This time we look at the history and setting surrounding the New Testament book of 1 Peter.
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 1 Peter Part 1
1 Peter #1. Introduction
We are starting a new series, today, on the first letter of Peter. I am not utterly against doing topical sermon series’, but I’d like to encourage you to think a little differently about that. As we look at First Peter, the text will introduce a number of different topics. When we do things like that, then I am not deciding which topics to preach about. Instead, the text of the Bible tells us which topics to consider. So, this is a topical series, in a sense. It is just that the bible itself will determine the topics.
Peter wrote only two letters that have survived. We will be looking at the first of these. I’ll take this opportunity to give a reminder about how the New Testament came to be. In addition to the New Testament, we have some of the writings of Christians who lived immediately after the time of the apostles, as well as writings of later Christians, down through the centuries. All of the books of the New Testament are mentioned, referenced and/or quoted from the time of the very earliest writings of Christians. So, for example, the first generation of Christians after the apostles mention 1 Peter, and quote from it. Of course, later generations do as well.
About two hundred and fifty years after the time of the apostles, when Christianity became legal in the Roman empire, a large body of leaders, representing most Christians in the world at that time, gathered together. Among other things, they compared notes about which writings were clearly from the apostles (or others who knew Jesus, like Luke and Mark). To be included in the “canon” (later called the Bible) a document had to have evidence that it was considered genuine since that first generation of Christians, as evidenced by early Christian writings. In addition, it had to be recognized by virtually all Christians in the world at that time as having been used by churches for the previous two-hundred and fifty years. So, if a book was only used, for example, in Alexandria, Egypt, but nowhere else in the world, it would not have been considered a true part of the New Testament. Or, if one group claimed a book was written by an apostle, but no other Christian traditions had a record of it, it was not included.
It is quite clear that very early on, all Christians were aware of 1 Peter, and considered it to be genuine, and were using it to encourage one another in following Jesus. In other words, it is a genuine part of the New Testament, as are all of the books in our modern Bibles.
As is true of many of the books of the New Testament, we have a very good idea of exactly when and where Peter wrote this letter. At the end of the letter, at 5:13, Peter writes:
13 She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. (1 Peter 5:13, ESV)
“Babylon,” is almost certainly a code-name for Rome. Well before the birth of Jesus, the literal Babylon in Mesopotamia was in ruins. The majority of those living within its ancient walls were goats and their herders. There is no evidence that Peter or Mark ever went there, and there would be no reason for them to do so, seeing as there were almost no people remaining there. However, in the Roman Empire, persecution was beginning to become more and more of a reality, as the words of this letter will show us. Probably less than a year after Peter wrote, the Emperor Nero instigated a vicious persecution against Christians in Rome, in which Peter himself was killed. I’m sure Peter could tell that things were getting more and more dangerous. If his letter was intercepted by the government, it would have been disastrous if he explicitly mentioned a Christian church in Rome. So, Peter uses the word “Babylon,” which Christians would have understood to mean “a great city that is opposed to the people of God;” or, in other words: Rome. “She, who is likewise chosen” means, of course, the church. So, to make it plain, Peter means: “The church in Rome sends you greetings.” In keeping with the dangerous times, he mentions only two personal names, Mark, and Silvanus. To name others would be too risky.
Mark is also known as John-Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, and sometime companion of Paul. Most scholars believe that he spent several years also with the apostle Peter. He wrote the gospel of Mark.
Mark would have been quite young when Jesus was crucified – possibly a teenager – but he was probably one of those in the larger group of Jesus’ followers; some people think he was the young man who ran away naked at the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:51-52). In any case, one of the house churches in Jerusalem met at his mother’s home (Acts 12:12), and he would have known Peter for most of his life. Much of Mark’s gospel is likely based upon the stories and teachings of Jesus that Mark learned from Peter.
I mention Mark, because his presence with Peter in Rome helps us set the date for 1 Peter. Mark was in Rome with Paul when Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon. If Peter had been there then, Paul surely would have mentioned it. So Peter cannot have been in Rome, nor written his letter before Paul wrote those letters, which would have been AD 62 at the latest. I would guess that Paul left Rome in 62, traveled in Asia minor, and then returned to Rome, probably at about the same time Peter arrived there, either late AD 63 or early in 64. After a brief reunion, Paul traveled on to Spain, while Peter stayed in Rome, along with Mark and Silvanus (also called Silas). Peter wrote his first letter after Paul left, or he, for his part, surely would have mentioned Paul’s presence with him. A few months later, Peter wrote his second letter.
In any case, we know that in July of 64, the city of Rome burned, and the emperor Nero used that as an excuse to start a horrifying persecution of Christians. He blamed Christians for the fire, and it is possible that he executed some Christians by burning them alive in his palace gardens as human torches. Whether or not that last is true, he most certainly sought to kill Christians and destroy the church. At some point during Nero’s persecution, Peter was found and executed. Tradition has it that he was crucified upside down, though I have my doubts about how that actually works. There is no doubt, however, that Peter perished in Nero’s persecution. Many people think that Paul returned to Rome during this time, and was also killed by Nero.
Peter addresses his letter to Christians in a number of different Roman provinces (Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia). All of these are found in modern-day Turkey, and cover the northern three-quarters of that country. Some commentators think that Peter was writing mainly to Jewish Christians, but the text of the letter makes it clear that he was writing to both Jewish and non-Jewish (Gentile) Christians. In fact, it is likely that the Gentile believers outnumbered the Jewish believers in those areas.
The Christians in those areas were living in uncertain times. Christianity was already getting noticed by the Roman authorities, and the emperor Nero was increasingly unfriendly to it. The rest of the empire took their cue from the emperor. Although the recipients of the letter were probably not persecuted as brutally as the church in Rome (until about thirty years later), it was clear that Christians were not welcome in the general culture of the world at the time. In addition, Peter was writing to people who were experiencing struggles and difficulties of all different types, including things that didn’t have much to do with persecution. In short, 1 Peter is a book written to Christians who were facing hard times. As such, I think its message is very encouraging to us today.
For the rest of this sermon I want you to read the entire book of 1 Peter in one sitting. It isn’t long. Or listen to it, as I read it on the recording above, here at clearbible.blog. I think it is often helpful to start a book by reading the whole thing at once, so we can see how one part flows into another. Without further ado, let’s do it.
Some people think that we live the Christian life with God’s help. They think, “Out of gratitude toward God, I should give glory to Him. So, I should pray, and ask him to help me.” But that isn’t really the Biblical picture of Walking by the Spirit. When we walk by the Spirit, we are trusting Jesus to live the life through us. We respond in faith to His Word (the bible) and promptings from within us. (When there is a conflict between the two, we follow the bible.) But we don’t do it on our own strength. We lean on Jesus, and trust him to show his glory in us and through us.
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 Living Crucified Part 10
Last time, we talked about the fact that God is in the business of showing his glory to the world. That is, he is manifesting his goodness, love, peace, joy, beauty, truth, justice, grace, creativity, and so on, to the universe. Since that is his business, when we belong to him, he uses us (among other things) to show his glory. This time I want us to get a bit more practical about how, exactly, God shows his glory through us, and what we can do to either hinder it, or help it. What we are aiming for is what Paul expressed so well:
20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, ESV)
So let’s begin there. A lot of people make the mistake of believing that God saves us by his grace, and then we are supposed to make a giant effort to live good lives out of gratitude toward him. But that is not the case at all.
God saves us by his grace, and then he goes on to show his glory through us. It is God’s work from beginning to end, not ours. Paul did not say: “I have been crucified with Christ, and now I live for God’s glory.” No. He said “now Christ lives in me.” Christ is in us, showing the glory of God. Paul said the same thing to the Colossians:
27 God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 We proclaim Him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 I labor for this, striving with His strength that works powerfully in me. (Colossians 1:27-29, HCSB)
We do not show God’s glory, not even with his help. Instead, it is Christ who shows God’s glory. He does this through us, yes, but it does not come about by our own efforts. Look at what Paul wrote above. Part of the way Christ showed his glory through Paul was through Paul’s teaching and preaching. Paul says he’s been laboring at that, “striving with His strength that works powerfully within me.” In a sense, Paul was working at it. But even as he did what God told him to do, it was Christ who did the work through him. It was God’s strength at work within Paul.
Jesus explained it this way:
4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5, ESV)
Our part is to hang on to Jesus – to lean upon him in faith. Apart from him, we can do how much? Exactly nothing. It is Jesus who does the work through us.
So, what exactly, does this look like?
I am trying to lean on Jesus, and let him do the work as I prepare this message. I’ve been praying a bit like this: “Lord, I have no confidence in my own ability to communicate this stuff well. Please show your glory through what I say and write. Do this through me. Here is my mind, use it. Here are my fingers, on the keyboard, use them. Here’s my voice; use it.”
Not long after the verse where Paul talks about being crucified with Christ, and living his life by faith, he writes this:
16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. (Galatians 5:16-25, ESV)
This business of walking by the Spirit is the same things “living crucified.” We rely upon God within us (and he is within us through the Holy Spirit) as we go about our lives. Now does this mean we just do whatever comes to us, even if it is sinful? No. Paul says the works of the flesh are obvious (he lists some of them in Galatians 5:17-21 above). The scripture gives us clear guidelines, to show us when we are using God’s grace as an excuse to sin, and therefore no longer bringing glory to God.
Here’s another concrete example of it: One time we had a lady who started coming to a house church. She had been raised in a Christian home, but as far as we could tell, she didn’t have a living faith. She lived with her boyfriend and thought nothing was wrong with that. One night she wanted prayer to receive the Holy Spirit. I thought that was jumping the gun a little bit, since she didn’t really know Jesus. But we prayed. When we were done she said, “when you prayed for me, I really did get the Holy Spirit.” I didn’t think so, but I didn’t want to burst her bubble, so I didn’t say anything.
The next day she called me. “I just told my boyfriend he had to move out,” she said. “I have the Holy Spirit now, and the Holy Spirit doesn’t want to live like that.” She had some semi-pornographic “art” in her apartment that she threw out. She said, “The Holy Spirit doesn’t want to look at those things.” She told me some other changes she was making in her life. I was floored. She really did have the Spirit, and she was absolutely “walking by the Spirit.”
Once she was surrendered to Jesus, once he lived in her through the Spirit, I did not have to tell her it was wrong to live with her boyfriend. I didn’t have to tell her that the pictures were inappropriate – the Spirit showed her.
Now I am not saying there is no use in knowing what the Bible says. The Spirit works through the Word to guide, correct and teach us. As time went on, we provided this woman with extensive teaching and mentoring. But the changes in her life were brought about not by other Christians giving her rules to follow, nor by her making a tremendous effort, but rather Jesus living his life through her. Her main work was simply to trust Jesus and respond to him as he led her.
I could tell you more true stories but my hope is that if you are a believer, you will see for yourself that Jesus will live his life through you if you let him. And this is why we don’t need to focus on whether or not we are sinning. If we are focused on Jesus and if we respond to him as he teaches us and leads us, we are not going to sin very often. You see, if Jesus is the one living your life, Jesus isn’t going to want to sin. Jesus is going to tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey. Come on. You know that’s not what I want to do through your life. This is supposed to be My life, as well as yours. Let’s not do that.” And when he does, we need to respond in faith, and say, “OK, Lord, what do you want to do.”
It’s only when we stop believing it, and stop responding in faith to Jesus that we get into trouble. We get into trouble when WE try to live our OWN lives. Even when we are trying to live our lives in a holy way, if we are doing it on our own, we tend to get into trouble. It is not that God tells us what to do, and then we do it. It is that he leads us, and we simply need to get out of the way and let him do it.
Obviously responding to Jesus does involve us in doing things, in action. We are not supposed to sit on the couch and say, “Come on Jesus! Aren’t you going to move my feet?” The point is that what we do should be the result of us responding to Jesus.
I once had a neighbor who became a Christian. She had been a Wiccan, and when she came to Jesus, she felt that she should burn her books of witchcraft/Wicca. That is, Jesus, living in her, wanted to burn the Wiccan books. My neighbor only had to say, “OK. Since you want to do that, I’ll go get the books, some kerosene and a lighter.” Jesus living in the other woman did not want to have an illicit relationship with her boyfriend. She didn’t say, “Well then, stop me!” Instead, she let him use her mouth to tell her boyfriend to move out. It was her body. She had to open her mouth and say the words. But it was the life of Jesus through her that made it all happen. By the way, her boyfriend became a Christian a few months later, and a year or so after that they were married. They are married today, actively leading in their church and doing missions trips every year.
Here’s a less dramatic, every-day kind of example of living for the glory of God. I am writing this on a day when we normally have an in-person house-church meeting. However, a few days ago, Kari and I spent a fair amount of time with someone who just got sick with Covid-19. We feel fine. Most (but not all) of the people in our house church have been vaccinated, but so was our friend who just got the virus. We texted with the rest of the church, and no one seemed quite sure whether we should meet today in person, or not. I prayed for guidance, but heard no booming voice from the sky. Instead, after praying, I went with my best guess at wisdom, which was that we should meet by Zoom tonight. I trust that Jesus can get through to me, if it is important enough. So I trust he was causing me to make the right decision. Even if I got it wrong, I trust him to work it all out for his own glory. It all felt very ordinary. So you see, trusting is important. We trust that he will get through to us, and when we don’t get any clear guidance (guidance that we know for sure is God) we trust that he has heard our prayer is and is leading us even when we don’t realize it.
