LENT #1: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF SUFFERING

Photo by Walid Ahmad on Pexels.com

God the Father made it quite clear that he was pleased with Jesus. It is certain that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit. And yet, the Father’s approval, and the Spirit’s leading brought Jesus into a wilderness where he had nothing to eat, and had to battle with the devil. Our circumstances are not a reliable guide to understanding how God feels about us. Often, God leads us into suffering, because he is treating us as his children; treating us, in fact, exactly how he treated Jesus.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Lent 1

Lent 2022 #1. Luke 4:1-4

On March 2, this year, we entered the church-season of Lent. The “church year” with its various seasons – like Lent, Advent, Pentecost, etc. – is not found in the Bible. It was developed over time, in conjunction with “church festivals.” Church festivals include days like Christmas, Pentecost, Resurrection (Easter), All Saints, and also days celebrating the lives of various famous Christians. The church year developed as church leaders found it useful to remember different important parts of the Bible, and to highlight certain Biblical themes and events. Eventually, by the middle ages, the lives of most people in Europe revolved around the church year, and the various festivals of the church. It was helpful, at that time, for people to have their lives rooted and grounded in the Church year. The rhythms of their lives, all year round, were deeply attached to themes and holidays that reminded them of God. The very word “holiday” actually comes from the phrase “holy day.”

There are negatives to the church year. The seasons and festivals of the church year are associated with various Bible readings. Eventually, the Church began to focus only on those particular Bible readings, which were chosen by human beings to create the church year. Most people did not have their own Bibles, so they only heard the Bible when it was read at church. Because of the way the church year is structured, no one ever heard a whole Biblical book read in order – that is, in context. Not only that, but the readings of the church year (called “the lectionary,” or “the pericope” [pronounced per-ik-uh-pee]) leave out well over half of the Bible. Many pastors only preach on the lectionary, which means, in such churches, there is over half the Bible that you will never hear taught or explained. When pastors preach on the lectionary, it is, by necessity, preaching out of context. I know some pastors who would argue that the lectionary, along with the church year, is the context, but those are man-made contexts, not the context given by the Bible itself.

All of this is good to know, and important to take into consideration. The church year is man-made, neither created by, nor demanded by the Bible. Paul writes this, in Colossians:

16 So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. 17 For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. 18 Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, 19 and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.

(Colossians 2:16-19, NLT)

It is easy to see how those verses apply to the church year. But there is another aspect also. We should not judge those who do find the church year helpful. In addition, the church year is the product of centuries of thoughtful consideration. Times have changed, of course, but I think sometimes we in the 21st century are perhaps too quick to dismiss ancient Christian practices that followers of Jesus found helpful in former times. Even today, millions of people find the church year helpful for following Jesus. I do think it has its deficiencies, but I also want us to be able to draw from what is good and helpful in Christian tradition.

All that is a very long way of saying that this year, I would like to at least experiment with following a church-season – in particular, the season of Lent. I do not intend to follow the church year always, but I do want to expose you to this ancient Christian tradition. As always, we will base it firmly in scripture. In fact, it is possible that we will spend all seven weeks of Lent in just one scripture passage, but we will see.

The season of Lent is arranged to last forty days, in remembrance of the forty days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness, and battling temptation, just before he began his world-changing ministry. It also echoes the forty years that the people of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness before they entered the promised land. The forty days of Lent begin with Ash Wednesday, and end with Easter. We will begin this Lenten season by looking at that experience Jesus had in the wilderness.

1 Then Jesus left the Jordan, full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 But Jesus answered him, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone.”

(Luke 4:1-4, CSB)

Let’s remember the context. Jesus has spent thirty-years living in obscurity, most of it in the town of Nazareth. Most sons in those days probably ended up doing whatever their fathers did for a living, so it is likely that Jesus was a builder, like Joseph. Now, at the age of thirty, led by the Spirit, he visits his cousin John, and is baptized by him. At his baptism, the Father made it known that He was pleased with Jesus. He affirmed Jesus in his Divine Sonship. And then, the first thing the Spirit leads Jesus to do is to go out into the wilderness, where he is to refrain from eating, and face the temptations of the devil.

There is an important point here. I think it is very significant for many of us. The Father was pleased with Jesus. The Spirit was with him, leading him. And he was brought into a desert wasteland where he had no food and had to fight with the devil.

You don’t have to go very far in America to hear a Christian who says something like this: “If you just follow God, he’ll take care of you. Your life will go better.” The Father was pleased with Jesus. The Spirit was leading him. However, his life did not get easier as a result of this, but harder. Following God is not a guarantee that everything will go well for you. That’s hard, but it’s the truth. When we follow God, he is often kind enough to lead us to the place where we understand that this life on earth is not the main focus. He usually uses suffering to help us absorb that message.

There is something else that many people may need to hear today: Our circumstances do not necessarily reflect how God feels about us. Jesus had nothing to eat. He was assailed by the devil, and living in a desert wasteland. And the Father was so pleased with him; the Spirit was with him. The Father had his reasons for allowing Jesus to go through that. But his reasons had nothing to do with  his delight in Jesus.

Sometimes, when I’m going through tough times, I think maybe God is angry at me, or perhaps I’ve done something that has caused him to teach me a lesson. Another thought I have sometimes is that I’m going through hard times because I’ve made the wrong choice, and not listened to the Holy Spirit. But that could not have been the case with Jesus. The Father was pleased with him. The Spirit was leading him. And he ended up in a wasteland with no food, fighting the devil.

I think this passage calls us to dare to look at our circumstances differently. Because we are in Jesus, the Father is pleased with us, too. What we are going through is not necessarily a sign of how God feels about us. It’s true that, unlike Jesus, we sin. Sometimes we go astray and hard circumstances are a result of our bad choices. But Jesus shows us that you can follow the Spirit and still end up in the desert with no food and the devil attacking you constantly. Just because you are in a hard time does not mean that God is displeased with you. Trust his love and grace to you – it comes to you through Jesus, which is to say, perfectly!

And here is one of the first lessons we can take from the season of Lent: there is a time and place in the Christian life for hardship and discipline. It is not because you’ve done something wrong. It’s not because God is displeased with you, or that you need to get your act together. It is because that is the best possible thing for you, at this time.

I’ve come to this place with my own intense physical suffering. I have prayed, and received prayer for my suffering, including many types of prayer, and from many different people. I’ve tried literally dozens of things, medically. Yet I am still in pain. I trust therefore, that if God continues to allow it, it is because this difficult thing is, in fact, the very best thing for me. The writer of Hebrews addresses this same topic, telling us to consider the suffering of Jesus. His temptation in the wilderness was part of his earthly suffering:

3 For consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you won’t grow weary and give up. 4 In struggling against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons:
My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly
or lose heart when you are reproved by him,
6 for the Lord disciplines the one he loves
and punishes every son he receives.
7 Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline ​— ​which all receive ​— ​then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but he does it for our benefit, so that we can share his holiness. 11 No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

(Hebrews 12:3-11, CSB)

God disciplines us for our benefit, so that we can share in his holiness. Though it isn’t pleasant at the time, later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. It is not punishment, but training; training in holiness. Most importantly, God deals with us this way because he loves us, because he considers us his children, bearers of his own name.

