1 PETER #30: SHEPHERDS AND CHIEF SHEPHERDS

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In this text, Peter gives instructions to Christian leaders. In pointing out the kind of person a leader should be, he is actually pointing beyond all human leaders, to the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and the qualities we find in Him.

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Let’s remember who is writing this letter. It is Peter, whom all the gospels portray as the leader among the twelve apostles. The gospel of Mark was probably already written and known, as was possibly Matthew. Even before these were well known, certainly stories about Jesus were widely circulated, and many of them included Peter. He knew Jesus personally. He was one of only three who were chosen to see Jesus revealed in glory at the transfiguration. He was the only person besides Jesus Christ himself, who ever walked on water. After the day of Pentecost, it was Peter who preached the sermon that led to three-thousand people being saved. Several times he stood before the leaders of the nation of Israel, and proclaimed the truth of Jesus. He was imprisoned, beaten and persecuted for his trust in Jesus. Once, he was miraculously delivered from execution. God used him to heal many people; so much so that, at one period in Jerusalem, sick people would lay in the street in the hopes that Peter’s shadow would fall on them as he walked past.

It is this Peter who now wants to speak a word to church elders – that is, the leaders of local house churches. He could have said: “I command you, as the one God used to heal dozens of people.” He could have written: “As the only person besides Jesus to walk on water, I say…” There are many ways he could have reminded these leaders that they should listen to him. Instead, he writes: “As a fellow elder.” This section ends with Peter urging everyone to be humble, and he certainly put humility into practice here. Though he could have commanded them as an acknowledged leader, instead, he appeals to them as an equal.

I want to use this text to briefly talk about leadership in the early church. Peter appeals to the “elders.” He does not simply mean “the oldest people in the church.” By this time, the word “elder,” for Christians, meant a specific kind of church leader. A lot of elders were indeed older men. But there were also younger men like Timothy who were considered church elders. In other words, the term is more about leadership than it is about age.

There are other words used for the same kind of leader. The term “overseer” (sometimes translated “bishop”) seems to be interchangeable with the term “elder” in the New Testament. Finally, there is a third name given to this same type of church leader: “shepherd.” The Greek word for shepherd was later translated into a Latin word that is still commonly used in English today: pastor. In the New Testament, all three of these words are talking about church leaders who were responsible for directing the affairs of the church, and for teaching and preaching, and caring for the members. Not all of the elders were necessarily teachers and preachers, but virtually all of the teachers and preachers were supposed to be elders.

Here is a brief description of a church elder:

6 An elder must live a blameless life. He must be faithful to his wife, and his children must be believers who don’t have a reputation for being wild or rebellious. 7 A church leader is a manager of God’s household, so he must live a blameless life. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or dishonest with money.
8 Rather, he must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must love what is good. He must live wisely and be just. He must live a devout and disciplined life. 9 He must have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with wholesome teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong.

(Titus 1:6-9, NLT)

Here’s another passage. This time the Greek term used for “church leader” is “overseer,” but you can see it is talking about exactly the same thing:

1 This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be a church leader, he desires an honorable position.” 2 So a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. 3 He must not be a heavy drinker or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money. 4 He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him. 5 For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church?
6 A church leader must not be a new believer, because he might become proud, and the devil would cause him to fall. 7 Also, people outside the church must speak well of him so that he will not be disgraced and fall into the devil’s trap.

(1 Timothy 3:1-7, NLT)

With this passage, Peter adds his own instructions to elders. This is all relevant to elders, of course, but it is also relevant to all Christians. Peter is describing the kind of pastor/church leader you should seek out and value. You can use this text to hold pastors accountable, if you need to, including me, by the way.

First, we should shepherd God’s flock. A shepherd leads the flock to places where there is food, water, and safety. So, elders should lead churches to spiritual food and drink through God’s Word (the Bible), prayer and fellowship. In addition, as the verses I just quoted say, an elder needs to protect the church from bad teaching, from things that lead people astray. What this amounts to is good, sensible teaching of the Bible. Teaching elders should take their responsibilities very seriously:

1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

(James 3:1, ESV)

Frankly, I have met many people who call themselves pastors or elders who do not take this nearly seriously enough. I suspect that there are many people who take it upon themselves to teach and preach, who really ought not to. When I read what Peter writes here, I am reminded of a conversation he had with Jesus after the resurrection:

15 When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said to Him, “You know that I love You.”
“Feed My lambs,” He told him.
16 A second time He asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said to Him, “You know that I love You.”
“Shepherd My sheep,” He told him.
17 He asked him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?”
Peter was grieved that He asked him the third time, “Do you love Me?” He said, “Lord, You know everything! You know that I love You.”
“Feed My sheep,” Jesus said.

( John 21:15-17, HCSB)

So Peter, nearing the end of his own life, is passing on the same charge to the next generation of church leaders: “Shepherd the people! Feed them spiritually, care for them as a shepherd does for the sheep.”

The next piece I get from Peter’s words is that the flock belongs to God. I have never had “my own” church. I have only ever had the privilege of caring for parts of God’s flock. Sometimes we pastors, talking shop to one another, say things like, “In my church…” I don’t think that is so terrible, as long as we remember that it isn’t really our own church, not ever. We are only caretakers of Jesus’ church.

The next thing Peter says is that elders should serve willingly, not because they feel forced to. I knew a pastor who went to seminary during the Vietnam War, to escape the draft. He hated ministry, and wasn’t even sure he believed in God, but he felt he had to continue to be a pastor or he would be a hypocrite. What he couldn’t see was that he was a hypocrite anyway. He served under compulsion.

At one time I felt as if I was locked in to being a pastor, and I took this verse seriously: I quit. During the next three years God showed me that I really am supposed to be one of his under-shepherds, an elder in his church, and ever since then I have felt privileged to be called to this ministry.

Next, elders are not supposed to be in it for the money. That’s a good thing for me, because if I was in it for the money, I’ve been doing it very wrong! I’m not complaining, by the way, but I haven’t exactly built a ministry empire for myself, nor a cash-cow. However, we all know about church leaders who have built private empires and cash cows. I would not want to be them when they have to explain themselves to Jesus.

Elders are not to be domineering. Here, we see part of why Peter appeals to them only as a fellow elder, not as one of the great leaders of the church. He is putting his own words into practice. Though he could command them, he is leading in the same way he wants them to lead: humbly, with love, appealing to them, not trying to dominate or browbeat them. Above all, he is leading by example, and exhorting them to do the same.

Finally, elders are to look for honor and reward not in this life, but when Jesus returns. Being a pastor – at least the way Peter teaches us to – is not always a glorious thing. I have as much education as most attorneys, but generally, especially these days, pastors are respected less than lawyers, doctors and other professions. But our full reward is in Jesus, in the New Creation, not in the here and now. We can be patient, knowing that God sees our work, even when others don’t. Just as we are not supposed to be just in it for the money, nor are we supposed to be elders/pastors in order to build our own reputation.

Those who are not elders have responsibilities toward their leaders, as well. Peter says that the rest of the church should listen to the elders. This agrees with many other parts of the New Testament. Here are just two examples:

17 Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. That would certainly not be for your benefit.

(Hebrews 13:17, NLT)
17 Elders who do their work well should be respected and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.” And in another place, “Those who work deserve their pay!” (1 Timothy 5:17-18, NLT)

Now, as I have said, these things give us a good basis to evaluate whether a leader in the church is worthy of our trust and respect. That is good and helpful. But when we consider the characteristics of our leaders, we should also find in them things to imitate. The author of Hebrews writes:

7 Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God. Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith.

(Hebrews 13:7, NLT)

We may or may not have a leadership position in the church, but these instructions to elders are things we can all aspire to emulate. If I reflect any of these qualities at all, it is because I learned them not only from reading the Bible, but also from watching more mature believers whom I admire, and aspire to be like. The first such person in my life is my own father, and there were many others also, who showed me by their own lives what real Christians should be like. The goal is not only to imitate such people, but eventually to become the sort of person yourself that others can look at, and imitate.

And of course, the real life that they are reflecting (and that we want to reflect) is the life of Jesus Christ. Ultimately, our focus moves from helpful (though flawed) leaders to Jesus himself. We want our life to reflect and resemble His life, to show His love and grace to the world.

1 PETER #29: THE GLORY OF SUFFERING

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Suffering and glory are deeply connected. Any story that inspires us involves suffering. The more suffering there is in a story, the more glorious it is when the suffering ends, or is redeemed somehow. God wants to include us in his glory, and that means that suffering should not be considered unusual for those of us who follow Jesus. However, in our suffering, we can be confident that God is holding us in his hands, and remains in control. We can trust that he loves us, even in the middle of difficult times. There will be an end to suffering and then we will be participants in God’s glory.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen. To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 29

1 PETER #29. 1 PETER 4:12-19

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. 15 But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. 16 Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And
“If the righteous is scarcely saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”
19 Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.

(1 Peter 4:12-19, ESV)

Before we jump into this passage, I want to use it to reinforce something I’ve talked about before. If you look at the New King James Version, it will have this at the end of verse 14: “On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified.” The Old KJV has something similar. These words were almost certainly not written by Peter, but rather, were added in two our three hundred years later by a scribe. The KJV (and versions derived from it) has such things from time to time, because it is based on fewer ancient manuscripts. This is an example of why I don’t rely on those versions (though I do compare them to other versions quite often). It is also why I think the people who claim that the KJV is the only legitimate version of the Bible are seriously ignorant and mistaken.

By the way, although there are a number of things going on in this passage, I’m going to focus on the main thing. Sometimes I worry that I get us too bogged down with every detail. So, let’s get to the heart of the text. There is a fascinating historical aspect to this passage. At the very beginning of this letter, Peter uses the image of gold being tested in fire. He says, at that point, that trials test our faith in a similar way, adding that our faith is more precious and more enduring than gold:

6 So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. 7 These trials will show that your faith is genuine. It is being tested as fire tests and purifies gold—though your faith is far more precious than mere gold. So when your faith remains strong through many trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day when Jesus Christ is revealed to the whole world.

(1 Peter 1:6-7, NLT, formatting added for emphasis)

Now, in our text this time (chapter four), Peter says, “don’t be surprised when the testing fire comes upon you.” Peter is aware of the political climate of the Roman Empire. He knows that emperor Nero has it out for Christians, and so he wants people everywhere to be prepared to suffer for following Jesus. What Peter did not know was the literal role that fire would play in the upcoming persecutions and sufferings of Christians. Probably within a year of this letter (two, at the most) a great fire burned much of the city of Rome. Some historians speculate that Nero himself ordered the fire to be set, so he could rebuild the parts of Rome that burned. Whether or not that is true, Emperor Nero blamed Christians for the fire, though there was no evidence that they were involved either deliberately or accidentally. He used the fire as an excuse to begin a deliberate, systematic city-wide persecution on Christians, imprisoning many, having some killed for entertainment in the circuses,  and executing others outright. Even more horrifically, he had some of them bound to stakes in the complex of the imperial palace, and he burned them alive to light up the area at night.