We do have some guard rails in this process. He isn’t going to lead us down the path of the flesh. So if we come up with an answer that leads to sin, or to a work of the flesh, we can know that it is wrong. So it isn’t just that anything we feel like doing is automatically the right thing. The bible is very clear about the kinds of thing that we should not do, as we seek to let Jesus live through us. So, if we realize that what we feel like doing is actually wrong according to the Bible, we pray again, and seek an answer that truly brings glory to God.
That ordinary, slightly ambiguous story about deciding whether or not to do church in person is a fairly good example of what faith often looks like in everyday life. It isn’t dramatic. Nothing particularly amazing happened specifically because we met by Zoom. But if we walk by the Spirit, by faith, consistently, God will ensure that his glory shines through us.
He will do it because it is His desire. It isn’t something he’s left us to do on our own. Some of you were with us when we studied the book: Joining Jesus on His Mission. One of the things the author said about doing evangelism, is that Jesus has already set it up for us. It’s like driving a car. We don’t have to know how the engine works, or how the electrical system functions. All we have to do is turn the key and drive. This is true not just of evangelism, but of the whole Christian life. God has already set it up for us. All we have to do is get in – in the passenger seat – and let him drive us.
Now, I want to be clear. We aren’t living for Jesus. We are letting Jesus live through us. The first one still relies on our own flesh-based efforts – we have worthy goals that we are accomplishing (or not) by our own effort. The second one is about completely relying on Jesus to do it. We have to give him our response – we have to say yes to Him and let him use our arms and legs and words, but we recognize at the same time that it is His Life flowing through our unique body and personality.
Jesus lived this way in his own relationship with the Father, while he was on earth. He said:
“If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.” (John 14:7, HCSB)
The one who has seen Me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)
Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me? The words I speak to you I do not speak on My own. The Father who lives in Me does His works. (John 14:10 HCSB)
In this same passage, Jesus himself gives us a clue that he will live the life in us, just as the Father lived the life in him:
“I assure you: The one who believes in Me will also do the works that I do. (John 14:12)
We often think this means we will imitate what Jesus did. I think, in light of the rest of the New Testament, that it means Jesus will live his life through us.
1 Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus, 2 because the Spirit’s law of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 What the law could not do since it was limited by the flesh, God did. He condemned sin in the flesh by sending His own Son in flesh like ours under sin’s domain, and as a sin offering, 4 in order that the law’s requirement would be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh think about the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, about the things of the Spirit. 6 For the mind-set of the flesh is death, but the mind-set of the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind-set of the flesh is hostile to God because it does not submit itself to God’s law, for it is unable to do so. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:1-8, HCSB)
So, we set our minds on things of the Spirit, not on things of the flesh. Either Jesus will do it, as you set your mind on him, and allow him to direct you, or you are on your own. Letting Jesus live through you calls for faith that he will indeed do it. Remember, we act as we believe.
So maybe you are in a situation where God is calling you to speak and act in love toward another person. You don’t feel very loving. Maybe some people wouldn’t even pray. They’d just grit their teeth and try to be loving. Maybe others would pray something like this: “Lord, give me the strength to love this person right now.” But that isn’t exactly right either. That means we are still living the life ourselves, even if it is with God’s help. I think our attitude should be more like this: “Lord, I don’t feel loving. I can’t love this person right now. You do the loving through me. I am willing for you to do that. I make myself available to you for that.” And then we trust Him to come through.
Maybe you need to forgive someone for something they have done to you. This is often one of the hardest things to do and let go of. Many times, we try to do it on our own strength. Sometimes, we begin to get a glimmer of a clue, and we say, “Lord help me to forgive them.” Again, the focus of that prayer is still myself and my own performance.
Remember what Jesus prayed for those who crucified him: “Father forgive them…” We often think of this as Jesus asking the Father for forgiveness on our behalf. And perhaps that is what it was. But what if it was the human-nature of Jesus, who was dependent on the Father to live his life through him, asking the Father to do through him what he, the human-nature of Jesus, could not do on his own? Given the verses in John above, that is a real possibility – this was Jesus, praying in dependence that the Father would continue to work through him and speak through him even in this extreme and terrible situation.
And so we can say, “Jesus, I feel bitter toward this person. I can’t forgive him myself. Even so, I give you permission to forgive through me right now. Lord forgive him – through me.”
Do you see how this could change everything? Our performance could never, will never, achieve our salvation. Jesus did that on our behalf. But our own performance will also never, ever, be enough to live the Christian life either. Just think of it: It is the CHRISTian life. It is his life. He is the one who will live it. Our part is to allow him to; to respond when he speaks through the bible or in our hearts; to let him have our arms and legs and mouth and thoughts and the rest of us, so that he can live our life. This is why Paul puts it like this:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:1-2, ESV)
We are to present our bodies to Jesus, so that he can use us. We are to let him renew our mind, to transform us from the inside out so that we can hear and respond to Him living his life through us. As a practical exercise, you might consider praying the verse above (Romans 12:1-2). Something like: “Lord, I give you my whole self as yours, so that you can be at work in my spirit. Let me conformed to your word. Transform me, renew my mind, for your glory.” Or we might pray John 15:4-5 (quoted earlier): “Lord keep me abiding in you. Bear your fruit through me today.”
When we are surrendered to him such that he lives through us, we will be more filled with joy and peace and fruit of the spirit, because when we do this, we are fulfilling the purpose for which we were born.
Our identity, our place of citizenship, and our rights and privileges are determined not by how we act, not by how we feel, but by our birth. The scripture tells us that when we receive Jesus, we have been born again, as citizens of the Kingdom of God. This is true even when don’t feel like it, and even when we don’t act like it.
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 Living Crucified Part 8
LIVING CRUCIFIED #8: BORN AGAIN
Galatians 3:2-5; John 3:3-6; 1 Peter 1:3; 2 Corinthians 5:16-21; Romans 8:28-39
You might want to listen to this one, even if you normally just read. I preached this in an Australian accent to make a point; to illustrate the sermon. It could be entertaining. On the other hand, it could be excruciating.
This series is called “Living Crucified.” I am trying to flesh out something Paul wrote to the Galatians:
20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, ESV)
You see, many Christians get the basic message of salvation, but they are confused about how to live the Christian life. We understand that our actions are of no value in getting salvation for ourselves. Salvation is a free a gift of God, and it cannot be earned through good deeds (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is appropriated through faith. In other words, we get it when we believe that we need it, and that God has really done this for us. God did it all for us. Now, (we think, wrongly) it is up to us to live as good followers of Jesus, out of thankfulness to God. Classic devotional writer Andrew Murray puts it like this:
“The idea they have of grace is this – that their conversion and pardon are God's work, but that now, in gratitude to God, it is their work to live as Christians, and follow Jesus. There is always the thought of a work to be done, and even though they pray for help, still the work is theirs. They fail continually, and become hopeless; and the despondency only increases the helplessness.” (Abide in Christ)
We tend of think of it like this: ultimate failure, and the power of death and hell, are defeated through Jesus. Now, once we trust in Jesus we can play the game “safely” so to speak. So we can try and fail and try and fail as much as we need to, without being in danger of going to hell. But does that really sound like “good news?” We are “free” to pursue a cycle of failure? Andrew Murray adds this:
“Dear souls! How little they know that the abiding in Christ is just meant for the weak, and so beautifully suited to their feebleness. It is not the doing of some great thing, and does not demand that we first lead a very holy and devoted life. No, it is simply weakness entrusting itself to a Mighty One to be kept – the unfaithful one casting self on One who is altogether trustworthy and true. Abiding in him [living the Christian life] is not a work that we have to do as the condition for enjoying his salvation, but a consenting to let Him do all for us, and in us, and through us. It is a work he does for us – the fruit and the power of His redeeming love. Our part is simply to yield, to trust and to wait for what He has engaged to perform.” (Abide in Christ).
In this series, I am trying to explain this in several different ways. So, we’ve learned to put what God says after the “but…” – to agree with Him, and to let our dominant reality be determined by God’s Word and God’s actions. We’ve learned to draw life from the Spirit, not from our outward circumstances – not even the good ones. We’ve learned that when we are in Christ, our old self has been crucified, and we are dead to sin, and to the law. We’ve begun to learn how to fight the ongoing temptations that would try remove us from all these truths we’ve been talking about.
Perhaps some of you may have been trying to put some of this into practice recently. Maybe you’ve been facing temptation and saying, “I’m dead to sin, I don’t want to do that anymore,” but it hasn’t always worked for you. Maybe you’ve been trying to believe desperately, who you really are in Christ, but you still have doubts. And because you don’t fully believe, your actions still don’t look like someone who is dead to sin. If sin is still a struggle, I want to preach the good news to you again today. We’ve discussed why and how it can be problem. We’ve talked about how to fight it. But remember, we are dead to it. Now I want to start talking about our new life. We died to sin, but what are we alive to?
This is important because we are often deceived into thinking that our actions determine who we are. If we act sinful, we think we are fundamentally sinners. If we act righteous, we feel good about ourselves and we think we are, by our own efforts, incorporating the righteousness of Christ into our lives. It is to people acting like this that Paul writes:
I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? Did you suffer so much for nothing — if in fact it was for nothing? So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? (Gal 3:2-5, HCSB)
No. We didn’t become Christians by behaving rightly, but trusting ourselves entirely to Jesus. That is exactly how we should continue. You see, your actions do not determine who you are. Instead, your identity is determined by your birth. I was born in the United States of America. But when I was very young, my family went overseas to be missionaries. The majority of my childhood was spent in other countries.
Taim mi stap liklik pikini, mama, na papa, na susa, na mi save silip sampela taim ‘lo’ ol ples. Na taim mipela stap ‘lo’ ples, mipela save tok Tok Pisin tasol; i no gat Inglis. Tasol, mipela i no kamap manmeri b’long PNG, bilong wanem, mipela tok long Tok Pisin. Nogat. Mipela stap manmeri b’lo’ Amerika yet.
I spoke above in a language of Papua New Guinea to illustrate a point. Let me explain the point I was making in that language. Sometimes, we would live in small, remote villages, and when we did, we spoke that language – called Tok Pisin. But the fact that we spoke the language and lived in the village did not make us citizens of Papua New Guinea. Though we were not behaving like most Americans, we did not, for that reason, cease to be Americans.
By the time I was sixteen I did not sound like an American, even when I spoke English. I actually had an Australian accent, since when people there spoke English, that’s how it sounded. I didn’t really know American culture. My first few years in the US, I didn’t get most of the jokes and wise-cracks, because humor is one of the most culture-specific things there is. I didn’t dress in American fashion.
My memories were not of America. In fact my memories and experiences were in a place that was radically different in very fundamental ways from the United States. In short, America had a very limited role in shaping my thoughts, actions, personality, memory or experience. I did not feel like an American at all.
For that reason, did I cease to be an American? Not at all. My citizenship was determined by the country I was born into – not by my feelings, not even by actions. The key was my birth.
Even though I didn’t feel American, I recognized that America offered me more opportunity than anywhere else in the world. I saw my citizenship here as a gift that I could use. I believed what my parents told me, that I was an American citizen. I believed my American passport was valid. You might say, I believed the words that were written about me, and also those that were spoken to me by people I trusted. So I came to America, and now, because I believed that my birth determined my citizenship, I have received many benefits from being American.
Spiritually speaking we need to recognize that it is our birth, not our actions, which determines our identity.
Remember, action follows belief. And Romans chapter ten tells us that the kind of belief we need for this comes from hearing the word of God. We need to trust what has been written about us, and what has been told to us. So I am going to dwell on some more truth from God’s Word today. If we have trusted in Jesus, the bible is very clear about our birth:
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. (John 3:3-6)
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, (1Pet 1:3, ESV)
Since you have been born again — not of perishable seed but of imperishable — through the living and enduring word of God. (1Pet 1:23, HCSB)
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Messiah has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father also loves the one born of Him. (1John 5:1, HCSB)
For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, (Eph 2:18-19, ESV)
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, (Phil 3:20, ESV)
We have been crucified with Christ. The old has gone. The new you has been born into a new life. We have been born citizens of heaven, members of God’s household. Regardless of what we know about heaven, regardless of how we sometimes act like we are from someplace else, Heaven is the place of our citizenship. Our birth certificate proclaims it, our passport affirms it. All of the resources of heaven are ours.
Now, one of the problems is that sometimes we don’t know our own birth rights. We are like princes and princesses who have born to inherit a kingdom. But we were kidnapped as babies, and raised in poverty. Now, our Father, the king has found us and brought us back to the palace. But we don’t even know the rights and privileges and tasks that are ours as royal children. We don’t know the vast resources we have now to fulfill our positions as princes and princesses. In the same way, so often Christians don’t even know everything that is ours, in Christ Jesus. So Paul writes to the Ephesians:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the perception of your mind may be enlightened so you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the glorious riches of His inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power to us who believe, according to the working of His vast strength. (Eph 1:17-19, HCSB)
His prayer is that they (and all followers of Jesus) can know these things. He wants us to know our birthrights, now that we have been born again. So I am going to share with you, some of the riches that are yours and mine when we are in Christ. This is what it means to be born again as a citizen of heaven:
In Christ, we are holy, blameless, righteous and above reproach (Eph 5:4; 2 Cor 5:21; Col 3:12; 1 Cor 6:19).