So here is the first lesson for this year’s Lenten season: allow God to use whatever hardship is in your life to bless you, and train you to share in his holiness. If you can alleviate your suffering, go ahead and do it. But if you find yourself dealing with some kind of hardship that you have no control over, perhaps you could be open to the idea that God will use it to bless you. God is treating you as a beloved child, as a member of the family.

All suffering is difficult. But not all suffering needs to be evil.

Let me say this again, because many 21st century American Christians don’t really know this, or want to accept it: not all suffering is evil. In fact, when we are in Jesus, nothing that we suffer needs to be evil. Instead, the Father can use every bit of it to bless us, and to train us to share in His holiness.

We should not miss this fact, also: God didn’t just use the suffering that happened to come to Jesus as he went about life. There was plenty of hardship in the ordinary, everyday life of someone who lived in 1st Century Israel under the Roman empire. There was poverty the like of which most of us have never seen. There was injustice. There was hard work. There was no modern medicine, so even a headache was not easily solved. But God called Jesus deliberately into even more suffering.

I don’t believe we ought to go looking for ways to suffer. But we don’t need to fear it either, and we need to recognize that sometimes, God’s gracious hand is in the thing that causes us suffering. It is a tremendous comfort for me to know that I suffer because it is God’s best will for me. It is a wonderful joy to know that there is purpose in my pain, and it is accomplishing something in God’s Kingdom, even when I don’t understand it. I am being treated as God’s beloved child. I know this not only because of the Hebrews passage above, but because this is exactly how God dealt with Jesus Himself.

Let the Lord speak to you today about the joy and discipline and love that He can impart to you through whatever suffering he calls you to.

Let me add one final thought. I have heard many Christians say that they believe revival is coming to America. Many of the people who say this are people that I know and respect. But even as they are convinced that revival will come to the American church, I am convinced about the way it will come to us: through suffering. I cannot see any way that American Christians can come to a profound, life changing place in their faith, and have a significant impact on our culture, without suffering. I am more and more convinced that a time of suffering is coming to the church at large. When it comes, let us not be surprised by it. Peter, who knew what suffering  is, wrote:

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you, as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed.

1 Peter 4:12-13 (CSB)

Let us not be worried, or fearful, or dismayed. Jesus suffered, and part of following him, involves following him in suffering. It can be difficult, yes, but it is not bad, not evil. It might be the most wonderful thing God can do in us and through us.

The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs — heirs of God and coheirs with Christ — if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.

(Romans 8:16-18, CSB)

Once again, we see the connection between being a child of God, and being called to suffer.

During this time of Lent, let us use the season to prepare ourselves, to train our minds and hearts to recognize that suffering does not need to be evil, and it can actually accomplish much good for the kingdom of God. Let us use the practices of Lent to train ourselves, so that we recognize we are indeed God’s children, and he will use us in his kingdom, and in this world.

1 PETER #12: ORDINARY PRIESTS, SPIRITUAL SACRIFICES

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

In Christ, we do not need priests to help us connect to God. ALL of us have direct access to God through Jesus Christ. This means that in a sense, we are all priests. That priesthood extends to the fact that all Christians are called to represent and serve God wherever we live, work and relax.

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 12

1 Peter #12.  1 Peter 2:4-5

As you come to him, a living stone—rejected by people but chosen and honored by God—5 you yourselves, as living stones, a spiritual house, are being built to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 PETER 2:4-5

As in pretty much the entire letter, when Peter writes “you,” in Greek, it is plural. In English it should be “you all,” which is just one more argument for adopting “Y’all” as an actual, proper word. Anyway, Peter is saying that Christian communities are part of something that God is building. He begins the building with the foundation of Jesus – the living stone, rejected by humans – but he is building us Christians, through our local church communities, into living stones, and those living stones are making a spiritual house. Next, he explains that within the spiritual house of God, every single Christian is a priest.

I want to unpack this a little bit. We will deal with Jesus as a “living stone,” next time. Peter also calls his readers (that is, all Christians) “living stones.” He is providing an analogy about the church. If we needed any reminder that the church is not contained in physical buildings, here it is: we, the people who follow Jesus, are the building blocks, and we are being built into a spiritual house, not a physical one. Remember, there were no “church buildings,” until three hundred years after Peter wrote this letter. One of the main points Peter is making is that God lives within the community of his people (not within physical buildings). When we gather together to worship (even when it is on zoom), God inhabits our spiritual community in a special, and spiritual, way. Part of our purpose as Christians is to be a community in which God dwells.

Let’s spend the bulk of our time exploring the fact that Peter calls Christians “a holy priesthood.” In the first place, in ancient times, only a priest was allowed to “approach God” to make a sacrifice. For the Israelites, the priests had to be born into a particular bloodline. Most people were not priests, and as close as they ever could get to the presence of God was to stand outside of God’s temple, in the courtyard. The priests (lucky enough to be born into priestly families) were allotted into divisions, and the divisions were rotated in their service at the temple. The priests had to go through various cleansing rituals in order to be considered holy enough to complete their service of offering sacrifices on behalf of the people. No one but a priest ever got to go inside the temple, and even for a priest, it was probably a once in a lifetime chance, because you were chosen for the duty by random chance.

Most of Peter’s first readers were probably not Jews, so they might have been more familiar with the pagan religious rites of Greece and Rome.  Although perhaps the requirements were not so stringent, certainly, to engage in anything beyond a minor act of worship (like burning incense in front of an image in your own house), a priest or priestess had to be involved. If you really wanted to connect with a deity, or enlist its help, you needed someone in the class of priests. You couldn’t do it directly.

But Peter says: “Now, through Jesus, you are all priests!” This is one of the revolutionary aspects of Christianity: Because of Jesus Christ, by God’s grace, anyone can directly approach God through faith. You don’t need a priest to pray for you: you yourself can pray directly to God. And in fact, the prayers of a Christian priest/pastor are no better than those of any other Christian. Our prayers are heard because of Jesus Christ, not because the one who prays is somehow special. I have non-Christian friends who sometimes say something like this: “Put in a good word at the Pearly Gates for me.” I usually respond like this: “My word is no better than yours at the Pearly Gates. But I can introduce you to the guy I’m counting on to get me in.”

I am a called, trained, and ordained minister of God’s church. That does mean something. It means that I have a particular kind of calling to spend as much time as I can (ideally, all of my “working hours”) teaching people the Word of God, helping them to grow closer to Jesus, and training them to engage in the callings God has for their lives.. The calling to vocational ministry is relatively rare – maybe 1-5% of Christians are called to it. But my calling does not give me some special hotline to God that other people don’t get. It is about my role in the church, and about dedicating myself entirely to God’s service. It most certainly does not mean that people have to use me as an intermediary to talk to God. In fact, there is no point in trying to use a priest or pastor that way.

