Now may the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God and into the patience of Christ. ~ 2 Thessalonians 3:5
a prayer that He will guide my heart
to two destinations…
1. the love of God &
2. the patience of Christ
personal experiences with Him
observable qualities in me
only through knowing Him
can I make Him known
guide my heart, Lord!
For most of my journey as a Christ-follower, I have repeatedly asked the questions, “How does God change a man?” and “Am I changing?” Consequently, I am—at best—a student of what happens to someone in the Presence of God. No experts here—so I pen these words with a continual readiness to be corrected and better informed. However, there are ways of applying the good news of Jesus that reduce it to a manmade religion of self-effort and human accomplishment.
“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.” – Mark 7:21-23
In Mark 7, Jesus warned against a preaching ministry that relied solely on words: words aimed at chiding a congregation to achieve an external set of standards of behavior. Such a ministry is functionally bankrupt from the outset, since the locus of true change lies within us (Mark 7:21-23; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:5). Preachers must preach the truth with words, but they must aim at directing hearts to the Presence of God (Mark 7:6).
Why? The thoughts that lead to actions flow from the heart. Powerful emotions that lead to sinful acts begin as sinful desires and attractions of the heart. Pride and deception live in the heart. Unless the heart is engaged and transformed, you will not change. Jesus does not simply want to change your behavior: He wants to change your heart.
How do you change a heart?
Many spiritual disciplines and practices come to mind. They can be excellent tools for transformation, but they cannot replace the Author of transformation. By themselves, the disciplines can rapidly devolve into a body of strict, lifeless habits. Using discipline, you can control your behavior and silence the internal “voices” – but you cannot change the root impulses and “messaging” of the heart. Many religions embrace various forms of discipline, but the hearts of the practitioners remain unchanged.
I believe that a community of Christian believers can be a major force in spiritual transformation. True believers want to be with others who love God, seeking to follow Him with their whole life. But involvement in a vibrant community of practicing disciples is not enough…
I am an advocate for Scripture memory and meditation. God speaks to my heart through His Word, challenging me, correcting me, and guiding me into ways of living that please Him. It’s a non-optional and essential ingredient in the process of transformation, but it’s not enough…
I can contribute to the change, and I can cooperate with the Author of change, but I can’t cause my heart to change. The Author of change is Jesus, Who comes and dwells in the heart when someone accepts His invitation to abandon self-rule (a form of rebellion against God), to accept responsibility for personal sin, and to surrender life governance to Him. The result becomes “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). The Spirit of Christ indwells a person for the purpose of salvation… not just from a future hell of separation from God, but also from the present “hell” of being dominated by a dark and unruly heart.
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit…” – John 7:37-39
Jesus said that when someone yields directional control of life to Him (“believes in Me”), then “out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). The “flow” of new life is produced by the presence of the Spirit of God within the heart (John 7:39). The transformation of my heart begins as I accept and trust the biblical revelation of Jesus, but it is accomplished as the Holy Spirit indwells and recreates my heart (Psalm 51:10-11). My only hope for change lies in a moment-by-moment dependence on the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) combined with a Spirit-initiated, Spirit-sustained renewal of the desires and inclination of my heart (Philippians 2:12-13).
However, Jesus limits this process of heart transformation to those who are “thirsty” for change (John 7:37) and those who are weary with the “self-made” approach to doing life (Matthew 11:28-30). So let me pause here a moment before I wrap this up [selah]:
- Am I thirsty?
- Do I really want to change?
- Am I ready to abandon my efforts “to make it” and to be “successful” in the eyes of others (or even in my own eyes)?
- Am I ready to accept His “yoke” and enter into a learning relationship with a living Jesus who is self-described as “gentle and lowly in heart” – knowing that He is going to make my heart like His heart?
What are the implications here for ministry?
“If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” – Luke 11:10-13
In Luke 11:10-13, Jesus makes it clear that the Father is ready to release His Spirit into the life of the man or woman who “asks” (or “thirsts” in John 7). I need to ask… I need to thirst… I need to want His Spirit to transform my heart. I need to engage Him with “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12)—the Holy Spirit is a Person who can be “grieved” and “quenched” (Ephesians 4:30, 1 Thessalonians 5:19). Change is not automatic, but requires my cooperation with and sensitivity to the Spirit.
Jesus ridicules the notion that earthly fathers would give their children stones, serpents, or scorpions. The father’s heart should be tender towards the child who is crying and hurting. Our churches are populated with individual pastors and members who are crying out for change. They are longing for God to come and transform their churches, their communities, and their lives. They are asking and they are thirsty. They want more than the external activity and programming of the average church… they don’t long for a building or relocation program (“stones”?), a lengthy “how to be a success” sermon series (“serpents”?), or an ecclesiastical power struggle (“scorpions”?).