He has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Col 1:22-23)
The “if you continue” is clearly about continuing in faith and hope. It is not “continue to act righteous” but “continue to hold fast to the faith that this is true, that Christ has done this for you.” A wise pastor named Dan Stone wrote: “It is not your striving that releases Christ’s life through you. It is your trusting.” We are in Christ when we continue to trust Him and rest in Him day by day. And in Christ, we are holy and blameless.
In Christ, we are safe and free. I am free from condemnation. I am free from sin and death. I cannot be separated from the love of God (Romans 8:1-2; also 8:31-39). God works for my good in all circumstances (Romans 8:28). I have been established, anointed and sealed by God. (2 Corinthians 1:21-22). I can approach God with freedom, confidence and boldness (Eph 3;12; Hebrews 4:16). My real life is already hidden away with Christ in God (Colossians 3:1-4). I am born of God and the evil one cannot touch me. (1 John 5:18).
In Christ, we are significant and important. I am a branch of Jesus Christ, the true vine, and a channel of His life (John 15:5). I have been chosen and appointed to bear fruit (John 15:16). I am God’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:16). I am a minister of reconciliation for God (2 Corinthians 5:17-21). I am seated with Jesus Christ in the heavenly realm (Ephesians 2:6). I am God’s workmanship; created by Him to do good works, which he has already prepared for me to do (Ephesians 2:10).
These are just a few of many verses and concepts that describe who we are when we are born into Christ and into citizenship in Heaven. This is the true you, the you that is more real and more powerful than what you see in the flesh or feel in the soul. If you continue in faith (that is, if you continue to believe, to trust Jesus and trust that this is all true in Him) then this you will last forever, and ultimately will be expressed through a transformed soul and a new, eternal body.
You may still act or think like a foreigner, from time to time. But if you trust Jesus, you have been born again as a citizen of heaven. All this is truly yours, even though your actions may not yet reflect it perfectly.
All this is leading toward an ultimate purpose: so that Jesus Christ can express His Life through you. Let me put a different way: The purpose of it here on earth is so that Jesus Christ can live your life. That is what we will explore next week.
Being a Christian is not primarily about sinning less, or sinning less grievously. Being a Christian is about being immersed into the love, grace, beauty, truth and joy that are found in Jesus Christ alone. When we are deeply connected to the love of God through Jesus Christ, when we truly trust that he has crucified our old person, and resurrected a new, holy spirit in place of the old, one result is that we will begin to sin less often, and less grievously. But reducing sin is a side effect of being in Jesus. Let’s talk about how all this looks.
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 Living Crucified Part 7
I want to add a few more brief thoughts about fighting sin. The first is this: being a Christian is not primarily about sinning less, or sinning less grievously. Being a Christian is about being immersed into the love, grace, beauty, truth and joy that are found in Jesus Christ alone. When we are deeply connected to the love of God through Jesus Christ, when we truly trust that he has crucified our old person, and resurrected a new, holy spirit in place of the old, one result is that we will begin to sin less often, and less grievously. But reducing sin is a side effect of being in Jesus.
It is easy to get confused about this, for a couple of different reasons. First, it is our sin that separates us from God. Our sin is the problem that keeps us apart from ultimate joy, which is found only in the presence of God. It is also sin that makes the world such a terrible place at times. All war is caused by sin. All violence grows out of sin. Selfish actions, abuse of children, rapacious greed, exploitation, racism, sexism, and hatred are all outgrowths of the root of sin. Depression, self-loathing, self-centeredness, apathy, lack of love – all this proceeds from sin. Even disease and accidents are the result of the fact that sin is embedded in the world.
Since sin is the major problem, it is natural to make the mistake of believing that the solution is to commit fewer sins. And that leads to the second thing that confuses us: many churches do indeed seem to be teaching that the whole point of being a Christian is to control sin. Now, if we could, in fact, control our own sin, that would be a good thing to do. But, if you have tried very hard to do it, you realize that doesn’t get you very far. Even if you can control your behavior (and some people are quite good at that) when you look into your heart honestly, you recognize a deep commitment to get your own needs met, no matter what it takes.
Some people don’t realize what a problem this is, because they can get their needs met through things that are outwardly righteous. But even if the means are righteous, the heart that uses them is not. So maybe you go around helping people and quoting Bible verses in all circumstances. Both of those things are good to do. But it might be that you do them because it makes you feel secure, and good about yourself. It makes you feel like no one can find fault with you. So, even though the activities aren’t wrong, you are doing them for the wrong reasons. It is wrong to get your sense of security, or self-worth, from anywhere but God Himself. It is wrong to believe you can be justified by your own actions.
The bottom line is that every one of us is committed to ourselves, and to making sure that we get our own needs met, no matter what it takes. That is the essence of what the bible calls “flesh,” and we all have it.
As we have been learning through this series, God has dealt with human sin through Jesus. In a spiritual way, God crucified our own sinful hearts on the cross with Jesus. We died with him, and so now we are dead to sin. The way to “control” sin is not to think about it all the time, but rather, to immerse ourselves into the love and joy and grace that are found in Jesus Christ. We trust what the bible says: that we are new creations in Christ Jesus, holy, and blameless. We let Jesus live his life through us. The more we trust him to do that, the more we turn toward him, the less we are controlled by sin.
I want to use Romans chapter 7 to help us understand all this. Please take the time to read all of Romans 7:4 – 8:17. It is about the length of one chapter of scripture. Please do stop reading this right now, and open your Bible and read that. Seriously. Please stop reading this, and go read the scripture passage. Please?
Thanks for reading that. This is a section of scripture that is often misunderstood. In the first place, we ought to read the section I just gave you as one unit. The verse and chapter markings we find in our modern bibles are not part of the original. In other words, they were added to make it convenient for us to quickly find places in the Bible, but they were not inspired by God. So, if I were the one dividing up the book of Romans, I would have the section I just gave you as all belonging together. It would be a mistake to read chapter 7, and then stop without reading any of chapter 8.
In the first part of chapter 7, Paul is making two main points. First, that law is good. It was given by God to show us what sin is. Second, though the law is good, it shows us that we are not good, and the law cannot help us to become any better.
Next comes a section with which we are all familiar:
14 So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. 15 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. 17 So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. 18 And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. 20 But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. 21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. (Romans 7:14-23, NLT)
We usually read this and think: “Yup. That’s me. I want to do the right thing, but I just can’t get it together. I keep sinning and sinning.” So far so good. But many people miss the main point Paul is making. He repeats it over and over again. The point is not that he sins all the time. The point is this: he wants to do what is right.
I had friend once who was not a Christian. After a lot of time and people praying for him, and some long conversations, he gave his heart to Jesus. Afterward, we started to meet together to pray and talk about the Bible and generally encourage each other in faith. One time the subject of lust came up. He said, “You know, before I became a Christian, I did not struggle with lust. Now I struggle with it all the time.”
I was shocked. What had we done wrong? I asked him to explain.
“Well, before I was a Christian,” he said, “there wasn’t any struggle. I lusted, and it didn’t bother me. But since I came to Jesus, it bothers me when I lust because I don’t want to do that now.”
You see the fact that he didn’t want to sin any more was proof that he had died to sin. In his deepest heart, he knew that he didn’t desire sin. In his inner being, he delighted in God’s perfect standard and holiness.
So, in Romans 7, Paul’s main point is not that he sins all the time. The main point is that now, he does not want to sin all the time. That fact shows that he has died to sin, and has been raised to be with Christ. He has a new heart, a new Spirit, and his new self does not want to sin.
Now, it is natural to ask: “If I am already dead to sin, if I’m already a new creation, freed from sin, why do I keep sinning? If I don’t want to sin, why do I do it anyway? Doesn’t this prove I am half-sinner, half-redeemed?”
No. Although I like the New Living Translation (used above) it does have a major drawback. In verse eighteen, the right translation is this: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh (Romans 7:18, ESV; formatting added for emphasis). In the original Greek it never, anywhere in the New Testament, uses a term like “sinful nature.” The problem is not that we have “bad self,” along with a “redeemed self.” What we have is a part of us that is that vulnerable to sin, called flesh. I mentioned in the beginning that one characteristic of what the bible calls “flesh” is that it is utterly committed to getting our needs (and wants) met, even if it means going against what God says. We all inherited this kind “flesh” from Adam and Eve. Before we became Christians, we all lived according to the flesh. We all found ways to do what it takes to feel better. We all depended upon ourselves, rather than God, to get our needs met. Sometimes we did that in ways that didn’t look so bad (like being a good student to gain approval from adults). Sometimes we did it ways that were clearly wrong (like getting drunk to numb our emotional pain, feel good, and gain acceptance from our peers). But both the good student, and the drinker, were looking to something other than God to meet their needs, and lead them to a satisfying life.
In addition to the word “flesh” Paul also says sin is located in his “members.” The Greek word is usually used as a generic term for “body parts.” In Matthew 5, when Jesus said it is better to lose an eye than to be thrown into hell, he calls the eye a “member.” He also calls a right hand a “member.” James calls the tongue a member of the body.
So, sin does not live any more in what we call our “(figurative) hearts”. It certainly does not live in our spirit. It camps out in our bodies. Let’s not forget that the brain is part of the body. Our brains are usually the main problem. So the problem is not that we have two natures. The problem is that we inhabit sinful bodies, with sinful brains. In fact, Paul makes this quite clear in Romans 7:24 (which you just read):
24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24, ESV)
What are some important things we know about bodies? First, we know that human beings are more than our bodies. Our physical appearance is not the real us. It is, in fact, one of the most shallow things about the true people that we are in our hearts. And that is where sin is located. Sin is not part of your nature anymore than your hair is a part of your nature. Sometimes you have to deal with your hair (or lack thereof). In interacting with others, it is good to maintain a decent appearance. You might fail to get the job you are supposed to if you show up to the interview with your hair wild and askew. But your hair does not really say anything about the real you.
Now you might be tempted to say: “Well, if I have sin in my brain, that is a real problem, because my brain directs everything I do.” That’s not exactly true. This is a little bit complex, but the truth is often complex. There is a difference between your brain, and your mind. Your brain is a physical organ that operates on electrical-chemical systems. Your mind is your sense of self-awareness. Your mind uses your brain, and is linked to it, but your mind is greater than the physical electrical-chemical processes that occur in the brain. The ideas you have are more than electro-chemical processes. Your thoughts and ideas have existence apart from the physical processes that created them. In addition, your will – your capacity to make decisions and follow through on them – is part of your mind, but not your brain. Yes, your brain does exert influence on your mind (and will). But your mind, and your will are greater than your brain. They will live on when your brain (along with the rest of your body) dies. If you don’t believe that, you are an atheist. Therefore, says our text today, we set our minds upon the Spirit, not the flesh.
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.( Romans 8:5-11, ESV)
Notice that Paul, also, distinguishes between mind and brain (because our brains are part of our flesh).
When we are in Jesus, the sin that was in our souls and spirits has been crucified – killed and done away with. Our minds, too, have been awakened to God. The only sin left in us is found in our physical bodies. When our bodies die, what remains of sin will die with them. Then we will be raised again with new bodies, uncorrupted by sin. But we already have spiritual life, spiritual holiness, as a kind of down-payment of what is coming. The most important part of you – the part of you that you think of as “yourself” has already been crucified with Christ, and raised again in holiness. There is no connection between the “essential you” and sin. If there was, the Holy Spirit could not live in you without destroying you (Since the presence of God destroys sin).
So, let’s find some practical suggestions for setting your mind on the spirit, not the flesh. When you are tempted to sin, try having a little conversation with yourself.
“This is not what the realme wants to do. This is what my corrupted brain and body think will make me happy. But they are wrong. I don’t need to do this, because in Jesus, I am already whole and complete. This sin will not actually help me.”
Or: “You – my sinful body – are dying already, and everything you want leads to death. But the real me doesn’t want to do this. The fact that I don’t want to do this is proof that the most important part of me is already holy in Christ. I am going to act like I am already holy in Christ.”
Remember this: you don’t have to feel like this is true. You merely need to believe that it is true, and then act according to what you believe. We are talking about a mindset, not an emotion. We are talking about continually trusting that what the scripture says is true. You will not feel that continually, but your feelings can go jump in a lake.
Think about it like this. Have you ever met someone who felt things that are not true? Of course. Many people feel unloved even when they are deeply loved by others. Many people feel worthless when their friends and family value them greatly. Feelings are not a reliable guide to reality. God’s Word is. When you believe what God has done for you, it ultimately changes everything. We will talk more specifics next time.
God’s grace is so outrageous that we are totally freed from sin. Often, we think we are in a cycle that goes something like this: God makes us clean, and then we get dirty again, and so God makes us clean again, and then we get dirty again…and so on. But that is not what the Bible describes at all. We have been made clean once and for all. The sins we commit now don’t “count” against us at all. This naturally leads to a question: Does this mean we can sin all we want with no consequence? Not exactly. After we become Christians, the consequence of sinning is that we injure our relationship with God. It drives a wedge between us. Sin is not a problem of breaking laws any more, but it does reveal that we haven’t fully loved God, or fully trusted what he has done for us. The more we believe that God has truly separated us from our sins, and the more we learn to love God, the less we will want to sin, and the less sinning we will actually do.
