact of seeing Peter, Andrew, James and John leaving behind their nets and boat to follow Jesus in Matthew 4:18-22.  It seems clear that these men understood the institution of discipleship within their culture and that they heard Jesus calling them to be His disciples.  They left behind their means of support and began that day to depend fully upon Christ to feed, clothe and shelter them, and they lived from then on in full dependence upon Christ.

This aspect of their relationship to Christ helps us understand the consternation of the disciples in John 6 as Jesus calls upon them to feed a great crowd of people.  The sense of their objection seems to be this- “You want to feed these people, Jesus?  It will use up all our funds, and then what will be left for us?”  So it is in both the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand that the number of baskets left over was a perfect number.  With the five thousand, there was one basket for each of the twelve disciples.  With the four thousand, there were a perfect seven baskets left over.  Jesus was teaching them not to be greedy and not to worry but to trust Him fully, to trust Him to provide for their needs as His disciples.

We need to be careful to point out that not every believer is called to quit their job and expect that their physical needs will somehow be met by Christ as they follow Him.  Granted there are some who do this still today in the form of full-time ministry, but the point here is that every disciple is called to live in utter dependence upon Christ.  I believe this is the point of John 21, where after the resurrection the disciples had returned to their fishing.  Jesus found them on the sea and once again provided them with a miraculous catch of fish.  Recognizing Jesus by this miracle, they hurried to shore and found a fire with fish already cooking over it, and bread.  Even still, Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.”  I hear Jesus saying to them- “There will no longer be a fund to provide for your needs, and yes, you may have to work at times to eat.  But make no mistake: I am still providing for you, and you still depend upon me.”

However, our dependence upon Christ goes far beyond the provision of physical food, shelter and clothing.  The true disciple of Christ depends upon Him for the provision of His blood and righteousness to save them from their sin.  Here is where the discipleship relationship, a relationship of utter dependence upon Christ, is understood to embody true faith.  Jesus made it abundantly clear to the people that they needed more than bread, meat and water.  They needed Him.  They needed Him to be their bread of life, their sacrificial lamb, and their living water.  Jesus said- “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).

Can we not see then the utterly false nature of nominal Christianity?  The relationship to which Jesus calls us is one of utter dependence.  We are not to show up in church once a week just looking for an hour of generic spiritual inspiration.  Instead, we are called to live in conscious dependence upon Christ as our God, the One in whom we live and move and have our being.  And we are not to strive for a miserable 15-minute devotional time in which to practice our faith.  Instead, Paul said, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21), and he said further of Christ- “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).

Disciple as One Who Loves Christ

And that brings me to a third aspect of the discipleship relationship.  A disciple of Christ is one who loves Christ deeply in response to His love for him or her.  Here we need to see John in his relationship to Jesus in John 13:21-30.  The main focus of the passage is on Judas as Jesus identifies him as the one who would betray him, but we must not miss the contrast being made between Judas and John.  Even as Judas refuses any longer to follow Jesus and to depend upon Him, relying instead upon what the enemies of Jesus might provide him, we see John leaning on Jesus.  The NKJV is the most archaic and yet the most literal.  It says of John that he “was leaning on Jesus’ bosom.”  As Judas prepares to betray Jesus, we see John loving Jesus.  It’s a posture and gesture of love, a picture of tender fellowship with Christ, and it sounds the call for us, as disciples of Christ, to love Him deeply.

In a very clear sense, surely we must say, “Yes, how can it be otherwise?”  How can they not love Christ who claim and confess that He died for them on the cross?  When He deals with us so tenderly, with such compassion and patience, and when He even took our place as objects of wrath and suffered hell for us, surely He must move us to love Him deeply and endlessly.  While even the most faithful of disciples lacks a fully fitting love for Christ, the nominal Christian is thus exposed in his unbelief.  It simply cannot be that someone who truly believes in Christ consistently neglects even to confess His name, yet alone to spend time with Him regularly in the Word and prayer.  Neither perfect attendance in church, nor a moral lifestyle, not even ordination in the church can compensate for the absence of love for Christ.