So that’s the first part of all Christians being the “priesthood of believers:” we all have direct access to God through Jesus Christ. No one is excluded. There is a second thing, also. While it is true that being called to full time vocational ministry is fairly rare, every single Christian is called to live in such a way that God is glorified, and the church is built up. Ephesians 4:11-16 explains:

11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.

(Ephesians 4:11-16, NLT)

This passage lays it out plainly. There are callings and gifts for vocational (full-time) ministry: apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, teacher. Some people say that all of these gifts are found in one person, and they call this “the five-fold ministry.” Others say that they are all supposed to be in separate people, so that every church should have at least five leaders (one with each of the gifts). My own inclination is to believe that all of these gifts are present, to some degree, in anyone who is called to full time ministry, but that they are not all found in equal measure.

So, for example, I have a friend who is also called to full time ministry. His strongest gift is that of pastor, and he has a clear gift of prophecy, also. He undoubtedly serves the broader church, like an apostle. He can also lead people to Jesus, as an evangelist (and has), and he can teach, but those are not his greatest strengths. Each of us who is called to vocational ministry has a unique combination of these five things. My friend is a bit older than me, and he has observed that over the many years of his ministry, at times he was called to be more of a prophet, and other times more of a pastor, and right now is doing more with his gifts of apostle (serving not just one congregation, but the church at large).

We see that one of the main aims in the work of those who are called to full time ministry is to equip everybody else in the church to also minister in some way. It is not the full time ministers who are supposed to do everything, but rather, we (the vocational ministers) are supposed to train others to use their talents and time to build up the church, and let love overflow to the world. In other words: every Christian is called to minister in some way. This is part of what it means to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices to God.

Pastors do have a particular and unique calling and gifting. But so does every other Christian! This is Christianity 101. Being a Christian means to follow Jesus, and that involves all of your life. It means your life is now to be used to lift up and glorify Jesus Christ. Paul describes it like this:

4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are different activities, but the same God activates each gift in each person. 7 A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person to produce what is beneficial

(1 Corinthians 12:4-7, HCSB)

This does not necessarily mean that you should quit your job and just “live for Christ.” For most Christians, instead, it means, live for Christ where you are right now. If all the Christians who worked in a factory quit their jobs, who would be left to show the grace and truth of God to the others in the factory? If everyone became pastors, so many important things would be left undone.

12 For as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body — so also is Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 So the body is not one part but many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,” in spite of this it still belongs to the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I’m not an eye, I don’t belong to the body,” in spite of this it still belongs to the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed each one of the parts in one body just as He wanted. 19 And if they were all the same part, where would the body be? 20 Now there are many parts, yet one body.

(1 Corinthians 12:12-20, HCSB)

No, for most people, it means that you are called to represent God where you are right now. And, according to the verses above, that role is indispensable. God desires Christians in factories, in offices, in homes raising children, in transportation, in technology, in government, in education, in law, in sales, in small business – the list is almost endless. We are called to be priests wherever we are – that is representatives, and servants, of God. We are called to glorify God, and to touch others with God’s truth and love. That doesn’t mean you can never change jobs, but it does mean that whatever you do, wherever you go, you do it as a priest of God.

The third thing about the holy priesthood is that now we are set apart, special to God, just as priests were considered specially set apart to God. This can offer us a helpful rule of thumb for everyday behavior. You might ask yourself: “Can I say what I am about to say as a priest of God?” In other words, do my actions and words reflect my calling as one of God’s priests where I am? If not, maybe we need to change what we do and say. We can’t make that change without the help of the Holy Spirit, but recognizing the need to change is the first step.

Another aspect of this is integrity. Being a priest of God where you are may get you fired sometimes. I don’t mean that we should be unnecessarily confrontational. We shouldn’t go out of our way to create conflict. But at times, we may find ourselves facing a choice between doing what is right – that is, doing God’s will – or doing what our boss tells us to do. In such cases, being God’s representative may cost us something in material or financial terms. God promises, however, that whatever we lose in this life is more than compensated for:

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.

(Romans 8:18, HCSB)

In addition to being a priest in the workplace, and at home, you are a priest within the body of Christ, as well. That is, you can provide encouragement and support to other Christians in unique ways. You may have a call to lead a ministry to serve the poor, or to teach the Bible to children, or lead worship, or help maintain the physical resources of your church. You are probably called, at least from time to time, to say things to your fellow Christians that they need to hear. We are all called to pray together, and pray for one another. We are called to love one another, and the way we do that reflects the unique way God made each of us. God has designed you to encourage his people, and to help bring them to maturity, in a special way.

Peter says as God’s priests, we offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. There are several important things to understand about these “spiritual sacrifices.” The first thing is they are something different from the actual, physical animal sacrifices common to almost all religions at that time. In the ancient world, most major worship events involved sacrificing animals in the name of one god or another (or, in Israel, the sacrifice was for the God we worship today). Usually, after the sacrifice, the worshippers would eat together, consuming the meat of the sacrificed animal. In the case of non-Jewish worship, any leftover meat was sold in the public marketplace. So, people understood that one of the primary acts of worship was an actual, sacrifice: a physical animal. In some cases, instead of an animal, an amount of grain was used, or a drink was poured out in honor of the deity.

Peter says, now, through Jesus Christ, we are no longer killing animals or burning up food or wasting drink as part of worship. Instead, what we offer God is spiritual. How do we do that? What is a spiritual sacrifice? Paul tells us, in Romans:

So then, my friends, because of God’s great mercy to us I appeal to you: Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him. This is the true worship that you should offer. 2 Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God—what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect.

(Romans 12:1-2, GNT)

The spiritual sacrifice we offer is our very selves. We make ourselves available to God: body, soul and spirit. The verse above explains that part of that sacrifice involves allowing God to transform us inwardly in such a way that results in outward changes. . What God wants is our hearts. He wants us to willingly come to him in love, and trust him, even when we have doubts and don’t understand. The transformation begins through God’s Word as we learn it, and believe it.

In case that gets too esoteric and difficult to understand, let’s make it practical. It starts with reading the Bible and believing what we read. And it continues like this: When I believe that all the good in my life proceeds ultimately from God, and I thank him for it, I am offering  a spiritual sacrifice. When I am hurting, and struggling, but I choose to trust that God is good, and is working good in my life – even though I can’t see or understand it at the moment – and I thank him for that good, that is a spiritual sacrifice. The contemporary song Blessed Be Your Name captures both of these types of spiritual sacrifices beautifully.

Blessed be Your name // When the sun’s shining down on me // When the world’s all it should be:

Blessed be Your name.

And blessed be Your name // On the road marked with suffering // Though there’s pain in the offering: Blessed be Your name

There are other types of spiritual sacrifices that we can offer God. When I want to do certain things, but I learn that God does not want me to do that, and I obey him, rather than my own desires or preferences, that is a spiritual act of worship. When I give God my time and energy, to be used as he wishes, that is spiritual worship. When I choose to let God love others through me (though I might prefer not to) I am giving God my spiritual worship through Jesus Christ. Prayer is spiritual worship, as is music. Quieting my mind to listen to His Spirit is spiritual worship.