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 Living Crucified Part 6
Living Crucified #6. Romans 6:1 – 7:6
Let’s recap what we have been learning so far in this sermon series. We began by revisiting what it means to be a Christian in the first place: we repent (that is, turn away) from our sins, and trust God (not our own efforts) to save us through Jesus Christ. Next we looked at the nature of reality: there is our visible, physical reality. In this visible reality, things change. Some things begin, and then later end. People grow older. Everything, sooner or later, decays. Time moves from beginning to end. There is also another part to reality that is harder to grasp. This is the spiritual realm, which we cannot physically see. The spiritual realm is a powerful part of reality, and there, the glory and power of God is fully present. The spiritual realm does not break-down, or end. It lasts eternally. What exists in the spiritual realm is more lasting, more potent, than what occurs in the physical.
After learning about the two realms, we looked at the example of Elijah, who learned that true, lasting life could only be found in the spiritual realm. Life in the physical has ups and downs. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is not, but Elijah could not rely on what happens in the physical. God spoke to him in the spiritual realm, and he learned to draw life from there. Then we saw Leah, who learned the practical lesson of how to draw on that spiritual, eternal life: by putting what God says after the “but.”
After that, we considered something specific that God says: and that is the we (who have trusted Jesus) have been crucified with Christ. That means we are dead to sin, and dead in the eyes of any law that would condemn us. Through this death, which is accomplished through the death of Jesus, we have been set free from sin and the law. (Romans 6:7,14,18; Romans 7:4,6) Last time I shared no less than one dozen scriptures that teach explicitly that in Christ we have died.
The picture Paul gives us at the beginning of Romans 7:2-3 is of marriage. When two people are married in the eyes of the law, they are married. It would be a sin to marry someone else at the same time. But if the husband dies, the laws regarding marriage no longer apply. Because of the death, the law doesn’t apply any more. It would no longer be sinful or illegal for the woman to marry someone else. The law was made irrelevant by death.
In the same way, the power of sin to bring us condemnation through the law has been destroyed by the death of Jesus, and by our death which happened in Jesus, as we have trusted him. We can’t be condemned as sinners anymore, because as Paul writes:
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4, ESV)
Imagine I was serving a life-sentence for murder. When I die, the life-sentence is over. That’s all the law can require. If I were to somehow be raised to life again, I wouldn’t have to be in prison any more, because I am dead in relationship to the law that once applied to me. In fact, according to the law (which does not recognize the possibility of resurrection) I remain dead. So whatever I do now has no relationship to any laws. In fact, if I died, and then returned, I could do anything I want, without fear from any laws, because laws do not apply to dead people.
Now, when you really get this, there is a natural question that arises. Does this mean I can sin all I want, because the law no longer applies to me? One way you can know that we are interpreting these scriptures correctly is that Paul, also, anticipates that this question will arise (Romans 6:1, and 6;15). Stick with me here. I am going to give you an answer that may surprise you, but you need to follow through the ENTIRE message I am about to give.
Technically, the answer is: Yes. Yes, you can sin all you want. If you are in Jesus, your sins don’t “count” anymore. In the eyes of the law, you are dead, so the law cannot be used to condemn you for anything you do now.
Imagine I steal something. Someone comes to me and says: “That’s against God’s moral law.”
I could rightly reply: “But I’m dead to that law. That law applied to the old Tom. The old Tom is dead. Punish that dead Tom, if you can, but the law doesn’t apply to me.” Technically, I would be correct.
Now, that is a shocking answer. It isn’t the whole story yet, and I want you to stick with me as I give some further explanation in a moment. But just pause here for a moment. Do you see how outrageous the grace of God is? He has made it so that if you simply continue to trust Him, you cannot fail. Even when you do fail, it isn’t counted as you anymore. If you sin, it is counted against the old you, the dead you. That “you” has already been punished for sin – in fact that “you” was executed for sin. Sin has no relationship with the new you. The law has no relationship with the new you.
That’s why we see all those passages in the New Testament saying that when we are in Christ we are New Creations, we are holy, we are blameless in God’s sight, and so on.
I think a lot of people misunderstand this concept. They think of it like this: “God wiped away all my sins, and gave me a clean slate, a chance to start again. Now, I messed up the clean slate already, so he has to wipe it clean again, and I’ll try harder this time.” This cycle gets repeated over and over again. Listen carefully, brothers and sisters: that is not how it is.
All of the sins you commit now don’t count against the new you. There is only one clean slate, and it always stays clean. The sinful you has been crucified. The sins you commit now don’t count against you. They’ve already been nailed to the cross (even the ones you will do tomorrow).
You see it isn’t our job to work ourselves into a state of holiness. God has already put us into a state of holiness, in our spirits. Our only job is to keep believing that he has done this, and through that faith, He will continue to work the holiness deeper and deeper into our soul and body life.
I use the expression keep believing quite deliberately. It is a daily (sometimes hourly) habit of continuing to believe who Jesus is, what he has done for us, how he feels about us, and continuing torest upon it. This is not a one shot deal. Although our salvation is accomplished once, for all, our trusting is an ongoing process.
This is a process of continually putting our trust in Jesus, day by day. That is what it means to be “in Jesus” and all these things are ours, only in Jesus. I’m not saying that you have to work hard and live the Christian life on your own strength in order to be in Jesus. But I am saying that to be in Jesus, you need to continually rest in Him with trust in what his Word says, and in what he has done for us. It’s not working hard. It is trusting; it is putting what God says over the many “buts” that arise throughout each day. It is putting God’s word above outward appearances. It is trusting that what God did in the spiritual realm will work its way out into the physical.
Last week I spent some time talking about how what we believe profoundly shapes what we do. So the next part of the answer comes here. Technically, you can sin all you want, and it doesn’t count against you. But if you really believe that God has freed you from sin, that you have already been made holy, you will be far less inclined to sin than if you believe you are still fundamentally a sinner. You act as you believe. When you really believe what the scripture says: that in Christ, you have been made holy – you will begin to act holy. Holiness, by the way, is not at all like “holier-than-thou.” When you meet someone living out of the holiness of Christ, they are kind, and humble and loving, and somehow also pure and good. Not perfect, but they look a lot like Jesus.
If you believe you are half sinner, and half saint, then it is only natural for you to go through life sinning half the time. If you believe that, and you sin less than half the time, I commend you for your great will power, though it is misguided. The bible does not say you are half sinner, half saint. It says that if you are in Jesus, then in the most essential part of your being, the part that doesn’t change, the part that already has a solid connection to eternity – your spirit – you are entirely holy. You are completely separated from sin and the law.
When you believe what the Bible says – that there is no relationship between you and sin, that you have died to sin and to the law, that you are free – you will sin less, not more, because action follows belief. If you find that you are sinning a lot, what you need is not to try harder to stop, but to believe more fully what God says about you.
Now, there is another thing that will eventually restrain our sinful actions. There is a movie from the 1990s called Groundhog Day. In it, a weather reporter named Phil gets trapped in an endlessly repeating day – February 2 1993, to be precise. Only Phil is trapped in this day. Every day, the other people he meets are living the day as if it is their first February 2, 1993. The only thing that carries over from day to day is Phil’s memory. Naturally, at first he is depressed. One night he is drowning his sorrows in drink, and he says out loud: “What if nothing you did mattered. What if you woke up every morning as if the previous day had never happened?”
One of the other drinkers in the bar said, “That would mean there would be no consequences. You could do anything you like.”
Phil catches on to this idea, and at first, he abuses the fact that there are no consequences for his actions. He gets drunk, commits crimes, and does many morally reprehensible things. After a while all that loses its luster, because he realizes there is no life there. Even though he was free to be selfish without consequences, he found it is all meaningless and useless. So he tries to commit suicide. He kills himself dozens of times, but always wakes up the next morning at 6:00am on February 2, 1993.
But finally, truly knowing there are no consequences, he begins to live for love. Repeating this day endlessly with one of his co-workers, he falls in love with her. And knowing it doesn’t matter what he does, he finally chooses, because of love, to do what is good and right and noble. He devotes himself to literature and music. He tries as much as possible to help others. Every day he saves the same boy from breaking his leg, and the same man from choking. Every day, he tries to save the life of the same old bum who dies on February 2, 1993. Day after day, he tries to bless the people that he is stuck with.
I suggest that if you are really in Jesus, and you really know you are free from sin, you will discover quickly that there is no real life in sin, and the pleasure you get from it is false and always disappoints you. When you really know you are free from sin and law, you will find yourself more often drawn to the Lord and REAL life, than the shallow, brief and bitter pleasures of sin. And when we learn to love God, we find that living for love naturally moves us away from what would hurt our loved ones, and toward things that are good and right and noble.
Here’s another analogy. I am married to Kari. We have a legal marriage license from the state of Illinois. Suppose we went to a marriage counselor and I said: “Kari committed to be my wife, ’till death do us part. We are legally married, and there is no part of the legal document that specifies what I must do, or what I may not do. So does that mean I can stay out until 3 AM every night and party all I want? Can I stop working, and let her provide all of our finances? Can I spend all our money however I want, without talking to her about it? Can I leave dirty dishes and smelly laundry all over the house?” I could go on, but you get the picture.
Marriage is not about a legal contract in which I fulfill my duties or else face the consequences. I could technically do all those things and remain legally married to Kari. But what kind of relationship is that? I refrain from those things because I love Kari. Now there are times when either Kari or I do things that hurt each other. When that happens, we have to talk about it, and ask forgiveness, and give forgiveness, and heal the relationship. But we don’t say sorry because we have rules about saying sorry. I don’t clean up after myself because there is a rule that I have to. But I know it is helpful for our relationship if I do. I am motivated by love.
This is the picture the New Testament gives us of our relationship with God. Truly, if you are in Jesus Christ, sin is irrelevant. But what is relevant is your relationship with him, your love for him.
Paul describes it almost exactly this way. He uses the analogy of a woman whose husband dies, and then she is free to marry someone else. Paul says:
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4, ESV)
We died to sin and to the law so that we could be raised into relationship.
If you are looking to find out how much sin you can get away with, then you are still trying to live by rules. You are looking for a rule about how many rules you can break. You are still living by law, not by grace. If this message leads you to be happy that you can get away with sinning all the time, then I think your relationship with God is on rocky ground.
So, to go back to the sin question, since you are free from sin, dead to it, is there a problem if you sin? Well, is there a problem in your marriage if you cheat on your spouse? Of course there is. But it isn’t a law problem, it’s a love problem. Cheating on your spouse shows that you don’t love him/her enough to die to your own temptations and desires.
So, when we sin, it isn’t a law problem, it is a love problem, and a trust problem. We sin because we don’t really believe God when he says he has crucified us with Christ, and made us holy, and alive for Him. We sin because we want what we want more than we love God. But we need to understand that it isn’t about performing correctly for God or reforming ourselves or making ourselves holy. It is about believing Him and loving him. The answer is not “obey better.” The answer is “trust more,” and when we trust Him, we learn to love him more, and when we love him more, our behavior changes.
I don’t like it when I hurt Kari’s feelings. I hate the feeling when we are fighting and our relationship isn’t right. I feel the same way with the Lord. And the truth is this. If I say something hurtful to Kari, and I never say sorry and seek her forgiveness, it puts a barrier in our relationship. The more I hurt her and refuse to resolve the hurt I’ve done or acknowledge my mistake, the more distant our relationship will become. Eventually all the hurts and barriers and distance add up, and if we let it go, we might end up divorced. But you can’t divorced without signing papers. It can’t happen without you knowing about it and agreeing to it.
In the same way, if we continue to live in such a way as to hurt our relationship with God, we will become more and more distant from him. Eventually, we may be so distant that we get no benefit from our relationship with Him. The prodigal son left his father. The father still loved his son, and called him his son, but the son got no benefit from it. Even though he was the son of a loving, kind and generous father, he was living with pigs and eating pig food to survive. He might have died that way, and so, through his neglect of the relationship, never received anything more from his father.
Some of you reading this believe you can never lose your salvation. Some of you believe you can. Wherever you come down, the Bible is very clear that it is a very serious thing to be distant from God. The bible exhorts us to continue to have a daily relationship with Him, through faith.
But once more, I want to emphasize that if you truly believe how outrageous God’s grace is, when you truly know that He really has freed you from sin, you will not be motivated to sin nearly as often as before. The more you believe, the less you want to injure that relationship with God, and the more quickly you will seek healing and resolution when you do hurt that relationship.
We don’t fight sin by trying to be good with our own willpower. We don’t conquer temptation by gritting our teeth and getting over it. We start by believing that we are already holy, that in fact, we don’t have any relationship to sin any more. We live now in relationship to God, a relationship of faith that is based upon unconditional love, not rules.
Now, there is another question we need to address. If we are already holy, and already free from sin, why do we sin anymore at all? I apologize, but this message is getting long, and so I will answer that question next time.
What we believe determines how we act. If we want to change our behavior, we must start with changing what we believe, what we trust. The scripture calls us to believe that when we receive Jesus, not only did he die for our sins, but he also immersed us into his own crucifixion, so that in a spiritual sense, we were crucified with Christ. This means we are now dead to sin, and alive to God. I know it doesn’t feel that way, but we need to put God’s word after the “but.” Read on to learn more.
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 Living Crucified Part 5
LIVING CRUCIFIED #5: LIVING DEAD
As a teacher of God’s word, I am usually aiming toward one primary goal: that is, to strengthen and encourage your faith. That may seem fairly obvious, but I want you to think about it a moment. Why is faith so important? Isn’t faith kind of esoteric, and “out there?” Isn’t it, after all, not very practical? I disagree.
