There are two cities named Caesarea in the Holy Land. One is called Caesarea Philippi. The other Caesarea is on the Mediterranean and is given the added name Maritima. This Caesarea was our first stop once we had rested and begun our tour. Here Herod built a magnificent Roman City complete with a grand theater for the thousands of Roman troops stationed there. There was also a great Hippodrome for horse and chariot races and other gladiator type events. Herod built an artificial harbor there by literally extending a man made peninsula into the sea. All of these structures and more are still visible and bear testimony to the truly cosmopolitan realities of the time of Jesus. Jesus may have been born off the beaten path, but the world was at his doorstep through the ever widening influence of Rome. Greek culture flourished in Caesarea, and for that matter, throughout the area of Galilee where Jesus grew up. Of particular interest in Caesarea was Herod’s magnificent palace. This would be the palace where Pontius Pilate lived most of his time in the Holy Land. He would go to Jerusalem at times when a Roman presence seemed necessary. This palace was immense. It had its own Roman bath and an indoor swimming pool. The remains of the structure may still be seen extending on a man made pier out into the Mediterranean. The palace had a large hall for meetings of state and holding cells for special prisoners, the most famous of which would be the Apostle Paul. As we stood looking down on the ruins, I shared a meditation on how Paul had appealed to Caesar and waited in the structure below us for his journey to Rome. I mentioned how vital this time was to the writing of his prison epistles. Scholars debate which of the prison epistles were written here rather than Rome. It is firmly believed that he could have guests and continue ministry while imprisoned there. Without the letters of Paul’s imprisonment our New Testament would be missing vital teachings. These letters are made up of Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. Though it is debated as to the exact origin of the letters from either Caesarea or Rome, the main point is that even Paul’s imprisonment bore Spiritual fruit. Likewise our own times of trial should yield a special fruit of faithfulness. Sometimes much of our best thinking and work comes in times of affliction. It was in an imprisonment experience that Paul exclaimed, “Rejoice in the Lord always! I say it again, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)
We should also remember that Cornelius was a Roman soldier stationed in Caesarea when Peter was led supernaturally to share the gospel with him and others. Their conversion opened the door of salvation to the Gentiles. This important event was a harbinger of our own salvation and the world wide impact of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Even though it was my first trip to Israel, it seemed as if I had been there a thousand times in my imagination. Reading the Bible will never be the same again. Getting to stand in places where key events occurred and share from God’s Word was unforgettable. Our faith is firmly rooted in history. Even those who do not follow Jesus are keenly aware of the key events in his life and gladly show you the places where he walked. I will spend the rest of my life with a new and fresh perspective of the Land where Jesus lived.
These days it is becoming rather unfashionable to actually mention your denomination. Let me clearly say that the denomination is never as important as what is believed by those who are part of it. However, there are some beliefs that arose from Scripture that everyone who attends or belongs to a Baptist church should be aware of. Let me list them.
1. The Bible is the only authority for faith and practice.
Though all Christians honor the bible, Baptists are among those who literally have no authority, council, leader, or sage that directs what they believe or do other than the words of Scripture. This allows us to adjust if we find that we have developed a tradition not well supported by Scripture. It also allows us to make practical modifications in how we practice our faith so long as the practice is in accordance with and not contrary to what we see in the Word.
2. The Church is composed of baptized believers only.
Every word of this statement is supported by Scripture. On the day of Pentecost, when they believed; they were baptized. All through the book of Acts belief preceded baptism. There is not a single instance of infant baptism in Scripture. Therefore we do not baptize our newly born children. We teach them and pray with and for them as they grow and wait for them to choose to follow Jesus to baptize them. No person of any age who has not “believed on the Lord Jesus Christ” and been baptized by immersion is considered a member of a Baptist church. We do not, however, regard Christians of other faiths who do not practice this as being lost. We just don’t believe that they have been properly trained to understand the meaning and message of believer’s baptism. In some cases, I have met those who say to me, “I believe you are correct, but I refuse to break my tradition.” To do this is willful disobedience to a command of Jesus. That concerns me greatly.
3. The priesthood of every believer and the autonomy of every local church.
These two go together because a church made up of believer priests must necessarily be autonomous, that is self governing. Peter himself states this truth in 1 Peter 2:9. Here we are called a “royal priesthood”. No outside body makes decisions for Baptist churches. They work together with other churches solely to the extent that they choose. Believer priests can go to God for themselves and can bring others to God through Jesus Christ. Every member can be an evangelist and missionary for the cause of Christ.
4. The concept of religious liberty and the separation of church and state.
This belief was never intended as a means of silencing the church, but rather a means of setting the church at liberty to speak with freedom unencumbered by the state. Even in the American colonies if you lived in Virginia you paid taxes to support the Anglican church. All over the world government and church were entangled. The Baptists were among those who decried this union. We clearly saw in the teachings of Jesus and the practice of the church that the church should not be controlled nor supported by the coercion of the state. When the First Amendment was adopted it was at the insistence of Baptist believers. America’s religious experiment has influence around the world and wherever you find religious freedom you can largely thank baptist believers for its emergence. God planted this truth in Baptist hearts and they raised their voices to be heard in the founding of the United States of America.
