When Billy Preached


Earlier this week the most well-known preacher in American history passed away at the age of 99.  While lots of people are publishing blogs on the heroics of his life or the errors of his doctrine, I want to keep this post simple, yet personal.  I’m well aware of the controversies surrounding his ministry, particularly his ecumenical view of Protestants and Catholics, and I’m well aware of the dangers of the sinner’s prayer that was the capstone of his preaching, nor do I particularly care for the phrase “America’s Pastor”, but I’m also well aware that when I was 5 years old, I watched a televised broadcast of a Billy Graham Crusade and trusted Christ as my Savior right then and there.

Billy Graham looked like my grandfather and preached with fire.  It still amazes me the number of people that would fill stadiums around this country to hear him preach.  If that weren’t enough, his crusades were broadcast on prime-time, national television.  Think about that for a minute.  They weren’t broadcast on an obscure religious channel.  They were broadcast on national television.Every.Time.

As in the video below, after Billy Graham’s preaching there was the familiar “Just as I am” and a call to come forward to accept Christ.  While I may disagree with the method, and I’ve read plenty disparaging those who would pray with people that came forward, it is still simply remarkable that after hearing a largely gospel-filled message (as the one below), that literally hundreds of people would come forward.  We will never know how many were actually saved, but how much would we give today to hear someone preach the gospel publicly to tens of thousands, even broadcast nationally, and then see hundreds respond in a profession of faith.

Despite areas that I might disagree with, the things that I’ve written here over a decade, the preaching and teaching I’ve been allowed to do, the witnessing, my own salvation, and the salvation of my children are fruit of Billy Graham’s ministry.  I’m just one person in Appalachia writing in an obscure corner of the internet.  How many others can claim a similar testimony, owing to God’s grace working through the ministry of Billy Graham?

For more on Billy Graham’s legacy see here: Three Lessons from the Example of Billy Graham

“As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” 2 Timothy 4:5

The Widow’s Mite


One of the challenges of growing up attending church in the Bible Belt is the familiarity with Scripture.  This might sound odd, but what I mean is that from a young age, certain passages and “stories” have become all too familiar, so much so that rather than reading these with fresh eyes, I automatically fall into the ditch of how a passage has traditionally been presented to me.

Case in point is the story of The Widow’s Mite.

How many times have you heard this story explained with praise for the widow’s sacrifice in giving all she had into the temple treasury?  She is then held up as an example for giving, often used as an argument for tithing, not out of our abundance, but out of our poverty.  This explanation makes the temple, leaders, and its institution equivalent with the church, her leaders, and institution.  Give til it hurts, we’re often told, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Let’s look at the context to see if the traditional view holds up.

21 Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box,and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.'” Luke 21:1-4

41 And he sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. 43 And he called his disciples to him and said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Mark 12:41-44

This story occurs in Luke 21 and Mark 12.  The scene from both accounts presents Jesus and His disciples sitting down opposite one of the temple treasury boxes, making observations of those who are putting in their offering.  The highlight is the offering made by a poor widow, whom we are told gives two small copper coins.  The observation made by Jesus is as follows, Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. 44 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

As mentioned earlier, traditionally this passage is held up as a model of sacrificial giving.  We are often taught that Jesus commends the widow for giving out of her poverty vs. giving out of abudance as the rich do.  Usually this passage is then applied to either tithing or an attitude of sacrificial giving to Christ.  But there’s a major problem here, and it assumes that Jesus is pleased with the temple treasury, the religious leaders, and the entire false institution erected in the name of God.

Context, as they say, is king.

In the passage immediately prior to this one, in both Mark and Luke, Jesus offers a strong warning to His disciples in condemnation of the scribes,

38 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces 39 and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 40 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

This is followed by the account of the widow’s mite, which itself is immediately followed by this passage

And as he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” Mark 13:1&2

Just to summarize, the passage under consideration, The Widow’s Mite, is sandwiched between a warning against the scribes and the prophecy of the temple’s destruction.  How in the world does a passage so often described as an example of sacrificial giving fit here?