Almost everything we think and do proceeds from what we believe. When I buy groceries, I have faith that the food meets some quality standards: that it is not poisoned, and it is not going to make me sick. Based upon thatfaith, I take action – I buy the food, cook it, and eat it. When I eat, I am living out my faith. The same is true of the water I drink. Every time I drive, I am living out my faith. I do not really understand how my car works, but I have faith that it does, and that faith leads me to the action of driving my car. I don’t really know how the internet works, but I have faith that it does, and that faith leads me to post these messages.
Even most things that we think of as objectively proven, we take on faith. For instance, nuclear fission (the process used to create nuclear energy, including nuclear bombs). I have not personally verified the nuclear fission reaction through my own calculations. I have not stood by and watched while it has been demonstrated to me. I believe (that is, I have faith) that other people have done the science, and actually observed the results. But even though some people have actually verified nuclear fission, most of us take it on faith. We haven’t actually verified for ourselves. This is even true of historical events in which we all believe. I believe that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. But I wasn’t there, I didn’t see it happen. I bet no one reading this actually saw it with their own eyes. While we think of such things as established, objective facts, we actually only “know” these things by faith.
We human beings could not exist if we only acted when we knew for certain everything that is involved in our actions. We couldn’t eat, or drink without faith. We couldn’t do business, use machinery or technology. We couldn’t engage in meaningful relationships without faith.
I want to point out two things about this. First, faith is indispensable. We operate on faith of some sort every single day; we simply couldn’t live without it. Second, because we live our lives based upon faith, our lives are profoundly affected by what we believe.
Some of you know the story of the “four minute mile.” For the first hundred years of keeping records of human races, no one was able to run a mile in less than four minutes. It was widely believed that this was the limit of human ability. Then, in May of 1953, Roger Bannister came close. He began to believe he could do it. A year later, Bannister did, in fact, run a mile in less than four minutes. Now, everyone believed that humans could a run mile in less than four minutes. Once Bannister proved it could be done, everything changed. Bannister’s record was broken only 46 days later. Within the next decade, five more people ran a sub-four-minute mile. Sixty years later, almost 900 people had done it.
Now you could probably make a case for nutrition and a more sports-oriented culture to explain some of this. But I personally believe that the biggest difference between the first hundred years of records, and the last sixty, is that now people believe it can be done.
Your belief affects how you act, what you attempt, and what you achieve.This is indisputably true about our physical lives, our life in the realm of the seen, temporary reality. Just take the weather as an example. If you believe that a storm is coming, you will take shelter. If you believe it will rain, you carry an umbrella. If you believe it will be nice, you’ll go fishing (at least, any sane person would 😊). What you believe determines how you act.
When it comes to the unseen, eternal, spiritual reality, faith is even more powerful. However, sometimes we have not learned this lesson, or we forget it. So often, when we are trying to follow Jesus, and live as is right for people who belong to Him, we begin by trying to change our behavior. We want to be more Christ-like, and so we make a big effort to behave better. It takes a lot of energy and self-discipline. We work hard to try and be more kind and loving. We try to remember to control how we speak to and about others. We try to make ourselves stop sinning.
Now, when we do this, I believe our intentions are good. But it often doesn’t work out very well. Even those who do seem to succeed in making themselves more Christ-like through sheer will-power eventually become proud and legalistic, and then they are no longer Christ-like again.
The Bible does teach us that Christians ought to behave in certain ways, and refrain from other behaviors. But so many Christians do not realize how this change in behavior is actually supposed to come about. In fact, I would guess that most Christians do not understand the process that changes a loud-mouthed braggart into a humble, loving servant; or a lustful person who wants to have sex with virtually anyone, to someone who joyfully submits to God’s design for sexuality.
Here’s the secret: It begins with faith. If you want to change your behavior, the only way to really do it is to change what you believe. (Of course, it is not supposed to be secret.)
If you want to begin to live as Jesus wants you live, let’s start not with living, but dying. Here’s the first belief to accept: You are dead to sin. According to scripture, when you receive Jesus, you are crucified with him, and that “co-crucifixion” broke your connection to sin:
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:6-7, ESV)
By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death.. (Rom 6:2-4 ESV)
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11)
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God (Romans 7:4)
But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code (Romans 7:6)
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3)
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. (Gal 2:19-20, ESV)
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations (Col 2:20, ESV)
The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; (2 Tim 2:11, ESV)
He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness (1 Pet 2:24, HCSB)
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Cor 5:14-17, ESV)
According to the bible, Jesus was crucified for your sins. But there’s more. We were also crucified, with Christ. In Jesus Christ, you have died in such a way that the connection between you and sin is broken. Paul says we are dead to the law. Think about it. There are no laws for dead people. A dead person is beyond the law. Imagine you committed a horrible crime, and you were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Now, once you die, your sentence is over. They bury you in the prison graveyard, and you are done. Once you are dead, the law can require nothing more from you. Paul says “You are released from the law. You died to what held you captive.”
In the same way, we are dead to sin: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” We need to go forward from this point believing that in Jesus Christ, we have died to sin, and to the law that keeps us on the hook for sins we commit. The connection between us and sin, us and the law is so thoroughly broken, it is like trying to get a dead person to keep serving a prison sentence. It’s over. It’s a fish and the concept of liberty. There is no connection.
I spent years trying hard to make myself behave better. I thought my old self was still alive. I thought I still had some deep internal connection to sin. And so I kept trying to reform myself, and always failing Finally, I saw that God doesn’t try to reform the old Tom. Instead, he killed him, along with Jesus on the cross. In Jesus, the new Tom – at least the spirit of the new Tom – has already been raised. And there is no connection between that new Tom and sin. When I began to really believe that – that I am truly dead to sin – I began to sin less.
Do you believe that your old self is dead and buried with Christ through his death? Do you believe that you are dead to sin? Do believe that you are no longer enslaved to sin? Do you believe that the old has passed away and the new has come? Do you count yourself dead to sin but alive to Jesus? The New Testament clearly calls you to believe all of these things. Only when you believe them will your behavior begin to change. Only when you trust them will you begin to experience the freedom and joy that we have in Jesus.
This is the moment when the other messages in this series begin to come together. First (lesson 1) this is for those who have repented from their sin, and turned to Jesus toward Jesus alone for hope and salvation. It is not about everyone, but specifically about those who have done that. Next, we remember the two aspects of reality: the eternal, spiritual reality (“above the line,” or, “outside the book”) and the physical, temporary, seen reality, (“below the line,” or “inside the story of the book”). This business of being crucified with Christ is clearly not in the seen, physical, temporary reality. My physical body did not hang on a cross. My body was not whipped, nor beaten, nor stabbed. So, in order to understand this, we start by recognizing that we are talking about eternal, unseen, spiritual truth.
Next, we remember where to find life, and how to practice receiving that life. In this case, we would say something like this: “I don’t feel like I have been crucified. I don’t feel like I am dead to sin, or free from sin. BUT the bible says this is true. I will choose to believe that what the bible says is bigger, and more important than my own experience. I will look for life in eternal, spiritual things, not in physical things that will pass away. Therefore, I will believe what the scripture says.”
Think about it like this: If you believe that you are basically just a sinner, barely saved by God’s grace, you will act like a sinner. If you think you are half-sinner, half-Christian, you will sin half the time (at least). But if you believe that God has made you holy in your inmost being, you will begin to act holy. You act according to what you believe.
You might be tempted to say: “I don’t believe that I am dead to sin, because I still act like a sinner.” I challenge you to turn this around to reflect spiritual reality. Here’s the truth, according to the bible: “I still act like a sinner because I don’t believe I am dead to sin.”
Remember this is talking about the spiritual realm, the realm that will never pass away. The spiritual, unseen realm is greater than the “physical realm” in which we eat, drink and sleep. So the bible clearly teaches that in the most essential part of you, the part of you that will never die (your spirit) you are dead to sin, and alive to Christ. In the deepest part of your being, you died to sin. In that place, there is no connection between you and sin.
I want to give you an example of “the deepest part of you,” or the “essence of you” not being a sinner:
Suppose you come over to our house for a meal. You volunteer to help my wife, Kari, get things ready in the kitchen. While working, you slip on some blueberries that someone had dropped on the floor, and failed to clean up. You almost fall, but catch yourself in time. You say something light and fun, like, “Whoops! I almost got clobbered by those blueberries!”
Kari turns to you and snaps: “I’m sure you keep your own kitchen perfect and sparkling clean, and no one ever drops food on the floor in your house. I don’t need any more help, thank you. Why don’t you go in the other room for a while.”
Is it possible that Kari could behave like that? Of course, it could happen. But if you described that situation to me, or someone else who knows her well, we would say something like this: “I’m sorry that happened to you. But I want you to know, that’s not what she’s really like at all. She must have been having a bad day, because that’s just not Kari.”
And it’s true. Kari could behave like that once in a while. But that’s really not what she’s like at all. She’s not perfect, but she is almost never sins like that – being sarcastic or mean. It’s really not “her” to be like that. It is out of character, when you think about who she really is.
This is the situation with us, now that we are dead to sin. We might still sin, and I’ll talk about that more in the coming weeks. But the essence of who we are is dead to sin. Therefore when we sin, we can say: Obviously, that happened. But that’s just not “me” anymore. It doesn’t reflect my real character, the deepest part of my being.
We need to believe that when God says we died with Christ, we really did die.
I killed a snake one time. I blew it in half with a shotgun. The snake was dead, there was absolutely no question about that. There was a the head, with a little piece of neck, and there was the body, completely separate. But the mouth kept opening and closing like it was trying to bite something. The body twisted and coiled and uncoiled for ten or fifteen minutes afterward.
All that twisting and coiling and movement looked like life – but it wasn’t life. It was merely the death throes. If I was a really dumb veterinarian, I could have wasted time and energy treating the dead snake that acted like it was alive. But there was no life there.
Our old person can sometimes act as if it is still alive. We still get the impulses and signals that seem to show that our old self is alive and well. But this is nothing but death throes. There is no life there. If we work to try and kill it again, or try and reform it, we are wasting time and energy in a futile exercise.
Paul says, “don’t gratify the flesh.” Our old body is rotting in the prison graveyard. We don’t have to follow the prison rules any more. We don’t have to try and make up for the laws we broke before. Satan is the one who comes to you and says: “see all the twisting and turning and activity? You have a sinful nature and it is alive and well.” But the Bible never says anywhere that our old self got un-crucified. It never says that it is possible to be only partly-crucified with Christ. It never suggests that the old nature got resurrected. It is a lie of the devil. He’s trying to get you to live as if you are still alive, back in the prison of your sinful self.
Here’s the thing: he can’t put you back in prison. But if you don’t believe what God says – if you don’t put God’s word after the but – the devil and your flesh can trick you into living as if you were still in prison.
Now, I will talk next week more about this struggle with the devil and the flesh, and how it all fits together. But for this week I am calling you to faith. I am asking you to believe that what God says is really true:
In Christ, you have already died. In Christ you are not sinful. You are not divided into good and evil. You are holy and blameless and without reproach.
Yes sin in your flesh is still writhing around in its death throes. But it is already dead. Pay it no mind. Instead fix your eyes on Jesus, put your focus on the unseen and eternal truth – your old self is dead and your true self is alive in perfection with Jesus.
We tend to say things like: “Today was OK, but I think tomorrow is going to be really hard.” What we really think of as most important, or most powerful, we but after that ‘but.’ Leah was a saint who had a very difficult life. People considered her ugly. Her husband didn’t love her, and it didn’t seem like that would ever change. But (!) she learned to put God’s love after the but. We too, can find incredible life and grace by learning to put eternal truth after the ‘buts’ in our life.
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 Living Crucified Part 4
LIVING CRUCIFIED #4
In order to really grab hold of the riches that we have in Jesus Christ, we need to start talking about your buts. We all have buts in life. (All right, insert whatever joke you like here, and then move on). What I mean is, we all say things like this:
Things are going well now, but who knows what will happen in the future?
I know God promises to take care of me, but things aren’t going well right now.
Generally, I have a good marriage, but sometimes he drives me crazy.
I would love to read my bible more, but I just don’t have the time.
I know God has forgiven me, but I still sin, and I don’t always feel forgiven.
There is something I have noticed – we give the most power, the most credibility, to what we put after the but. What we say after the but is what we think is the dominant thing about our reality. The first thing may be some kind of factor, but what we put after the but is more or less the final word on the subject.
What we need to learn, is to put what God says after the but. You might say, we need “heavenly buts.” [Sorry if that term brought you’re here on an different kind of internet search, but since you’re here, why not keep reading?] Putting God’s word after the but is an act of will, but before that even, it is an act of faith. Much of what we are talking about in this sermon series will not make sense until you agree, as an act of faith, to put God’s Word after the but.
I want us to look at the life of someone in the Bible who learned to do this. She is one of the least known, least talked-about heroines of faith in the Bible. Her name is Leah. Leah was the daughter of a man named Laban. Her story picks up in Genesis chapter 29. One day their cousin Jacob, whom they had never met, came from a far country. Jacob ended up working for his uncle Laban (Leah’s father). Laban asked Jacob how he should be paid for his work. At this point, the scripture says something about the two young women:
17 Leah's eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. (Genesis 29:17, ESV)
We don’t know exactly what it means when it says Leah had “weak eyes.” It seems to be a somewhat unique expression. It might even mean she was hard to look at, sort of the opposite of “she’s easy on the eyes.” In any case, we are given a comparison so that the point is very clear: Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. Whatever Leah was, it was not beautiful. Did you notice the “but” there? What a powerful but! “My sister has a beautiful face and figure, but I have weak eyes.” It was probably one of the dominant “buts” in Leah’s life.