Many Christians chose to flee from Rome during this intense period of persecution. Apparently some of them convinced Peter to leave, also, but on his way out of the city, he changed his mind and turned back, entrusting himself to Jesus in either life or death, which shows that he practiced what he preached here. He was put to death.

I have to believe that when the believers in the provinces heard of all this, and re-read his letter, telling them not to be surprised at the fire of suffering, they were comforted. There is no way Peter could have known that the coming trials were going to involve actual fire. But God knew what was going to happen, and the Holy Spirit slipped in those references to fire to remind everyone that He was not surprised by it, that nothing whatsoever that happens can take them outside of His loving arms.

Peter connects suffering to glory. Paul does the same thing in Romans 8:16-18

16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

(Romans 8:16-18, ESV)

Let’s think about this connection between suffering and glory for a moment. Picture a man who was born into a happy, wealthy family. He grows up with every advantage, and never knows a day’s need in his life. He has been raised as a Christian, and he thanks God for the goodness of his life. His parents send him to the best prep schools, and then an elite university. He meets his wife there. They get married, and start their careers. Set up in life this way, they are successful in their professions, and wealthy. They have two beautiful children who are healthy and happy. They continue to follow God, and then they grow old, and die, and will stand with Jesus in the new creation.

Now, how glorious is that story? It’s a nice thing. We all want that sort of life. There is a glory to the goodness of God there. But let’s compare the glory of that to another story.

Imagine a young lad in the seventeen hundreds in England. His mother is a strong Christian, but dies of tuberculosis two weeks before he turns seven years old. His father is a sailor, and the boy is passed around from place to place a bit, until he is eleven, when he too, becomes a sailor. At this time in history, sailing is a very hard life, with brutal work and even more brutal discipline. He becomes a wild and unruly young man. At one point, after becoming a junior officer, he is given eight-dozen lashes with the whip for disobedience, and is stripped of his rank. After healing, trying to find a better situation, he transfers to another ship, this one used in the African slave trade. His new shipmates don’t like him much, and when they arrive in Africa, the captain illegally binds him, and sells him into slavery. This did happen to Europeans at times. The young man ends up in slavery to an African princess who mistreats him horribly.

After three years as a slave, during which time life is miserable, he is finally rescued. And yet, on the trip back to England, his ship is caught in a storm, and almost sinks. During the storm, he prays to God, and begins, slowly to open his heart to Jesus Christ. The ship finally limps into port safely. He continues to work in the slave trade, eventually becoming the captain of a slave-trade transport ship. Yet, at the same time, this man continues to grow as a Christian. Eventually, he realizes that the slave trade is incompatible with his Christian faith, and he leaves the trade to become a pastor. In fact, not long after, he begins to work for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. He grows older, still working hard for abolition, but still seeing great resistance to it. He has almost despaired of living to see the abolition of slavery, but when he is a very old man, at last the English parliament passes a law making slavery, and the slave trade, illegal. During the middle of his life, while working for abolition, this man writes the most famous Christian hymn of the English language: Amazing Grace.

The second story is, obviously, the true story of John Newton. Newton went through a great deal of hardship and suffering, and involved himself in the shameful slave trade. Yet, I would have to say that his story is more glorious than the first one. It is glorious precisely because of the suffering.

Most people would not be interested in a movie about the first life. Many people did watch the movie of John Newton’s life: Amazing Grace. The truth is, the stories that capture our imagination, the ones that mean the most to us, involve suffering. The story of a young woman from an elite family who had advantages and connections and then became a successful CEO is not particularly interesting. But a story about a woman who grew up poor, and was dyslexic, and was mugged four times as a youngster, who taught herself to read, and overcame all her disadvantages to become a CEO – that is inspiring.

My point is that glory and suffering are connected in some way. I would almost guarantee that any story (true, or fictional) that ever captured your imagination, or inspired you, involved suffering of some kind. The more suffering in the story, the more glorious when finally the suffering is overcome, or redeemed. When Peter says: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed,” he means that because we are destined for a glorious future, we should not be surprised about a difficult present. When we suffer in Christ, glory is being created in our future.

This raises a question, then, about what it means to share in the sufferings of Christ. First, Peter clearly means suffering that comes about because we are Christians. So, if someone mocks us for being Christian, that is “sharing in the sufferings of Christ.” If we lose a job because of our Christian principles, it is the same. Obviously, if we are beaten, imprisoned or executed for a being a Christian, those things are sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Peter clarifies that he’s not talking about suffering for things like committing a crime. We can’t claim that a proper punishment for a crime that we actually committed is suffering for Christ. In other words, sometimes you suffer as a consequence of your own bad choices – this is not the same as sharing in the sufferings of Christ.

I do think however, that Peter has more in mind than only persecution when he speaks of sharing the sufferings of Christ. He adds, in verse 19: “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good,” (1 Peter 4:19, ESV). I think the primary meaning of “suffer according to God’s will” is not, “God desires you to suffer,” but rather, “when you encounter suffering, God desires you to go through it in a way that is consistent with your faith in Jesus.”

There is a secondary meaning, I believe to “suffer according to God’s will.” I think all of Christian suffering ends up connected, in some way to the cross of Jesus Christ. Was it God’s will for the Romans, and  Jewish authorities, to sin by accusing an innocent man and putting him to death? No. Was it God’s will for the soldiers to indulge their brutality and sadism by beating Jesus, and mocking him? No: God desires no one to sin. God did not desire to inflict pain upon Jesus. So, in one sense it is entirely accurate to say: “God did not want Jesus to suffer the way he did.”

And yet, was it God’s will for Jesus to take on himself the sins of humankind by his suffering and death on the cross? Yes. Ephesians chapter one tells us that it was planned from before the foundation of the world. So, in another sense, just as true, it was God’s will for Jesus to suffer the way he did.

So we have a mystery here: God did not desire anyone to sin by hurting Jesus. And yet, when Jesus was suffering, he was completely fulfilling the will of God the Father. Jesus was not at the mercy of sin, or even chaos, while he suffered. He was held in the everlasting arms of the Father.

So it is with us. Because of Jesus’ suffering, we have seen the lengths God will go to save us. We have seen how much he loves us. When we suffer, we can trust God’s love for us, even when we don’t understand. And when we suffer, we can also trust that the universe is not spinning out of control, that God has a purpose in our emotional and physical pain, and that purpose will ultimately work for our good. When we suffer we must trust that God is still in control, and also that he is good, and he still loves us.

Let’s return to the image of the fiery trial. Did God want Nero to burn those Christians alive? Of course not! But were those Christians ultimately safe in the hands of a loving God, even in their terrible trial? Absolutely yes.

I think we have plenty to think about so far. It is a great comfort to me, thinking about the history connected to Peter, to know that God knew ahead of time what would happen to so many Christians. Those first readers of Peter’s letter would be able to see, from the words about the fiery trial, that God knew what was going on, and nothing could take them out of his hands. Perhaps that is what you need to hear today. God knew exactly where you would be, exactly what you would be going through at this time in your life. You are not adrift and alone in a chaotic universe. Through Jesus Christ, you are safe in the everlasting arms of our loving Father. I am not sitting comfortably  just proclaiming theology with no suffering of my own while I write this. I am in the fiery trial as well, and I have been for some time. This is not a meaningless platitude. It is true. Receive it in faith whether or not you feel like it, the truth is that if you belong to Jesus, you are safe and secure.

Remember also that your sufferings are creating a glorious story. Last time we learned that when God is glorified, we are blessed. So, through your suffering, as you share in the sufferings of Christ, God is indeed being glorified, and you are being blessed. Again, this is not a truth we always feel, but we hold on to it in faith.

Finally, we should not be surprised when we suffer. This is normal for those who follow Jesus. We should be surprised, instead, when we don’t suffer, and we should be deeply thankful for those calm, peaceful times. Millions of Christians in history, and certainly at least many hundreds of thousands today, are in a fiery trial of one sort or another. You are not alone. God has not looked away from you, or abandoned you. You are in good company, and in God’s loving hands.

1 PETER #28: TALENT ON LOAN FROM GOD

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To listen to the sermon, click the play button: For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen. To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 28

Our gifts, abilities and opportunities are given to us by God. In a way, they are loaned to us, and we are to use them not for ourselves, but rather to glorify God and bless other people. God has chosen to give us blessings when we live that way, though much of that blessing will not be fully ours until we stand in the New Creation. Recognizing all this, and living this way, is part of what it means to follow Jesus, and it will often make us stand out, and appear different from the world at large.

1 Peter #28. 1 Peter 4:7-11

7 The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. 8 Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

1 Peter 4:7-11

Last time we looked at how following Jesus causes us to have a different way of looking at life, compared to the rest of the world. We don’t live for our passions and desires. Instead, we trust that in some ways, God has placed limits on us, and we try to live within those limits for God’s glory, and because, ultimately, that is what is best for us, too. Instead of a life focused on ourselves, we are called to live in selfless love, particularly love for other Christians.

Peter then unpacks some of what it means to live in God’s limits, loving others. First, he says, “show hospitality without grumbling.” Hospitality was an important value in the Old Testament, and it continued to be important in the New Testament church. One of the requirements for leaders in the church is that they are hospitable. In Romans 12:13 and Hebrews 13:2, just like here, all Christians are urged to engage in hospitality.

I think this is something that is often neglected among modern Western Christians. What, exactly, is hospitality? In the world of the New Testament, this applied to Christians caring for other Christians who were traveling, or new in town. Luke records a journey with Paul. In the passage below, you see over and over again that when they came to a city, they looked for other Christians, who took them in and housed them and fed them.

2 Finding a ship crossing over to Phoenicia, we boarded and set sail. 3 After we sighted Cyprus, leaving it on the left, we sailed on to Syria and arrived at Tyre, because the ship was to unload its cargo there. 4 So we found some disciples and stayed there seven days. Through the Spirit they told Paul not to go to Jerusalem. 5 When our days there were over, we left to continue our journey, while all of them, with their wives and children, escorted us out of the city. After kneeling down on the beach to pray, 6 we said good-bye to one another. Then we boarded the ship, and they returned home.
7 When we completed our voyage from Tyre, we reached Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and stayed with them one day. 8 The next day we left and came to Caesarea, where we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the Seven, and stayed with him.

