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?

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

GOD’S GLORY FOR OUR GOOD

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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 God’s Glory, Our Good

3 Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavens. 4 For He chose us in Him, before the foundation of the world, to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love 5 He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, 6 to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6, HCSB)

11 We have also received an inheritance in Him, predestined according to the purpose of the One who works out everything in agreement with the decision of His will, 12 so that we who had already put our hope in the Messiah might bring praise to His glory.
13 When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit. 14 He is the down payment of our inheritance, for the redemption of the possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:11-14, HCSB)

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, 5 made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! 6 Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, 7 so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.(Ephesians 2:4-7, HCSB)

I want to share some things this time that the Lord has been showing me. I don’t want to pretend that this is something new. Many, many people have written about what I am going to say here. Even so, it is a subject that is often neglected in churches these days. Also, I think I have a piece to share that makes the main lesson a bit more concrete and personal.

I have highlighted several phrases from the first two chapters of Ephesians. Here’s the first thing I want us to notice from the verses above: God wants to display his glory and his grace to the universe he created.

God is the best, most beautiful, most wonderful, amazing, superlative being in all of existence. There is nothing better than him. Nothing more beautiful. Nothing more wonderful. Nothing more worthy of praise or attention. He is the highest and best good. Therefore, the highest and supreme good, the most wonderful thing that can ever happen at any time, is that God’s wonderfulness and goodness and amazingness is displayed to, and known by, all of creation. For short, we can call this: “God is glorified.” When God is glorified, it means that his goodness, wonderfulness (and so on) is being displayed, and recognized.

Think of it like this. Just as we should seek to honor and glorify God because he is the Supreme Good, so he should seek to bring honor and glory to himself – for the same reason. That is God’s focus. That is His continual, ongoing activity. In a big-picture sense, this is always what God is up to: bringing glory to himself. This is always the end result that he has in mind, because it the best thing that can happen in the universe, and it is the best thing for the universe. The best thing that can ever happen, in any situation, at any time, is that God is glorified. This is always God’s end-goal, in every situation. Scripture tells that:

10 at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow —
of those who are in heaven and on earth
and under the earth —
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11, HCSB)

25 For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. 26 And the last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For the Scriptures say, “God has put all things under his authority.” (Of course, when it says “all things are under his authority,” that does not include God himself, who gave Christ his authority.) 28 Then, when all things are under his authority, the Son will put himself under God’s authority, so that God, who gave his Son authority over all things, will be utterly supreme over everything everywhere. (1 Corinthians 15:25-28, NLT)

33 Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!
34 For who can know the LORD’s thoughts?
Who knows enough to give him advice?
35 And who has given him so much
that he needs to pay it back?
36 For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36, NLT)

Stay with me here, because I think the end result will bless you. We have a bit of mind-work to do first, however. If God’s main purpose is to show his glory, then that is the thing that will most certainly happen. Nothing compares to God, and the scripture says he does not change or waver. So, we can count on the fact that God will be glorified. It is more certain, even, than death or taxes. Nothing will prevent God from ultimately being glorified in all things. His own nature and his own purpose guarantee it.

Now, if you are a self-centered creature like me, or maybe even if you are just hurting, you might say, “I can recognize that God’s goal is to be glorified, and, with my mind, I can even agree with that goal. But I don’t see how it helps me when God is glorified.” I know this is a shallow, selfish approach, but I can’t help feeling that way at times. I might think: “Good for God, that he gets the glory that he deserves. But in the meantime, I’m suffering.” If you know me, you know that I mean that part quite literally. I am physically suffering right now, as I write this. But even if you aren’t suffering, you might wonder: “What does God’s glory have to do with me?” It’s nice for God that his purpose will not be thwarted. It’s great for him that ultimately he will be glorified. But life is hard right now. Sometimes, I wonder if the idea of God working so that his wonderfulness is displayed to all creation really does much for me.

But it does.

You see, what the verses I quoted in the beginning (from Ephesians) tell us is not just that God is glorifying himself. They tell us the way he goes about bringing glory to himself. And, simply because he chose to do so, he has decided that he will make loving us a central part of his own glory. The foundation of God’s glory is his love. So, when he glorifies himself, he does it through love. Particularly, he does it by loving human beings. Even more specifically, he does it through loving you and me.

This means that God’s love is not based on something so shallow as our own lovableness, or even our own need. No, he has connected loving us to the eternal good purpose of showing his glory. He will never stop loving us, because he will never stop showing his glory. He has made his love for us central to his own nature, and integral to his own best purpose for the universe.

So now, we can say that because God will always be glorified, God will always love you. Not because you deserve it. Not even because you need it. But because God’s love for you is built into the very purpose for the universe.

This has several implications for us. First, and I mean this is a very positive way, life is not about you. This is in contrast to the message we generally get from our culture, which is all about people being the “best authentic selves” that they can be. However, for Christians, self-fulfillment can be a by-product of trusting God, but it should never be our goal. God does not exist to help you become a fulfilled person. He does not exist to fix the people around you, or to make your circumstances better. He exists to glorify himself. But because of his very nature, when he glorifies himself, you will be loved. We are safe to live not for ourselves, but for God, because God has us at the center of his own purpose. When we let God become the center of everything, our own lives in are in their proper place. It frees us from being focused on ourselves. God’s got us, because we are part of us his purpose and plan. We can relax, and let him do his work in us and through us.

Second, it means that we can trust that God is working for our good in all things. In fact, he has tied our own good to the highest good and purpose of the universe – his own glory. So Paul writes:

28 We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose. 29 For those He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those He predestined, He also called; and those He called, He also justified; and those He justified, He also glorified.
(Romans 8:28-30, HCSB)

Not only does God love us for his own glory, but he invites us to partake in that glory! This is not theoretical for me, and I don’t want it to be theoretical for you, either. Simply put, it means that no matter what we might experience – even very difficult things – it will be used for God’s glory, and for our good.

Most of you know that I am in a very difficult season of life. Every day I experience hours of excruciating pain. Doctors cannot figure out exactly way – the best they come up with are guesses. Doctors can’t make it stop, either – they can only provide medicine that eases it a bit, a couple times a day.

If I did not have the confidence that God was using my suffering for his glory, and my good, I would be going crazy. I would feel like these hours and hours of pain (more than 61,000 hours at this point. Not that I’m keeping track) are pointless, meaningless. I would be angry, and bitter, and I’m sure that would filter into my relationships, and make my life even worse.

But as it is, because of God’s word I know this: God will use my pain for his own glory, and for my good. He will do so not because I am worthy, but rather, because it is according to his own nature, and his own unchanging purpose.

I certainly hope you aren’t experiencing physical pain like mine. But you might be experiencing other difficult things in your life. It might be grief and loss. It might be uncertainty, or fear. It might be broken relationships, or a struggle of some other sort. You can have confidence that in every situation, God will be glorifying himself. That means that every situation, he will be glorifying himself by loving you and blessing you. Glory for him means goodness and grace for us. So in every single situation, God will bring goodness and grace to you.

I cannot guarantee that you will always understand exactly how God is making that happen. I can’t guarantee that you will always feel like God is doing good things through our pain, sorrow and struggles. But God himself guarantees that he is, in fact, glorifying himself, and bringing grace to you. He guarantees it by his own nature.

16 Now when people take an oath, they call on someone greater than themselves to hold them to it. And without any question that oath is binding. 17 God also bound himself with an oath, so that those who received the promise could be perfectly sure that he would never change his mind. 18 So God has given both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. (Hebrews 6:16-18, NLT)

God has got this. He’s got it because his very nature means that he will glorify himself by being loving and good to us. Therefore, we can be patient in difficult times. We can be at peace and trust God.

16 That is why we are not discouraged. Though outwardly we are wearing out, inwardly we are renewed day by day. 17 Our suffering is light and temporary and is producing for us an eternal glory that is greater than anything we can imagine. 18 We don’t look for things that can be seen but for things that can’t be seen. Things that can be seen are only temporary. But things that can’t be seen last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, GW)

1 PETER #17: REMEMBER YOUR TRUE AUTHORITY

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Many of Peter’s first readers were living in a time when they didn’t have much control over their own lives. They had almost zero influence on what the Roman government did, and almost as little over their own local governments. Peter says, “Don’t worry about that. Obey the government, and entrust yourself to God.”

Now, he is writing to those who have even less control over their lives – slaves. He gives the same advice. We need to remember that there is something much more important here than the twisted natures of those who are in charge. This is a chance to show people what Jesus is like. This is a chance for Jesus to manifest his life through you.

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 17

1 PETER #17: 1 PETER 2:18-25

Peter is flowing through a series of thoughts, each one connected to the one before. So, after talking about how God has made us his people, he then encouraged us to act like the people of God, citizens of heaven. Next, he explained that, as citizens of heaven, we should live peacefully and respectfully with regard to governments here on earth, submitting to them not because of any inherent goodness found in any particular government, or any kind of government, but rather, submitting for the sake of the Lord.

Peter now expands on the theme of submitting for the sake of the Lord, and he takes us to the case of slaves. I want to remind us a little bit about slavery in that time and place. There were two kinds of slavery in the ancient Roman empire. One kind involved slaves who served on Roman warships and in Roman mines, and a few other places. These were generally prisoners of war, or condemned criminals, and they served lives of hard labor and incredible suffering until they died. It would have been more or less impossible for this type of slave to be part of a Christian house church, because they generally lived their entire lives chained up like animals either on the ships, or in the place where they were used for hard labor. It’s just an unfortunate historical reality that we don’t have much information about whether or not the gospel spread to these types of slaves.

The second type of slavery was much more common in populated areas of the Empire, and it was very different from the slavery that existed in the American south until the mid nineteenth century, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. Slaves could be of any ethnicity – that is, slavery wasn’t race based. Most slaves in the Roman empire were not slaves for life. Some of them sold themselves into slavery in order to pay their debts, or to avoid starvation. Even while they were slaves, they were paid wages, in addition to being given food and housing. Slaves could conduct business in their own names, and own property – though many did not have much free time for such activities. In fact, some well-off slaves even owned other slaves themselves! Slave owners could not break up, or sell off, the family members of slaves. Most slaves in the Roman empire eventually became free again, either by gift from their master,  or by contract, or by saving up their wages and buying back their freedom. The average length of time most slaves spent in slavery was about twenty years. Some had the chance to be free, but instead made a deliberate choice to serve beloved masters for life.