This isn’t a fairy tale, or a animated show about ogres. Jacob fell in love with the beautiful one, not the ugly one. That’s generally the way the world works. So, he told his uncle he would work for seven years as a dowry in order to marry Rachel, (the beautiful sister) and Laban agreed.
Only, when the time came, Laban tricked Jacob. Brides in those days were heavily veiled, and the wedding took place at night – and there was no electricity. And (let’s be honest) there was drinking. So Laban gave his older daughter, Leah, in marriage to Jacob, and Jacob didn’t find out until the light of the next morning. Jacob was understandably angry and disappointed. Laban, the father of the women, made some excuse about how there was a custom that the older daughter had to be married first, before a younger sister could get married. Then he said:
27 “But wait until the bridal week is over; then we’ll give you Rachel, too—provided you promise to work another seven years for me.” 28 So Jacob agreed to work seven more years. A week after Jacob had married Leah, Laban gave him Rachel, too. (Genesis 29:26-28, NLT)
Now, think about this. Suppose Laban was not lying about the custom. What did this imply? That no one else had wanted to marry Leah. She was so unattractive that her father had to trick someone into marrying her. Obviously, her father did not expect that anyone ever would ask to marry her. Leah almost certainly knew all of this. It says she was ugly, not stupid. So she had to live with that knowledge. Not only that, but she got to be the bride for only one week before her husband married her beautiful sister, the one he had always wanted in the first place.
Naturally, Jacob favored Rachel. He loved her, not Leah. Leah’s only consolation was that she had children fairly easily, while Rachel went for a long time with none. When Leah’s first son (Reuben) was born, she said, “The Lord has seen my affliction; surely my husband will love me now (Genesis 29:32).” Notice that her focus was on her unhappy situation, and she hopes the fact that she bore him the first child will change it. Applying this to the concepts we have been talking about, Leah was focused on things “below the line,” in the seen, temporary realm.
When her second son (Simeon) came along she said, “The Lord heard I was unloved, and gave me this son also (Genesis 29:33).” Still, her dominant reality is that Jacob doesn’t love her. After her third son was born, she was still focused on her struggles, saying, “at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons (Genesis 29:34).”
Now we know that it takes nine months to make a baby. There was no birth control in those days, but in general, when a woman is breastfeeding, that sometimes helps prevent pregnancy. Back in those days, children were probably breastfed pretty consistently for at least a year. So it is reasonable to assume at least two years between each child. When you throw in the fact that Jacob had another wife, and everything that was involved in the family dynamics, it may have been more like three years, or even more between children. So Leah went at least six years, and maybe as long as ten or twelve, while the dominant fact in her life was that her husband did not love her.
But (notice the but) by the time her fourth son arrives, something has changed. There is no evidence that Jacob ever changed his attitude very much toward her. Reasonably, at least eight years might have passed by this point, perhaps as many as twelve or even more. Say, a decade; ten long years of realizing her marriage will never be what she dreamed it might be. But listen to what she says when this fourth son, Judah, is born: “This time, I will praise the Lord (29:35).”
Leah is no longer fixated on what she lacks in her life. She isn’t trying to get Jacob to change anymore. She isn’t focused on the seen, temporary world, the “below the line” reality. Instead, her focus is on the Lord, and his love and favor for her. Her struggle had been with God and with her husband. But when she gave birth to Judah, she has given up the fight – in a positive way. Her troubles have led her to a place where she looks to God to meet her needs, and can receive his love and mercy with joy and thankfulness. I’m sure that Leah still struggled. I think it is only reasonable to assume that emotionally, her situation never changed much. Certainly, the Bible never records that Jacob changed his attitude toward her. But she came to the point where the dominant thing in her life was not her struggle, or her unfilled needs, but rather, God’s awesome love for her.
Genesis 29:31 says that when the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb. In other words, the Lord was the one who gave Leah these children; and even more, he gave them to her because he saw that her husband did not love her. Now, at first, her response was basically this: “Good! This child will change my situation. This child will make my husband love me.” But think about it. God gave the children to Leah, not as tools to coerce Jacob’s love – the Lord gave Leah children because the Lord loved her. He was showing her that regardless of what Jacob thought of her, He loved her. She was not unloved. At first she missed the point. She was still putting Jacob’s lack of love after the but. Finally however, she got it. When Judah was born, she praised the Lord. She finally saw that these children would not make her loved – they showed her that she was already loved.
Sometimes when we pray, God changes our situation, and makes it better. Sometimes, he leaves us in the same circumstances. When he does that, his desire is that our lives can be so filled with him, that the negative aspects of our situation pale in comparison. When Kari and I first started dating, I was in a job situation that I didn’t like, living in a city I didn’t care for, with few real friends nearby. I remember sitting in a meeting at work, filled with joy. I wasn’t joyful because I was in the meeting. I wasn’t joyful because I liked where I was living, or because I was making much money, or that I liked my work. None of those things were true. But I was joyful because I knew that wherever I was, whatever I was doing, Kari loved me.
Now, I don’t mean to be negative, but the kind of joy that came when I first knew that Kari loved me, does not sustain me in the same way thirty years later. We still love each other. It is still an enormous thing in my life that Kari loves me. But no human being has the power to fill you with joy consistently for a long period of time. Only God’s love is that strong. His love can change everything without changing one bit of our circumstances.
I think that was the kind of place Leah finally reached. Jacob still didn’t love her. He probably never would. But God did, and the fact that God loved her was more important than the fact that her husband did not.
This is the key to “Living after the But.” Remember, whatever you put after “but” is the dominant reality to you. For many years, Leah probably said something like this: “I know God loves me, but my husband does not. I’m just a third wheel.” Finally, after the birth of Judah, she started thinking this way: “I know Jacob never wanted to marry me. He may never love me the way I want him to. But God loves me and cares for me.” The only thing that really changed for Leah is which thing she put after the “But.” However, I think it transformed everything for her.
Now, I want to make sure you do hear this correctly. I’m not trying to create a rule for you to follow. “I must always put the correct thing after the but.” Instead this is an invitation for you to dive into God’s grace. There is an everlasting well of the water of life, a cool, clear, beautiful spring of love, joy, beauty and strength. One very helpful way to access that deep well of grace is to put the promises of God after the but. Again, not a rule, but an invitation, a door by which we can access what God is offering us.
Now, I want the Holy Spirit to make this practical for you. What have you been putting after the but? Has your dominant reality been what God says? Or have you given more power and credence to your circumstances, or how you feel, or what your mind tells you logically? Take a moment to think about it. Let the Lord bring to mind what you have reversed right now.
I am not saying that your struggles aren’t real. I am not saying that you aren’t dealing with things that are truly bad, or difficult or wrong. But I am saying that God’s Word is more true, more powerful. It is an act of faith to believe it.
Your dominant reality might be very negative, and very powerful. Leah spent her whole life thinking, “but I’m ugly.” Long years of marriage only added, “and I’m unwanted, and I’ll never get the chance to be with someone who does want me.” That’s powerful stuff. And it was all true. She never was loved by her husband or anyone else in that way.
But…BUT – there was another thing that was true. It was true that she was made in the image of God. It was true that God loved her. It was true that God wanted her. She let God’s love become her dominant reality. She let his word be the final word.
So pause for a moment. Think about your own life. What are your struggles? What is bothering you? What is stealing your peace, joy, or love? Now, put the promises of God after the but:
“I’m so upset that my child has gone this direction….but______”
“I feel so anxious and lonely, but _____”
“I want to follow God, and yet I constantly fail, but ______”
“I am so upset about something, but ____”
You get the idea. We need to learn to believe that what God says is more real than what we think or feel. And so, we need to learn what God says. Try reading some of the verses below. Believe that these promises are for you, that God himself loves you!
Elijah was a great prophet, and God did amazing things through him. Yet, like many of us, Elijah fell into deep despair when things didn’t go well. God taught him that real life is not found in external things, in things that can be seen and touched. God’s life is not present just because things going well, and His life is not absent when things are bad. Like Elijah, we need to find the life that Jesus promised, the life that is always present, like a never ending spring of water welling up from our spirits.
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 Living Crucified Part 3
LIVING CRUCIFIED #3.
1 Kings 19:1-13; Hebrews 4:15; John 4:12-14; John 6:35; John 6:63; Luke 11:9-13
Last time the message might have been a little heavy on intellectual concepts and light on stuff we could “sink our teeth into.” But my purpose in discussing all of it was actually to improve your “teeth” so that when you do have something to “bite into,” you bite further and deeper. Christianity is an entire way of looking at the world, and an important part of that world-view is the concept of eternal, spiritual reality as well as immediate, physical reality. Another important part is the understanding of human beings as having bodies, souls and spirits. Our spirits can access the eternal, spiritual reality. We need this knowledge to understand the Bible properly.
This time, we’ll put this altogether with a practical example from the life of Elijah the prophet. I believe (and hope and pray) that this message will be practical and meaningful for you, and even more so if you have some understanding of the concepts we covered last time. I have preached this message a few times in different places, so I apologize if you’ve heard it before. And yet, I trust that the Lord will use it to continue to do good things in you.
There is a story from the Old Testament that has always fascinated me. It’s about the prophet Elijah. God used Elijah to confront Ahab, king of Israel, and his evil wife Jezebel, who were worshiping false gods, and leading the whole country away from God. God told Elijah that it wouldn’t rain for three years. Elijah had enough faith to tell the king and queen that this would happen, and that it was God’s judgment. This was a great act of faith and courage. The prediction came true. And yet the king and queen did not repent, so soon afterwards, Elijah went into hiding for most of the time of the drought.
At the end of three years, God told him to stop hiding and confront them. In that confrontation, God showed himself powerful, and the false gods, of course, proved false. All the people were ready to listen to Elijah, rather than the king. So, in accordance with Old Testament law, he had them execute all the false prophets for blasphemy.
Next, Elijah prayed for God to make it rain again. It didn’t happen at first, but Elijah persevered in prayer, and a cloud formed, and then a great storm broke. This was an amazing victory for God, and Elijah was central to it.
Immediately afterward, the queen sent Elijah a message. She had already killed many of the prophets of the Lord, and she told Elijah that he was dead meat. She was sending men to kill him.
The great prophet, flush with all the amazing things God had just done… ran away. He went a very long distance away. At first God just patiently comforted him. Elijah went further until he ended up at Mt. Sinai.
9 There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He said, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:9-10, ESV)
Elijah is saying basically this: “After all I’ve done, after how hard I’ve tried, it’s all coming to nothing. Nothing I can do makes any difference.”
Then God came and told Elijah to get ready. He said he was about to show Elijah His presence.
And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the LORD.” And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. (1 Kings 19:12)
Many translations say, “a still small voice,” in verse 12. But it is an odd Hebrew expression that is hard to capture. I’m not much of a Hebrew scholar, so I’m mostly relying on the research of others. A literal translation might be: “a sound, a thin silence.” Another way to translate it would be: “a voice, silent and intangible.” What is a “silent voice?” What is the sound made by “a thin silence.”
There is supposed to be a big contrast between the wind, earthquake and fire on the one hand, and the “silent voice” on the other. The silent voice was God speaking into the spirit of Elijah. It is an example of communication with the eternal world, as opposed to the noise and chaos of the temporary, “seen” world. The presence of God was in a calm silent voice in a way that it was not in all kinds of noise and thunder.
There was a great wind – strong enough to split rocks. Obviously God’s presence was around, but the heart of God was not in the wind. The same was true of the earthquake and the fire.
Now, why did God do this? Why send the wind and the earthquake and the fire. Did he need to impress Elijah? And why send those things, if that was not really his presence?
I think there was a lesson here for Elijah.
Remember Elijah’s recent life. He confronted the king and queen – that was awesome! God was with him. But they didn’t listen That was a real letdown. Then he predicted and prayed for drought and famine as judgment. God was at work again, making things happen – how thrilling. But the king and queen still didn’t listen, and continued in their evil, idol-worshiping ways, and Elijah ran away in fear. That was a bust. After three years in hiding, he confronted the rulers again. God showed up by burning up Elijah’s sacrifice! The people followed his commands! Then when Elijah prayed, God ended the drought. This was amazing!
But the queen remained evil, and killed many other followers of God, and put out a contract to kill Elijah. All the fire and excitement went out of Elijah, leaving him like a wet kitten. He ran in fear for his life.
You see what was going on? Remember the two sides to reality: the “seen, temporary” reality that we call the world around us, or the physical world. Then there is the unseen, eternal reality. Elijah was entirely focused on what was going on in the seen/temporary realm, and was almost ignoring the life that was available to him through the spirit.
He was trying to draw a sense of life and wellbeing from what was going on externally, in the visible realm. When things were going well on the outside, Elijah was doing well. When God was working miracles and Elijah was feeling bold, everything was great. But when things were going badly, Elijah was not doing well. When the king and queen refused to repent, when they threatened him, he was discouraged. He was a coward.
We might say, “So what?” Isn’t it normal to do well when things are good, and to feel discouraged when things are not good?”
God was saying to Elijah: “No. It doesn’t have to be that way. My life is not in the external things. My Life is not in things going well, and my life is not absent when things are bad.”
He says the same thing to us.
And so God sent a storm. Raging wind, splitting rocks, this beats any tornado you’ve ever heard of. It was noise, excitement, huge, awe-inspiring. But the LORD was not in the storm. So he sent an earthquake. Nothing is solid anymore, everything is shaken. There is nothing to hold on to, no security. But the LORD was not in the earthquake. Then came the fire. I’ve heard many people – even preachers – pray for God to “send his fire.” But the LORD was not in the fire.