Can you imagine what would happen at work if your boss gave you an assignment and you decided to do something else?  When the project was due, would you be able to say, “You told me to do this, but I decided to do something else”?  Why should we find it any less absurd to decide for ourselves what faith is and what relationship with Christ is sufficient and preferable?  The call of Christ is to follow Him and be His disciples.  The commission of Christ to the church is to make disciples of all nations.  God’s Word sounds this call repeatedly and clearly defines and mandates the discipleship relationship with Christ.  And yet the same church that goes to Scripture to confront the world on various issues neglects to sound the call to discipleship.  We dump doctrine like yesterday’s garbage when “doctrine” is simply the teaching of Christ for His students.  We content ourselves with giving Christ honorable mention when disciples are those who depend fully upon Him to save them from sin and hell.  And we find our success in bringing people to spell “God” with a capital “G” when knowing Christ is the surpassing worth of true faith, for which the true believer count all else as loss.

Thus the emphasis and effort of Ephphatha Reformation Ministries is the call of Christ to be His disciples.  May the call be sounded clearly and answered by many disciples, to the glory of Christ, our Teacher, our Savior, our Beloved Lord.

Challenges Made in this Article

Hear the call of Christ to be His disciple.

Take up a personal relationship with Christ, not to the exclusion of the church, but starting in your own mind and heart.

Become a student of Christ in the Word of God.

Recognize and acknowledge your dependence upon Christ for all things, especially for your salvation by His blood and righteousness.

Seek to grow in your love for Christ, matching your confession that He suffered and died in your place.





“Ephphatha” Examined and Explained


“Ephphatha” Examined and Explained

by Stephen Rhoda

Ephpha… What?

It’s a legitimate question for anyone to ask regarding Ephphatha Reformation Ministries: Why the name “Ephphatha”?  After all, it’s not the easiest name to spell and not readily apparent how to pronounce!  So why “Ephphatha”?  The answer is found in the meaning and significance of the word in the Gospel of Mark.  In Mark 7:31-37, we are told a wonderful story about our Lord.  Mark records for us how Jesus healed a man who was unable to hear or speak, and the story gives us to know and understand the great love of Christ for those who are suffering.  When we read this story, we can be assured that our Savior loves and cares for us as well.

Christ Applied

However, there are details to the story that help us understand several things further, namely, that the blessing of Christ comes as He applies Himself to us.  We see Jesus applying Himself as He touches the man in order to heal him, putting His fingers in the man’s ears.  There were other times when Jesus healed a person from a distance or simply spoke to perform a miracle, but here is one occasion when He applied His hands to heal a person.

Even more, Jesus spits, presumably applying His own saliva to the man’s tongue.  It’s a detail that might seem unsanitary and perhaps makes us cringe, but the image strongly conveys the point of Jesus applying Himself to the man.

Yet again, Mark tells us that Jesus sighed, which indicates two things.  The first meaning is that Jesus had compassion on the man, feeling and expressing a sense of sorrow for the man in his impaired condition.  The second meaning is that Jesus sighed and thus breathed on him, again, applying His breath to the man for the sake of his healing.

All of this, then, fits with the way Christ saves us from our sin, because salvation comes as He applies Himself to us by His Spirit.  In other words, Christ doesn’t just give us a blessing apart from Himself; He is the blessing as He gives us Himself.  Christ doesn’t just provide us salvation; He is our salvation as His Spirit applies Him and His work to us.  If you don’t believe me, consult the Westminster Standards, which use this language of “application.”  For example, the Westminster Confession (Chapter 11, Article 4) teaches that “the Holy Spirit doth… apply Christ unto [the elect],” and the Larger Catechism puts it this way in Q & A 58- “We are made partakers of the benefits which Christ hath procured, by the application of them unto us, which is the work especially of God the Holy Ghost.”  (See also Westminster Confession, Chapter 8, Article 8.)

The Effect of Christ Applied

But another thing to be understood from this story is found in the effect of Jesus applying Himself to the man.  As Jesus carries out these actions, again, applying Himself to the man, He also speaks the word of command, “Ephphatha,” which Mark translates for us as meaning, “Be opened.”  The effect, then, is that “his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”  The lesson here is that this too is true in our salvation, that as Christ is applied to us for the sake of open ears, true repentance, and saving faith, the effect should also be that we speak plainly.