I hope you can see, that it all comes back to giving ourselves wholly to God in faith, through Jesus Christ. Why don’t you spend some time offering yourself to Him right now?

1 PETER #11: DELICIOUS WORDS

Photo by Flo Dahm on Pexels.com

God’s Word is life to us. Without it, we die spiritually. Though it takes time and energy, when we regularly read the Bible and ask God to speak to us through it, it becomes delicious spiritual food to 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 1 Peter Part 11

1 PETER #11: 1 PETER 2:1-3

Last time, Peter laid the foundations for authentic Christian community: Truth, and Love. Every Christian is called to be involved in the lives of at least a few other believers in authentic love and the truth of God’s word. He continues the same theme in these verses. (Remember, chapter and verse markings are only there to help us navigate around the Bible. They are not part of the Word of God, but were added almost a thousand years later). Peter begins by describing some of the implications of truth and love. If we are to be in Christian community, we can’t have malice toward one another. We cannot deceive one another, or regularly practice hypocrisy, or envy, or slander. These things destroy both Truth and Love, and they make real Christian community impossible.

All of that is a great example of how our beliefs are connected to our behavior. This isn’t a list of dos and don’ts; it’s not another set of laws to follow. But as sure as night follows day, you cannot Love other Christians in Truth if you are nasty or mean toward them, or deceive them, or live as a hypocrite, or envy, or slander them. Our behavior naturally lines up with what we really believe, and what we really think is important. Our behavior does not save us, but our behavior does tell us how much our faith is having an impact on our lives. If we cannot see any impact at all of faith on our behavior, then we need to revisit faith first. Trying to change our behavior without changing our beliefs, or what is important to us, is doomed to failure.

Peter revisits the truth aspect in verses 2-3: He tells us to crave God’s word like newborn infants crave their mother’s milk. By the way, Paul, and the writer of Hebrews, also talk about “spiritual milk.” But both of them describe it as only for spiritual babies, and they rebuke various people for still needing milk when they should be eating solid food. (1 Corinthians 3:2, and Hebrews 5:12-13). Don’t let this confuse you – there is not some universal spiritual meaning for the word milk. Even within the Bible, writers do use the same words in different ways, sometimes, and they use the same words to create different word-pictures. Paul and Hebrews are using the picture of babies and milk to make points about spiritual immaturity. However, right here in our passage, Peter is using it in a different way – to show that we are in desperate need of God’s Word, and we should crave it, and that we need it in order to grow.

This is a powerful picture. In the first place, in those days, there was no such thing as infant formula. A baby needed mother’s milk, plain and simple. Without it, the baby would die. Milk was life to the baby. So, God’s Word is life to us. Without it, we die in our sins. Paul explains it like this:

13 For “Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved.”
14 But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? 15 And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!”
16 But not everyone welcomes the Good News, for Isaiah the prophet said, “LORD, who has believed our message?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ.

(Romans 10:13-17, NLT)

We have to have the Word in order to have faith. And Peter adds that we need it “so that by it you may grow up into your salvation.” Many other verses also explain that even after we initially have come to Jesus, we need the Word to develop and sustain our faith.

4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

(Romans 15:4, ESV)

4 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed. You know those who taught you, 15 and you know that from childhood you have known the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, 17 so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

(2 Timothy 3:14-17, HCSB)

12 For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 No creature is hidden from him, but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give an account.

(Hebrews 4:12-13, CSB)

We are only one quarter of the way through Peter’s letter, and we can see that God’s Word – that is the Bible – is a major theme. That’s because it is a major theme to Christianity as a whole. Without God’s word, we have no truth, no reality. With God’s word, when we trust it, we have salvation, and instruction about how to know God better, and how to live as we were intended to live. If you are struggling in your Faith, or struggling to live as a Christian, the very first question I have is this: what role does God’s Word play in your life? Do you read it regularly? Do you ask God for help in understanding when you read it? Do you seek to live by it? Are your values and priorities formed by what you read in the Bible, or by other things? In short: Do you regularly feed your soul on God’s Word?

If you are serious about God’s Word, but you don’t really know how to read it properly, or understand it, PLEASE reach out to me! We can have an email conversation, if that would help you. Or, if you are interested, I have written a book to help regular people understand the Bible, called: Who Cares About the Bible? It doesn’t cost that much, but, in case anyone thinks I’m pushing this in order to make $1.75 (the amount I get, if you buy a copy), I will give you a free copy, if you ask for it. It is also available in ebook form. If you want a free copy, contact me. Or, you can buy it from amazon.com.

Peter adds another thought about God’s word. He says: if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:3, ESV) This a theme that recurs throughout the Bible – that as we engage in faith, and particularly as we receive the Word of God, it brings a sweetness and joy to our souls:

8 Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!
Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!

(Psalms 34:8, ESV)

When Ezekiel was called by God to become a prophet, God gave him a special vision involving His Word:

1 He said to me, “Son of man, eat what you find here. Eat this scroll, then go and speak to the house of Israel.” 2 So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. 3 “Son of man,” he said to me, “feed your stomach and fill your belly with this scroll I am giving you.” So I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth.

(Ezekiel 3:1-3, CSB)

The scroll, is of course, a pictorial representation of God’s Word. When he ingested God’s word, when he took it into his soul, it tasted sweet to Ezekiel. Jeremiah had a similar experience:

16 Your words were found, and I ate them.
Your words became a delight to me
and the joy of my heart,
for I bear your name,
LORD God of Armies.

(Jeremiah 15:16, CSB)

The writer of Psalm 119 felt exactly the same way:

102 I have not turned from Your judgments,
for You Yourself have instructed me.
103 How sweet Your word is to my taste —
sweeter than honey in my mouth.

(Psalms 119:102-103, HCSB)

Let me put this all together by telling you what happened this very morning. I was doing my normal Bible reading – in which I read through a book of the Bible, a little bit each day. Currently, the book I’m reading is Proverbs. I prayed briefly before I started – something like: “Lord, I need to hear from you right now. What do you want to say to me?”

Then, I started reading from where I left off yesterday. Here’s what I read:

11 I am teaching you the way of wisdom;
I am guiding you on straight paths.
12 When you walk, your steps will not be hindered;
when you run, you will not stumble.
13 Hold on to instruction; don’t let go.
Guard it, for it is your life.

Proverbs 4:11-13

This verse tells me about wisdom. I know the historical context, and I know the context of the verses, because I read the previous chapter yesterday. I know that in general, these verses are telling God’s people to pursue the wisdom that comes from God, which, actually, goes along well with this sermon I am working on. That’s all very great. But this morning, God made this word living and active to me. As I read this with a heart of faith, a heart that said, “I want to hear from God,” these words became God’s word to me, today. It was as if the words in Proverbs were addressed right to me. It felt like God was saying:

“Tom, I am pleased with you. I am here. I am teaching you. I am guiding you. Your spiritual steps will not be hindered, your way is clear. I am bringing you deeper into my Life, my ways. You are on the right path, I have given you wisdom, and will give you more. Don’t be worried – continue on this path. I am pleased with you.”