Now, obviously, God sent the wind, caused the earthquake, lit the fire. So he was in them in a sense – they resulted from his action. But the true presence of God was not in those things that he sent and did. The true presence of God was a silent, calm voice that spoke into Elijah’s spirit.
We look for God in action. We want Him to do external things for us and for others. We want Him to show off His power. And there are times when that is exactly what He also wants to do, and He does it. But we need to understand – the deepest presence of God cannot be found in external things. It is found as he communicates with our spirit. And in the spirit, it doesn’t matter what storms, what fires, what earthquakes are happening on the outside – for bad or for good. In the spirit, where true life can always be found through Jesus, it is calm and still. The voice of the spirit is often quiet and “thin.”
We seek life externally. We try to stop the downs and live in the ups. We try to organize our physical environment. We try to reform our behavior, to learn how to cope. But God is not in the externals, not in the deepest sense. Elijah’s externals were not all bad. In fact, some of the miracles God did through him were downright awesome. But they were still externals. God did them, yes. God used them, yes. But the Lord showed Elijah that those external things could not be a source of life and power for him. You can’t draw life or hope from Externals, that is from things in the seen, temporary realm. One reason is this: things in the seen/temporary realm are…temporary. So, right after a miracle, things are great. But it doesn’t last. What Elijah needed to recognize (and what we desperately need to recognize) is that temporary things will always let you down.
We keep trying to live like Elijah. We want to maximize the victories, and minimize the defeats. We want it to be all “wow! God!” times, and no “uh-oh, Jezebel” times. But just stop and think about this for a moment. Has anyone, in the history of mankind, ever been able to make that happen? Has anyone ever lived moving only from victory to victory, all ups, no downs? Of course not. Elijah didn’t. Peter didn’t. Paul didn’t. Even Jesus, in his physical life here on earth, had his setbacks. His hometown wouldn’t accept him, and their lack of faith prevented him from working the way he wanted to there. The leaders of the people – including the religious elite – rejected him. His own closest disciples consistently misunderstood him and his message. The book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tested in every way, just as we were (Hebrews 4;15). In other words, this is part of the “seen” life. Everyone faces the trials. No one, not the prophets, not the apostles, not even the Son of God is exempt.
Now, when we face the idea that this is just how life is – sometimes good, sometimes bad, and none of it lasts – that can be a daunting idea. You mean the rest of my life, I’m going to go up, and down, and up and down? I’m going to win victories – and then be defeated. I’m going to see God at work…and then I won’t see him at work. I’m going to live a holy life — and then I’m going to sin. And then I’m going to live holy again.
The reason that idea is so daunting to us, is because we are trying to get life here and now. We are trying to get life and hope and goodness out of our behavior, out of the seen and temporary reality. We are trying to get life out of our externals, like money, or success or relationships, or sex or drugs or alcohol or even…religion.
Brothers and sisters, there is no life there. There is no life in mood-altering substances. That’s easy, we know that – even addicts know it, but they can’t seem to stop looking there. There is no life in money or success or accomplishment. Read Ecclesiastes. It’s been tried. There is no life in partying. There is no life in abstaining. I’m not saying that they are morally equal – but I am saying that you can’t get real life out of either excess or self-denial.
There is no life in “living for God.” That’s right. If you are living for God with your own will and effort, you will not find life in it – not lasting life, not the streams of living water which flow from within and cause you to never thirst again.
One of the problems with living our lives with an external focus, a focus on the seen, temporary world, is that whatever results we get are temporary. Jesus pointed it out to his disciples:
“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of people, to be seen by them. Otherwise, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give to the poor, don’t sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be applauded by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. I assure you: They’ve got their reward! But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-7 emphasis added)
He says the same sorts of things about other observances. Notice the contrast – the people who focus on the seen, temporary world, get a seen, temporary reward – that is, they get the result of their behavior here and now on earth. It’s over rather quickly. Those who focus on the unseen spiritual reality get an eternal reward from their Father in heaven. When we live our life from externals, then that’s all we get – the external result. That’s our reward. And that is temporary, not eternal. The Lord says the Spirit is what is most important.
Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:16-18)
It is from the spirit – connected to the Holy Spirit through the work of Jesus – that life comes; real life, life that does not change and fluctuate and sometimes desert us. Once we are in Jesus, that life is always there. It is always available, though we often forget it. That is because it doesn’t come from our behavior. We can’t control it by manipulating our circumstances, or even our own actions. It doesn’t come from our thoughts or feelings. It doesn’t come in noise, earthquake and fire and exciting things happening outside of us. It comes from the spirit – a place that Elijah found was still and silent, where the voice of God was a soft whisper.
63 The Spirit is the One who gives life. The flesh doesn’t help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. (John 6:63, HCSB)
The only way we can access the spirit-life is by believing that what God says is true. We receive it only through faith.
Practically, if you want the real, spirit life, the life that lasts forever, and cannot be changed by time or circumstances, you must seek it in the spirit, and do so in the attitude of faith that says: “I believe God is to be found there, and I believe he wants to give me this life.” He does want to give it to us, you know:
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “No one who comes to Me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in Me will ever be thirsty again.” (John 6:35)
That promise cannot be true in the visible, temporary world. Everyone experiences hunger and thirst every day. But Jesus was making a promise about eternal, spiritual reality. It is in the spirit where we can be fully satisfied, always and forever. It is in the spirit that we find the nourishment to sustain eternal life.
Seek it through the bible. Seek it in sitting quietly, in God’s presence, waiting. Every time you catch your mind wandering, just softly whisper the name of Jesus to bring you back. Don’t worry if your mind continually wanders. When you catch yourself, just come back to Jesus with his name. Seek the life in beauty, goodness, truth and joy, whenever you encounter them. Listen for the quiet voice that is not the voice of the world, not the loudness that is everywhere, but is in the spirit.
The life is not in your behavior. It is not in your thoughts and feelings. It is in Jesus, and the only way to get it is to believe he offers it to you.
Sometimes it can seem sort of vague, or esoteric, this listening to the soft whisper of God in the spirit. I recommend that you start by asking God to help you find him there. This is a prayer he loves to answer:
9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13, ESV)
Ask him and then actively listen for his soft, silent voice in the spirit. As you practice, it will eventually become easier, and more natural. When Jesus encountered a woman at a well one time, during their conversation he said something. Hear the promise in his words, and trust that he will deliver it you:
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life. (John 4:13-14, ESV)
Believe the promise. Receive the promise as you thank him for it.
The beginning of the Christian life is turning away from sin and toward God (this is called “repentance”). Sometimes we fail to receive the wonder and joy of God’s grace because we have not actually repented. We are called to despair of our own efforts to make ourselves (or the world) better, and turn to God alone for hope and salvation. Only then can we be changed. When we do that, and only then, we can begin to receive the stunning riches of God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ. This is the gate, through which we all must walk, the lifeboat that is our only hope of being saved from drowning.
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 Living Crucified Part 1
During the past year or so, I have noticed that many people in our house-churches seem to be struggling with a deep tension in the life of following Jesus. We are told that everything is by God’s grace. And yet we are told that we shouldn’t sin. We are told that we are new creatures, created in Christ Jesus – and yet we still act like the old creatures, frequently sinning and failing.
The tension that this creates is actually very important. We need to pay attention to it, because it will lead us to some wonderful, amazing truths that will affect every area of our lives.
Our new sermon series is about all that.
As we revisit the riches of the gospel, you may (or may not) recognize some ideas, stories and concepts that I introduced more than ten years ago now, in the sermon series: Living Life in Reverse. Those truths are powerful and practical. I think it is worth revisiting them. So, in a way, this is an updated and expanded version of the original “Living Life in Reverse.” If you want a series title, we could try: “Living Life in Reverse – Again.”
When I did the series the first time, there were a few things which I left out. So, I want to start with very beginning of the Christian life, which is, repentance and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin.
It has been on my mind lately that Christians, in the 21st century Western world, have a very different way of reaching people for Jesus than the Christians of the New Testament. We typically reach out to non-believers with the following basic message:
“God loves you, so much. He really wants you to experience his grace and joy. He is the missing piece of your life. He heals your brokenness and forgives your failures. Come and experience his love.”
Now, that message is good, but it is only half the message that was preached by most Christians throughout history. Here’s the way Jesus himself preached. He taught his disciples to do the same.
17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17, ESV)
14 Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15, ESV)
45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:45-47, ESV)
30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. (Acts 5:30-31, ESV)
20 I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentancetoward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:20-21, ESV)
In the verses above, I have italicized the word repentance so you see my point more quickly. You do see it, right? Repentance is an essential part of the gospel. It is the beginning, and it is necessary if we are to receive the gospel.
You see, I believe many people think the gospel is essentially just: “God loves you.” And they hear this, and look up, and think, “Oh, that’s cool. How sweet of him.” And then they go back to whatever they were doing.
Maybe some churches put it a little more forcefully. “God loves you. But if you want to benefit from this love, you need to walk down in front here, say a prayer, and then get baptized.” This is a bit more inconvenient, so not as many people respond positively. And yet, after all, it’s just something you need to do, like going to the DMV, or paying taxes. So, a lot of people take the time out of their lives to go to church for a while, take the deep breath, and then do the God-transaction. Then, they can get back to their lives. Maybe they think it’s like joining a political party. They are now “registered Christians.”
Think about it for a moment. “God loves you,” is not that big of a deal until and unless you feel in need of that love. Scripture tells us that we are desperately in need of his love and mercy. Without the love and grace of God you are utterly lost. You are already dead, spiritually. You are in the process of dying physically; every second brings you closer to the moment of your death. And your soul (where “you” are) is slowly withering, utterly committed to self above all. Even when you do “unselfish” things, it is to benefit your own sense of self-esteem. At the same time, we find ways to justify so many of our selfish desires and actions. (By the way, if I just made you mad with all that, think about why). Yes, your soul, too, is on a long slow decline to eternal frustration and self-hatred.
This is the beginning of the gospel: you are dead in your sins, slave to self, and the things that tempt you, manipulated by spiritual forces of evil, though you don’t realize it. You are infected with a deadly disease that is gradually destroying every part of you. The Bible calls that disease “sin,” and it really means “all that is in conflict with the character of God.”
The human race, in all recorded history, has improved technologically, but not much morally. Thousands of years ago, human beings were greedy, cheating each other, lying, hurting one another, oppressing the weak, and engaging in bloody wars and violence. Isn’t it good that we’re so much better now? Oh, wait. Never mind. Just read a few news sites, and you’ll be convinced that there is something deeply flawed and wrong with humanity in general. The same thing that is wrong with humanity is also wrong with you and me.
Now, a lot of people look at themselves, and think “Gee, I don’t think I’m that bad. I’ve never stolen anything, for instance.” The bible asks: But have you ever been greedy? Ever wanted something that wasn’t yours to want? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.
We might say, “Well, I’ve never committed adultery.” But have you ever imagined it? Have you ever wanted to? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.
“I’ve never lied.” But have you ever gossiped? Ever said hurtful words, or malicious things? Ever been hurtfully sarcastic? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.
If you have the courage to be honest with yourself, you know that within you is a deep well of awful muck, of self-centeredness and arrogance and the desire to have what you want, no matter the consequences.
Now, let’s put this together. Everything that is good, awe-inspiring, encouraging, beautiful, glorious, true and loving originates with God. Some things may come directly from God, like a sense of his love, or the words of scripture. Other things may be several generations “removed” from their origin in God, like, for instance, beautiful music, or a lovely painting, or awe-inspiring landscape, but it all begins with him. The beauty, truth and goodness we experience in this world are echoes of the profound presence of God. Even people who do not know him are affected by him nonetheless, and anyone at all might be used, even unknowingly, to reflect a small piece of God to the world.
But God is so profoundly good, so holy, and so completely powerful, that his very presence destroys anything that is not perfectly good. Bring the tiniest bit of sin into the presence of God, and it is destroyed.
When you combine pure sodium with water, the result is a spectacularly violent reaction. Google it sometime, and watch the video results. There is a similar reaction when sin comes into the presence of God. Sin cannot exist in God’s presence. It is violently destroyed.
18 Then Moses said, “Please, let me see Your glory.” 19 He said, “I will cause all My goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim the name Yahweh before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” 20 But He answered, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live.” 21 The LORD said, “Here is a place near Me. You are to stand on the rock, 22 and when My glory passes by, I will put you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take My hand away, and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.” (Exodus 33:18-23, HCSB)
God was pleased with Moses, and very gracious to him. But he could not allow Moses to “see his face,” which means, in that culture, to be fully in his presence. Later on, when Moses was reminding the people of their first encounter with God on Mount Sinai, he said this:
4 And you said, ‘Behold, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the LORD our God will say, and speak to us all that the LORD our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’ 28 “And the LORD heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. (Deuteronomy 5:24-28, ESV)
The people did not see God’s face, but they were close enough to him to be terrified that his holiness would destroy them. And God said, “That’s right. No one can come too close.”
Now, if God is the source of all goodness, truth and beauty, and if the presence of God destroys all that is not perfectly aligned with God’s character, and we are infected with sin (the antithesis of God’s character) we have a problem. If we come into God’s presence we will be annihilated. If we don’t come to him, eventually, we will be further and further separated from all truth, beauty, joy and goodness. We will end up gnawing away at our own souls, bitter, withered, pathetic, hating ourselves, but utterly alone. Complete separation from God is sometimes called “hell,” and that is where we are all headed, and there is nothing we can do about it. Our efforts to stop the slide into self-destruction are pathetic, and in fact, they end up being nothing more than additional manifestations of our twisted and flawed natures.