The answer is that the passage has nothing to do with sacrificial giving and everything to do with further judgment against the false institutional system of religion against which Jesus has so often spoken.  In fact, this observation of the poor widow bilked of her last two coins serves as the final straw to announce the destruction of the center of this false religious system, namely Herod’s Temple.

In Matthew 6, we are told by Jesus to avoid public displays of giving, sound no trumpet, and in fact, do not even let your right hand know what your left hand is doing (which makes it difficult to write a check!).  Instead, we are told to let our giving be done in secret.  However, the religious leaders had constructed 13 treasure-chests for giving around the colonnade in the Court of Women.  These chests were also called “trumpets” because of their narrow mouth and wide base.  What went in was literally imprisoned and the sound of the coins dropping in was easily heard.  So when Jesus says do not sound a trumpet when giving, in Matthew 6, there is a bit of irony that the treasure chests were shaped like a trumpet and sounded when the money was deposited.

It was into one of these trumpets that the widow gives her last coins.

Note next the warning given against the scribes in the passage just prior to ours,  who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers.”  Here we are told that the scribes devour widow’s houses.   Think about this.  The very passage before the widow’s offering, we are given a warning about scribes that devour widow’s houses.  It is not difficult to make the connection between the two mentions of widows; both being devoured by the religious leaders, exemplified by the widow giving all that she had to a corrupt religious system.  If she gives sacrificially to a corrupt religious system, is that worthy of a commendation?  What would we say today to the poor widow, duped by the televangelist into sending her last bit of money?  That is the scene in this first century story and it simply cannot be missed.  

The fact of the matter is that pure and undefiled religion is to care for widows and orphans (James 1:27).  This wasn’t something new, but Mosaic law created provisions for just that.  (Exodus 22; Deut. 10)  This poor widow shouldn’t even have been poor under Mosaic law, let alone be led to believe that she must contribute to the system that was failing to care for her.  She should have been cared for, under law.  But first century Judaism was an apostate form of Mosaic Judaism. There was no law mandating that a person give money to the temple treasury.  That’s man-made religion.  As John MacArthur notes in the sermon linked below, “The center of false religion is the treasury.  False religion is always about the money.  When you get to the treasury, you get to the heart of false religion.”

On the Wednesday of Passion Week, Jesus wasn’t taking a rest in the temple and marveling at the giving spirit of a poor widow.  He was watching the furtherence of a false religion built on the last, small coins of poor widows.  His next words in Mark 13 and Luke 21 would pronounce judgment on this system and its center of worship, the temple.

For more on this passage, see John MacArthur: Abusing the Poor




The Inception of a Gathering


Question: what is the minimum number of people required to constitute a church or gathering of God’s people (ekklesia)?

It may be tempting to start answering this question by assuming this group must begin with a pastor/preacher, perhaps a plurality of elders – at least 3 for voting purposes, maybe a couple deacons, then expand to the congregation and say maybe 8-10 families?  So 20-30 people minimum?  Some people ask this question by placing it in the context of church planting and then ask what is the magic number for a launch team?  Or…what’s the maximum number of people a sending church could afford to lose and still provide a minimum number of people to sufficiently form a new church?

These are all questions that have been asked before, wrestled over, and then attempted to be biblically answered by many faithful servants of the Lord.  Generally speaking, a heavy dose of human wisdom is usually involved in the decision on how this question is answered.  That doesn’t make it wrong, or sinful, but it does make it subjective and situational.  Our aim here is to ask if Scripture bears any burden for answering these questions.