(Acts 21:2-8, HCSB)

Of course, usually once they found believers, the believers were eager to host them. A few years before, they met Lydia, a god-fearing woman. Once she became a believer in Jesus, she immediately invited Paul and his companions to stay at her house.

4 A woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God, was listening. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was spoken by Paul. 15 After she and her household were baptized, she urged us, “If you consider me a believer in the Lord, come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.

(Acts 16:14-15, HCSB)

Hospitality also refers to hosting church gatherings. In New Testament times, and for three hundred years after, there were no church buildings. When churches gathered, it was in the homes of believers. Therefore, if no one opened their home, there would be no church gathering. Some churches apparently rotated their meeting place from home to home (Acts 5:42 & 20:20). Others apparently met most of the time in the same home (Romans 16:5, Colossians 4:15, among others). Either way, unless Christians practiced hospitality, the church had no place to gather. In this way, the early church depended upon hospitality for its very existence. So Peter says, “don’t grumble about hosting each other.” From extensive experience, I can say that sometimes hosting church can be a bit of effort. But by far most of the time, it feels like a tremendous blessing to have church gatherings in our home.

Of the churches in the LTC network, some of us rotate from house to house, and others meet mainly in one home. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but if you have never hosted a house church gathering, I encourage you to try it sometime. It is a special kind of blessing.

By the way, this is one of those instances where the Bible makes a lot of sense to people who meet in house churches. In a church-building paradigm, these sorts of verses are harder to understand. But for house church folks, of course hospitality is an important topic. It’s obvious why Peter brings it up.

Peter goes on: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (1 Peter 4:10-11, ESV).

Remember, Peter has given us a contrast between the ways of ungodly culture, and those who follow Jesus. Rather than following our own passions, or living for self-fulfillment, we trustingly accept the limits God places on us. That is the paradigm of self-control. Then we live, again not for ourselves, but for others, so that God may be glorified. Within that way of looking at things, Peter tells us to use our gifts as stewards of God’s grace.

You see, God did make each one of us with special purposes in mind. We are unique individuals, and we do have a calling and purpose. But we don’t find those things by looking within, or by “trying to be the best me I can be.” No, we find our calling, and our special purpose by living within God’s limits, and making it our purpose to love others and glorify God. When we trust God by living this way, he leads and directs us in many and various ways, according to how he made us. We do find fulfillment, but it is in God and his purposes, not in self. Our gifts, our uniqueness as individuals, are the result of God’s creation and intention. Peter tells us to use these things as “stewards of God’s varied grace.”

I want to unpack this a little bit. We don’t really use the word “steward” any more, except in some churches where “stewardship” essentially means “giving money.” But stewardship is much bigger than just money. Nowadays, a better word than “steward” might be “caretaker,” or even “manager.”

Imagine a person who manages a store. She is not the Owner of the store. However, she has a connection to the Owner. The Owner has hired her to make sure that the store fulfills its purpose: to serve customers, and make money, and perhaps be an important feature of a local community. The manager uses the resources of the store to accomplish the purposes of the Owner. She does get paid, but in addition to that, she might have a budget that amounts to millions of dollars each year. That is not money to spend on herself. Instead, her budget is a resource which should be used for the store: perhaps to buy goods, and hire employees, or maybe renovate the building. A manager takes care of resources that are not her own, and uses them responsibly on behalf of the Owner.

So we are called to be managers of God’s grace. The personality, talents and opportunities we have do not really belong to us. They have been entrusted to us by God, the Owner. We are to use such things on behalf of the Owner, to accomplish the purposes of the Owner.

Peter gives us just two examples. We aren’t supposed to think that these are the only two things we are to do in service to God – they are just representative examples. He says: “whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”

We understand what public speaking and teaching is. As far as “service,” the Greek word has a very broad range of meaning. Because Peter says to serve “by the strength God supplies,” I think he might have in mind physical types of service, like helping someone repair their home, or helping someone else in a physical way.

 I think Peter uses speaking and service as his two examples, because they are on either end of a kind of spectrum. Some people have a gift and calling to speak or teach. This kind of ministry usually involves standing in front of people, or in some way, openly communicating with many people at once. It’s a very visible kind of ministry, and often involves public leadership. Some of you might be called to some kind of public, visible ministry like that – it is a legitimate calling of God. For those who are called in that way, Peter urges us to treat it as a sacred trust. When I bring you these sermons, I am not doing something on my behalf, but rather I need to see it as God’s work. This isn’t my ministry – it is God’s, therefore I’m not supposed to be speaking my words, but God’s.

Service is a very different kind of ministry. It may not be public. It might appear very ordinary or mundane to some people. But again, Peter says, this, too is a sacred trust. When you serve, you don’t offer your strength and skill – you offer the strength and skill that actually belong to God.

So whether your gifts and calling are public and easy to see, or if they are quiet, and behind-the-scenes, or somewhere in between, they are from God, and should be used to benefit others and bring glory to God.

Just to make sure this is clear, let’s look at Romans 12:4-13, where Paul says something similar, but uses more examples than Peter:

4 Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, 5 so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.
6 In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. 7 If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. 8 If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.
9 Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. 10 Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. 11 Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. 12 Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. 13 When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

(Romans 12:4-13, NLT)

You can see the similarities here. Our talents and abilities are given to us to be used to bless others and glorify God. Here Paul lists a few more gifts than Peter, but this list is not exhaustive, either. It would be hard to catalog all of the different gifts God has given people to be used to bless others and glorify Him, because there are so many. Again, I think that’s why Peter lists only two – one very public and visible, and one fairly private and quiet. In other words, he means to include the entire spectrum that lies in between these two types of gifts. The point is, whatever gift or ability you have been given is a trust from God. You are a manager of those gifts, not the owner of them. Use them well on behalf of the owner. Of course, both Paul and Peter, in this, as in everything they write, are merely passing on the teaching of Jesus. On one occasion, Jesus used an illustration to talk about this subject of being a manager for God:

35 “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning, 36 as though you were waiting for your master to return from the wedding feast. Then you will be ready to open the door and let him in the moment he arrives and knocks. 37 The servants who are ready and waiting for his return will be rewarded. I tell you the truth, he himself will seat them, put on an apron, and serve them as they sit and eat! 38 He may come in the middle of the night or just before dawn. But whenever he comes, he will reward the servants who are ready.
39 “Understand this: If a homeowner knew exactly when a burglar was coming, he would not permit his house to be broken into. 40 You also must be ready all the time, for the Son of Man will come when least expected.”
41 Peter asked, “Lord, is that illustration just for us or for everyone?”
42 And the Lord replied, “A faithful, sensible servant is one to whom the master can give the responsibility of managing his other household servants and feeding them. 43 If the master returns and finds that the servant has done a good job, there will be a reward. 44 I tell you the truth, the master will put that servant in charge of all he owns. 45 But what if the servant thinks, ‘My master won’t be back for a while,’ and he begins beating the other servants, partying, and getting drunk? 46 The master will return unannounced and unexpected, and he will cut the servant in pieces and banish him with the unfaithful.
47 “And a servant who knows what the master wants, but isn’t prepared and doesn’t carry out those instructions, will be severely punished. 48 But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.

(Luke 12:35-48, NLT)

I think we’ve got the point that our abilities and opportunities are on loan from God. I want to make sure we remember something else. God’s purpose for those things is twofold: to bless others and to glorify himself. Bringing blessing to others glorifies God. Glorifying God brings blessings to others. God did not have to design things that way, but he did. He made it so that when he is glorified, human beings are blessed. This is pure grace – we don’t deserve to be blessed, ever, yet God made it so that he is continually blessing us, because he is continually being glorified. When we become a part of that glorifying and blessing, we get additional blessings of joy and fulfillment.

Let’s go back to the store manager and owner. It’s a little bit like this: the store exists to serve the community and make money. When the community is served, money is made, and when money is made, the community is served. Not only that, but every time the community is served and money is made, the store manager gets a bonus! She is not just a drone that is being used up by the Owner. No! the Owner makes sure that the manager has a stake in the store doing what it is supposed to do. He makes sure that when she does her job well, she is rewarded. So now, when the community is served, and money is made, the store manager also benefits. This is how God deals with us.

Now, let’s be honest. There are times when you are glorifying God, and serving others, and you don’t get so much as “Hey, thanks!” At times, it feels hard to perceive that extra blessing, that reward that Jesus talks about. But in the words of Jesus, above, it sounds like the main reward is coming after he returns. We have many verses reminding us that God does indeed see our work for him, that he does see when we live within his limits, and love others, using the things he has entrusted to us for his glory:

58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

(1 Corinthians 15:58, ESV)

7 Don’t be misled—you cannot mock the justice of God. You will always harvest what you plant. 8 Those who live only to satisfy their own sinful nature will harvest decay and death from that sinful nature. But those who live to please the Spirit will harvest everlasting life from the Spirit. 9 So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. 10 Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith.

(Galatians 6:7-10, NLT)

10 For God is not unjust. He will not forget how hard you have worked for him and how you have shown your love to him by caring for other believers, as you still do.

(Hebrews 6:10, NLT)

I think we have plenty here for application now. Some questions for application that you might ask: How does thinking about these things help me to live within God’s limits, while loving others? Are there ways that God is calling me to practice hospitality? What are the abilities and opportunities God has given me? How can I use those to bless others and glorify God? What encourages me to persevere in blessing others and glorifying God, even when I don’t seem to get much out of it? How can I help others see the abilities and opportunities God has given them, and encourage them to use those things as managers for God?

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you about these things.

PAGAN PRIESTS FIND JESUS THROUGH ASTROLOGY…?

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2022 Christmas Eve. The Wise Men, Matthew Chapter 2:1-12

I think it is significant that even people who do not trust Jesus are affected by Christmas. In Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, the six weeks or so before Christmas are noticeably different from the rest of the year. This is true in a lot of South American countries, also. South Korea is less than thirty percent Christian, but the whole population is aware of the Christmas season. We celebrated Christmas in Papua New Guinea, too. It wasn’t really like Christmas in North America, but there was something different about the season.

When I think about the record of the Wise Men, I’m reminded that Christmas is indeed for the whole world. Now, to be honest with you, if I was God, inspiring people to write the Bible, I would either keep the wise men out of the gospel of Matthew, or I would explain more about them.