Peter uses a specific term in Greek to show he is talking to the second type of slave, not the slave-laborers who were effectively prisoners with no rights. Though the typical Roman slave was better off than most slaves elsewhere in the world for most of history, we should remember that Roman slaves did not have the same freedoms as totally free people. Though they were paid, they worked for their masters, not themselves. Their time was not their own, unless they were given free time by their masters. They had to do what they were told to do, even if it was unpleasant or dangerous, and masters had wide latitude to punish slaves who displeased them.

Maybe the closest thing we have today to New Testament-times slavery is military service. When you join the military you receive some clothing, housing and an income, and even food. In return, you place yourself at the service of the military branch that you joined, for example, the Army. You can’t leave your Army post without permission. You can’t live just anywhere you want to, and you must do what the Army tells you to do, and you can be punished, even imprisoned, if you refuse to obey. Until your term of service is over, you are not entirely “your own person,” so to speak. Yet, there are limits to what the Army can make you do. That’s a pretty similar picture to slavery in the world of the New Testament. Let’s remember, however, though it was far better than what we might normally think of when we hear the word “slavery,” it was not usually a cushy, sought-after position. Maybe it would be useful to adopt the ESV’s translation of “servants,” rather than slaves. With that understanding, let’s get into Peter’s words.

18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

(1 Peter 2:18-25, ESV)

Peter is telling us that because we are the people of God, we see all human relationships through the lens of our position in God’s kingdom. So, in the normal course of the world, you respect people who earn your respect, and grumble about people who mistreat you. Peter says, however, that Christians are different: “slaves, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the good, but also to those who are unjust.” Actually, the literal translation of “unjust” in this verse would be “twisted.” Peter is saying, “Your master might be a severely twisted individual, but you submit to him, and serve him, not because of him, but because of the Lord.”

Now, if we talk of submitting to someone who is twisted, how far should we take that? Last time we considered the exceptions when it comes to submitting to government. We don’t submit when the government tells us to sin. We don’t agree to sin either by doing something wrong, or by not doing something we are supposed to do. The same principles hold when we are talking about submission to any authority less than God. However, when there is no conflict between following Jesus and submitting to proper authorities, we submit, and we do so, not because the one we submit to is worthy in some way, but rather, for the sake of the Lord Himself.

Also, of course, this applies to proper authorities. So for example, I don’t have to obey the instructions of an Army officer, because I am not in the Army. But I do have to obey the lawful instructions of a police officer who is within jurisdiction. I don’t have to pay property tax in California, but I do have to pay taxes in Tennessee, and so on.

There is another important point to be made, which Peter himself makes. He is not talking about cases where a servant is being punished for doing wrong. He comments: “How is there any credit to either you or God if you endure punishment for doing wrong? The situation here is when a master is twisted. The master is likely going to be unfair to the servant, no matter what the servant does. So, the servant might be tempted to think: “Why should I bother doing the right thing if I’m going to be punished anyway? Why not serve badly? If he treats me badly, I will return that injustice with bad service.” This kind of thing, says Peter, gives the servant no credit, and brings no glory to God. Anyone in the world, whether Christian or not, can take that attitude. No, says Peter, Jesus so transforms everything about us that we can patiently endure injustice without doing wrong in return. In fact, he says, twice, that to endure suffering for the sake of God, with the grief that often entails, is a gracious thing to God.

All of this lays the groundwork for some important principles of Christian suffering. First, our suffering for Christ need not be the direct result of persecution. Peter is not suggesting that the master might be mistreating the servant because the servant is a Christian. Instead, the problem is the master is twisted – he’s generally just a nasty sort of person. Because it is not about persecution, this means that whatever suffering we endure can be redeemed as suffering for and with Christ – which, difficult as it might be, becomes a thing of grace.

So, for instance, you might think that having a nasty boss could not be considered “suffering for the sake of Christ.” But Peter says: “It can be.” If we endure while still working as if we are working for Christ, (even though in reality we are working for a twisted jerk) our trials bring glory to God. If we can get free from such a situation, there is nothing wrong with doing so. In writing to slaves, however, Peter is talking to people who are stuck, at least for a couple of decades.

If we encounter any kind of undeserved hardship, and endure it as we look to God, bearing up under it the way Jesus did, it becomes a thing of glory to God and grace to us. Peter says we have been called to this, because we are followers of Christ who suffered when he did not deserve it.

That brings us to an uncomfortable thought. We follow Jesus. What was the earthly life of Jesus like? He lived on this sin-corrupted earth as if he was a citizen of heaven, which, of course, he was. That meant he did not live for temporary pleasure, temporary riches or temporary glory. He lived in the light of eternity, which meant he was willing to endure suffering here and now.

Our lives will not exactly look like that of Jesus. Most of us will not be itinerant rabbis in the country of Israel. But the qualities of Jesus should be manifest in us. The way we handle various situations will remind other people about Jesus. They might think: “I don’t know why, but something about the way she responded makes me think of Jesus.” Some people might not even recognize it as a  quality of Jesus, but merely something that impresses them and appeals to them somehow.

In any case, one of the characteristics of Jesus was that he endured suffering patiently, entrusting himself to God. We Christians ought to approach suffering in the same way. When we endure suffering while also holding God in mind, and our citizenship in heaven, there is grace.

Many of Peter’s first readers were living in a time when they didn’t have much control over their own lives. They had almost zero influence on what the Roman government did, and almost as little over their own local governments. Peter says, “Don’t worry about that. Obey the government, and entrust yourself to God.”

Now, he is writing to those who have even less control over their lives – slaves. He gives the same advice. We need to remember that there is something much more important here than the twisted natures of those who are in charge. This is a chance to show people what Jesus is like. This is a chance for Jesus to manifest his life through you.

I believe this extends to any situation where we might be suffering, and where we have little control. In fact, I think it even extends to situations where you might have some control. After all, Jesus certainly could have destroyed his evil enemies with a mere wink. And yet, aware of God’s will, he chose to suffer in order to bring glory to God.

All of this would be incredibly difficult, except for two things. First, we need to remember, and remain aware of, something Peter has already explained:

Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay. And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see.

So be truly glad. There is wonderful joy ahead, even though you must endure many trials for a little while. 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 1:3b-7, NLT).

Second, we need to remember that it is not up to us to endure suffering graciously through our own difficult effort. Instead, we rely on the Holy Spirit to manifest the nature of Jesus in us and through us. Practically, what that means might include praying something like this: “Lord, I cannot face this situation with grace or patience. But I know that you can. Would you please live through me right now, so that your grace and your patience are evident to everyone around me? Would you please sustain me through this? I have no other hope but you.”

Some of the trials might include the necessity of dealing with someone in your life who is twisted. The trials will often be things over which we have little or no control. What we can control, is how we respond to them, and we can respond to them with the nature of Jesus, who lives within us. Again, we do that by asking, and trusting, the Holy Spirit to make it so. We have so much more waiting for us than anything that can be found in this life. Think of the very best life you could imagine having on earth, then multiply the goodness and joy of that by a thousand, and you still haven’t even begun to touch what it will be like when we come into our eternal inheritance.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now.

RESURRECTION 2022: THE ONLY REAL HOPE

When we are faced with the death of a loved one, or our own death, we have to reckon with the reliability of what we hope for. Do we have a real hope? Do we have a hope that offers true comfort? The Christian hope is built upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and it is very different from any other hope offered by skeptics, or by other religions. It is the hope of LIFE.

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RESURRECTION 2022. 1 CORINTHIANS 15:12-23; 48-58

When I was in seminary, Kari and I met Paul and Becky Hagen, and their kids. I was there for my master’s degree, and Paul was studying for his doctorate. They were about fifteen, or so, years older than us. We became dear friends, and we have remained so for the past twenty-five years. We had the pleasure of watching their children grow up. They watched our children be born and grow. Paul & Becky are godparents for our daughter, Alana. Their family feels like part of our extended family, and we theirs (I also went to college with one of Becky’s younger brothers). Paul and Becky, or their kids, or Becky’s mother or brother, and other family, have often stayed at our house. Their son Tim married Gerte, a woman from Albania. We stayed with Tim and Gerte in Albania in 2013. They had their third child just a few months ago.

This was just after Tim was diagnosed with cancer.

Tim died this past Wednesday, four days before Easter Sunday. His youngest child will never know him. His wife is a widow. His parents have lost a son. His siblings have lost a brother.

As I think about this, I am filled with grief for my friends, Paul & Becky. No parent should have to watch the death of a child. I’m overwhelmed with sorrow for Gerte who has lost the love of her life, and for their three young children, who have been deprived of their father. I am so deeply sad for Tim’s sisters, and his brother. I am so sad myself. I stopped and wept while I was writing this.

Sometimes, I think we are almost unaware of how much the Bible influences our way of looking at the world. In order to better appreciate the wonderful gift that Jesus brought to the world, I want us to think about things – temporarily – from other points of view.

Just for a moment, imagine the death of this fine young man, but consider it as if you had no Christian faith. It seems so tragic that a young man who had a loving wife and three young children who need him, should die. His parents have outlived him. It feels so wrong. If we looked at Tim’s death without the eyes of faith, it would be an unmitigated tragedy. Everyone who loved Tim should be inconsolable. If this life is all there is, then nothing could ever balance out the tragedy of his death for his wife, his kids, his parents. It’s appalling, heart-breaking, and that’s all there is to say.

But wait. If this life is all there is, why should death be appalling to us? If the atheists are right, the universe arose by accident from nothing. It has no meaning, no purpose, which logically means that life has no meaning or purpose. Things simply are what they are. Life is what it is, and death is what it is. Neither death nor life has any significance. In such a universe, death is simply natural – no different, for example, from any other natural thing, like digestion, or breathing, or the color of the sky. If death has no more significance than a burp, why should it upset us? I’ve not heard any atheists address this issue.

One of the arguments made by skeptics is that religion was developed in order to help human beings cope with the tragedy and fear associated with death. But the atheists are not thinking deeply enough. Why, in the first place, should we even think of death as a tragedy? Why should we fear it, if it is as natural and normal as blue sky?