In Matthew 18, a passage well known for our Lord’s mention of ekklesia as the final stop of confrontation of a sinning brother, also provides for us the answer to these questions, though for some reason it often gets overlooked, confused, or downplayed, particularly when discussions of “church-planting” are taking place.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

It’s uncontroversial to assert that the context for this passage is clearly revolving around the concept of “church”, or as we have seen more accurately termed a gathering or assembly of God’s people (ekklesia).  The opening for this passage involves a scenario created by our Lord to explain how to regard a sinning brother.  Here we have 2 brothers (in Christ), one who sins against the other.  Jesus instructs His disciples that the offended brother should go and tell the offending brother his fault.  If he doesn’t listen, go to him with one or two others, and if he still doesn’t listen tell the matter to the church.  Remember that the use and meaning of church (ekklesia) already had meaning and significance in its everyday use (The Old Testament use of Ekklesia).  Jesus wasn’t inventing a brand new word.  However, to this point in Matthew we have only seen the promise of Christ building His church, from Matthew 16.

In our passage cited above, there are three important features that we will focus on in this post, a gathering of two or three of God’s people, gathering is in the name of Christ, and that when this gathering takes place, Christ is among them.

First, we see in verse 20 above that our Lord sets the minimum parameters for a gathering of His people as where, two or three are gathered.  This is key to answering some of our questions posed above and we already know that the context of this passage has to do with church discipline of a recalcitrant brother.  Notice that this small number of believers is mentioned throughout this passage

  • take one or two others along with you
  • that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 
  • If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 
  • For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

This idea of two or three recalls a passage from the Old Testament, where two or three witnesses are necessary for conviction of a crime (see Deuteronomy 19:15; also 2 Cor. 13:1).  While this mention of two or three occurs throughout the passage, as we’ll see, this last mention carries with it a distinction.

Next, this assembly of two or three is a gathering in Christ’s name.    The word translated as “gather” is verbal form of the Greek word synagogue.  In another post, we looked at the semantic overlap between ekklesia and synagogue as well as the relationship between church and synagogue.  Here we want to simply point out that this gathering is not a random gathering of believers for a ball game or to discuss the weather.  It has intentionality and purpose.  It is a gathering in the name of Christ.  This distinction is critically important for understanding these minimum requirements for a gathering are not limited to where a small number of believers gather, but where they gather in the name of Christ.

We might at this point ask, how does one gather in the name of Christ?  Is it simply a declarative statement, “We come together in the name of Christ”?  Is it an internal posture of the heart?  How can one be sure that this small group is gathering in the name of Christ?

It is where believer’s gather under the authority of Christ, i.e. His Lordship, for the open proclamation and profession of His Word.  Commenting on this passage in his New Testament commentary, Hendriksen clarifies this gathering in Christ’s name as, “in close fellowship with him; hence, with his atoning work as the basis of their approach to God, at his direction, and in harmony with that which he has revealed concerning himself.” (pg. 703)

Third, and finally, we see that this gathering of two or three in the name of Christ has a special promise attached to it, namely the presence of Christ in their midst.  This promise of our Lord’s special presence, in the midst of the gathering of His people, is not the same as His omnipresence.  It is a special presence of Christ in the midst of those who gather in His name.  It is here where Christ dwells in His temple (2 Cor. 6:16).

When this passage is often discussed in the context of defining the minimum gathering of God’s people, many have objected to it and denied that such a small group, two or three, could constitute a gathering of God’s people.  But that is precisely what our Lord is communicating.  We have no need for dozens to be sent out, nor does the institutional church with her hundreds meeting at once constitute a gathering anymore than two or three who gather in the name of Christ.

Writing in his classic work on the doctrine of the Church, Edmund Clowney offers the following affirmation, “Not only do we come to the assembly where our risen Lord is; he comes by his Spirit to the assembly where we are.  Where two or three gather in his name, there he is.  Because the Lord’s true assembly is in heaven, it appears in many ways on earth: in house churches, in city churches, in the church universal.  Even two or three gathered in his name may claim his power, for he is there.” pg. 31-32

This discussion brings up one additional question.  If this minimum group, of two or three, gathered in Christ’s name constitutes a “church”, when has the “universal church” ever been gathered together in the name of Christ?

Answer: they haven’t…yet.