Only two out of the four gospels tell us much about the birth of Jesus in the first place – Matthew and Luke. Matthew leaves out the shepherds; Luke leaves out the wise men. In the first six chapters of his gospel, Matthew takes great care to point out how the birth and early life of Jesus fulfilled various prophecies about the Messiah from the Old Testament. In fact, in the first two chapters, Matthew points out four specific instances where prophecies were fulfilled. Surely, if there was a prophecy in the Old Testament about these visitors from the east, Matthew would have mentioned it. But he doesn’t.

Not only does this incident have nothing to do with prophecy, at first blush it seems to have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity or even Orthodox Judaism. The term translated “Wise men” or “Magi” usually refers to a sort of Babylonian priest or scholar who was especially acquainted with the study and interpretation of the stars, and of dreams and things like that. In different times or places they might have been called Shamans, or Druids, or Seers, or even Magicians. That’s right. The Babylonian or Arabian Magi held roughly the same position in their society as Druids did in Celtic society. Do you understand? – we are talking about pagan priests coming to see Jesus.

Not only are these people pagan priests, but somehow, they have learned about Jesus’ birth – through astrology. It was the behavior of the stars which told them that someone very important and significant was born. The stars even told them generally where in the world to look for the child. As far as we know, it was not because they searched the scriptures, or listened to a Jewish preacher, or anything else. The wise men don’t really fit into my typical way of looking at world. Pagan priests are drawn to Jesus through astrology?! I think what bothers me most is this question: does this mean that all religions really do lead to the same God?

First, I want to point out that this is another one of those passages that seems to confirm the authenticity of the New Testament. If we are honest, we must admit that it raises troubling questions and ideas. If the New Testament were made up, or if the stories about Jesus were extensively edited and changed, this story would have been one of the first to be cut. In other words, there seems to be no reason to have this here unless it really happened, and God wants us to learn something from it.

I want to briefly set up the historical timeline here. Matthew makes it clear this occurs after Jesus was born (2:1). Herod asks the Magi when the star appeared. When the Magi find Jesus, he is living with his parents in a house (not a stable). Later, based upon what the Magi told him, Herod thinks that Jesus might be up to two years old (2:16). So, while it is very picturesque to imagine the wise-men standing in the stable with the shepherds and donkeys on the night of Jesus’ birth, that is probably not how it actually happened.

So, what does the Lord want to say to us through this little section of scripture? First, and probably most importantly, the message is this: This little baby, born in Bethlehem, in accordance with the prophecies for the Jewish Messiah, is for all people. His life, death and resurrection and his teaching also, are not intended only for the Jews and the small nation of Israel. From birth, his influence and significance are there for the whole world. The wise men were not Jews by religion nor by birth. But Jesus was for them too. We call Christmas a “Christian” Holiday. But God calls it a gift for the whole world; a gift for all people – including pagan priests. Even today, it affects millions of people who are not themselves Christians. Even today, anyone who desires to can receive Jesus in faith, no matter what they have done, no matter where they are from, or what religion they were born into.

Second, let’s look at those wise men. By the way, the Bible does not actually tell us how many of them there are, or what their names were. All of that is folk legend. Probably, the idea of three wise men came about because three kinds of gifts were presented: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We only know that there was more than one (the Greek word for Magi is plural), and it is reasonable to suppose that it wasn’t an extremely large group either. In any case, we can be reasonably sure that not every pagan priest in the region came to see Jesus. Presumably, other pagan priests also studied the stars. They saw what the traveling wise men saw. But why did only these particular men come to see Jesus?

I think the answer is this. These men saw Jesus in the stars because in their hearts, they were honestly seeking the truth and they were hungering for God. When they made it to Jerusalem, they told Herod they were there to worship the child revealed in the stars. When they actually found Jesus, that is exactly what they did – they worshiped him. You see, I don’t think this is an affirmation of pagan religion. Instead, it is an affirmation of honest seeking. These pagans didn’t know any of the Bible. They had never heard of the Messiah. But in their hearts, they hungered for God, and they pursued him honestly and diligently. And even though they were looking in the wrong places, they really were looking. Since there were no other means available, God used the stars to direct them to him.

This is in contrast to Herod and the Jewish leaders. Herod wasn’t a Jew, but he was surrounded by Jews and easily could have learned about God if he chose. The Jewish leaders studied the scriptures. They knew that Messiah was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. In fact, Matthew lists the scripture here, allowing us to see yet another way in Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. But the Jewish leaders at that time weren’t seeking God. Instead, it was pagan priests, completely ignorant of the Bible, who found God when he came into the world. Jeremiah 29:13-14 says this:

If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord.

Jesus says it like this:

Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)

The wise men were seeking. And in accordance with the promises listed above, when they looked wholeheartedly, they found the true God. It wasn’t their pagan religion that led them to “the same God worshiped by all religions.” Instead, it was that their seeking, hungering hearts led them to true faith in Jesus Christ. Other pagans didn’t come to Bethlehem, even though they had the same information. Those men didn’t have the same hearts. Herod didn’t come, and neither did the Jewish leaders – even after they heard what the Magi had to say. They didn’t have seeking hearts as the Magi.

 The wise men who saw Jesus didn’t go to Bethlehem and then perform pagan worship rituals. They went to Bethlehem, put their faith in Jesus, and worshiped Him, specifically. To express it another way, the moment they worshiped Jesus, they were no longer pagans, but Christians.

That may answer the question about other religions. I think the idea is sort of this: a true seeker will not remain in a false religion, but that false religion may be the initial point from which a true seeker eventually comes to know Jesus. The wise men didn’t receive eternal life through pagan religion – they received it through faith in Jesus. A Hindu won’t get to heaven by being a good Hindu. But suppose something in Hinduism leads him to find out about Jesus. Suppose he eventually puts his faith in Jesus – then he would have eternal life. It would not be Hinduism that saved him, but Jesus. By and large, Hinduism does not point to Jesus; but God could certainly use some aspect of it to draw a true seeker to the truth and salvation found only in Jesus Christ. That is very much like what he did for the Magi.

What initially drew the Magi to study the stars was only a shadow of the reality found in Jesus, who is called the Bright Morning Star (Numbers 24:17; Revelation 22:16). The Christmas tree is a pagan symbol too. But maybe the pagan imagery of tree worship, like that of astrology, is just a memory of the real thing, which goes farther back still, all the way to the Garden and the tree of life. The real thing is what those pagan priests sought.

So, with these strange pagan shamans in mind, I think there is a question worth considering: What are you seeking these days? Are you interested in finding the truth? Do you really want God himself, or do you just want God to do something for you? Maybe, like Herod or the Jewish leaders, your biggest concern is how Jesus might affect the plans and ambitions you have for your life.

What has led you to this place? Family, friends or your horoscope? The hope of a day’s comfort? Whatever it might be, let go of the shadow, and see the true reality that the Magi saw –  the little toddler, invested with all the fullness of God. True hope. True life. True love. With the wise men, fall down, and exchange the empty shadows for the truth. Worship him. Receive him.

ADVENT, WEEK 4: ZECHARIAH

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Advent #4:  Luke 1:5-25; 57-80

Bear with me a few moments while I explain what we call “The Church Year.” After Christianity became legal in the Roman empire, Christian churches began to have more contact with one another, and it wasn’t long before “the church” was also an institution with an organizational structure and a hierarchy. There were, of course, a lot of negatives about this. However, one of the positives was a sense of unity that extended among virtually all Christians. One way that unity was preserved was through having all churches reading the same scriptures as other churches each week; this later became known as “the lectionary.” The lectionary was organized around “church seasons.” There are some small variations, but in general the seasons are: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost and “after Pentecost,” (sometimes call “ordinary time”). Each season has a kind “character” to it. For instance, Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus and the significance of His incarnation. Lent is a time many Christians use to reflect on the suffering of Jesus, and to engage in personal repentance. Easter is about the resurrection, and so on.

I want to emphasize that these church seasons are not given to us by the bible; they are traditions, and no true Christian would say that it is necessary to observe them in order to be a follower of Jesus. One of the negatives of the church year is that it means that huge portions of the bible will never be read in churches which strictly observe it, since those churches focus only on the lectionaries given for each season. Even so, I think we can benefit at times from the traditions associated with the church year.

For me particularly, Advent is one of the seasons that I find very helpful. Advent actually marks the beginning of the church year, and starts four Sundays prior to Christmas. I sometimes use the season of Advent, with its traditional readings, to help me get the most out of what the rest of the world calls “the holiday season.”

The focus of Advent is helpful to me, because it takes my eyes off of the commercial aspects of Christmas and the holidays. It even takes me out of simply sentimentally reflecting on the birth of Jesus Christ. The theme and scriptures of Advent remind me that Jesus has promised to return. They encourage me to focus on what Jesus is still doing, and will do in the future. It keeps my hope focused on eternity, and my work focused on how God would use me here and now.

Now, I am going to go ahead and show the weakness of the church year by using some scripture that is not in any of the traditional Advent readings. I think, however, that these verses can help us get our focus in order for this season.

One of the overlooked figures surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ is the father of Jesus’ cousin John. John’s father was Zechariah, a priest. In the year when both Jesus and John were born, Zechariah was chosen for the rare honor of offering incense during the sacrifice. Priesthood was determined by birth – they had to be descended from the first priest, Aaron. Each priest served with others in his division for two weeks every year; Zechariah was in the division of Abijah. Duties were assigned by random lot. Jewish documents suggest that at that time, a priest would have such an honor only once in his entire lifetime, and many priests never had the chance. To be chosen for this duty would be the highlight of Zechariah’s life.

One interesting note is that from all this we might take a stab at finding out what time of year Jesus was actually born. Zechariah’s priestly division was the eighth out of twenty-four, and so we can estimate when he was serving at the temple. The Jewish new year varied a little bit each year (their calendar was based on the moon), but the best guess is that Zechariah encountered the angel sometime in May or June. Luke says “after those days,” Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth conceived John. Five months later, the angel visited Mary, and then Luke says “in those days” Mary came to Elizabeth’s house. So if Elizabeth conceived as soon as Zechariah went back home, and Mary went to their house immediately after hearing from the angel about her own conception, that would mean John was born in April of the following year, and Jesus in September. But we don’t know exactly how much “after those days” and “in those days” really means. If there was a lag time of just two months total in those two flexible periods, then Jesus was indeed born in December. The exact date of his birth doesn’t really matter, of course. I just think it is interesting, after all the years I’ve heard “Jesus wasn’t even born on Christmas” to find that the evidence shows it is quite possible, maybe even likely, that he was born, if not on December 25, sometime close to it. In fact, in the summer of 2022, I met a man whose Ph.D. thesis was to claim that the exact date of Jesus’ birth was December 25. He successfully defended the thesis, which means he has significant evidence in favor of it.