None of this is intended as boastful. These are simply historical realities that must not be forgotten.
I once thought of starting a club for procrastinators, but I never got around to it. Procrastination is preparing a sermon while the choir sings. (No, I have not been guilty of this.) Procrastination is filing your taxes on April 15th. Procrastination is running through airports. You could probably add many more items to the list.
On rare occasions I think procrastination might be divinely guided. Just a few short weeks ago, I received a letter from our Texas Baptist Convention that let me know about an effort to rebuild the homes of fifteen pastors and their families who lost their home in the recent typhoon that hit the Philippines. For only 5000 dollars a home could be built. I had intended to bring that up at a Missions Committee meeting, but the agenda was so full I did not do it. I put the matter off. I felt strange about it because it had touched my heart as soon as I learned of it. I remember asking myself why I had not acted with more resolve on this worthwhile project. I knew we could easily be involved. What was causing me to hesitate?
I was recently elected to the Executive Board of our convention. This is a body of leaders from all over Texas that handles business for our convention between annual meetings. In a meeting in late February, they revisited the matter of the damage in the Philippines and showed pictures of the devastation. They also showed pictures of the pastors and families who were left homeless. They reported that seven homes and been financed by churches around the state and they wanted to find support for rebuilding the other eight homes. Once again, I felt sad that I had not acted immediately to be a part of this project. The meeting is a two day meeting. On the second day I was looking over the agenda while we worked our way through, and I noticed that the last item was a time for comments and other miscellaneous remarks. It was as if at that moment the Lord revealed to me his plan. I determined that I would make a comment that Crestview would provide one of the houses for the Philippine pastors and that I hoped others there would consider doing the same. As soon as that moment came in the meeting I ask to be recognized and stated in a matter of fact way what I was confident Crestview would do. I very gently challenged others in the room to follow suit. Within around two minutes, forty thousand dollars was raised in the room and all fifteen homes were financed. A Filipino pastor who serves as our board Vice-President began to weep. Excitement swept the room as we ended on such a high note. In my heart, I knew that I had found the answer to my perplexing procrastination. God had silently asked me to wait so that at the proper time acting would prompt others to act. The hero of our story is never us. The true hero is the Lord. He allows us the privilege of joining him in changing the world. Only eternity will reveal what the acts of love and kindness toward the Philippines may yield. The typhoon brought death and destruction, but this loving assistance will create partnership and praise to the glory of God!
Maybe someday I will get around to starting that procrastinator’s club? Maybe you would like to join? Providing that you can get around to it.
There is a trend at work in the American church that is disturbing to me. Many independent churches and quite a number of Baptist churches do not have membership rosters. This might seem like a little thing, and it is easy to take a spiritual tone and suggest that God knows those who are his, but this trend adds to the lack of accountability and engagement that is so desperately needed in order to be a healthy church. Let me describe real situations in my own community. A family whose home I have personally visited on more than one occasion disappeared from attendance several years ago. I had baptized the children in the home, counseled the head of the household in an important career decision, and called them by name every time I encountered them in the community. When I called to check on them they told me that they were “attending” another church. This church had loud music which the kids loved and a larger youth group etc. I simply told them that I was sad to see them leave, but was glad that they had not simply dropped out. I continued to see them around town. They are still on our roll seven years later. The church they attended does not ever show the courtesy of informing former churches of their pastoral care to families that depart. This is becoming epidemic. So who calls if they stop attending there. Just a few weeks ago that family was back. In following up with them, I discovered that they had indeed dropped out for awhile. (I have permission to tell this story without the names.) When they did drop out, they were never called or even missed by the other church. The children, now in college, to this day have not had a single contact made from the congregation they attended all through high school. Do you see my point?
Now let me say that this same story could be repeated at Crestview. Here is the difference. If they were in a bible study, they would likely be missed and contacted. They would continue to receive mail. They would likely receive email. They might be visited by a visitation team. They could be visited by a staff member. They would never have their names removed from the roster unless they asked to be removed or unless another church ask for confirmation of their former membership due to their involvement elsewhere. What I just described is a process of accountability which safeguards to some extent the phenomena of people dropping out. I estimate there may be more than twenty thousand drop outs living in Georgetown. These are people who once worshiped somewhere with some degree of regularity and now never attend. When I first came to Georgetown, I began to personally visit inactive members. I remember one older couple who informed me that they became discouraged with the church and would not likely be back. I had a pleasant conversation with them and then I said these words, “Even if you never attend, I want you to consider me as your pastor. I am applying for the job. If you need me, please call. Thank you for allowing me to visit with you.” I then had a prayer with them. They were in church the next week and attended until poor health made it impossible. They went on our homebound list and were regularly visited by myself and others until they passed away. What I just described could not happen in many churches today where people are never even enrolled in a concrete way. We need to take membership more seriously.