It’s hard to describe exactly what it means to me, but the main point is this: I felt like God spoke to me directly and personally. He imparted his favor and love to me through the words of the Bible. It was food and drink for my soul; it was sustaining substance for my spiritual life.

I have actually read those verses in Proverbs many times. Certainly, I’ve read the entire book of Proverbs at least four times, or more. But today, verses that I have read before became living and active. The Holy Spirit applied them to me, personally in a fresh way. What I heard this morning was not the universal meaning of those verses for all people and all time. What I heard was God’s Living Word to me, for today.

I have experienced this sweetness, this “taste of God,” many times in my life through studying the Bible. Lest you think that means you need to become a Bible scholar to achieve it, let me say that I experienced it first when I was only a teenager, as I tried, for the first time, to seriously engage with what I read in the Bible. I continued to experience it as a college student. In other words before I could have been called a “Bible scholar” in any meaningful sense, God used His Word to let me “taste and see” that He is good. Even today, what I received from God was not about intellectual understanding, but about receiving His Living Word in faith.

So, if you are a teenager, with no college education, God can still give you tastes of His goodness if you engage with the Bible. If you are an adult with no college education, the same thing applies.

It isn’t about us knowing a lot, but rather, it happens when we genuinely want to know God better, and we seek that knowledge through His Word, and through the community of believers. It happens when we read the Bible with faith that God is indeed imparting His life to us through it.

I invite you, too, to immerse yourself in God’s Word so that you can taste and see that He is good!

1 PETER #9: THE HERO OF MY LIFE’S STORY

Photo by Daisa TJ on Pexels.com

Jesus was foreknown from before the foundation of the world. That means that God knew ahead of time all of the pain and suffering that would occur after he created the world, but he did it anyway. He did it for love. The fact that Jesus was planned from the beginning also means that He is the Hero in the story of my life. My life is here to show the glory of Jesus to the world. This is true of all of us who have trusted him.

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 9

1 Peter #9.  1 Peter 1:17-21

Last time in our 1 Peter series, we talked about what it means to live in the fear of the Lord. Among other things, it means we do not need to fear anything else at all. Next, Peter reminds us that our salvation does not come from perishable things, like silver or gold, but rather from the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

This is one of those places that we might miss if we read too quickly. I think most of us do not think of silver or gold as perishable. To get literal about it, there are Roman gold coins from the time Peter wrote still in existence. That doesn’t seem very “perishable” to me. In fact, to get even more technical and literal, even though it is rare to find a two-thousand-year-old gold coin, the actual gold that was used in Roman coins is still almost certainly in circulation today, one way or another. What I mean is, over the centuries, people who had gold coins, or acquired them in some way, melted them down for other purposes. Nobody just throws gold away, and two-thousand year old gold is just as valuable as gold that was mined yesterday. The same goes for silver. Even though, unlike gold, silver tarnishes, it does not lose its value, and it does not cease to be silver, no matter how much time passes.

It is almost certain that Peter knows all this. In those days, people used coins made of actual precious metals (and some less precious, like copper). They were quite familiar with the properties of those metals. Peter certainly knows that fire does not destroy gold, but only refines it (1:7). So, why does he call gold and silver “perishable?”

In the first place, he knows that most people would think like me, and say, “wait a minute. Gold doesn’t really perish.” He’s getting our attention, and saying in comparison to the preciousness of Jesus Christ, yes, it is perishable.

Second, he knows that, no matter how long they may actually last on earth, the value of gold and silver to human beings does not last. To be very direct about it: the moment I die, gold becomes completely worthless to me. I might spend my life amassing millions. When I die, it will mean nothing to me. Most of us spend our lives desiring, and often pursuing, more money. When it comes to the end, however,  the amount of money you have is meaningless. It can’t help you when you stand before the throne of God. The moment you die, it is absolutely worthless.

Third, the value of gold and silver is relative, not fixed. There is nothing absolute, or permanent about its value. A  huge, untapped gold mine might be discovered, and then suddenly gold could become as common as rocks, making it worthless. Or humanity might decide for some reason that they don’t care so much about gold anymore – after all, other metals are much more useful for making things. Gold is only worth something because people have decided it is. They could just as easily decide they don’t care about it anymore. This is even more true of paper and “electronic” money. Inflation is the process by which money becomes less valuable. It happens all the time, and, in fact, is happening in 2022, when I am writing this. You can’t trust money to remain valuable.

Finally, in comparison to the preciousness of Jesus Christ, gold and silver are like moldy bread. That is the message of these verses: that Jesus Christ is infinitely valuable, and through faith, we have a part in that infinite value. What we have in Jesus is the most precious thing in the universe, and it will remain the most precious thing in the universe for all time. Remember, we have a hope that can never perish, spoil, or fade.

Just a quick note about the first part of verse 18. Peter mentions that his readers were ransomed from the futile ways handed down from their forefathers. This statement makes it almost certain that at least some of the readers were Gentiles. Neither Peter, nor Paul, nor any New Testament writer, considers the heritage of the Jews to be “futile ways.” They all agree that the Jews did not recognize Jesus, who was the point of it all, but they are clear that the Old Testament scriptures point to Jesus, and that, taking into account that it is about Jesus, the Old Testament is a reliable guide to faith and life. Peter would never call the Old Testament, nor Jewish traditions, futile. He might have argued that people used those things in futile ways, but the things themselves have value.

Peter continues:

20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

1 Peter 1:20-21

Here is a stunning truth, tossed out rather casually by Peter: Jesus was foreknown before the foundation of the world. This sounds very theological, and so we often get a kind of glazed look in our eyes and move on. But it says something incredible about God.

Before He even began to create the cosmos, God knew that the humans he was going to create would turn against him, and reject Him. Before he spun the first light out of nothingness, he knew that we humans would create a massive mess of things, and bring death, and evil, and cruelty and horror into existence. Before anything at all existed (except for Him) he knew that he would enter a world of suffering; he knew that he himself would suffer a torturous death, and even go to a hell that had not yet been spawned, in order to save the creatures he was going to make. He knew it all long before it even began, before he put creation into motion.

And he created us anyway.

Knowing the horror that we would unleash by rebelling against him, God created a plan to neutralize our rebellion. He planned out ahead of time how he would defeat evil. That’s what Peter means when he says that Jesus was foreknown before the foundation of the world. When Adam and Eve fell, and sinned, in the Garden of Eden, God was not taken by surprise. His plan was already in place.

Now, why would God do this?

We Christians believe that God is one being, but that he is a Three-Person Being. The three Persons of God love one another with an eternal, infinite love. In fact, of all the worlds’ religions and philosophies, Christianity alone can legitimately show that love is at the core of God’s nature, and therefore, love is the foundation of the universe.