Back to Zechariah. The innermost part of the temple was called “the holy of holies,” or, “most holy place.” In it (originally, before they were lost) was the ark of the covenant, a pot of manna and the staff of Aaron. This was where the Hebrews believed that God’s presence remained. A thick curtain separated the “most holy place” from the “holy place.” In this second, larger space stood a table with bread, which was renewed every seven days. Also here was a seven branched golden lampstand (something like a Menorah) and finally, the altar of incense. Zechariah would have been accompanied into the Holy Place by two assistants carrying coals and incense, whom would withdraw and leave Zechariah alone in the sanctuary to complete the ceremony. Meanwhile, a large gathering was worshipping out in the courtyard, which means it may have been a Sabbath day.

Now, I want to set the stage a little bit. Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as “blameless.” I don’t think Luke means they never sinned, but rather, they conducted themselves in faith and integrity for their whole lives. This is significant when we learn that they don’t have any children. In the first chapter of Genesis, God blessed the first human beings and told them to “be fruitful and multiply.” For thousands of years, Jewish culture saw this as a sign that children are God’s blessing; they also believed that when people could not have children, it was because God was somehow displeased with them. Many people felt that such couples must have sinned in some way, so that God prevented them from having this blessing. It is true that Abraham and Sarah did not have children until old age, and Hannah, the mother of Samuel also was barren for a long time before Samuel. Even so, it is virtually certain that their childlessness was a source of very real emotional pain for Zechariah and Elizabeth. They must have wondered what they had done wrong. It is quite possible that others in their community thought that they had been particularly sinful, for God to withhold children from them. Zechariah and Elizabeth may even have felt angry with God – after all, they had lived in faith and integrity, but still, God withheld this blessing from them. By the time Zechariah was chosen to burn incense in the temple, both of them were obviously older than normal child-bearing age. In fact, a fair description of them would be “old.”

In temple alone, Zechariah would have been praying for the worshipers and for the nation of Israel. At this point, an angel appears to him. I think it is interesting to note that Luke records that it appears “to the right” of the altar of incense. There is nothing particularly significant about the position of the angel, and that reinforces the authenticity of this scripture. Luke is carefully recording a story that had been told and remembered in detail, even unimportant details. For me, it is one of those hundreds of little things that rings true in the biblical accounts of history.

As recorded elsewhere in scripture, the appearance of the angel was awe-inspiring, provoking a kind of fear. Like so many angels before, this one begins by saying: “Do not fear.” The angel goes on, telling Zechariah, “your prayer has been heard,” and then explaining that he is about to become a father. One thing that isn’t clear is what Zechariah’s prayer actually was. As a priest, it was his duty to pray for the people. He might also have been praying for himself and his wife. The fact is, God’s answer, foretold through the angel, addresses both Zechariah’s personal desires, and his prayers for people of God. On the personal level, Zechariah and Elizabeth are going to have the joy of parenthood. On the larger level, their child will be used by God to do significant spiritual things for the people of Israel. By the way, this follows a familiar pattern from the Old Testament. Sarah and Abraham longed for a child of their own, and in finally fulfilling their desires, God began the nation of Israel. Samson’s parents were also childless until an angel announced to his parents that he would be born; but Samson wasn’t just for his parents – he would also be used by God to deliver Israel. Hannah was full of grief because she could not have children, and finally God answered her prayers and gave her a child, Samuel. But Samuel was not just a blessing to his mother – he became one of the greatest prophet-leaders in history.

In light of all the people in Israel’s history who had famous babies after long barrenness, Zechariah’s response might seem surprising. He questions how it can happen, since both he and Elizabeth are getting along in years. But at another level, I think it is entirely understandable. First, there is the issue of age. In ancient Israel, older people were given respect, and yet, at another level no one expected much of them. Healthcare then was not anything like it is today, and people then could not expect to remain active as long as they do today. So, Zechariah knows that he is nearing the twilight of his life. Since that is the case, why would God possibly choose him, not only to be a father, but to be the father of someone that God was going to use in great ways? It just didn’t seem likely. In his response to the angel, he mentions Elizabeth. It is clear that he thinks of her in the same way as he thinks of himself: too old.

Second, and I am reading into the text a little bit here, I wonder if Zechariah, at some level, thought that God was being too good to him. Here he was, in the holy place of the temple, standing where very few Israelites would ever get to stand in their lifetimes. He is been blessed with this great honor, and now God is coming along saying “I’m going to bless you even more.” It just seemed too good to be true.

Third, in spite of the fact that in the past God granted previously barren women the ability to have children, he certainly did not do that for every barren woman in history. In addition, all of that happened a very long time before Zechariah was born. The latest incident that I mentioned above was that of Hannah and Samuel, and that occurred about 1000 years before Zechariah stood in the temple that day. In other words, though I’m sure Zechariah believed that God had done this sort of thing in the past, and he probably even believed that theoretically, God could do it now, it was a whole different thing to believe that God was actually going to do it now, and for him. I mean, I have a hard enough time believing that God will repeat miracles that I have seen with my own eyes in my own lifetime, so I can’t blame Zechariah for saying “How can I know this will happen?”

Now, I want us to see how God responds to Zachariah’s weakness. First, of course, Zechariah is rebuked for his lack of faith. Then, as now, the Lord is seeking people who will trust him wholeheartedly, and he makes it clear that Zachariah failed in this. This is an important message for us: all the Lord wants from us is trust. He wants us to trust his promises, to trust his goodness, to trust his word.

But I want us to see the incredible grace that God gives to this old man. First, we need to understand, it was not that Zachariah had no faith at all, but his faith was weak. I’m sure he wanted to believe it. He did not say “I don’t believe a word of it.” Instead, his question was: “how can I know for sure?” God’s response is both a rebuke for Zachariah’s failure to trust wholeheartedly and at the same time a gracious answer to Zachariah’s desire to know for sure that God was going to do this:

20Now listen! You will become silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” (Luke 1:20, HCSB)

Do you see what is going on here? His lack of faith is both disciplined, and answered. The angel made it so he couldn’t talk. Certainly, this must have involved some hardship for Zachariah, but it was not, after all a very terrible thing, and it was temporary. I think most of us could learn a lot, and even perhaps find some unexpected peace, if we were forced into nine months of silence. [Spouses, insert your jokes at each other’s expense here] At the same time, the fact that he couldn’t talk would have been a constant reminder to him that the words of God were true and trustworthy. Even while disciplining Zachariah, God gave him the answer that he desired.

Afterwards, when the child was born Zachariah demonstrated his faith by naming him what the angel told him to name him. At this point, he was released from his silence. Luke records that Zachariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to praise God. I think this is very important. When Zachariah was focused on what he wanted, and upon his own unworthiness and unfitness, his faith was weak. But now his focus is all on God; his focus is not on the gift of his son John, but on the giver of the gift: God himself. The words he spoke at this point have lived on for 2000 years in Luke’s gospel.

So, what is all this have to do with us? What would the Holy Spirit say to you through the Scriptures?

The first and most obvious one to me is that God can use anyone. Think about what God was doing at this point in history. He used an Emperor to take a census which ultimately caused the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem in fulfillment of prophecy. He used an unwed teenage girl to become the mother of his own Son. He used a humble carpenter to become the stepfather of the son of God. And he used an old man and an old woman who had already had a full and blessed life to bring even greater blessing into the world: John the Baptist, who in turn prepared the way for the Messiah.

Not too long ago, Yogi Berra, the famous baseball player, died. One of his famous sayings was: “It ain’t over till it’s over.” For a guy who said a lot of silly things, that one is very profound. If you are alive enough to read or listen to this sermon, it ain’t over for you, not yet. The Lord still wants to bless the world through you. Before you say, “But how can he possibly use me?” I want to remind you that that is more or less what Zachariah was asking. I’ll be honest: I don’t know how he will use every single person. However, I do have a suggestion: pray. Prayer, in and of itself, is a powerful force for God’s work in the world. When you pray, you invite God into the things you are praying for, and he shows up where he’s invited, and where he shows up, he does his work and accomplishes his purposes. When you pray you are partnering with God to release his power into the world. Every single one of us can pray, which means that God can use every single one of us in amazing ways. In addition, it was as Zachariah prayed that the Lord showed him what else he wanted to do in and through his life.

Another thing I get from the story of Zachariah is that God is good; so very, very good. Zachariah had already received the honor of burning incense in the holy place. He lived a long and full life. Then he was promised a son, and when he doubted the promise he was given a sign to show him that it was true, and to help his faith. This is one blessing after another heaped upon Zachariah and Elizabeth, even towards the end of a blessed life. This encourages me to trust the goodness of God.

Finally, Zachariah reminds me to focus more on the giver then on the gift. John was a tremendous gift for Zachariah and Elizabeth. But by the time he was born, Zachariah had learned that the greatest gift he would ever have was the grace and love of God, and nothing could ever take that away. I hope and pray that you and I can also have that same perspective.

As we consider that Jesus not only came 2000 years ago, but also promised to return, let’s try to learn from Zechariah. God is still working in the world. He wants to involve you in what he is doing, no matter how unqualified you might feel.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you now.

ADVENT: PARABLE OF THE TEN BRIDESMAIDS

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ADVENT WEEK THREE. MATTHEW 25:1-13

Advent is a time for preparation. The original “advent” was a time when many different prophecies were being fulfilled. Magi in Persia recognized an unusual configuration of stars, which signaled something portentous. Zechariah the Priest, and his wife Elizabeth, conceived a child, and Zechariah himself was struck dumb by a prophecy. Augustus Caesar got antsy about his empire, and called a census that made a descendant of King David return to his hometown of Bethlehem, along with his pregnant wife. When we read the New Testament narratives of Christmas, and the coming of the messiah, we get the sense that something big was coming, that the world was filled with anticipation.

In a sense, that was very true. But it seems clear that hardly anyone picked up on the fact that big events were brewing, that God was moving in history. No one recognized the Messiah when he came.

We recognize now that he came. We can trace back to the prophecies in Isaiah and from Moses and others, and we see how Jesus fulfilled them. But back then, very few people caught on. Jesus, while he was still on earth physically, promised that he would come back again some day. And he warned us that the day of his return will catch many people unprepared, just like the day of his birth. In the closing chapters of his book, the Apostle Matthew recorded some of the things Jesus said about his return. Today, we will look at one parable that Jesus used to describe this event. This is the parable of the ten bridesmaids in Matthew 25:1-13.