I think the logical answer is this: death is unnatural. When we encounter death, something inside us says, “It should not be this way.” It is as if we have some kind of ancient instinct that knows death is wrong. Deep within us, our hearts tell us that the world was supposed to be a different kind of place than it actually is. I suspect that even most committed atheists cannot actually make themselves feel indifferent about the death of those they love, and about their own death. That’s extremely strange, and very difficult to explain, unless it happens to be true that death was not originally part of what it means to be human.

A lot of people believe that all religions are more or less the same. I’ve already mentioned the religion that is called atheism (and atheism is based upon blind faith, whatever people say). Atheism is very different from Christianity in this matter of death – as I say, it is meaningless, and there is nothing afterwards.

Buddhism is also not remotely like the Christian faith when it comes to death, and the possibilities of life after death. To a Buddhist, life after death is a bad thing. The whole point of Buddhism is to cease to exist altogether. They do believe in reincarnation, but reincarnation is a negative thing for a Buddhist. It means that they failed to end their existence and become nothing, and now they have to try again, possibly adding more suffering to the world as a result. The great hope of Buddhism is not life, but rather absolute nothingness, a complete cessation of being.

Hinduism is also very different from Christianity. Hindus, like Buddhists, believe in reincarnation – they suggest that the average soul is reincarnated about 8.3 million times before reaching nirvana. However, the ultimate goal (nirvana) is to cease to exist as an individual and be absorbed into the all-encompassing oneness that is the Brahman. In other words, in “heaven” you will no longer be a conscious self. For all intents and purposes, this too, as in Buddhism, is the destruction of your soul, the end of your “you-ness.”

Islam believes in a paradise that is somewhat like the Christian one, but it sounds a lot nicer for men than it does for women. Paradise is also divided into classes, with the more pleasant areas being reserved for the men, and for those who were the best Muslims. Even so, no Muslim can know whether or not they will actually go to paradise. It is based entirely on how you lived, and no one knows how much is good enough.

Judaism today is very different from the religion that began with just the Old Testament. It is very diverse, and many Jews either don’t believe in life after death, or simply assume it is some kind of mystery. Some Jews believe in a spiritual heaven and spiritual place of the dead (Sheol) but it would be inaccurate to say that modern Judaism’s view of life after death is similar to that of Christianity.

My point is this: All religions are not the same when it comes to life after death. The Christian view of resurrection after death is unique. To the small extent that Judaism and Islam are similar, it is because they were influenced by Christianity.

Before you start thinking this is all so theoretical, let’s apply this to the death of my friend, Tim. If he was Buddhist, what hope would we have, what hope would his wife and kids have? Well, one thing that is certain is that they will never again see him, certainly not to recognize him as the person they have known. The best case scenario is that he has ceased to exist forever. I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t bring me much hope or encouragement. It leaves me with nothing useful or kind to say to his family.

An atheist/skeptic/agnostic might say that Tim will live on in the memories of those who loved him. In the first place, that doesn’t help his wife Gerte when she wants Tim to hold her. It doesn’t help his son when he wants to play catch with his dad. Also, let me ask you this: how many of you have memories of your great-grandparents? I remember one of my eight great-grandparents. I have no memories of the other seven, and certainly none of the generation before that. Even my memories of great-grandma are few and fuzzy. So, if Tim lives on in the memories of those who knew him and loved him, seeing as Tim died young, the best case scenario is that he “lives on,” for another seventy years or so. Then his memory will be lost to this world. Not much of an afterlife.

If Tim was Hindu, one might say, “perhaps he will be reincarnated as someone you will meet.” Of course, he will now be younger than his own infant child, so it’s not like his wife will be able to remarry his new, reincarnated self. And obviously, if he is reincarnated, he will appear to everyone, including himself, as an entirely different person. Also, it is unlikely that in this world of billions, his family will happen to run into the reincarnated Tim. Once again, there is no hope that his family will ever again see him or know him as the person they loved. And again, the best-case Hindu scenario for Tim would be that he loses all personhood, and becomes indistinguishable from the all-encompassing oneness that is called the Brahman. (Although, because Tim was not the proper Hindu Caste, he would not be eligible for that “ultimate salvation,” anyway.)

Let’s try the Islamic hope. Well, Tim was not a Muslim, so it would be automatic hell for him. But even if he was a good Muslim, the only way to actually know for sure that you will be in paradise is to die in the cause of Islam – to be martyred. Apart from martyrs, everyone’s salvation is always in doubt, no matter how hard you have tried to be a good Muslim. So, for Tim’s family, there would be no substantial way to offer them hope. And if Tim was a particularly good Muslim, and he did make it to paradise, he may have earned more women for himself, which would not be an encouraging thought for his wife, Gerte.

As far as the Jewish hope – and I say this with a smile on my face, and love in my heart for my Jewish friends – there would more likely be a lively argument about the various possibilities for life after death than any substantial and firm hope for Tim’s family. That’s not to say that Jewish people lack compassion; rather it is that they lack a substantial hope of resurrection.

For most of my life I have had friends from all of these religious traditions. I love those friends, and I respect their freedom to make their own religious choices. In the event of a person’s death, they have great compassion, and many kind words. But all of these traditions are very different from Christianity, different in ways that mean everything when we are confronted with the reality of death.

The Bible says that the resurrection of Jesus proves that he has conquered death on behalf of all who trust him:

20 But as it is, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. 22 For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:20-22, CSB)

Here we have the clue we started with: death was not part of God’s original plan for humanity. Death came into the human race through Adam. Human beings were not created to die. Death is not the way it is supposed to be. Here we also have this amazing hope: through Christ, though we all must die, resurrection to eternal, joyful life is now possible. Death came through Adam, but resurrection comes through Jesus Christ. Peter writes about this hope:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. (1 Peter 1:3-5, ESV)

The hope of resurrection comes through Jesus Christ alone, through his resurrection. When we belong to Him, His resurrection shows us our future:

1 See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him. 2 Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. (1 John 3:1-2, NLT)

We will be like Jesus. His resurrection is the beginning. Ours is assured through him, because of him, and one day we will be like him. Jesus once spoke to another grieving family:

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, even if he dies, will live. 26 Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? ” (John 11:25-26, CSB)

And so, Christian salvation is not earned (as in all other religions). It is not based upon the doubtful performance of imperfect human beings. It is based upon the performance of just one Person, who was perfect in every way. The way to receive it is to entrust ourselves, mind, body, soul and strength – to Jesus Christ.

What happened to Tim is a great tragedy. It is important for those who loved him to acknowledge that, and to grieve. But death will come to each one of us eventually. Sooner or later we have to face it, and when we do, the great question is the same as it is for us today: “Where is your hope? Do you have Jesus Christ?”

Having Jesus Christ means putting all of our trust and hope in him. It means that through faith, we trust in him each day. It doesn’t mean we are perfect. It doesn’t mean we never struggle. But we cling to Jesus every day as our only hope. Here is more of the hope that is promised to us in Jesus:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed. I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband.

Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He himself will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away.

Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.” He also said, “Write, because these words are faithful and true.”  (Rev 21:1-5, HCSB)

This is our future in Jesus Christ. It isn’t today. Today, we live in a world where a young husband and father dies, leaving behind a grief-stricken family. But we have a promise that someday, no more! Someday, no death, no crying or grief. So what about today? There is hope for today also. Listen:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare His own Son but offered Him up for us all; how will He not also with Him grant us everything? Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the One who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the One who died, but even more, has been raised; He also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us.

Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: Because of You we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered.

No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!  (Rom 8:31-39, HCSB)

My hope for Tim – the only reasonable hope for him, and for his family – is in Jesus. Our hope for ourselves is Jesus. Our hope for just getting through the rest of today is Jesus. He is hope for us, right now, and forever. Trust him! Cling to him! These bible verses that I have read are his promises for everyone who trusts him. Look at them as his own words to you.

Meditate on these words about the resurrection:

48 Earthly people are like the earthly man, and heavenly people are like the heavenly man. 49 Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man.
50 What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever.
51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.
54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
55 O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. (1 Corinthians 15:48-58, NLT)

He has risen!

He has risen indeed.

LENT #6: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF WAITING FOR GOD

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The devil knows scripture, but he cannot understand it. To understand the Bible, we have to receive it with a heart of faith. Satan’s temptation to Jesus was to force God to prove himself. We too, are tempted at times to insist that God prove that he loves us. However, He has already proved his love for us, through the cross.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Lent Part 6

Let’s start with the facts. The “pinnacle of the temple,” could refer to a couple different places. One is the east wall. Ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (who was born only a few decades after Jesus) describes the drop along the east wall as being six-hundred feet. Another possibility is the southeast corner, which was at the edge of the Kidron valley. From that part of the temple, the drop to the floor of the valley was at least three hundred feet. Even in our age of modern medicine  and emergency services, 90% of people die after a fall of 84 feet. So, without miraculous intervention, there was no way Jesus would survive jumping off the temple with that kind of height.

Jesus has been repudiating the devil by quoting scripture. Now, the devil shows just how nasty and how devious he can be. He makes his suggestion that Jesus throw himself down, and then the devil himself quotes scripture as a justification for the sin.

If this shocks you, it shouldn’t. People have been committing sins in the name of God all throughout history. Some of them even use the Bible to justify their sins. They do so because the devil has misled them. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you, reading this, were tempted to throw up your hands and say, “Forget it! If the devil can use the Bible against, me I’m a goner. If he knows the Bible, I’ll never be able to know it well enough to fight him.”

If you have a reaction like this, I want to say, with fatherly kindness (but also with fatherly firmness): “Please don’t be childish and immature.”

First consider this: Yes, the devil knows the Bible. But he doesn’t understand it. To understand the Bible, you have to receive it in faith as a follower of Jesus Christ. The devil rejected Jesus long before any part of the Bible was formed. So, the brand new follower of Jesus who only knows a few Bible verses understands what those verses mean better than does the devil.

Second, I have spent a lot of time recently encouraging you to read the Bible regularly. This is just one more reason why you ought to do so. It’s not that difficult, especially with modern translations. Seriously, thousands of people have died, and thousands more risked their lives, so that we could have the Bible in our own language; so we could read it and understand it. It is childish to claim to follow Jesus, and yet not be bothered to read the Bible. It’s like saying you are really into soccer, but in reality, you only kick the ball around with friends once in a while, and you don’t even know the rules. This is basic Christianity. It’s part of the deal. It is as important as being part of a church, as important as praying. If you have questions, you know I will help you. You know your house church will help you. Come on, people: Figure – This – Out.