To put it another way, Christians should be people who speak, teach and proclaim the Word of God clearly, without reduction or modification.  This is especially true in warning others of the coming day of God’s judgment and calling sinners to repent and believe in Jesus Christ.  Such openness and plain speaking was the mark of Jesus’ preaching, and as He was applied to His apostles through the Spirit, such was the mark of their preaching as well.  In Acts 3, Peter sounded forth this call to sinners- “Repent therefore and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out….”  And in Acts 17, Paul proclaimed in Athens that God “commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Be Opened, Speak Clearly

So the question that I’ve had to ask myself and that I want to ask of us all is why we don’t preach and teach God’s Word the same way.  Why don’t we clearly sound the warning of God’s Word that Christ is coming in judgment upon this world?  Why don’t we issue the call of the Gospel to repent of sin and believe in Jesus Christ?  Why don’t we make it clear that Christ is the only way of salvation for sinners?  All of these teachings are abundantly clear in God’s Word, and they become unclear only in our own modified teaching and guarded proclamation.

Perhaps one reason why we are not forthright with God’s Word is that we didn’t know our preaching and teaching were supposed to be this clear.  But such unawareness can only result from a neglect of God’s Word.

Maybe the reason is because we don’t think it will work to bring sinners to faith in Christ.  Here we need to know our church history.  From the first century record of the early church in the book of Acts, to the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century in colonial America, to the ministry of evangelism today, the fruitful preaching of God’s Word has always been open and plainly spoken.

But the most likely reason why we are not open and plain speaking in our proclamation of God’s Word is because we know what it will cost us.  It will cost us good standing in the world.  It will cost us persecution and suffering.  For some, it may even cost the loss of property and even of life itself.  All of this Jesus made clear in His teaching to His disciples.  In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”  In Mark 8:34, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” adding in verse 38, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”  And in John 16:2, Jesus prepares His disciples with these words- “Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.  And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.”  So it should be no surprise when we suffer for the sake of Christ, and we rightly tremble as we set out to proclaim and uphold the Word of God in the world.  But suffering for Christ is both our calling and our privilege as His disciples.

This is Ephphatha Reformation Ministries

Ephphatha Reformation Ministries is an effort to provide and encourage an open, plain speaking ministry of God’s Word.  Let parents sit their children down and teach them, not just to make them church members, not firstly to preserve a family tradition, but to save their souls from the wrath to come through faith in Christ Jesus.  Let believers understand that they are disciples of Christ and lifelong students of Christ, not to scratch an itch for spirituality, not for the sake of intellectual prowess, but to save and guard their own souls in the truth of God’s Word.  This is Ephphatha Reformation Ministries, and I hope you’ll become a part of it by receiving and supporting this effort for the glory of Christ.

Challenges Issued in this Article

Know and be convinced of the great love of Christ for you.

Understand more fully the way Christ saves you by applying Himself to you through the Spirit.

Read and study the Westminster Confession, Chapter 8, Article 8; Chapter 11, Article 4.

Read and study the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q & A 58-59.

Be open and plain speaking as you catechize (instruct) your children in God’s Word.

Take up a discipleship relationship with Christ.  Be a lifelong student of His Word.

Devotions in God’s Word

How to Have Devotions in God’s Word

by Stephen Rhoda

Maybe it seems like a question with an obvious answer, to ask how to have devotions in God’s Word, but the need for this instruction arises from the words “in God’s Word.”  Our devotions should not be a matter of simply reading someone else’s spiritual thoughts and reflections and closing with a short prayer.  The problem is that this is how many devotional books are set up, and to a significant degree, we might refer in our day to “the lost art of personal devotions.”

So how should we have devotions in God’s Word?

First, I believe it’s right to say that the use of a devotional book is optional.  Such books can be helpful, provided they explain and apply the teachings of God’s Word, but the most important thing is that you spend time reading God’s Word as part of your devotions.  It doesn’t have to be a tremendously long portion of Scripture, but you ought to be reading God’s Word and reading more than just one or two verses printed at the head of the page of some devotional reading. 