The setting is a Jewish wedding. In those days, in much of Israel, weddings were the most important social events, after religious festivals. A large proportion of the population lived in poverty, and even, at times, on the brink of starvation. Most people had to work hard from sunrise to sunset, but a wedding was a chance to relax and celebrate. The 10 young women that Jesus is talking about were part of the wedding procession (more on that in a minute). This was a rare moment in their lives when they got to dress up, relax and have fun, and eat as much delicious food as they liked. It would be bitterly disappointing for such girls to miss out on a wedding where they were part of the procession. In some ways, people back then would have viewed the chance to be in a wedding party the same way we view the Christmas holidays in America.

The “business” of the marriage – the ceremony, you might say – took place between the groom and the bride’s parents, some of it up to a year before the marriage was consummated. When this year was concluded, the celebration began with the procession of the bridegroom, usually after nightfall. The bridegroom would travel from his house to a place where he met up with the attendants of the bride (these are the ten young women in the parable).

This procession of the bridegroom was a key part of ancient Jewish weddings. After meeting the attendants/bridesmaids, he and his friends, and the attendants all paraded through town to the place where his bride waited, and then they all paraded to his home, and to the feast! During the parade there was laughing, joking, singing, and the joy of much food and fun to come. This procession took place after dark. Anyone who was part of the wedding would be expected to carry lights to add to the joy and festivity of the procession. If someone was out on the streets without a light, they would rightly be considered a stranger, someone who was not part of the wedding.

People in those days did not have watches or clocks, so time was a pretty fluid thing. As the bridegroom progressed through the streets of the town to the starting point of the procession, he might pause to greet friends and family, or stop off at various houses to receive blessings and gifts from various people. Therefore, no one knew exactly when a given bridegroom would arrive, and when the procession with the bride (and afterwards, the feast) would begin. The bridesmaids waiting to meet them would have to be ready, because no one knew exactly when he would come.

In the parable, some of the bridesmaids were not prepared to wait for very long: they did not have enough oil to keep their lamps burning for a long period of time. Without lights, they would be considered strangers, and not accepted in the wedding party. Because they were not prepared, they had to leave to get more oil for their lamps, and when they got back they found out that they had missed out, the gates were closed and they would not get to participate in the wedding feast. There would be no leisure, no celebration, no joy, no good food. It’s hard to emphasize how deeply disappointed these girls would be.

I want to point out a few things about this parable.

First, there seems to me to be a strong correlation between “oil” and the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament, Kings and Priests were anointed with oil, to signify the Spirit of God. In fact, the word “anointed” came to signify “filled with the Holy Spirit.” I think Jesus was deliberate about choosing a story in which the presence of oil was the key point; and I think he did so because one of his main teachings here is about the Holy Spirit.

The message here is simple, but profound: You can’t get by on a one-time experience with God. Sooner or later, you’ll run out of spiritual fuel, and you could end up missing the wedding feast. You need an ongoing habit of receiving from the Spirit of God.

There are times when we experience a spiritual high, or when things just seem to be going well all around, without a ton of effort. Those times are wonderful, exciting and fun. But we can’t live off of that kind of emotion forever. And it is exhausting to try to artificially generate new excitement to keep us going. We reach the point where the rubber meets the road. We need to live what we know, day by day. Sometimes the daily grind gets ordinary and boring, but it is where life is lived. To make it through that time, we need enough oil for our lamps – in fact, we need the Holy Spirit. If we hang around until the excitement fades, and then go look for more excitement somewhere else, we are acting like the five foolish bridesmaids. While they were out looking for something they had run out of, the wedding procession began, and they were left out of the feast.

Clearly, according to this parable, one experience with God is not enough. Ephesians 5:18 tells us to “keep on being filled with the Holy Spirit.” The apostles in Acts experienced a filling of the Holy Spirit over and over. So how do you get your lamp refilled?

I don’t know.

Well of course, there are basics, things I’ve been talking about for years now. First, we need to read our bibles. We might not always feel a great deal every time we do, but it’s hard to be filled with the Spirit of God if we are not somehow regularly reading or hearing the Bible. In fact, I would say it is impossible. It’s like eating. We don’t remember every single meal we’ve had, but the food we eat nourishes us, even if it’s not our favorite dish. So the Bible nourishes our soul, even when we are unaware of it. Second, we need to be engaged in community with other Christians. God designed us, and the spiritual life, such that this, too, is absolutely necessary. Third, we need to pray. By “pray” I mean, we need open and ongoing communication between God and us.

Now, beyond those three basics, I think different people get refilled by God through different means. I can get refilled by reading a really good Christian book – something like “Desiring God” by John Piper, or “All Things New,” by John Eldredge, or “Abide in Christ” by Andrew Murray. I can also be filled with a good book, even if it is not explicitly Christian. I’m thinking here of excellent fiction like Lord of the Rings, or The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale. Even Earnest Hemmingway’s books have a way of helping me see my desperate need for God. I have found that the Lord often refills me through music – both Christian music, and also “secular” music that has depth and heart to it. I get refilled by being in nature.

As I said before, God designed us to be filled, at least in part, by being in community with other Christians, and by worshipping together. Some get filled by the Spirit through times of concentrated prayer alone, or with others. Maybe you get refilled by listening to the Bible on audio, or listening to sermons on the TV, radio, the Internet, or at church. I am positive that if you ask God how he wants to replenish your oil, he will tell you, and make it available to you. Ask him, and then watch for his answer.

Here’s something else from this parable: No one else can be filled on your behalf. Remember that the 5 wise bridesmaids did not have enough oil to spare for the 5 foolish ones? Jesus included that detail in order to illustrate this point. You have to take responsibility for yourself to get the oil you need on an ongoing basis. No one else can do it for you, any more than they can eat a meal to satisfy your hunger.

I think this parable is told, in part for people who think, “I’ll wait until the end of my life is closer,” or “I’ll get right with God someday – just not right now.” You never know when Jesus is coming, and it will be too late to get your spiritual affairs in order once he is here. Jesus is telling us to be prepared, now and always.

Also, part of being prepared includes being ready for it to take a long time. The five foolish virgins were ready at first, but they weren’t in it for the long haul. If the Christian life is a race, it is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes life can feel long and difficult – part of being ready for Jesus is about being able to endure through those times.

The time to replenish your oil is now. One of Jesus stated points is: “Therefore be alert because you do not know either the day or the hour.” Don’t think, “well, I’ll deal with my spiritual issues after Christmas.” Christmas might not come this year. Jesus may come back first. Even if he doesn’t, any person could die at any moment in an accident. Refilling your oil – getting refilled by the Holy Spirit – needs to be a priority.

Finally (and this is my favorite part of this parable), before this, Jesus has been telling us to be prepared in order to avoid the negative consequences. This parable, however, paints his return in a positive light. This is something we won’t want to miss out on. There will be joy, and laughter, and feasting and celebrating. It is like a long awaited vacation. This is something we should be looking forward to, something we will want to be a part of. A wedding, for most of Jesus’ listeners, would have been one of the most fun, satisfying and joyful events that they could look forward to. Heaven should be that for us – only not “one of” the best things to look forward to, but rather “the very best thing” we have to anticipate.

1 PETER #27: DEEP PASSIONS & DESIRES VS. SELF-CONTROL & LOVE

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It is easy to forget, but we Christians are really called to be strange compared to those who do not follow Jesus. We live with a completely different set of assumptions about life, a different way of looking at the world. Peter is calling us all to make a clean break with the ways of the world.

If God is in fact – well, God – then submitting to his will for us is the only path to true freedom. If we make life about our own deep passions and desires, it will wear us out, consume us, and leave us anxious and empty. In fact, today we have billions of people who feel exactly that way: weary, consumed, anxious and empty, always striving for something they can’t quite get ahold of.

Peter points us to a better way, a way based not upon feelings (no matter how deeply held), not based on the idea that we are free from all constraints, but on truth that exists outside of ourselves: instead of living for our passions, we live for God’s purposes. We let God set limits on us, because we trust that he is good, and has our best interests in his heart. We let God, who not only created us, but died to save us, define who we truly are.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen. To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 27

1 PETER #27. 1 PETER 4:1-11

Last time we took a close look at what Peter says about suffering. As we look at the “big picture” of verses 1-11 today, we might summarize it like this: “Be done with the things of ungodly culture, with the values and passions of those who don’t know Jesus (verses 1-6). Instead, live in response to Jesus Christ, and according to the values that Jesus teaches us, and by which his Holy Spirit leads us (verses 7-11).”

Let’s start with the first part of that: We should be done with the values, passions and habits of people who don’t follow God. In verse 1, Peter says that we should equip ourselves with the mindset of Christ. In view of God’s promises to us, we should be willing to suffer temporary troubles. They are temporary even if they last for our whole life in the flesh. Our struggles and sufferings will end at the resurrection, but the goodness to come will never end. With this in mind, we should be done with the ungodly world, and ungodly ways of thinking. The New Living Translation does an excellent job capturing the meaning of the Greek in verses 2-3:

2 You won’t spend the rest of your lives chasing your own desires, but you will be anxious to do the will of God. 3 You have had enough in the past of the evil things that godless people enjoy—their immorality and lust, their feasting and drunkenness and wild parties, and their terrible worship of idols. (1 Peter 4:2-3, NLT)

Peter is drawing out a significant difference between human culture (without God) and those who follow Jesus. Human culture ends up following their own passions and desires. Followers of Jesus, on the other hand, look at the world in such a way that we live in self-control, and love.

People in ungodly culture, Peter says, live for human passions. The NLT puts it “chasing your desires,” above. Our movies, music, politics, and even education, are relentlessly selling the message that in fact, we should live for our desires, whatever those desires happen to be. If we desire it (so the message goes) it is automatically right. The message seems to be that if we feel deeply in any particular way, about anything, it must automatically be good and right.

Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine a forty year old single man named George who is deeply passionate about American Girl Dolls (this is a line of toy dolls intended generally for little girls, for anyone who doesn’t know). He collects them. He has all the books of stories about the dolls. He spends countless hours on the internet researching the dolls, the company, the stories, and finding and buying dolls. He even plays with the dolls. He frequently dresses up as one or another of the doll-characters. This passion consumes him. Most of his money ends up being used for this passion, one way or another. For George, life is about American girl dolls.

I think most of us would be tempted to say something like this: “Hey, it’s not for me, but, I’m not gonna judge. Everyone dances to a different beat, and if it makes him happy, and he’s not hurting anyone, good for him for not letting anyone talk him out of it.” I think we respond that way because we have been trained to believe that any deeply held passion must be automatically good. Certainly, we have been trained to believe that it is utterly wrong to criticize the passion of someone else. Even so, some of us might privately think that there is something that feels “unhealthy” about George’s passion.