If you are tired of me repeating this sort of thing about the Bible, I want you to know that I will continue to do so until I am convinced that most of you do, in fact, read it regularly. By “regularly,” I mean at least several times a week, week in, week out, year in, year out. Until I am sure of that, you will hear more of this sort of thing. Put a reminder on your phone. Ask a friend to bug you about it. Tell everyone you are going to read the Bible, so you are motivated to read in order to not be a hypocrite. One thought might be to agree with a group of friends that you will pick a book of the Bible together – say, Luke – and you all read the same chapter, or half a chapter, each day. You could encourage each other, share your favorite part of your reading, and things like that. Whatever it takes – come on, please, do this!

The better you know what the Bible says, and the better you understand it, the more easily you will be able to defeat the devil when he tries to misuse scripture. It is not remotely an impossible task, because again, you will have a better understanding than the devil of every verse you read.

While we are on this subject, I want to give us some basic tools that will help us to avoid the traps of the devil concerning the Bible. Satan quotes Psalm 91 (one of my favorite psalms, by the way) to try to convince Jesus to do his bidding. How can we know that Psalm 91 should not be used this way?

The truth is, it isn’t that difficult. If you read Psalm 91, it is obviously not an invitation to try suicide in order to prove God’s faithfulness. All you have to do is read it, and you can see that the devil has no case. Instead, Psalm 91 is clearly an invitation to trust in God’s faithful love and care for those who belong to him. Again, all this is obvious if you read the psalm with the eyes of faith, using ordinary common sense.

What the devil wants Jesus to do is the opposite of trust, the opposite of the message of the psalm. He wants Jesus to try to force God into keeping the promises of the psalm. Instead of trusting, the devil wants Jesus to make the Father prove his faithfulness. So the devil is trying to use psalm 91 in a way that twists its clear message.

The devil is still doing this kind of thing with scripture, inspiring people who do not have genuine faith to suggest meanings for Bible passages that are twisted and wrong. To keep people from doing that, early Christians developed a few simple rules for interpreting the Bible. Theologians call these rules hermeneutics. At their heart, Christian hermeneutics are not complicated. I want to share these rules with you, in case you wonder how to interpret certain Bible passages.

1. Read the Bible in context. In other words, don’t take one little verse out of a Bible passage and use it to say something that the passage does not mean. So, for instance, Romans 8:1 says there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We could take that out of context and say that Christians should never be found guilty in court. More realistically, someone might take that verse to mean that we are now free to indulge every sinful desire we have, since we are not condemned. But if you simply read for several verses before and after, the passage very clearly says that we should set our minds on the things of the spirit, not the things of the flesh (sinful things). You can’t misunderstand it if you just read the previous few verses, and the following ones. This is one reason I fervently recommend reading whole books of the Bible. You learn to see what a verse means in the context of the whole book.

2. The Bible is explained by the Bible. The majority of the Bible is quite clear, as long as you read it in context (see above). But there are a few parts that are more difficult. When you encounter part of the Bible that seems obscure, or hard to understand, use the more clear parts to help you understand. If that doesn’t help you, and you still can’t understand, then leave it for now, and trust the scripture that you do understand.

3. The Bible does not contradict itself in any important matter. Last time we looked at an example of a “contradiction,” in the Bible: Matthew wrote the temptation about worshipping Satan in third place, and Luke records it as second. But there is no contradiction concerning what the temptation was, nor when it happened, nor how Jesus responded. Most of the so-called contradictions are things like this, that have no bearing on the meaning of the Bible. There are other places where the Bible seems to contradict itself in terms of meaning. However, in those places, we find that we have a choice. We could interpret certain passages in a way that causes a contradiction. Or, we could interpret them in a way that brings no contradiction. When we are faced with such choices, common sense says that we should use the meaning that causes no contradiction. We normally do this, without even thinking about it, with every other book we read. It is plain common sense.

4. Pay attention to the genre of what you read. In this case, genre just means the “type,” or “style,” of writing. So the genre of 1 Peter is instruction. It is a letter written to encourage and teach others. Therefore, we don’t treat it like a poem, or an allegory, or a song. It’s a straightforward presentation of ideas and thoughts. The book of Psalms, however, is a collection of worship songs and poems. Because they are songs and poems for use in worship, we don’t treat them like a straightforward book of instruction. We can learn things from them, but we should keep in mind that there are word-pictures in the psalms that are not meant to be taken at face value. Some books, like 2 Samuel, are historical narrative. They record what happened. Again, we can learn things from reading about what happened, and how God interacted with human beings in various circumstances. However, historical narrative is not the same as instruction. So, when 2 Samuel 11 records that David committed adultery with Bathsheba, that is not teaching us that adultery is acceptable. It is recording what actually happened, not necessarily what should have happened.

All this can be summed up in the idea of reading the Bible literally. What I mean by that is, we read it objectively and inductively in order to find out what it says. We don’t read it with a plan to make it say what we want it to, or what we think it should say. We let the Bible speak on its own terms.

Imagine you want to find out about penguins. You get a book from the library that is all about these fascinating creatures. You don’t pick isolated sentences out of the book here and there – you read it chapter by chapter, the way the author presents it. You assume the author won’t contradict herself. You read the book in a straightforward way, to find out what it says,

Again, I want to emphasize that most of this is just plain common sense. This is how we read almost any book. If you keep these things in mind, and above all, retain your common sense, you will be able to spot it when the devil is tricking someone into misusing the bible.

By the way, the response of Jesus used all four of these simple rules. The context (first rule) of Psalm 91 has nothing to do with suicide, or forcing God to keep his promises. Jesus employed the second rule when he quoted scripture back to the devil. He uses a very clear passage to demolish the devil’s rather strained and murky interpretation: “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, (Deuteronomy 6:16, ESV).” This is a clear instruction, that can be used to interpret things that might be less clear. Third, he paid attention to genre. Psalm 91, quoted by Satan, is poetic. It was probably originally a song. It is not an instruction. It uses word pictures that should not be taken exactly straightforwardly. Jesus quotes from a passage of instruction to clarify things.

I want to revisit the central temptation here. What Satan was trying to do was to get Jesus to quit living in faith, and instead, to demand proof from God. I think this sort of temptation entices all of us from time to time. It might even sound reasonable on the face of it: “God, you say you love me, so prove it by healing my husband of cancer.” Or, “God, you say you care for every detail of my life. I’ll believe it, if you will only give me money to meet my bills this month.”

I have known a number of people who have given up their faith because God did not act the way they expected him to. They thought he should do a certain thing, or prevent something, and enticed by the devil, they made their faith in him conditional upon his acting according to their expectations.

One man I know claimed he was an atheist. He said, “I believe in science.” I said: “So do I. That doesn’t stop me believing in God.” As we conversed further, I found out that at some point in his life, God had disappointed him. He wanted God to do something for him, and God didn’t come through in a way that the man could accept. So he abandoned God. It had nothing to do with science. It was because he believed the lie that God has something to prove to us.

God has no obligation to do anything for us whatsoever. Yet, he shows us his love for us in a multitude of ways every day. Every good thing we ever experience is proof of God’s love and goodness. As Ben Franklin whimsically quipped: “Beer is proof that God loves us, and wants us to enjoy life.” By the way, that’s not an excuse to abuse alcohol, but rather a reason for gratitude. We can and should apply it to every good thing in our lives.

In addition to all the good God showers on us, and in spite of the fact that he does not owe us any kind of proof, he did prove his love for us through Jesus Christ. He proved his love even before anyone had turned to him:

6 For while we were still helpless, at the appointed moment, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For rarely will someone die for a just person — though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. 8 But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!

(Romans 5:6-8, HCSB)

At the cross, Jesus proved God’s heart toward us. Christ did prove God’s love and care for us – but not in the way the devil wanted him to. Like Psalm 91 obviously says, like Jesus shows us, we are called to trust God’s love. We are called to ask God to intervene, yes, but also to wait on him to show his love in his own  way and in his own time. God grant us the ability, by the Holy Spirit, to wait on him in trust!

LENT #5: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF THE HARD WAY

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Our heart should know no other consolation or confidence than that in God. We should not let our hearts be torn from him, but for God we should risk and disregard everything else on earth. We should learn to seek all goodness in and through Him alone.

The temptation of Satan is to lead us to entrust ourselves to other people or things; to put our hope and confidence in anything other than the true God. Jesus overcame that temptation, and empowers us by the Holy Spirit to do the same.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Lent Part 5

LENT #5. LUKE 4:1-8

Before we plunge into the text, I want to make note of one or two things. You don’t have to swing a stick very long before you hit someone who claims that the Bible is full of contradictions. Most people who say this cannot actually give an example of this – it is something they take on faith. But for the record, our text today is one of those places in the Bible that contains a “contradiction.” Are you ready for this?

When Matthew describes the temptation of Jesus, he says that the temptation to worship the devil (the one we will look at today) occurred not second, but third. That’s right – Luke says it happened second, and Matthew says it was third. They agree that there were three types of temptations. They agree about how Jesus battled them, and the scriptures he quoted. They agree about when it happened (just after his baptism). But one of the temptations is out of order.

If you are wondering what the big deal is, you are right to wonder: there is no big deal here. In fact, to me, this is something that proves that the Bible was neither made up later, nor edited later. If someone was either making it up, or editing it later on for some purpose, this “contradiction” would have been smoothed out. The fact that it is there shows that we really have the original writings of the people who knew Jesus personally. Just to make sure we understand – it doesn’t really matter in which order this temptation came. Both Matthew and Luke agree that it came, and describe it the same way. The order changes nothing about Christian belief.

All right, let’s get to Luke’s record of the second temptation. Satan reveals to Jesus all of the power and glory of the world, and then offers it to him. He says, “because it has been given to me.” Once more, we find out that the devil is a cheat and a liar. It is true that for the time being, God has not dislodged Satan from this world. Jesus later called him “the ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30, 16:11).” Paul calls him the “prince of the power of the air” (Ephesians 2:2), and “the god of this world” (2 Corinthians 4:4). John writes in his first letter that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”

18 We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him.
19 We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:18-21, ESV)

So, though the whole world lies in the power of the evil one, the devil’s power does not extend to those who are born of God through Jesus Christ.