This is the starting point. Until we face this reality, we have not begun. Until we recognize this reality, there is no hope for us.
You might say, “But Tom, I thought you just said there was no hope anyway. You said an essential thing to recognize is we cannot do anything about it.”
I did, and it is. There is no hope from within humanity in general, or from your friends and family. There is no hope from within your own corrupted body or soul. No hope from your dead spirit.
That is why Jesus entered the world. When he came, he said two things. First: Repent! That means recognizing the truth I just told about our own sin and the pointlessness of our own efforts. To repent means to earnestly desire to turn away from sin, and toward God. It means also that we genuinely give up on the idea that we can help ourselves. We have no hope within ourselves, but we turn toward God in our need, recognizing our own helplessness and hopelessness. In a way, we cannot even do this on our own. The Spirit of God has to empower us to repent. That’s why I’m giving this message: to allow you to hear the Word, and through the Holy Spirit, believe it and repent.
The second part of what Jesus said was: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” In some ways, he was being a little bit coy, since he hadn’t yet completed his mission. But after he had died and risen, he gave his apostles the full message. Peter put it like this:
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” (Acts 2:38-40, ESV)
Being baptized does mean the physical act, but the literal meaning of the word is immersed. We are to be immersed in Christ. Baptism also means you are leaving one realm, and entering a new one. You are leaving behind the world, the devil and your sinful flesh, and entering the kingdom of God. Paul described it in terms of repentance toward God (that is, turning away from sin, and self, and toward God) and faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 20:20-21, quoted earlier).
You might wonder, “But if I am a sinner, and God’s presence destroys sin, how does this help?” That’s a great question. In some ways, the answer takes a lifetime to unpack, but here’s the short version:
God’s intention is to destroy all sin. In doing that, it will be necessary to destroy all sinners, also. So he chose to find a way to make sinners into “not sinners.” He sent Jesus into the world to combine his God-nature with human-nature. Jesus was perfect, because of his God-nature. Because of his human-nature, he became an appropriate vessel to do the job. All sin was placed upon Jesus (which could be done, because of his human nature), and destroyed by his suffering on earth, death on the cross, and descent into hell. Only Jesus, with his eternal God-nature, could survive this. So now, all sin – even the sins of those who lived before Jesus, and sins yet to be committed – has now been punished, and paid for:
1 But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. 22 We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are. 23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. 25 For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, 26 for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus. 27 Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. 28 So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. (Romans 3:21-28, NLT)
The way to take hold of this forgiveness, this cleansing of sin, is through faith in Jesus Christ. We trust him, and what he has done. And we entrust our entire lives into his care. We immerse ourselves in Jesus, and in his kingdom. Those who reject this are, in essence, saying, “No, we want to continue to sin.” Or, if not: “We believe we can get our salvation some other way.” Those who reject Jesus, who do not trust in him, have rejected the only lifeboat in the ocean. They would be welcome on board, but if they want to wait for some other boat they like better, they will drown.
But faith turns away from sin, receives what God has done, and entrusts all of life into the hands of God through Jesus Christ. When we do that, God makes our spirit, which was dead to him because of sin, come alive. Through the spirit, he pours grace, love, truth, beauty, goodness and joy into our souls.
This is the starting gate. Everyone must enter through this gate, or remain separated from God forever. Jesus put it like this:
6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6, ESV)
If you have never done so, I invite you to believe God’s Word. Repent of your sins, turning away from them, and to God. Entrust your entire life to Jesus. Come alive to God in the spiritual realm.
Now, I am sure that many of you who follow this blog have already entered through this gate. But if you have, you understand how important it is that everyone recognizes these truths, repents, and enters through Jesus.
I myself am using this message to renew my repentance from sins. It can become easy, once we have trusted Jesus and received the grace of God, to forget the deadly and awful nature of sin. Let this message remind you to never make peace with sin. Let it also remind you of the incredible truth, love, joy, beauty and goodness of God, and remind you that all of that is available to us through Jesus Christ.
God called Jonah to recognize that God is for all human beings, not just Israelites. So, he calls us, too, to recognize that many of our brothers and sisters in Christ will not look like us, or even speak the same language. Not everyone is willing to repent and receive God’s forgiveness, but God wants to give the opportunity to ALL people, and he wants us to be on board with that.
The motivation is that God was gracious to us, and saved us when we didn’t deserve it. Not only that, but almost all Christians today are saved because, at some point, people from other cultures and ethnicities reached out to people like us.
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 Jonah Part 6
Please read the whole of Jonah 4:1-11.
For the first part of this message, I owe a lot to Roger, a member of New Joy Fellowship. He observed that Jonah, with all the complexities of his character, with his history, with his temperament, was exactly the right person for the job of converting the people of Nineveh. Because Jonah was an Israeli patriot, he ran away when God first called him, and because of that, he experienced separation from God, his need for God, and then God’s grace. Because he was kind of hardheaded in the first place, because he hated Israel’s enemies, he delivered the message to Nineveh and clear, bold terms. He relished declaring their sin, and he probably enjoyed pronouncing God’s judgment upon them for their sinful ways. And so, without meaning to, he delivered the message in exactly the terms that they needed to hear it.
And of course this is one of the major themes of the book of Jonah: that God is entirely control of all things. God was in charge of allowing the events of Jonah’s earlier life. He allowed Jonah to run. He sent the storm after Jonah was at sea, he sent the fish to swallow Jonah when Jonah was almost drowned, and he stilled the storm, leading the sailors to worship him. He caused the fish to spit Jonah up onto dry land, and he allowed the forces that shaped Jonah into who he was so that the message was delivered to the Ninevites exactly the way it was supposed to be delivered. Jonah made his own choices, of his own free will, and those resulted in God’s will being accomplished exactly as God planned. We don’t always understand this, or how God works it, but that is the biblical truth: we are free to make our own choices, and, at the same time, God is completely in control.
We ended last time on something of a high note: Jonah’s mission has been successful; that is to say, the people of Nineveh have heard the message, and responded with repentance and faith. But the story is not over. We still have Jonah himself to reckon with.
Remember, Nineveh was one of the great cities of Assyria (also called “the Assyrian Empire”). And Assyria was one of the bitter historical enemies of Israel, Jonah’s home. The Assyrians were cruel, brutal and arrogant, and before Jonah’s time they had slowly eaten away at the northeastern parts of the larger Kingdom of Israel that was built by David and Solomon. Israel had been defeated and humiliated many times by Assyria. However, during Jonah’s lifetime, for the first time in centuries, Israel began to defeat the Assyrians, and take back some of their ancient lands. So, finally, Israel was starting to get the upper hand, and then God sent Jonah on his mission, which Jonah feared would actually help Assyria.
Remember, I said, Jonah, after his experience of nearly drowning, understands God’s salvation. He is indeed saved by God’s grace. But that doesn’t mean he has been made perfect in all his ways. He still has some sinful thoughts and attitudes. And this is one of them: God’s grace should be for me, and my people, but not for anyone I consider dangerous, or an enemy. God is not pleased with this attitude. There can be no doubt that it is wrong and sinful.
I’m afraid that with the next part of this message, the Lord is okay with making virtually everyone angry. I just want to say, I am only the messenger. If what I write here makes you angry, please take it up with the Lord, because to the best of my ability am simply passing on the things I believe he wants me to say.
All right, with a big gulp, I’m simply going to plunge in. In order to help us understand the position that Jonah is in I want us to compare it to where we ourselves are often at in our relationships with other people. So, for you President Biden-supporting-people, imagine God calls you to minister to die-hard Trump supporters. Even though you really don’t want to minister to those people, you do so, and the result is that President Trump is elected again in 2024.
Or, those of you who are convinced that the right thing to do in this Covid-19 situation has been absolutely to wear masks and avoid contact with others. Suppose God calls you to minister to people who think masks are silly, and who refused to wear them, and who continued to gather in person? The end result is that those people are encouraged and lifted up.
Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Imagine you are a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. God calls you to minister to the Black Lives Matter organization, and to people who wholeheartedly support Critical Race Theory. Reluctantly, you will obey, and the result is that their position in society is strengthened.
What if you think illegal immigrants are destroying this country, and God calls you to minister to illegal immigrants in such a way that they are blessed and their position is strengthened?
Maybe you are an NPR-listening, intellectual cultural elite, and God calls you to ultimately bless talk-radio-listening, country, redneck types, people you might secretly think of as deplorables.
Imagine an American patriot called to bring God’s word (and, potentially forgiveness) to the Taliban in the Middle East? Or an American patriot called to bring God’s word to China, so that God won’t destroy the Chinese government?
Before you get angry, make sure you understand my main point. I am not saying everything I named above is morally equal. For example, I think there is no comparison between the horrific crimes of Communist China and people who dispute the wearing of masks in the covid-19 era. I’m not comparing morality or value in the groups I named. I’m only trying to help everyone feel a little bit of what Jonah felt. There is a lot of anger in our culture at the moment, and it is easy to be angry against “those people.” My point is simply that God loves “those people” and he may want you to bring not only his truth, but also his grace to them.
Also, let me make sure we don’t lose an important piece of all this: the people of Nineveh repented of their sins. They heard God’s word, and the first thing they heard from Him was that they were sinners, cut off from God, and there was nothing they could do to save themselves. They believed that this was true, and they repented, crying out to God alone for mercy and salvation.
So, the Bible does not say that all people are saved, no matter what. The book of Jonah is not teaching us that all lifestyles and all philosophies are equally acceptable to God. There is nothing here to suggest other religions are equally valid with worship of the Lord. Not everyone is included in the kingdom of God.
However, Jonah is teaching us that God desires all people to be included in his kingdom. God wants Israelites to repent and be saved. He also wants Assyrians to repent and be saved. He does not want the Assyrians any less than he wants the Israelites.
God wants your enemies, the people that make you want to pull your hair out, to repent and be saved. He loves them every bit as much as he loves you. He also wants you to repent and be saved, if you have not yet done so. The people who live in a different country, who have thoughts and attitudes and habits that you find repulsive, are just as important to God as your children are to you. Those who live far from you are just as important to God as those who live close by. The Bible is filled with verses that teach that God loves all people and wants all people to be saved:
1 First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, 4who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4, HCSB, formatting added by me for emphasis)
Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” This is the declaration of the Lord GOD. “Instead, don’t I take pleasure when he turns from his ways and lives? (Ezekiel 18:23, HCSB)
31 Throw off all the transgressions you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Why should you die, house of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in anyone’s death.” This is the declaration of the Lord GOD. “So repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:31-32, HCSB)
9 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20, HCSB, formatting added for emphasis)
John’s glimpse of the heavenly reality makes it clear that God desires all people to repent and come to him, and indeed, people from all over the world will do so:
9 After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! (Revelation 7:9-10, HCSB)
Our worst enemies are precious to God. The people we deplore are precious to God. God wants them in his kingdom, if they are willing to come.
We would do well to remember something else. If you are a Christian today, it is only because at some point, Christians from a different culture, with a different language in another part of the world, believed that God wants all people to be saved, and came to you or your ancestors and told them the good news about Jesus. Unless you are an ethnic Jewish Christian, you know Jesus today because people who are foreign to you brought God’s message to you or your ancestors. How then, could we refuse today to help bring the message to people who are not like us?
The idea that God would have mercy on his hated enemies, the Assyrians, was offensive to Jonah. So, God gave him an object lesson with the plant that he neither planted nor tended, but of which he grew very fond. Jonah deliberately makes himself seem childish and petty here, because his attitude about the Assyrians is childish and petty.
I’ll give you another object lesson example. At times, I have been a big fan of NFL football, particularly the Tennessee Titans. There were times when, if the Titans won, I was content and happy for most of the next twenty-four hours. If they lost, I was irritable and moody. Now, I suppose I’m a fan of the Titans because I’ve lived in Tennessee longer than I’ve lived any other place in my life. But, let’s get serious. I have no financial investment in the Titans (not even betting; I don’t gamble). I don’t actually know any of the players, coaches or staff. I don’t live that close to where they play, or even where they practice. In reality, I have no connection at all with the team. Yet, at times, I have deeply cared what happened with them. If I can develop this strange attachment to people and an organization that I’ve never met, why should we consider it strange that God deeply loves human beings, whom he created for himself? How can the Titans be important to me, but not all human beings who are precious to God?
Let’s consider again what Jonah said at the beginning:
“Please, LORD, isn’t this what I said while I was still in my own country? That’s why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster. (Jonah 4:2, HCSB)
Jonah was not on board with God’s attitude toward his enemies. But that did not change God’s attitude. God is not a god for our own little tribe. He is for all people. God wants his people on board with this. Yes, to be the people of God means something specific, and some people reject that chance to come to God. But God wants us involved with giving every kind of people, everywhere, a chance to repent and receive his salvation. We don’t get to say, “I don’t want God to use me to bless those people. They aren’t my type of people.” But they are God’s type of people. They may reject God’s message. But they may receive it. Let’s get on board with God’s desire to reach all people.
11 For the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on him will not be put to shame, 12 since there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord of all richly blesses all who call on him. 13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. 14 How, then, can they call on him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news (Romans 10:11-15, CSB)