They want the “real deal”—they want Him—a life in the Spirit.
Behold, I will do a new thing, Now it shall spring forth; shall you not know it? I will even make a road in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Isaiah 43:19
God does a “new thing” when He comes into our lives. We are cleansed and changed from within, immersed into His body (the church), and led into a life of mission and purpose.
How do I respond to or cooperate with His Presence?
As a young college student I attended Hyde Park Baptist Church in Austin Texas, where I was befriended by a deacon. He was a big man, a single adult, and an African-American serving in a predominantly Anglo congregation.
He often drove by the campus to pick me up for church, peppering our conversation with valued advice and quotations that echo in my mind to this day. One of his favorites was “Donovan, if can do your best, why settle for less?” I took his words to heart.
However, I have found that pursuing God’s direction often involves mopping up problems as they surface, then moving forward again. God’s will is rarely experienced as a sequence of error-free decisions or attempts. I must stay sensitive to His voice.
Let me encourage you to pursue God’s will — experiencing the “new thing” of God’s mighty work in your life– but be very forgiving of yourself and those around you when failure rears its head. Create an environment where failures and mistakes are okay: they are simply part of the price paid for taking new ground!
Romans 8:15-16 “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God”
How can I know for certain that I am a Christian? God wants you to know your salvation as a fact. More than that, He wants to write that truth on your heart.
When our oldest daughter was four she disobeyed and was scolded. Afterwards I could see that she was not feeling very good about herself. In fact, she was devastated. For a moment I could see a lifetime of self-doubt trying to climb its way into her soul.
I took her by both shoulders, looked her in the eyes and said, “You know what? If I could pick any four-year old little girl in the whole, wide world to be mine, do you know who I would pick?”
I could see the question loom large in her eyes as she wondered. Who would Daddy choose?
“You!” I said with a smile and a hug. The clouds lifted from her face and her soul. That exchange became a game we played for years — she needed it.
So do you. The Bible says that when we trusted Jesus’ death on the cross to save us from our sins, we were saved. Period. The Bible tells me so. But that’s not all. There’s more…
John tells us in his first letter that we can look at our daily life. Can you see a change? People who have been born again change over time. You may look at your life and see objective evidence that your life is different. But that’s not all. There’s more…
The Holy Spirit lives within. He wants to convey to your heart an experiential knowledge of your sonship. As He moves you to cry “Father”, He wants to open your spiritual ears to voice of God. Listen to a father’s heart: “You are my child. And of all the people in the world I could bring into my family, I choose you!”
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth…
Some time ago, my wife and I drove separately to a retreat center in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Because I was preaching a Sunday night service 200 miles away, my wife decided to leave home early and make her way to the hotel. She had some difficulty finding her way, but eventually she made it there safely.
Several hours later, I drove into town and experienced the same difficulties she had in finding the hotel. I called her on my cell phone and she guided me through town, directing me at each turn and intersection. Step-by-step, she helped me find my way to the hotel. She was my guide.
In verse 13 of this passage, the Holy Spirit is called our guide. The Holy Spirit is assigned the task of communicating truth and insight that we need from Jesus every day – but not all at once.
Jesus understands that we are weak and limited in our ability to process and apply truth. As the Holy Spirit continues the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, He guides us incrementally – step by step. The Apostle Paul would later caution us to walk with the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) in this way: by keeping in step with Him on a moment-by-moment basis (Galatians 5:25).
In the book of Acts we have a record of the “starting line” of the Christian church. Beginning at Pentecost, believers reached out to the lost in dozens of languages and cultures throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. Although they encountered many obstacles and disappointments, the early Christians penetrated their world with breathtaking speed. So where does effective ministry begin?
Effective ministry begins…
When I understand that all of my resources combined will never be enough to do the job. (v. 1)
On the day of Pentecost we find the disciples gathered together in one place. With all they had experienced with Jesus and armed with the Great Commission, we would expect them to be out in the streets, preaching the good news.
However, in Acts 1:4 and 1:8, Jesus made it clear that the disciples needed something more in order to fulfill their mission of local and global evangelization. Years of intensive training and sitting at the feet of Jesus were not sufficient. By telling them to wait for the promised Holy Spirit, Jesus was underscoring a basic truth: in my own strength and abilities I will always be inadequate to do what God has called me to do (Zechariah 4:6).