Now, change the object of his passion. Instead of American girl dolls, suppose his passion is Harley-Davidson motorcycles. In that scenario, I believe we would be even less inclined to criticize. If some dude wants to give his life to motorcycles, and a particular motorcycle company, who are we to judge? Shift the passion to something in art, or music, or politics, and we don’t even notice that there is anything unusual.

But this is exactly what the Bible means by idolatry. Peter actually mentions the worship of idols in connection with ungodly passions. When we are so passionate about something that we live for those moments when we can indulge our passion, that thing, if it is not Jesus, is an idol.

I’ve spent some time with songwriters and musicians in Nashville. It is quite clear to me that for many people in Nashville, music is an idol. When we gather to sing, and listen, and share songs, that is their worship service. They live for music. This is hard. I think music can be an incredibly powerful force for good. I myself am passionate about music. But when we let any passion, even the passion for something good, like music, become the driving force in our lives, it can become an idol. When we live for it, it is an ungodly passion.

By the way, folks in our church here near Nashville sometimes hang out and sing and play, for the sheer joy of music. I’m not talking about that. We are doing so with a continuing recognition that music is so wonderful because it reflects the Spirit of God. We don’t worship music, but the God who made it, and we enjoy music as one of his gifts. Any gift of God might be properly enjoyed this way.

In contrast, what I’m talking about is letting your passions rule you. When your passion for something becomes more important than God, that’s when the problem begins. In fact, I would say the problem begins when any passion interferes with God’s design for your life. So, if George’s passion for American Girl Dolls takes so much time and energy that it keeps him from engaging in a community of Christians, if it interferes in his relationships with family, if it prevents him from holding a full time job, there is a problem. The same would be true if he had a similarly consuming passion for motorcycles, or a sports team.

Peter also specifically names sexual passions as problematic. Again, this strikes at the heart of our current culture. It is especially about sexuality that our culture says: “If you genuinely feel it, it must be good and right.” Our culture has come to believe that there is almost no such thing as an unhealthy sexual desire. If your desire is for someone other than your spouse, our culture says that it is the marriage that is the problem, not the desire. If your desire is for something that the Bible says is sinful, the culture tells us to get rid of the Bible, or to find a way to make it irrelevant to your desire.

Now, everyone does eventually draw the line somewhere. Almost no one agrees that it’s a good thing if adults feel deep sexual passion for children. Just about everyone draws the line there. But, without God, that line is arbitrary. Today, that particular moral line seems obvious to us. However, in the past, there were many, many other moral lines that seemed obvious to everyone, and those have now been erased in order to serve human desires. Unless we allow something or someone outside of ourselves to set the moral lines, those lines are always shifting. Unless we learn to stop living for human passions, eventually absolutely everything will be acceptable, as long as it proceeds from deep passion.

The problem with following human passion is that it is all about me. I become the final arbiter of what is good, and right and acceptable. I accept no authority over me, and it becomes my responsibility to discover my desires and their meanings. This is true of every individual in our modern society. The path of following my desires makes me into the god of my own life. Talk about lawless idolatry!

I want to emphasize that this is the real issue in our current culture. We follow our passions, and refuse to call any of them wrong, because we believe that each individual should be free to determine for themselves what is right, what is wrong, who they are, and what they want to do. God might be welcome as an advisor and assistant, someone to help people “become the people they want to be.” But people in our culture are not interested in a God who actually has the authority to say: “You must not do this,” or “You must do this.” We certainly don’t want God to impose any parameters on us about who we are supposed to be.

But if God is in fact – well, God – then submitting to his will for us is the only path to true freedom. If we make life about our own deep passions and desires, it will wear us out, consume us, and leave us anxious and empty. In fact, today we have billions of people who feel exactly that way: weary, consumed, anxious and empty, always striving for something they can’t quite get ahold of.

Peter points us to a better way, a way based not upon feelings (no matter how deeply held), not based on the idea that we are free from all constraints, but on truth that exists outside of ourselves: instead of living for our passions, we live for God’s purposes. We let God set limits on us, because we trust that he is good, and has our best interests in his heart. We let God, who not only created us, but died to save us, define who we truly are.

This begins, as Peter points out, with self-control: in other words, the opposite of simply following your passions and desires. Instead of letting them lead us, we – by the power of the Holy Spirit working in us – control our desires and passions. We are not our own gods. Instead, through Jesus Christ, we have been adopted into the family of God, and God (not our desires) is the one who directs and leads us.

This is completely against the culture of our times, just as it was in the days of Peter. Peter points out that when we control ourselves, ungodly people are surprised, and they malign us. The Greek word for “malign” is actually the root of our English: “blaspheme.” In other words, Peter is saying that people speak against us in ways that are filled with malice, with a desire to hurt us and tear us down; their verbal attack on us is wicked, wrong and unholy. But, says Peter, they will have to stand before God almighty and explain themselves. Even before then, by God’s mercy, it seems that God will give them one last chance to repent (verse 6).

Getting back to self-control, it is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The more we allow the Spirit of God into our lives, the easier it is for us to say “no” to passions and desires. No one controls their passions perfectly – certainly not me! But as we follow Jesus, and we let him, our passions have less and less control, and God has more.

Self control is not just a technique to stop eating too much, or start exercising, or stop sinning. Self-control represents a new paradigm, a whole different way of thinking, of looking at the world. Self control only makes sense if God exists, and sets limits on us for our own good. When we engage in self control, it is an act of faith. We are saying, “I would prefer to do one thing, but I believe God when he says (through the Bible) that it is not good for me to do it. I trust that God’s limits are good, in fact, I trust that they are best for me.” Therefore, by controlling myself, I put my trust in God into action, and I accept the limits he asks me to accept. We all fail to control ourselves at specific times and points, but the point is to accept that God does indeed have the right to ask us to limit ourselves, that he knows far better than we do what is best for us.

Next, Peter urges us to love one another. Love is the second piece of the new paradigm, the new way of looking at the world, one that sets us apart from the culture around us. The word used for “love” here is agape. Agape is a choice; a commitment to treat someone as valuable, to be committed to what is best for the person you agape. So if we are living in love, we are acting in the best interests of others. We are committed to valuing others. This is entirely different from following our own passions and desires.

If we live for our own passions, we will make choices in favor of those passions, even if those choices hurt our family and our community. The highest good that we live for is to satisfy our own deeply held feelings. We are trying to fulfill ourselves. When I was at university, the term they used was “self-actualization” – I live to become the best “Tom” that I can be. That would mean that if necessary, I would leave my marriage to pursue “my best self.” If necessary, I would abandon my friends and family and community in order to have the kind of career, relationship and life that fulfills me.

But love, like self-control, is the opposite of pursuing self-fulfillment. Love pursues the best good  of others. Love is not focused on me. If our paradigm (the way we look at the world) is love, even though we fail to love perfectly, we are not primarily pursuing our own desires and self-fulfillment. Again, like with self-control, love requires that we trust. In order to pursue the best good of others, we have to trust that God will take care of our own needs. We have to trust, in fact, that God loves us, and so we can relax about getting our own needs met in our terms and in our ways.

Peter mentions that love “covers a multitude of sins.” Let’s not misunderstand this. I do not believe that Peter means if we love others, we will cover up their sins. Instead, what he is saying is that love counteracts some sins in specific ways.

First, as with self-control, if we live in love (the way the bible defines love), we will not be living for our passions and desires. This reduces sinning.

Next, if you live in love, you will, as a consequence, avoid many different types of sin. For instance, if you love the community of believers, both as a whole, and also the individuals in it, you won’t engage in gossip, or slander. Jesus said that if we truly love God, and truly love our neighbors, we will fulfill the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:34-40). If we love God, we will have no other gods before him, and make no idols, and we won’t take his name in vain. If we love our neighbors, we don’t steal from them, or want what they have for our own, or sleep with their spouses, or lie to them, or hate them.

Finally, I think Peter also means this: love bears with the faults and failings of others, offering grace and forgiveness. If I don’t love, I will very quickly become impatient and angry when someone fails or sins in a way that impacts me personally. But if I love the person who sinned, I will have compassion. I will bear with their issues patiently, and offer them forgiveness. This takes away a lot of the power of sin to divide and destroy the community of faith.

We will discuss verses 9-11 next time, but I think we have enough to begin application for now. It is easy to forget, but we Christians are really called to be strange compared to those who do not follow Jesus. We live with a completely different set of assumptions about life, a different way of looking at the world. Peter is calling us all to make a clean break with the ways of the world.

I have to admit, I personally get tempted to see the world the way ungodly culture does. Sometimes it seems so attractive to live for my deep passions and desires. I mean, I do feel things deeply, and want certain things with a great longing. Even when I know it’s all based on a false way of looking at the world, I still sometimes “flirt” with the culture, and with the ungodly way of living for deep passions and desires. This text is telling me it’s time to make a clean break, to accept God’s paradigm for my life. It’s time to give up the way of the world and be all in with Jesus.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, at times we might be tempted to use God as the means to fulfill our passions and desires. It’s sort of a religiously acceptable way of still remaining focused on our deep desires. So, we need to make sure we aren’t just using God to try to accomplish the purposes of self-fulfillment. But the thing is, when we do accept God’s way, it is ultimately the best thing for us. It is, in fact the ultimate path to becoming who we were made to be. But we need to be careful not to follow God for mainly that reason. Instead, we trust God because we believe he really is God, and we accept his way (as revealed through the Bible) because we believe it is the truth. If we pursue it in order to fulfill ourselves, we’ll get off track. But we trust that he will, in his own time and way, bring us to contentment and fulfillment. And we also recognize that such a thing cannot truly happen until these bodies of flesh die, and are resurrected in immortality.

Some thoughts for application: In what way does this text challenge you to separate yourself from the passions and desires and paradigms of the world? What are specific things that you need to keep in mind when turning away from the way our culture views life?

What is your biggest challenge in accepting the paradigm of self-control? Why is it so hard to accept God’s limits on us? What can we do to encourage one another in self-control?

What is most important to you about living in love? How can we as believers better love one another? How does living in love help you (personally) to live differently from people who don’t follow Jesus?

1 PETER #26: SIN, SUFFERING & GLORY

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Suffering loosens our focus on getting what we want in this present life, and instead, helps us to focus on our amazing eternal future in the New Creation with the unlimited joy of God filling us entirely. It also has a way of carrying us further down the road of discipleship, which means further from an interest in sin, more towards an interest in God, and his kingdom. Therefore, Peter tells us to equip ourselves with the mindset of suffering that Jesus shows us.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen. To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 26

1 PETER #26. 1 PETER 4:1-2.

1 Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.