At other times, however, we should give ours to reading more extensively from God’s Word.  One very helpful practice is to choose a book of Scripture and commit to reading it in one or two sittings.  This may take a full hour or two at a time, depending on the book you choose and how quickly you read.  The question you may need to ask yourself is whether God’s Word is personally important enough to read and study more extensively on your own. 

Second, your devotions should indeed be a matter of studying God’s Word.  Even if you’re reading a shorter passage, the point is to learn the teachings of God’s Word, or perhaps to be reminded of what you already know.  The initial question you might ask is very simply, “What does this passage of Scripture teach or remind me about God?”  And since Christ is the fullness of God’s revelation of Himself to us, the next question is to ask, “Where do I see see Christ in this passage?” -or- “How is this teaching also taught to me in the person and life of Christ?”  Finally, not to be neglected is the question, “What should be my response in order to live in the light of this teaching and the knowledge of God in Jesus Christ?”

Third, your devotions should include prayer.  When you read God’s Word, He is speaking to you.  So having finished your reading, you should respond by speaking to Him in prayer.  As believers in Christ, God has called us into a Person-to-person relationship with Him.  Through Christ, God is our heavenly Father, and He is present with us by His Word and Spirit.  So talk to God.  You may even find it meaningful and helpful to pray out loud, which may feel strange at first but will help you to be conscious and thoughtful of your faith all day long.

In addition to responding in prayer after you have read God’s Word, you might also pray more briefly before you start reading.  Given the dullness of our hearts and minds in sin, we need to ask Christ to work by His Spirit to help us understand His Word and apply His teaching to our lives.  Even further, as you become more conscious of the Person-to-person experience of devotions, you may find yourself led to stop and pray even as you are reading God’s Word.  Maybe something in your reading will stop you in a moment of conviction for sin.  Maybe something will remind you of how blessed you are to have salvation in Christ.  Whatever the moment, you might then pause to pray, confessing your sin or offering a joyful expression of thanksgiving to God.

Finally, I believe it’s necessary to ask whether “devotions” is even the best word for the time we spend reading God’s Word and responding in prayer.  On one hand, “devotions” is a great word, because we do this out of a faith devoted to Christ.  On the other hand, a better term might be “private worship” or “personal worship.”  As far as I can tell, the term “private worship” has actually been more commonly used throughout the history of the church.  For example, the Westminster Confession refers to “the public and private exercises of [the Lord’s] worship” (Chapter 21, Article 8).  In addition, the writings of the Puritans often refer to the time that a Christian spends in God’s Word and prayer as “private worship.”

The value of this term is that it reminds us that worship lies at the heart our relationship to Christ.  He is our God, and we must relate to Him with a joyful trembling (Psalm 2:11).  We need to remember that when His disciples met Him after His resurrection, their immediate response was to worship Him (Matthew 28:9,17).  And when John saw Christ in His exalted state, he “fell at His feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).  But the term “private” or “personal worship” also conveys the close relationship that we have with Christ.  Even as we tremble before Him, we do so in peaceful fellowship with our beloved Savior and Friend (John 15:15; Revelation 3:20).

If you begin to think of your “devotions” more in terms of “private” or “personal worship,” you might also be led to add singing to your exercises.  Praise and thanksgiving to God can be offered both in spoken prayer and in song, and many songs lead us to make specific requests of God as we sing.  Here again, it may feel strange at first to sing by yourself, but once undertaken, you may soon find this exercise indispensable in your relationship to Christ.

In conclusion, my hope here has been to provide a brief set of instructions for a meaningful devotional life for the believer in Christ.  This is certainly not all that might be said about what should or should not be done in times of private worship.  So may God by His Word continue to call and lead you to be in His Word and in prayer every day.

Challenges Issued in This Article

Spend time in God’s Word and in prayer every day as a matter of “private worship.”

Read God’s Word for your devotions, and not just someone’s reflections.

Use a devotional book if it helps you understand and apply God’s Word, but don’t allow it to shorten the time you spend reading God’s Word.

Set aside times to read longer portions of God’s Word at one time.

Consider praying out loud and even singing to God as part of your devotions.

Always pray in response to God’s Word, but consider also praying more briefly before and during your reading of Scripture.