Therefore, Satan was not completely wrong in saying that he had power over all the kingdoms and peoples of the world. But he was lying when he said “it has been given to me.” It was not given to him – Satan rebelled against God, and then enticed human beings to leave God’s protection, and thus to come under his own dominion. In other words, Satan took all of it, by manipulation and lies. He is combining lies with truth. It is true that Satan has dominion over any human part of the world that does not submit to God. But it is not Satan’s by right. And of course, we who trust Jesus are not under the authority of the devil.

C.S. Lewis powerfully portrays how deadly it is when lies are combined with elements of truth, in his final Narnia book The Last Battle. I highly recommend it to you. Another of his books that depicts the way the devil often works is The Screwtape Letters.

I think it is good for us to be aware of the schemes of the devil, and how he tries to tempt us. When he combines a bit of truth with his lies, that prevents us from simply saying: “That’s a lie.” There is a level of complexity that he weaves to try and trick us. When we see the truth of one part of his temptation, we are tempted to believe the whole thing.

Let’s dig into why worshipping the devil would be any kind of temptation for Jesus. First and foremost, we need to keep in mind what I have said previously, which is that Jesus was limiting himself to his human nature. He had to take the fact that he was the Son of God on trust – trust in the word that God the Father spoke to him. Apparently, the Father had also revealed the details of Jesus’ mission – that he would suffer and die a horrible death. The goal of the mission, the whole point of Jesus coming to earth, was to bring the world back to God. Jesus was to be the means by which the world would know God. Ultimately the whole planet will one day come under the authority of Jesus Christ:

6 Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
8 he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
9 Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11, NLT)

The devil is offering Jesus a shortcut. Instead of humbling himself, instead of experiencing suffering and death, Jesus could have every knee bow to him right now. “You don’t have to keep suffering through this miserable human existence,” he is saying. “You don’t have to suffer humiliation, and pain, torture and death. You can get right to the good part, right now. I’ll let you have the whole world without all that difficulty.”

So, this part of the temptation could be summarized as follows: What you want is good and right. But it seems like it will be very hard for you to achieve it. In fact, perhaps you’ll never achieve it. However, if you just make this one little compromise, you can reach your goal.

Think about how things actually went. Jesus spent three more years living in poverty and deprivation. He gathered followers who did not understand him very well, and even sometimes got entirely the wrong idea. He found himself in constant conflict with the religious leaders, who argued with him, slandered him, and even schemed to kill him. Finally, he was imprisoned, brutally beaten twice in one day, and then crucified – which is, by any measure, death by torture.

After his crucifixion, he still had to go to hell. Finally, he rose. At that point, his personal suffering was complete. However, even now, two-thousand years later, his mission is not complete. For two-thousand years, his people have sometimes spread his word, but many times they have been content to not tell anyone, and to not care about the world he came to save. Even now, the whole world has not come to know him.

“So,” says the devil, “– you have all that – after all your suffering, your mission still won’t be finished, not even after twenty-centuries. Or – if you just do this one small thing for me, we take care of the whole thing, right here, right now. Immediately, the whole world is yours. No suffering, no muss, no fuss. No twenty centuries of watching your people try and fail to spread your word. In many cases, they wouldn’t even try! But if you just join with me, you won’t have to depend on them. You won’t have to suffer. It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s painless.”

Of course it’s a trap. If Jesus had bowed down in worship, all of the kingdoms of the world would have remained under the influence of Satan. Jesus might have had power over the world, but then Satan would have had power over Jesus. The world would glorify Satan, not Jesus.

There is another aspect to all this. We shouldn’t overlook the power of the temptation to worship things other than God. By worship, I don’t really mean “pray to,” or “sing praises to.” In this case, worship is about who, or what we put first in our hearts. It is about what is most important to us. So, part of what was going on was that Satan was tempting Jesus to make his mission (saving the world) more important than his relationship with the Father. He was saying, “You’ve got to accomplish your mission, right? Well, here’s how you do that.” But, of course, Satan’s way of accomplishing the mission was to move God out of first place in the heart of Jesus. The mission of Jesus was a tremendously important and good thing. Even so, it was not more important than God himself. This is why Jesus responded with another quote from scripture:

13 It is the LORD your God you shall fear. Him you shall serve and by his name you shall swear. 14 You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you (Deuteronomy 6:13-14, ESV)

Of course, there are many, many scriptures that reaffirm that we must worship the one true God alone, and no one, or, nothing, else. Martin Luther offers us a lot of helpful insights into what it means to worship God alone, and have no other “gods.”

A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need. To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart. As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol… That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God. (Martin Luther, Large Catechism, first commandment)

So, whatever our heart truly clings to, whatever we entrust ourselves to, is what we really worship. It is that thing or person that has the place of God in our lives. Obviously, that can be (and should be) the God of the Bible. But the temptation of Satan is to lead us to entrust ourselves to other people or things; to put our hope and confidence in anything other than the true God.

In our culture many people do this with money. Their real confidence is in money. It is money that they look to for hope of the future. It is knowing that they have (or will have) money that brings them consolation. Satan says to them: “Look, you just want to take care of your family. You just want a secure future. You want to be able to get the most out of life, and enjoy life without having to work so hard all the time. All you have to do to achieve that is to make money more important than anything else.”

Some people do it with relationships. Their trust and hope for the future is all about the people who are important to them. Satan entices them to choose human beings over God. This happens in a variety of ways. For example, maybe you have a friend who doesn’t share your Christian faith. You might be tempted to keep silent about your own faith, rather than risk losing your friend. You might even pretend to agree with the friend about something that contradicts your faith. Perhaps when you spend time together, your friend wants to do things that the Bible says are sinful. You might be tempted to compromise, so that you don’t lose your friend. At that point, you are worshipping your friendship above God.

Success is another thing we are tempted to put before God. I could be more successful as an author if I wrote a mystery series that did not have a pastor as a main character. I would do even better if I included profanity, and much better if I wrote salacious sex scenes. But if I were to compromise, I would be making success more important than my relationship with God.

There are many other things we are tempted to put above God: the approval of other people, achievement, exciting or meaningful experiences (adventures and travel) – the list is almost endless.

The temptation of Jesus was one of the most insidious of all. Satan tempted him with the very mission that God entrusted to Jesus. In the same way, many ministers are tempted to put their ministry above everything else. That’s the nasty thing about this kind of temptation: it is often not a bad thing that tempts us. It is good to make enough money to pay your bills and take care of your family. It is good to make other human beings a priority. It is good to want to do ministry, or to use your God-given gifts to achieve big things. The problem is when these things become more important to us than God alone. The sin comes in when we look to those things for hope, when we trust in those things to bring us happiness or security, or when we make decisions that put those things above our relationship with God.

Luther explains again what it means to worship God alone, and serve only him:

Namely, that the heart should know no other consolation or confidence than that in him, nor let itself be torn from him, but for him should risk and disregard everything else on earth.

We need to come to a place where God is so important to us, that we will give up anything else to keep him. We need the Holy Spirit to bring us to that place, and it is good and right to pray for help – to ask God to work in us so that he is indeed our only true God. Luther again, offers a helpful thought:

He wishes to turn us away from everything else, and to draw us to himself, because he is the one, eternal good

God is actually the true source of everything good, everything that we need and love. Are you deeply blessed as you sit quietly in nature? That blessing comes from the one source of eternal good: God himself. Are you blessed by people you love? Rejoice in them, and recognize that it is God who put them in your life. Do you have all that you really need, financially? You can take pride in your hard work, but recognize that your ability to work, and opportunities you have had, came from God alone. Do you have a gift for music, writing or some other artistic ability? Surely you know that you didn’t get that for yourself – it came from God himself. Learn to see that everything good that we have ever experienced or had, and everything good that will come to us in the future, comes from God himself. It is vitally important, also, to recognize that when we have anything apart from God, it becomes no longer good. We need to learn to worship the Giver, not the gifts.

Jesus held fast to this. Again, he battled Satan by quoting the Bible. He rejected the easy way. He refused to let even God’s mission for him become more important than God himself. He did this for us, yes, but we should keep in mind that even more importantly, he did it for the glory of God, to reaffirm that nothing in all the universe is more important than God himself.

Let the Holy Spirit speak in your heart right now.

LENT #4: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF TEMPTATION

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Whatever our temptations, and whatever our failures to pass the test, remember that Jesus faced the same temptations, and for our sake, he did pass every test. He accomplished what we could not, and he did it on our behalf. Because we cannot live perfect lives, Jesus lived a perfect life in our place. Now, we are released from having to meet that standard of perfection on our own. Instead, through faith, by God’s grace, we are judged not on our own performance, but the performance of Jesus.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Lent Part 4

LENT #4. LUKE 4:1-14

We have been using our passage as a jumping off point for various topics that are associated with the season of Lent: Suffering, Fasting, and Solitude. Now, we will return to the text and consider the encounter Jesus had with the devil. Most translations make it seem like Jesus spent forty days in solitude and fasting, and then, when he was just about done, the devil came and tempted him. That is a possible interpretation – there is room in the Greek for that. However, in Greek, it looks much more like the devil was bothering him the whole time. Apparently, when he came back, he told his apostles about three particular kinds of temptations that he faced. The NET captures this fairly well:

1 Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he endured temptations from the devil. (Luke 4:1-2, NET)

I want to say a few words about temptation. In the first place, the Greek word normally used for temptation has a wider range of meaning than we typically give to our English word. It seems to me that we think of “temptation” as being enticed into doing something we should not do. We’re tempted to eat ice cream when we are on a keto diet. We are tempted to lust, or to have an affair. We are tempted to cheat or lie when it seems clear we could get away with it. In English, temptation is all about an alluring opportunity to do the wrong thing. Temptation attracts us toward the wrong thing, the sinful thing.

This is part of the meaning of the Greek word. But in Greek, the main emphasis is not about desire, or enticement. Instead, in Greek, the idea of temptation is about testing something to prove what it is made of. Another good word might be trials. When engineers make some new kind of device to make cars more safe, they have to do safety trials in order to find out if their device works. When scientists develop a new drug, they have drug trials, to test it, to make sure it does indeed work. That idea of a trial – putting something through a test, to see how it does – is the essence of the New Testament word for temptation.