Power for the task is a gift, not an achievement.
When I am filled with and fully dependent upon the Holy Spirit. (v. 2-4)
Heralded by the sound of wind and the appearance of fire, the Holy Spirit came to rest visually on each disciple as a fiery flame. Through this imagery, He makes it clear that each individual disciple needs His guidance and enablement in ministry. It is not enough to have a Spirit-filled pastor and staff in my church. I need to cultivate a personal relationship of love and obedience with the Lord Jesus Christ through His Spirit.
It was common when I ran track in high school for some runners to start too soon: this was called “jumping the gun.” They were forced to go back to the starting line and begin again. Have you “jumped the gun” by attempting to do ministry apart from the Holy Spirit?
When I am willing to do whatever it takes to share the gospel with my world. (v. 5-11)
Moved by the Holy Spirit, the disciples immediately began to speak in the languages of at least 15 different nationalities gathered in Jerusalem to observe the Jewish feast. Now the Spirit did not have to do this. Using the language of business and trade, the disciples could have simply spoken Greek or Aramaic. They would have been clearly understood by most of the crowd.
The Holy Spirit wants to help us overcome every obstacle posed by language and culture. Unlike Islam which requires seekers of truth to study the Koran in Arabic, the good news of Christ is to be shared in the idiom and within the cultural norms of peoples around the world.
Was it comfortable for the disciples to speak a language they had never learned? I doubt it, but the greater purpose of proclaiming the “wonderful works of God” (v. 11) overwhelmed all personal preferences and tastes. Are we willing to do whatever it takes to communicate the gospel in terms others can easily understand?
When I accept that some people will reject me and my message. (v. 12-13)
In verse 12, some people are asking “what does this mean?” In verse 13, others are mocking the disciples, accusing them of being drunk.
Some people will reject and ridicule you and your message. Paul taught we should expect persecution whenever we begin to live our lives with reference to Him in all we do and say. (2 Timothy 3:12)
However, there will also be those who want to know more. Endure those who reject you so that you can impact those who respond positively to you.
When I embrace a deep sense of evangelistic urgency. (v. 14-21)
Quoting from Joel 2, Peter announces to the crowds that the arrival of the Holy Spirit is the fulfillment of prophecy. Everyone willing to call on the name of the Lord (v. 21) could be saved and subsequently filled with the Spirit (v. 18). He also explains that these are the last days, describing signs and wonders which will immediately precede the “day of the Lord.” (v. 20).
Life is short and time is short. Anyone and everyone can now call on the name of the Lord. Armed with the leading and power of the Holy Spirit, God’s people ought to be deeply motivated to broadcast the good news.
Let’s go to the starting line for effective ministry and allow Him to launch us into His work—just like He did for the church at Pentecost.
Reproduced here with permission, this message originally appeared in the March-April, 2004 issue of Preaching Magazine (Vol. 19, No. 5). Edited by Michael Duduit, Preaching Magazine is written almost entirely by those who share a calling to the ministry of preaching. Each issue contains practical feature articles which offer useful insights to strengthen your preaching. Every issue contains a selection of model sermons which reflect the best of preaching across the United States and beyond.
It was my first preaching assignment in college. At breakfast in the school dining hall, the chair of our Bible department walked up to ask my companion if he could preach at a little country church later that morning. Knowing how badly I wanted to preach somewhere, my friend declined but pointed out that I was available. The professor looked at me — an untried commodity among the preacher boys on campus — and decided to take a chance.I had been preparing sermons for months. Grabbing a set of notes and my Bible I traveled about 45 minutes and pulled up to the front of the tiny, rural chapel. I was early, so the Sunday School director took me to a small kitchen where I could wait prior to the service.
I began to pray. In fact, I cried out to God with all my heart for His help. I didn’t know much at that time about God’s anointing assistance He provides preachers of His Word. I just knew I was young and didn’t know much. (I still don’t know much!)
The service was unremarkable. Yet, the impact on my life was dramatic. I began to be conscious that there was something God does during the act of preaching that goes far beyond my efforts and eloquence.
Paul observed this phenomenon among the Thessalonians: “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, in the Holy Spirit, and with much assurance.” (1 Thess. 1:5 CSB) By noting their message did not arrive “in word only” Paul acknowledges the possibility that it could have happened that way!
What kind of preaching arrives “in word only”? According to Paul, this kind of preaching is missing something. Specifically, he mentions three things that should accompany our preaching.
I’ll leave the word studies to you, but let’s pray each week for His words and for what He alone adds to the message.