(1 Peter 4:1-2, ESV)

Though we paused to look deeply at baptism, the main point Peter has been making in this section is that we should be inspired, and empowered, by the example of Jesus to follow in his footsteps – particularly with regard to suffering. He began this section in 3:13, saying we should not fear to suffer, and that it is a wonderful thing in God’s sight to endure suffering even when we have done no wrong. We can live this way (says Peter) because Christ has suffered for us, once for all, and saved us through his grace (using baptism along the way). Chapter 4:1, our first verse for today, is basically a summary of all that: since Christ suffered, we should equip ourselves with the same way of thinking.

The first puzzler comes in the next phrase: “for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.”

First, we need to take into account the teaching of the whole Bible, so there is at least one thing that this cannot mean: It cannot mean that by suffering, we somehow atone for our own sin. Only through Jesus are our sins forgiven. Only Jesus, and his work can address the inner problem of the Sin that lives in our hearts.

But within a Biblical framework, there are a few things it might mean. Most of the possibilities have various problems. I feel badly that I got so deeply into baptism, so I won’t bore you with all the ins and outs of this phrase. Many different Bible scholars have different views about it, but rather than get too detailed about those views, I’ll give you my own best guess.

I think there are actually a few different levels of meaning here. First, I think it means that we Christians, (through baptism, as Peter mentions above) have been identified with the sufferings of Christ. We have been brought into union with his suffering, death, resurrection, and new life. Because we are identified with the suffering of Christ, sin no longer has any claim on us. We’re done with it as a factor in our relationship with God. Our sin has been atoned for. There was suffering for our sin, and so now that sin has no more connection to us, in the eyes of God.

There’s a second aspect to this, which Peter mentions in verses 2-4. Because we have been brought into union with the suffering of Christ, sin is no longer our typical lifestyle. We certainly don’t live perfect, sinless lives. Outside of Christ, we lived not for him, but for our own desires, which were corrupted by sin. We lived to make the best life for ourselves, on our own terms, apart from God. In other words, the pattern of our lives was sinful, and the  inner problem of sin in our hearts was never addressed. Now, however, we belong to Jesus. Though we are not perfect, the pattern of our lives is not all about ourselves. We may commit sins at times (sometimes, discouragingly often!) but we aren’t living in sin. It is not a consistent pattern anymore, it’s not the direction we are going. As Peter says in verse 2, the point is: “to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God.” By “the rest of the time in the flesh” he means “this present life, before our ultimate death and resurrection.”

All this is tremendously comforting. Through the suffering of Jesus, our connection with sin is fundamentally broken, and this is true, in spite of the fact that we still sometimes commit sins.

I think it is right to understand that Peter means all this. However, I don’t want us to overlook the fact that he is also clearly talking about our own personal suffering, not just the suffering of Christ. He has already been talking about specifically our own sufferings in 3:14 & 17. He will speak of our own suffering more, a few verses later in this chapter. So, I think it would be a mistake to make this only about our spiritual union with the suffering of Christ. Clearly, the topic at hand also involves our actual experience of suffering in this life.

My friend Wade Jones is fond of saying: “If you are really trying to live like Jesus, you should expect to have the kind of life he had.” And, of course, Jesus suffered. Not only that, but he calls us to suffer, with the expectation of joy and glory and grace following our earthly suffering.

For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ, we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share in his glory, we must also share his suffering.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later.

(Romans 8:16-18, NLT)

I don’t want to overstep my own limitations here, but I want to make a comment about suffering and sin. Most of you know that I suffer tremendous pain, on an hourly basis. Right now I am in so much pain that I will probably quit for a while, and come back to this later.

I have found that when I am able to see my suffering as suffering for Christ, and when I joyfully receive it as his will (without, however understanding it, or even liking it), I have a special closeness with Jesus. As a result of this, I am just less interested in sin than I am during the times when I act as if my suffering has no connection to Jesus. I have not been able to maintain this perfectly. But there is no doubt in my mind that my suffering has, in general, led me to sin less often than I did before. Again, I’m not claiming to be without sin. Sometimes, I fall hard. But compared to my life before suffering, conscious sin is less of a daily struggle.

Something I think is more important is that suffering has loosened my focus on getting what I want in this present life, and instead, helped me to focus on our amazing eternal future in the New Creation with the unlimited joy of God filling us entirely. It also has a way of carrying me further down the road of discipleship, which means further from an interest in sin. Theologian Wayne Grudem puts it like this:

 Thus, following through with a decision to obey God even when it will mean physical suffering has a morally strengthening effect on our lives: it commits us more firmly than ever before to a pattern of action where obedience is even more important than our desire to avoid pain.

(Wayne A. Grudem The Epistle of First Peter, p 167. W.B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1988, 1996.)

At present, it seems clear that I will suffer whether I trust God, or not. But if, when I suffer, I choose to trust God, rather than reject him because I don’t like it, it has the same effect described by Grudem above. It takes me further down the road with God. My trust in God becomes more important, and more vital than my desire for healing. God’s love for me matters more to me than relief from pain in this life. All of this leads my interests and desires away from the direction of satisfying sinful passions.

Suffering and hardship can be used, in some ways, like a spiritual discipline:

My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly
or lose heart when you are reproved by him,
6 for the Lord disciplines the one he loves
and punishes every son he receives.
7 Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline ​— ​which all receive ​— ​then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but he does it for our benefit, so that we can share his holiness. 11 No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

(Hebrews 12:5-11, CSB)

I don’t think this means that God is personally inflicting suffering on people. But when suffering comes, God makes use of it to shape us more and more into the people he designed us to be. He uses it for our benefit, as it says in verse 10 of the passage above.

Sometimes, Christ living in me is able to use my daily pain almost in the same way as he uses my hunger when I fast. The pain becomes a reminder of his presence. I submit to it. I use it to say: “You, Jesus, are more important to me than getting relief right now. Though of course I want relief, I am using this pain to cry out for you first, and relief only in your time and in your way.” The pain reminds me that this world is not my home. It makes it easy to see that my sinful flesh can never be satisfied, never be made whole. Therefore, I crave, not just momentary relief from pain, but ultimate deliverance from this corrupted body and world into the New Creation that is coming.

Now, this process is not automatic. There are plenty of times when I just want relief. But when I come to Jesus with my pain, even if I take a pill soon after, he can and does use it to move my focus from this life toward the glory that is coming. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write about this also:

16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever.

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NLT)

Suffering helps us to keep fixing our gaze on the unseen, on the glory that will be revealed that will last forever. Because of this, we can learn to see suffering as a gift. If you know my story, you know I’m not speaking theoretically. I’m not sitting here comfortably imposing some idea about suffering onto the poor souls who actually suffer. I’m in it. I’m not teaching anything here that I haven’t personally had to grapple with.

Many people I know wish for a revival in American Christianity. They hope for a time when the people of God are truly repentant, and joyfully follow Jesus whole-heartedly in such a way that the whole culture is transformed by it. I hope for it too, however I cannot see how it could possibly come about except by suffering.

The broader point Peter is making is that, whether we personally suffer or not, it is time to be done with the values of the world around us. The things he describes are shockingly similar to twentieth century Western culture. Basically, he says, those who don’t follow God live for personal pleasure and excitement. In short they party – using substances, sex, and whatever else works, to feed their endless cravings and emptiness.

Peter also mentions idolatry. We don’t worship literal idols any more, but the essence of idolatry is to make something other than God the most important thing to you. If it is not God, whatever you “live for” is an idol. If you are seeking comfort from something other than God, it might be an idol.

Now, we should understand that God provides things through his creation, and through other human beings, and we can receive comfort through various things. So, for instance, we might be comforted by our families. As long as we remember that our families were given to us by God, and that the comfort we get from them really comes ultimately from him, I don’t think family is an idol. However, if we were to begin making family more important than God, if we made choices in favor of family that took us further from God, than, in that case, family might be an idol.

So the picture Peter gives us of the non-Christian world is that it a)Lives for pleasure and b)Lives for comfort (that is the point of idolatry). But we who follow Jesus live for Him. We live for his love, and for the amazing future that he has promised us. That leads us to be different from the world, to say no to pleasure and comfort as the ultimate goals, even if for a little while we suffer.

A HOPEFUL WAY TO SUFFER

As most of you know, if you have followed my writing for very long, I suffer from a fairly extreme kind of ongoing pain. That pain has begun to limit how often I am writing and recording sermons. Even so, I am trying to make the most of the time when I feel up to it, so I am continuing to do sermons, and to write books.

Not only that, but I’m trying to turn lemons into lemonade. I’ve had a lot of time to think about suffering, and difficult times, and how those relate to faith, and peace and hope. With the help of my good friend, Wade Jones, who is also a pastor, and happens to be the father-in-law of one of my daughters, I have been working on a podcast about suffering and hope. I have literally lived the things we talk about.

In the unlikely event that you miss the sound of my voice, you can hear it in the podcasts. If you are interested in how the Lord has guided my journey of pain and suffering, the podcast is for you. Especially, the podcast is for you if you want to prepare yourself for future suffering; or if you, or a loved one, is already suffering. It isn’t easy. But there is joy, peace, and hope, even in the middle of suffering.

Below is a link to the first episode of the podcast, on a platform called substack. Once you click the link, you will be able to listen to the podcast right there on the substack website. You will also have the chance to load it into your favorite podcast app. Before you do any of that, however, be sure to click the “subscribe” button on the substack page, to make sure you don’t miss any episodes.

If you are a podcast veteran, the show is also available on Apple, Spotify, and Google podcasts. Search “Hope in Hard Times Tom Hilpert.”

You will also find, on the show’s web page, a title at the top labeled “It is Well With My Soul.” I will be posting a written version of the content there. If you want to read that regularly, please click on that title, and then subscribe to that, also. If you want those writings, you have to subscribe to that in addition to subscribing to the podcast, or you won’t get the written content.

I hope these things will be a blessing to many of you. Please feel free to pass them on to anyone who might be encouraged by them!

— Tom.

Here’s the link:

https://hopefulsuffering.substack.com/p/the-beginning-of-pain-and-hope-c11

The main page for the whole project is here:

https://hopefulsuffering.substack.com/

P.S. If you know what to do with a podcast feed, here you go (note: don’t click on it. Copy it into your favorite podcast app)

https://hopefulsuffering.substack.com/feed

MARRIAGE PART 4 (Voddie Baucham)

This is part 4 (out of 4) of the series on marriage by Voddie Baucham. The text is still Ephesians 5:22-33

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen.

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download the sermon