Because there is no limit to God’s love, he chose to make creatures who could share in his love. Now, love must always involve a choice. Imagine you could create a person who would love you unconditionally, no matter what. If you slapped this person in the face, he would adore you. If you mistreated him, ignored him or threw him out, he would still adore you. There would be no choice.  He would have to love you, because you created him without any say in the matter. Now, for the first few days, it might be kind of fun to have someone like that. But after awhile you would realize that this person actually has no will of his own. He doesn’t love you for your own sake. He doesn’t appreciate your good qualities, or forgive your foibles. This person simply does what he is programmed to do. In fact, after a while we would realize that if there is no choice in the matter, then it is not actually love. Real love involves a choice.

Now, if God is ultimate goodness and love, the choice against God has to be a choice for evil. So, as soon as God created angels and humans who were capable of love, he also created the possibility that evil would come into being. And, of course, it did.

To put it simply: He planned from the beginning that he would make creatures who are capable of true love. Therefore, he had to take into account from the beginning that there would also be evil. Therefore, he also planned from the beginning that he would send Jesus Christ into the world in order to defeat evil without destroying love. And he did it all for us, so that we could love each other, and especially so we could love him.

There is another important implication of the fact that Jesus was foreknown before the foundation of the world. It means that Jesus is the hero of the story. First, he is the hero of the grand salvation story found in the Bible. Second, Jesus is the hero in the story of my life, and the story of your life.

I don’t naturally think that way. I tend to think that the story of my life is about me. This leads me to act as if life is all about what I want, and what I need. Even if I devote myself to unselfish things, like my family, and the ministry of the gospel, I still look at it as if life is all about me. However, this way of thinking – that life is all about me – does not typically make me happy. It leaves me trying to figure out what I’m supposed to do. It leaves me trying to solve problems on my own. Even if I let Jesus enter the story of my life, if my life is still all about my own aims and goals, then it is up to me, ultimately, to figure things out. Jesus might help me (in this way of thinking), but the final responsibility for everything is still mine.

But Jesus was planned before the world began. Every person’s story is actually the story of what Jesus will do in and through their life. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the world-famous Sherlock Holmes novels. He made a very interesting choice in telling the stories. The action is narrated by a man called John Watson. We are told the story from the point of view of Watson’s life. To illustrate what I mean, it reads like: “I met Holmes at our club, and then I told him about the empty room,” and so on. You might say, it is the story of Watson’s life. However, the story is not about Watson. The hero of the story, and really, the main character, is not Watson, but Sherlock Holmes. Watson’s life, and his story, were designed by Conan-Doyle to show the greatness of another character: Sherlock Holmes. If we were to put it in theological terms, we might say that Watson’s life becomes a platform to give glory to Holmes.

In the same way, our own lives are meant to be a platform to show the greatness of Jesus Christ. The story is not about us. Yes, we see it from our own perspective, just as Watson sees things from his own perspective. But the real story of our lives is not about us; the real story is about the Hero, the One who was known from before the foundation of the world: Jesus Christ.

When I realize that my life is not telling my story, but rather, telling the story of Jesus, a lot of pressure is taken off me. I don’t have to perform. I don’t have to save the day, or move things forward. Jesus is the main character of my life’s story. Jesus is the hero. I’m a sidekick. We sidekicks are still important. Without Watson, the story of Sherlock Holmes would not have been told. In a similar way, God wants to tell a story about Jesus through my life. There is a story through my life that will bring glory to Jesus in a way that is different from the story told through someone else’s life. But I am not the point. I’m along for the ride, along to admire and trust the Hero, who was foreknown from before the foundation of the world.

Now, this sounds very wonderful and lofty, but what does it really mean: “Jesus is the hero of the story of my life?” Let’s get real. I was thinking about this just a few minutes ago, while my pain was starting to get worse. Some nights, when that happens, I’m looking at hours and hours of pure misery. I prayed without much hope, “OK, Jesus, since we’re talking about this, I need a hero to save me from the pain in this moment.”

I’m telling the truth when I say that within a few minutes, the pain stopped getting worse, and even backed off a little bit. But let’s keep it real. I have often prayed for relief, and received none. What then? What happens when the hero doesn’t save you?”

Here’s the truth: He has already saved us. Yes, I live a difficult life. But the end of the story was written before the beginning of time, space and matter. Jesus always planned to go through hell so that I only have to go through earth. I won’t be thrilled if my suffering lasts a few more decades, but a few decades is nothing compared to the eternal joy that awaits me, because the Hero has already won the final battle. For followers of Jesus, every defeat in this life is temporary – even death! Every moment of suffering will be overwhelmed by joy piled upon joy. The Bible fully acknowledges the reality of suffering in this mortal life. But the end of the story makes everything else more than worth it:

6 For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children. 17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. 18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. 19 For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are.

(Romans 8:16-19, NLT)

So, recognizing that Jesus was foreknown from before the foundation of the earth, we can live a life of hope:

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

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NLT)

1 PETER #8: THE REWARDS OF OUTRAGEOUS GRACE. 1 Peter 1;17.

This verse draws our attention to two important things: the Fear of the Lord, and his promise to reward us in addition to an eternal life filled with the joy of God. When we learn to fear the Lord, we learn also to trust Him. And when we have the true fear of the Lord, there is nothing else in all the universe that we ever need fear again.

As to the second thing: we will be rewarded for living out our faith the way God designed us to, and empowers us to, through the Holy Spirit. This is on top of the free grace-gift of eternal life lived in the joy of God. It’s far too much. We don’t deserve it. That’s exactly the point.

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 8

1 PETER #8. 1 PETER 1:17

Last time, we looked at the motivation for living holy lives: the Love of the Father for us, and the Hope that he has given us through Jesus Christ. When we are deeply connected to those two things, the Holy Spirit will enable us to live lives that are different from those around us. Now, Peter reminds us to take this very seriously: “Since we are those beloved children of the Father, let us remember that the Father also judges our works with perfect judgment. Therefore, let us live out our time in this mortal life with a healthy awe of God.”

Depending on the Bible translation you use, this little section might confuse people into thinking that our salvation is dependent upon how we behave. Just before this, remember, Peter was telling us to be holy, because the Father in heaven is holy. Now he’s talking about recognizing that the Father judges everyone according to each one’s works (I think “works” is the better translation of the Greek word here). It’s starting to sound like being a Christian is all about how well you perform at living an outwardly good life.

Before we go too far with that, we need to keep reading: Peter says, immediately afterwards, that we were saved by the precious blood of Christ, who was made manifest for us, so that our faith and hope are in God. So, when we read that the Father judges each one’s works, it cannot mean that this is the basis of our salvation. The basis of our salvation, our hope, are clearly in Jesus Christ, and his sacrifice on our behalf. Our faith and hope are in God, not in our own efforts. Peter has already said much the same thing, in several different ways, in verses 1-16. Of course the rest of the New Testament also says the same thing, many times over in many different ways.

But what does it mean, then, that the Father judges each one impartially according to their works? Why does Peter even say that, if we are saved by the work of Jesus Christ, not our own? This is another thing that the rest of the New Testament makes very clear: in addition to giving us salvation by the grace of God (not by works) God also wants to bless us by giving us the opportunity to have even greater rewards in the New Creation. In other words, we are saved purely by God’s grace, not by anything we ourselves do, or could earn. AND… God also created us to do good works – things which he particularly prepared in advance for each of us to do:

10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.