Now, of course, the test does consist of being enticed to do something that God says we should not do, but we should keep in mind that temptation is not all negative. When we pass the test, it glorifies God, and brings grace to us. Temptation has a positive outcome in mind. It isn’t just about avoiding evil – it is about proving what is good.

This brings up something very important: temptation is not the same as sin. Jesus was tempted in every way, but was without sin:

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:15-16, ESV

7 Therefore, He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. (Hebrews 2:17-18, HCSB)

And yes, the word the HCSB translates “tested” (above) is the same word many Bibles translate as “tempted.” So, if Jesus was tempted/tested in every way, but did not sin, that means that being tempted to do something is not, in and of itself, sinful.

I’m going to use a particular temptation that I am familiar with as an illustration. It is generally more true of men, but I think you women can still understand it, because the main points apply to both male and female. Over the years I have spoken with many men who struggle particularly with the sin of lust. I myself have had a significant battle with it at times. I think many men who struggle this way fall prey to a trick of the devil. It is normal male biology to notice attractive women – that’s part of the nature of male levels of testosterone. It is especially normal for men to notice women who are displaying a lot of skin, or emphasizing their various physical “assets” in some way. A lot of men look at such women more or less involuntarily. In some cases, it’s very hard to avoid looking twice.

Now, having seen a woman in such circumstances, the temptation comes along. The devil, or our own flesh (it doesn’t really matter which) raises up these kinds of thoughts: “Let’s think about what she would look like if she was wearing even less. Let’s think about what it would be like to be with her.” Most of the time, such things sound like our own thoughts.

Here’s the important part: so far, the man has not sinned. It is not a sin to be tempted. But I know many men who think they have already failed at this point, simply because they have looked, and were tempted by such thoughts. What often happens then, is the guy thinks, “I’ve already blown it. I might as well go ahead and enjoy the fantasy.” And then, of course, he does sin. But I want to reiterate: temptation is not sin. Jesus was tempted, but did not sin. So, the fact that such things interest or entice you does not mean you have failed.

Now, I got very specific there, but this applies to any temptation we might experience. Perhaps you struggle with gossip and slander – this could be equally true of men or women. You are tempted to use your words to cut other people down, to show the world that they are not so great after all. You hear something about someone you know, someone who is far too uppity. It’s a juicy bit of information, and you could use it to teach that person a little much-needed humility. In fact, you want to use the information, you want to say something. But you haven’t yet sinned. You have been convinced by the devil that you want to use your words in a hurtful way, but you haven’t done it yet. Don’t be discouraged: temptation is not sin. You haven’t sinned yet. The attraction you have to do the wrong thing is not the same as actually doing it.

We face temptations from three sources: The world, the flesh and the devil. They are all connected. Perhaps we internalize messages from our ungodly culture. Or maybe something in our sinful flesh draws us toward sin. It might also be the devil, or one of his servants – and they use our sinful flesh to whisper into our minds. Either way, scripture makes it clear that the primary battle takes place in our minds:

3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, (2 Corinthians 10:3-5, ESV)

On the positive side, this is a test. By not doing the wrong thing, by doing what God wants instead, you are accomplishing good things spiritually. You are bringing glory to God. By using the resources of the Holy Spirit to battle the tests of the world, the flesh and the devil, we show the world the greatness of Jesus Christ. And of course, all sin is ultimately very bad for us, so we help ourselves when we pass the test.

Let’s look at the first test that Luke records for Jesus:

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.’” (Luke 4:1-4, ESV)

There is a lot of significance packed into these few words. Of course, Jesus was hungry, but the temptation was not really for Jesus to break his fast. Instead, there were two things the devil was trying to do here.

Remember, before Jesus went into the wilderness, he was baptized, and God spoke from the heavens, saying “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” After being in the wilderness with no food, the devil came at Jesus. He wanted to place doubt in Jesus’ mind about what God had said. If you are the son of God…prove it! Turn these stones to bread.

The devil was saying: At your baptism, it was one quick sentence. Did God really say that? Wasn’t it maybe just a rumble of thunder? If God is pleased with you, why are you out here all alone and hungry? Can you really believe what you heard?

This temptation to doubt God’s word is the very first way in which Satan assaulted human beings:

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1, ESV)

This temptation comes in many flavors, but underneath it is one of the most common attacks of the devil: casting doubt on what God has revealed through his Word.

  • How can God actually love you? You know you aren’t loveable, so what it says in the Bible about God loving you can’t really be true, can it?
  • Does God really forgive your sins? Isn’t that too easy? You can’t really trust what the Bible says about this, can you?
  • It’s not really a sin to get drunk is it – does the Bible really say that?
  • Did God really say you should save sex for marriage?

And so on. There is a place for honest questions. It is normal to want to understand where the Bible – God’s Word – comes from, and why we should trust it. If you have those honest questions, please contact me about a sermon series on that subject. Also, feel free to check out my book: Who Cares About the Bible?

However, this temptation of Satan is not about asking honest questions. At the heart of it is a desire to doubt, a desire to believe that the Bible is not trustworthy. There may be a lurking bitterness, almost an eagerness to say: “See! I told you that you couldn’t trust God to be good, told you that you couldn’t trust what God says!”

So the first part of the trial/test/temptation is to doubt God’s word. The second part is this: because you doubt God’s word, you really should take matters into your own hands. So, in the case of Jesus, first the devil casts doubt on what God clearly said to Jesus. Then, he says, “Since you can’t trust God, you better take care of yourself. Don’t wait for God to provide for you, don’t wait for God to show the world who you are – make your own bread. Prove to yourself and to the world that you are God’s son, and satisfy your hunger the same time.”

The devil offers a “solution” for both problems. First, if Jesus were to turn the stones into bread, it would prove that he is indeed God’s son. Second, it would provide what Jesus needs (food) since (according to the devil) God won’t provide it.

Again, remember that Jesus was voluntarily limiting himself to the resources of only his human nature. The devil was trying to get him to stop living in that human dependence on the Father, and instead tap into his own divine nature, his God-nature. If Jesus had done that, he could not have been the perfect sacrifice for human sin. It would have undone the whole reason he was here on earth.

If all of that sounds really tricky and nasty, you are getting the idea. The devil’s tempting can be deep and complex, and he doesn’t play fair.

Jesus’ reply to the devil destroys both lines of temptation. He says: “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.” Let’s unpack this. Remember, the devil is trying to get Jesus to doubt what God says. Jesus responds with “It is written.” In other words, he is reaffirming his trust in God’s Word. It’s almost like he is saying: “You want to talk about what God said? I can do that: What God said is written down.”

The second part of what Jesus said – that is, the scripture he quotes – is also a deadly response to the devil: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Actually, Luke gives us the shortened version. Matthew adds the next phrase. I think it is useful for us to see the specific passage from Deuteronomy that Jesus is quoting, because both Jesus and the devil knew it well:

3 He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then He gave you manna to eat, which you and your fathers had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:3, HCSB)

Jesus is reaffirming his dependence on God. As we saw in the message about fasting, this is the essence of fasting: to recognize our dependence on God, to recognize that we actually need God even more than we need food. More specifically, the scripture quoted by Jesus says that we need the Word of God even more than we need food. So, he is telling the devil: “Yes, God did say those things, and I believe him. In fact, I count the Word of God as more important than food. I am hungry because God is in control, and His Word says he wants me to wait patiently, learning that I can trust him not only for physical food, but for spiritual food, His Word.”

This is a massive reaffirmation of Jesus’ trust in the Father, and of his intention to live, like all human beings, in dependence on the Father.

Where are you tempted to doubt what God has said? Is it what the bible says about what is right or wrong? Or are you tempted to doubt God’s word about forgiveness and love?

In what ways are you tempted to satisfy your own needs apart from the provision of God? There are scripture passages that say everyone who is able should work and provide for their family, so it isn’t wrong to work to provide for your physical needs. But I think some people are tempted to trust in their own finances more than in God. Others are tempted to  satisfy their relational needs in ways that God says are sinful. Or, here’s one that I have struggled with: Like every human being, I have a legitimate physical need to eat. But I am often tempted to eat more than I need.

Whatever our temptations, and whatever our failures to pass the test, remember that Jesus faced the same temptations, and for our sake, he did pass every test. He accomplished what we could not, and he did it on our behalf. Because we cannot live perfect lives, Jesus did live a perfect life in our place. Now, we are released from having to meet that standard of perfection on our own. Instead, through faith, by God’s grace, we are judged not on our own performance, but the performance of Jesus.

1 Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21, GNT)

Let us remember that God has indeed told us these things, and let us cling to them, even when the devil tempts us to doubt what God has said. Let us remember, when we are tested, that God has already provided all we need. Once again, look at what God’s Word says:

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (Hebrews 4:15-16, NLT)

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you about all this, today.

LENT #3: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF BEING ALONE

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It is wise to stop and consider how you are living, and where your path is leading. It is God’s wisdom to take time apart from the rest of life, and allow Him to speak into your soul. Life is hardly worth living if we never even stop to think about who we are, what we are doing, what it means, and where it all leads. In today’s internet-driven world, the only way to “consider your way” is to get away. In fact, it is clear that Jesus thought that was true, even two-thousand years before the invention of the high-speed modem

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Lent Part 3

LENT #3: SOLITUDE

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil.

(Luke 4:1-2, ESV)

I want to remind you that we are not doing our normal verse-by-verse exposition of this Bible passage. Instead, this is a topical series, centered around the season of Lent, and using Luke 4:1-13 as a kind of jumping off point to consider various spiritual disciplines that go along with Lent, and also certain temptations. So, for instance, this time we will talk about solitude. I don’t mean to imply that the spiritual discipline of solitude is one of the main concerns of Luke 4:1-13 – though obviously, Jesus was alone for forty days, that isn’t the main point Luke is making. However, also obviously, Jesus was alone, and there are other Bible verses about solitude, and so we’ll use the event of Jesus’ solitude here as a starting point for thinking about the spiritual discipline of solitude.

I promise you, we will get to verses 3-13 before Lent is over! I didn’t actually plan it this way (I wish I was that smart) but this is turning out to be a sermon series about finding grace in unexpected ways. We’ve talked about the unforeseen grace of suffering. Last time, we considered the unanticipated grace of being hungry – where we talked about fasting.  Today we will look at one more surprising way to encounter God’s grace – through solitude.