(Ephesians 2:10, CSB)

Those good works cannot earn us salvation, but God lays them out for us, and as we “walk in them” (that is, as we live a life of Hope in Christ, and do the things God leads us to do) God grants us special rewards, in the New Heavens and New Earth. He judges how we have lived our lives in accordance with this plan, and than grants us extra rewards based upon that. Some people want to claim that we get those rewards in this life (not in our eternal lives) but that is not at all the way it is taught by Jesus and His apostles.

Many Christians, especially from Western culture, instinctively cringe at the idea of rewards in the New Creation. But we need to evaluate the source of that cringing: is it really Biblical? I think people from other cultures have less of a problem with this than Americans, and European-originated cultures. Many of us Westerners are deeply egalitarian – which means we have a problem saying one person deserves honor above any other person. We think that if God gives rewards in heaven, it will mean some sort of inequality. Some people will have more, others will have less, and we believe that such an arrangement must be intrinsically unfair, and will cause the New Creation to be less than perfect. But a lot of other people in the world have no real problem with the idea of a heaven where people are given extra rewards for their works. They would say it would be unfair if those who worked harder and better than others to follow Jesus received no extra reward at all. I have to say, the cultures who take that view are probably closer to the kind of culture that existed during the New Testament period.

We need to face the fact that the Bible does indeed paint a picture of people being rewarded in the New Creation, including some people receiving greater honor than others. In the Parable of the Talents, at the end, the servant who did the most was given the most, and honored most, as a reward. The next servant was also rewarded and honored, but not as much as the first. It does not look like an equal-outcome, egalitarian kind of system (Luke 19:12-27; and Matthew 25:14-30).

In fact, we find all over the New Testament, the idea that even after we have salvation, we should be encouraged to work for the rewards of those who follow God faithfully and well. One of the classic passages for this is found in 1 Corinthians:

5 After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. 6 I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. 7 It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. 8 The one who plants and the one who waters work together with the same purpose. And both will be rewarded for their own hard work. 9 For we are both God’s workers. And you are God’s field. You are God’s building.
10 Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ.
12 Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. 13 But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. 14 If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. 15 But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames.

(1 Corinthians 3:5-15, NLT, bold formatting added for emphasis)

All of this is only echoing what Jesus himself taught. Time and time again, Jesus talked about being rewarded by the Father. I’ve already mentioned his Parable of the Talents. Since we know that salvation is a free gift of grace, and we cannot earn it, these rewards must be something additional that we receive in the New Creation. Here is just another one of many examples of Jesus, talking about rewards:

1 “Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. 2 When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity! I tell you the truth, they have received all the reward they will ever get. 3 But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. 4 Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.
5 “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. 6 But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

(Matthew 6:1-6, NLT, italic formatting added for emphasis)

There are many more verses and teachings like these. In parables, in direct statements by Jesus, and in the letters of His apostles, the New Testament consistently teaches us that, in addition to salvation, we will be rewarded for walking in the good works that God designed for us. Just in case you need them, here are two more examples:

Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. 8 Remember that the Lord will reward each one of us for the good we do, whether we are slaves or free.

(Ephesians 6:7-8, NLT, formatting added for emphasis)

3 Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. 24 Remember that the Lord will give you an inheritance as your reward, and that the Master you are serving is Christ.

(Colossians 3:23-24, NLT)

Now, there is another piece, implied by Peter, and also by the passage I gave you above, from 1 Corinthians. Peter says, because God judges our works impartially, we should live out our time in exile in a certain way. By “time in exile,” Peter means to remind us that this world is not our home; we belong with God in Heaven. When I say “heaven,” I mean, of course, our eternal future in the New Creation which involves perfect, eternal physical bodies, living in a perfect physical universe. We were created for Heaven, not this fallen, temporary earth. So, to put it clearly, by “time in exile,” he means, “this mortal life.”

Peter tells us that we should live that time in fear (that is really the best translation of the Greek). On the face of it, that seems a bit strange, considering how many times in the Bible the Lord tells us: “Do not Fear!” But Peter is talking about one specific, certain kind of fear: the fear of the Lord. Our modern culture does not do well with understanding what the Bible means by “fear of the Lord.” I like to think of it as a healthy perspective on God’s power, or a kind of awe of God that motivates us. One popular way of putting it comes from author C.S. Lewis. “God is not safe, but he’s good.”

The fear of the Lord is a recognition that we don’t control Him, and he can do absolutely whatever he wants. There is a wildness and power in him; he can create, or destroy, entire galaxies in an instant, if he wants to. But pay attention: this means we should recognize that God is more powerful, and more to be feared, than anything else we might fear: loss of loved ones, poverty, wealth, injustice, conflict, loneliness, suffering of all kinds, or even death. The only thing we ever need fear is God. I’ll repeat the thought a different way: When we live in fear of the Lord, we find that there is nothing else in all the universe that we need fear.

But now comes the wonderful part. Unlike the other things we might be tempted to fear, we have a firm basis to trust that God’s intentions toward us are good and loving. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, we can know for sure that God loves us, and that we can trust him. We can trust a God who has died for us, who has literally walked through hell for us. So our fear of the Lord is not terror – it is a fear that allows us to entrust ourselves, body, soul and spirit, to God, especially in times when we don’t understand.

In the Corinthian verses above, Paul says that if we don’t build well on the foundation of Jesus, we will still be saved, but it will be a harrowing experience. Jesus, in his parables, tells of people who acted as if their deeds were of no concern to God. Those folks did not have ideal experiences, come time for the Father’s judgement.

So, in addition to the blessing of rewards in heaven, there is a kind of warning: “Take this seriously.” We don’t belong in this mortal life – we are citizens of Heaven. We really ought to live like it. This isn’t a demand for perfection, but it is supposed to help us realize that we really should be different people than those who have no hope. God is not some old guy up there who is kind of out of it, and doesn’t know what is going on. Our deeds are of concern for God – in fact, he made us specifically to do certain things and live in certain ways. We really should be living for those things, and for the joy that is coming to us, not for the transient pleasures and shallow satisfactions of our mortal lives. It’s not a threat, but it is a warning: This is serious. Don’t blow it off. There is great reward waiting for those who do live their lives as strangers in this world, followers of Jesus Christ.

Let me briefly address the idea that rewards will somehow cause trouble in the New Creation, and somehow make it less than perfect. We have to remember, that when we are rewarded, we will be free from sin, and we will trust God perfectly. So, if God chooses to give someone a reward, there will not be any part of us thinking, “I’m not sure that’s fair.” No, we will be rejoicing at how God’s reward for an individual blesses that person, and enhances the glory of God. We will not experience jealousy. There will be no injustice in the way that God gives his rewards: that’s part of what Peter means when he says that the Father judges impartially. In the joy and perfection of the New Creation, no one will feel slighted, or forgotten. We will be able to agree wholeheartedly that what God does is perfect and right, including the giving of rewards to those who followed him in this mortal life. When he gives a reward, we will all gasp in awe at the justice, mercy and grace of God, who would not only give us eternal life in the joy of his loving presence, but even pour more joy into us through the struggles and work we have had on this earth. As each reward is given, we will shout “That’s perfect! That’s exactly what it should be!” We will not feel a lack within ourselves, nor envy of others. Trust me, no one is going to be unhappy about the way these rewards are given, or feel that something is unfair, when we stand before the Father.