So, as mentioned, Jesus spent forty days alone at the beginning of his ministry. Just in case we might say “well, it doesn’t explicitly say there was no one else there,” Mark gives us these details:

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

(Mark 1:12-13, ESV)

Being with the wild animals did not mean that he had a pack of friendly wolves keeping him warm at night. Prior to the middle of the 20th century, most humans around the globe considered wild beasts to be a huge threat to human life and flourishing. To readers in the first century, the mention of wild animals meant deadly danger and terror. To be with the wild animals meant that he was utterly alone with all the perils that exist apart from the help of other human beings. Mark mentions the angels that ministered to him, but Luke and Matthew record that the angels came only after his temptation was finished. Even if the angels were with him the whole time, believing there are unseen spirits sent by God to help you is not the same as having another human being there with you, someone whom you can see and hear and speak with.

I’ve mentioned this before, and it bears repeating. Part of why Jesus was able to be the perfect substitute for human beings on the cross is because during his time on earth, he limited himself to the confines of his human nature. God-the-Son joined his divine nature with human nature in the person of Jesus. And prior to his resurrection, Jesus did not use his divine nature. Instead, he depended upon the Father and the Spirit for all things, just like all humans must do. He could have used his divine power to protect himself, or to find strength during those forty days. However, he set aside that divine nature, not using it, instead living as all humans must live, in faith in God the Father and God the Spirit. Philippians chapter 2 makes this clear:

6 Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form,8 he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

(Philippians 2:6-8, NLT)

So Jesus committed himself to using only human resources. Jesus, limiting himself to his human nature during his time on earth, could not sense the angels any better than you or I. And, limited to human resources, he spent forty days alone.

This is not the only time Jesus sought solitude, by the way. Many times, throughout the gospels, it records Jesus going off alone to pray by himself.

35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37 and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” (Mark 1:35-37, ESV)

12 During those days he went out to the mountain to pray and spent all night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12, CSB)

5 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. (Luke 5:15-16, ESV)

18 And it happened, as He was alone praying, that His disciples joined Him, and He asked them, saying, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Luke 9:18, NKJV)

13 When Jesus heard about it, He withdrew from there by boat to a remote place to be alone. (Matthew 14:13, HCSB. [The “it” that Jesus heard about was the death of John the Baptist])

23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone (Matthew 14:23, ESV)

All of these are separate events, by the way. Clearly, even though many people wanted his presence all the time, Jesus made it a priority to spend significant time alone. He was not the only person in the Bible who did this, by the way. Jacob was alone in the wilderness when he had his vision (which we sometimes call “Jacob’s Ladder”). Jacob was again alone when he wrestled with the angel of the Lord. Moses spent roughly a third of his life in a desolate wilderness. He was not alone all the time, but as a shepherd, he probably spent significant time by himself (Exodus 3:1).

David spent a great deal of time alone in the wilderness, when he was a shepherd. In fact, anyone who was a shepherd in ancient times spent many days at a time apart from other human beings, so we have to add the prophet Amos to the list of people who often spent time alone. The prophet Elijah spent a long time alone, at least two different times. So did John the Baptist, prior to Jesus.

Jesus himself invited the disciples to spend time apart from others, with just him:

30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

(Mark 6:30-32, ESV)

We know that very early on in the history of Christianity, many were practicing the spiritual discipline of solitude. Some people took it too far, and withdrew from all community, but that is not what Jesus modeled. It is clear from the Bible that all Christians need to be firmly rooted in Christian community. But there is also need for each of us to be connected to Jesus ourselves, on our own, not only through others.

Like many things in the Christian life, there is a balance here. I have preached before about the importance of Christian community. Let’s not forget there is also an importance to spending time alone with God, with no one else around.

I will freely admit that solitude is the easiest of the spiritual disciplines for me. I crave time alone, and I look forward to it. I have had to learn, and to discipline myself, to be deeply connected to Christian community, to be involved in the lives of others. So, in the same way, perhaps being connected to others is easy for you, but you might need to learn, and discipline yourself, to spend time in solitude with God. Jesus certainly showed us that is important, and, as with fasting, Christians throughout the past two thousand years have practiced the spiritual discipline of solitude.

Some of you may have engaged in this before, but I want to make sure to help everyone understands solitude, even if you are a “beginner,” so I’ll start with the basics.

If you are a real “people person,” or if you are a parent of young children, you may need to start with just a few hours alone – say, half a day. If you are struggling with depression, it may not be the best time to start practicing the discipline of solitude – although, there is a possibility it could help. Use caution and good judgment if you are depressed.

It is best if you can do it someplace other than your home, so you aren’t distracted by things you could be doing, but sometimes you may not have an option. If you have a greater tolerance for being alone, you should maybe consider camping remotely, or renting a cabin that is physically distant from your home, and spending a night, and then a whole day, alone with God. My typical times of solitude for the past twenty-five years have been three or four nights, and thus two or three entire days alone, though I have spent as much as eight days alone in a cabin two miles from the nearest (dirt) road. I try to get at least a couple days alone at least once a year, though I prefer twice.

The intention of solitude is to spend time together with God apart from time with anyone else, apart from things that distract you from the presence of God. There are some practical implications here. During your time of solitude you should plan to be out of touch with people and the world – no phone, no texting, no social media or internet. Don’t use the time to catch up on work – this is time for you and God.

What you actually do, or don’t do, during the time, depends in part on how much time you have, and on what helps you connect with the presence of God. If you are spending only a couple of hours, I would suggest maybe reading a chapter of the Bible, then doing a short devotional reading, and then spending time sitting in silence, in conscious recognition of God’s presence. After that, maybe you could walk, and pray out loud to God with no one else around.

When I take two or three days of solitude, I usually bring along one or more Christian books. Sometimes I have a particular thing I might want to hash over with God during the time, so I’ll bring a book specifically about that topic. I’ll read more slowly than usual, and often pause, and – this may sound weird – talk with God about what I’m reading. For a time of two or three days I usually also take along a couple fiction books. This is because when I have that much time, I spend it not only consciously doing “spiritual things,” but also relaxing in God’s presence through reading, hiking, and fishing. For me, reading is not a distraction, but an engagement with God. When Kari and I go away together, we don’t spend every second staring into one-another’s eyes. Sometimes we are both reading something in the same room. The fact that we are reading does not altar the fact that we are also together. So, when I have a good amount of solitude time (two days, or more) I do have periods that are less directly focused on God, and yet the entire time is imbued with an awareness that it is just God and me, together.

Sometimes in solitude, I have long periods of silence. But I also listen to music at times, because that often opens a spiritual window to God in my heart. The main idea is to have a block of time that is dedicated to spending with God. The way you spend that time might vary, but the  most important thing is to set aside anything that distracts you from God’s presence: phone, internet, other people, and so on.

You may sometimes get together with a good friend, or go away with your spouse. When you do that, you might turn off your phones, and use the time to focus on that relationship. That’s exactly what you are doing with times of intentional solitude.

The practice of solitude does require some adjustment, however. The first couple hours of being alone, you are very likely to feel like you are wasting time, and to think that what you are doing is silly and pointless. You’ll end up thinking about stuff you should do, and people you need to talk to. You won’t feel like it is spiritually productive at all. This is normal. It is part of the process of solitude. If you simply allow these feelings to happen, and continue to be alone with God, eventually, all the stuff going through your head will begin to quiet down. You will begin to settle in to a quiet refreshing place with the presence of God.

Many people feel lonely during times of solitude. This too, is normal, and actually can be very helpful for your spiritual life. We cram our lives so full of people, activities and things, that we seldom stop to simply recognize our own selves, and the presence of God. Intentional loneliness helps us to slow down, and see our need for God, our dependence upon him. It gives us perspective that is almost impossible to get otherwise in this insanely busy modern world.

When you are constantly in touch with everyone you know, constantly connected to news, and social events, and even to the random thoughts of acquaintances you haven’t seen for years, it wears out your soul. The human soul was made for connection with other humans. But it was also made for connection with God, and sometimes, in order to have that, we desperately need to be alone with God, without other distractions.

If you are never alone with just yourself and God, you will never really know the state of your own heart and soul. Socrates is famous for saying these words: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But even before he said that, Solomon, the wisest man in the world, said something very much like it:

8 The sensible person’s wisdom is to consider his way,
but the stupidity of fools deceives them.

(Proverbs 14:8, CSB)

In other words, it is wise to stop and consider how you are living, and where your path is leading. It is God’s wisdom to take time apart from the rest of life, and allow God to speak into your soul. Life is hardly worth living if we never even stop to think about who we are, what we are doing, what it means, and where it all leads. In today’s internet-driven world, the only way to “consider your way” is to get away. In fact, it is clear that Jesus thought that was true, even two-thousand years before the invention of the high-speed modem. David, Solomon’s father, wrote this:

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my concerns.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me;
lead me in the everlasting way.

(Psalms 139:23-24, HCSB)

He understood the importance of time alone with God, time for God to use your own mind to dig into your soul and bring up things that need to be addressed. Elsewhere, he wrote this:

9 Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you.

(Psalms 32:9, ESV)

When we never separate from the world and take time alone with God, we are being like a mule. We are not letting God guide us, or address things in our lives that need addressing. As scary as it may be sometimes, we need to stop and find out what is in our souls. We don’t have to be afraid, because God is with us as we do that.

Jesus went into the loneliness of exile from Heaven on our behalf. For what felt to him on earth like an entire lifetime, he was apart from the light and joy and fellowship that was normally his in Heaven. His going apart, his separation from the fellowship of heaven, accomplished the most wonderful thing possible for us – our salvation.

God does not ask us to separate from himself. But at times, it may be vitally necessary for us to have time set apart to allow Him to draw us closer.

Please listen to this song, written and recorded by my wife, Kari. It might be another way of encouraging you to find value in time alone with God.

To listen to the song, click the play button:

LENT #2: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF HUNGER

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The essence of fasting is embracing our weakness, and our need of God. It leads us to a place where we are more deeply connected to our need for Him, where we are joyfully humbled by our utter dependence upon Him. It doesn’t hurt our prayer life, either.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Lent 2

LENT #2. FASTING. LUKE 4;1-2

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. (Luke 4:1-2, ESV)

Last time we talked about how God often leads those with whom he is pleased into difficult things. This is not because God is mean, or perverse, but rather, because he knows more than us, and sometimes suffering brings us tremendous blessings. Some of the blessings we receive through suffering may not be fully realized until we stand with Jesus in our new, resurrected bodies:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV)

This time I want to look at the spiritual discipline that we call “fasting.” As we see from our text in Luke, Jesus went without food during a period of forty days. I used the ESV translation above because it captures the Greek quite well: “And he ate nothing during those days.” This could mean that Jesus had nothing to eat, whatsoever, for forty entire days – in other words, for 960 hours. It could also mean that for forty days, Jesus had nothing to eat while it was daylight. The Greek would support either meaning. If you pushed me, I would say that I think Jesus ate one simple meal each day, after dark for forty days. Again, however, it could mean that he had no food whatsoever during all that time. I also want to point out that it says nothing about drinking, and since the human body cannot survive longer than about three days without liquid, I’m quite sure that Jesus at least had water to drink during this time.

This practice of deliberately going without food for a period of time is called fasting. The English word “breakfast” simply means to break (that is, end) the fast of the night-time hours. Protestant Christians are often both confused, and somewhat ignorant about fasting. One of the things most Christians do know is that fasting from food is not a necessary part of following Jesus. I quoted this same passage last time:

16 So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. 17 For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. 18 Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, 19 and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.
20 You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, 21 “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? 22 Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. 23 These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.

(Colossians 2:16-23, NLT)

Fasting certainly falls into the category of food and drink, and also practices of pious self-denial. Paul’s point  in the Colossians passage is not that you should never have a special holy day, or that you should never fast, but rather that you should not allow anyone to condemn you for what you do, or don’t do, with regard to such things. Fasting, merely for the sake of fasting, accomplishes nothing. Fasting will not make you more holy. If done with the wrong attitude, it will not help you fight temptation. Jesus himself condemned the way some people practiced fasting:

16 “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. 17 But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. 18 Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18, NLT.

When we use fasting as an opportunity to show off spiritually, we have made it almost useless. When we make fasting into a rule that we have to follow, we destroy its value.

However – and this is a big however – since at least the time of Moses (that is, for more than three thousand years) followers of God have engaged in fasting. You can find followers of God fasting in almost every Old Testament book. Jesus fasted, obviously, on more than one occasion. His disciples fasted, after Jesus was crucified and raised. In the two-thousand years since then, millions of Christians have engaged in this spiritual discipline, some quite regularly. In short, fasting, done the right way, can be very beneficial in our relationship with God.

I’m going to talk about my own fasting experience. Please understand something however: I am not trying to give you the impression that I fast twice a week for years on end, or anything remotely like that. I believe I have done it often enough to help me teach about fasting, but I’m quite sure I would benefit from fasting a lot more often than I actually do it. Perhaps this message is also for my own sake, to become more regular with it.

Usually, I plan ahead of time the sorts of things I want to bring up with God during a fast. Maybe I’m feeling burdened for a particular person or issue. Maybe I want to be closer to God. Perhaps I want God to address something in my life that I am having a difficult time dealing with. Sometimes I write down my “fasting concerns” in a notebook. Sometimes I don’t.

The normal Biblical model of fasting is going without food for a set period of time. As I mentioned before, sometimes that means not eating while the sun is up for one day, or many (and not “making up” for your missed meals by gorging in the evenings). Sometimes fasting might mean going without food for a set number of hours. I would say that to get any benefit from it, you ought to go without food long enough to develop hunger pangs for a period of time. When the hunger pangs come, you can use them in at least two ways.

First, every time you feel hungry, use that as a reminder that there is something special going on between you and God today. Let the hunger pangs remind you to pray. Briefly pause what you are doing, and pray for the concerns that you want to address in your fasting. You might then continue working, and continue praying as you work, if possible. As you pray, use the hunger. You might think or pray something like this: “Lord, I am hungry, but I want your intervention in these things even more than I want to eat.” Let your hunger become an appeal to God. Present your hunger to God as a prayer.

Second, when you feel hunger (and perhaps weakness along with the hunger) use that feeling to maximize your dependence on God in general. I might think something like this: “Oh wow, I feel weak and hungry right now. God, as much as I feel like I need food right now, I need you, even more. As much as I desire to eat, I have an even greater desire for you, and for your work in my life. I confess to you that I need you even more than I need to eat.” Embrace the weakness you feel. Embrace the desire for food (without satisfying it), and let God turn them into dependence upon Him, and desire for Him.

If you haven’t fasted before, some of what I’m describing might make more sense to you after you have tried it.

Many people have adapted “fasting” to include things like abstaining from only certain kinds of food (like not eating sugar, or red meat). Or, abstaining from watching television, or from watching sports, or playing video games. Some people might even say it like this:

“I’m giving up _________ for lent.”

Myself, every year, I give up football for lent (to my overseas listeners, this is a joke: there is no American football during that time of year).

These are admirable ideas, but to really engage the power of Biblical fasting, I think it needs to be something that provides constant reminders throughout the fast (like hunger pangs), and something that makes you aware of your weakness, and your absolute need for God. You need to abstain from something in such a way that the fasting continually leads you into dependence upon God, into prioritizing him above all else. To be honest, I’m not sure that abstaining from video games or sugar would do that. One thing I can think of that might be comparable to not eating is ceasing smoking. From what I understand, if you are a smoker, and you quit, you will have constant cravings, and you will be reminded of your weakness and need for God. Along those lines, the apostle Paul says it is OK for married couples to fast from sex for a short period of time, as long as they both agree to it (Note: he doesn’t command it!). He does command couples to not take that particular kind of fasting too far. My own struggle with pain has sometimes provided the same sort of experience as fasting: The pain becomes a reminder that is felt by only me. I feel a deep need for God, and I use the pain almost as a prayer.

In spite of these few exceptions, I wonder if it is significant that in scripture, the only kind of fasting it really talks about is fasting from food. One of my concerns about other types of things that are called “fasting” these days, is that they sort of emphasize our own will power and achievement, without emphasizing our weakness and dependence on God. If I “fast” from watching TV, I might be tempted to become proud of my self-discipline, proud of doing something that feels righteous. When I fast from food, I feel too weak, too needy, to become proud. Not only that, but if I fast from sugar, or TV, or video games, basically, I am just becoming a healthier person. I’m not casting myself in dependence upon God, I’m working to make myself a better person. That’s a good thing, but it is definitely not the main spirit or intent behind the discipline of fasting.

I will add two very important things. First, it might be wise to check with a doctor before you fast. Particularly if you are diabetic, or have some other kind of health condition, you ought to make sure it is safe before you try it.

Second is this: If the fast is becoming a hindrance, rather than a help, just stop, and eat something. This doesn’t mean that fasting won’t ever work for you. It means that this particular fast, at this point in time, isn’t helpful, so let it go. A few times, I have fasted, and all I could think about was how hungry I felt. I wasn’t feeling dependence on God, and I wasn’t really praying any more, I was just obsessing about my desire to eat. I talked to the Lord about it, and I felt clear permission to go ahead and eat. At a later time, I fasted again, and that later fasting was very spiritually helpful. So, even if the first time you try it, it doesn’t go well, don’t give up. If you have a time when it doesn’t seem helpful, don’t write it off for the rest of your life.

A few practical thoughts. If you are new to fasting, I would suggest going without food from one evening meal until your next evening meal. In other words, eat the evening meal, and skip snacks for the first evening, and then fast from breakfast and lunch (and any snacks) the next day. Break your fast with the evening meal twenty-four hours after your last meal. This is not too terribly challenging. You should be able to get in a few hours of hunger pangs that way.

While you fast, please be sure to drink plenty of non-caloric fluids – water, black coffee or tea (though be careful with too much caffeine on an empty stomach!), or plain carbonated water. I don’t recommend diet drinks, because they can sometimes fool your body into thinking you’ve had something sweet, which can mess with your blood sugar, and actually make the fast more difficult. If you are really struggling, but you also really want to finish the fast, a cup of broth or bullion sometimes helps you feel better, and contains only a handful of calories.

If you have already done some fasting, and/or if you want to challenge yourself a bit, you could fast from after the evening meal of day 1, throughout all of day two, and then break your fast the morning of day 3. That would make basically a thirty-six hour fast.

People who fast for multiple days in a row are usually only fasting during daylight hours (in other words, they have one meal per day, in the evening). One other approach for multiple-day fasting is to drink broths, and diluted fruit juices throughout the fast. Please do be careful about multi-day fasting without any food at all. Do some research and prepare well before embarking on a long fast.

I also want to reiterate the advice of Jesus. Fast during a “normal,” day, going about your normal routine (apart from food). Don’t advertise the fact that you are fasting – the point of the fast is what is happening in your own relationship with God, and it doesn’t have to concern anyone else. If someone asks you why you aren’t eating, you don’t have to be paranoid about it – you can admit you are fasting without feeling proud or bad. On the other hand, if you start as I suggested, most people won’t even notice you skipping breakfast and lunch – the evening meal is the one you are most likely to share with others, so no one has to know that you’ve been abstaining all day long. Again, you don’t have to be all mysterious – if someone happens to ask why you aren’t eating, you can mention it. But try not to use fasting to make yourself look good in the opinion of yourself, or of others. That’s what Jesus warned about.

Sometimes, in the bible, a group of people would agree to fast together. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with other people in the group knowing that you are fasting along with them. There is no basis for anyone in the group to become proud, since everyone is doing the same fast. I will say this however: we should be very careful to not coerce anyone into fasting with us. I was once part of a group where two people basically shamed the rest of us into fasting with them. There was no clear purpose or goal for our fasting. It was more that they wanted us all to show what hard core Christians we were. Needless to say, that fast didn’t go very well for me. Don’t let yourself be forced into it, and don’t try to force others to join you, but it isn’t wrong to invite, without pressure, others to join you.

It makes sense to me that Jesus began his ministry work with this long fast. As we will see later, the things gained in fasting tended to counteract the temptations the devil gave Jesus. Fasting leads us to depend on God, not on ourselves, or the resources we might have. So, when the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus was already in a place of deep dependence on God.

Even though Jesus had a perfect union with the Father, he found it helpful to fast. Without making it a law, I would like to suggest that if even Jesus practiced fasting, we too, could find tremendous benefit in it. For now, at least let us remember that we need God more than anything, even food. Our need points us to God’s satisfaction of all needs: Jesus Christ. Rely on Him today!