Some people have another objection: “If I am motivated to be a good Christian by the thought of extra rewards in heaven, isn’t that somehow wrong? Isn’t that self-serving?”

Remember, we begin with salvation. We begin with the knowledge that we deserve worse than nothing: we deserve death and hell and eternal suffering. Then we come to the knowledge of God’s incredible love and grace to us. We are humbled and grateful, and filled with joy and hope. We serve God willingly, connected to the love and hope we have in Him. Finally, the rewards are merely icing on the cake. In other words, we shouldn’t see them as entitlement, but as grace piled upon already giant heaps of grace. They show us that God sees what we do in secret. He knows the silent struggle we have with sin at times, He sees us making the hard choices that no one else sees. He sees the business person not taking unfair advantage of a situation to get a promotion. He sees the young mother working hard to raise her kids as followers of Jesus, when no one is watching. He sees the persecuted Christian losing his livelihood because he won’t deny Jesus. God’s rewards are a way of saying: “It’s not in vain. I see what’s going on with you. I know it’s harder for you to do certain things. Your faith and perseverance will not be overlooked, and they will not be forgotten.”

I think sometimes we need to know that God does indeed take note of the things that no one else does. I don’t think it’s wrong to be sustained, in part, by the knowledge that God perceives everything in your life, and even within your heart and soul, and he will make it up to you for every difficult decision, every struggle, every moment we live for him rather than for ourselves. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting motivation from that. Clearly, neither did Jesus, who encouraged us to remember that our Father in heaven, who sees what we do in secret, will reward us for it (see verses above).

What I am trying to say, politely, is that if you have a problem with rewards in heaven, you have a problem with Jesus. I’ve given you some of the verses. You can look up others. Comment, or contact me, if you want to. Wrestle with this if you need to, but this is in fact, a solid, ordinary part of the teaching of Jesus: we will be rewarded for living out our faith the way God designed us to. This is on top of the free grace-gift of eternal life lived in the joy of God. It’s far too much. We don’t deserve it. That’s exactly the point.

Yes, we need to learn to fear the Lord, so that we can be free from every other fear. We can also trust that his intentions are good for us, and that means that it is a good thing to live this temporary life with a heart that seeks not only eternal life, but also to hear the Father say: “Well done! Your life and your choices did not go overlooked. Enjoy even more of my joy!”

Let the Lord speak to you about all of this right now.

THANKSGIVING NEVER GETS OLD (Thanksgiving Weekend, 2021)

We need to accept that God is truly good, he truly loves us, and he really does have our eternal best interests in mind. Giving thanks to God accomplishes that in a powerful way. Thanksgiving moves the promises of God from our heads into our hearts. (A reprise of a sermon from a few years ago)

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 Thanksgiving 2021

GIVING THANKS – 2021

Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1Thess 5:16-18, HCSB)

And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.  (Col 3:15-17, HCSB)

Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving.  (Col 4:2, HCSB)

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable — if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise — dwell on these things. (Philippians 4:4-8 HSCB)

6 So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. (Colossians 2:6-7 NIV)

Literally hundreds of times, the Bible exhorts Christians to be thankful. As we look at the small sample of such verses above, it is clear that Christians are supposed to be people who live with an attitude of continual thankfulness toward God. I want to talk about why it is so important, what it means be give thanks continually, and how to implement it.

WHY IT IS SO IMPORTANT

The older I get, the more I am inclined to believe that thankfulness is a key part in receiving the grace and love and joy that are offered to us through Jesus Christ. When we thank God, we are, in a way, reaching out and receiving what we thank him for. We are agreeing with what the Bible says about his graciousness and love toward us; we affirming something true about the nature of God. We are saying, “Yes, I have received your love and grace,” and as we declare that to be true, it somehow becomes more real to us.

In order to find Joy in God, we need to see Him as an ally, not an adversary. If we see him as something or someone that stands in our way, we cannot receive grace from him.

We need to accept that God is truly good, he truly loves us, and he really does have our eternal best interests in mind. Giving thanks to God accomplishes that in a powerful way.

When we thank him, we acknowledge that He knows more than we do about what is best for us. Thanksgiving opens the door to trusting God, even when we don’t understand. When we thank him, we begin to pay attention to the multitude of good things he has already given. When we thank him, our soul slowly begins to align with God’s purposes and plans.

Thanksgiving moves the promises of God from our heads into our hearts.

 WHAT IT MEANS TO GIVE THANKS

Many people feel that it is hard to be thankful unless you have a lot to be thankful for. I believe that is a very misleading idea. The American holiday and tradition of Thanksgiving originates from Christian spiritual roots. In addition, that tradition was born in the middle of deep hardship.

The “original thanksgiving” took place in the New England settlement of Pilgrims during the sixteen-hundreds. It is true that at the time they celebrated, they had a good harvest. But they had just gone through an incredibly difficult year in which large numbers of the Pilgrims had perished from disease and malnutrition. From a simple cataloging of bad events versus good, they had much more to be upset about than to be thankful for. Yet they held a three day feast, thanking God for his blessings.

The first national day of thanksgiving was proclaimed by the brand-new American government in 1777. It is true, at the time many people were elated by the American victory over the British at Saratoga. But also at the time of the proclamation, the British still occupied the capital city of the new country (which was Philadelphia at that point) and also held New York City and several significant southern cities. The war was far from over, and times were still quite desperate, and yet they called for a national day of prayer, thankfulness, and repentance toward God.

Considering this history, perhaps it is appropriate that Thanksgiving became an official national holiday during the middle of the Civil War. Once again, the war was far from over, and many desperate times and terrible battles were both behind and ahead. Yet President Lincoln wrote of the many blessings that persisted in spite of war, and said:

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

It isn’t my intention to give a history lesson. But I want to point out explicitly that the early Americans seemed eager and able to thank God, even in the middle of significant hardship. In fact, the American Thanksgiving tradition arose more from hardship and war than from peace and prosperity. Even more, I want to point out that this idea of thanking God at all times, even in difficult circumstances, is a biblical practice. Job chapter one records a series of calamities that befall Job, a righteous man. At the end of it all, this is what he did:

20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship 21 and said:

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,

and naked I will depart.

The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;

may the name of the LORD be praised.”

Psalm 69 was written by someone who felt he was “poor and in pain.” His appropriate response was to thank the Lord:

But as for me — poor and in pain — let Your salvation protect me, God. I will praise God’s name with song and exalt Him with thanksgiving.  (Ps 69:29-30, HCSB)

Paul says, “Good, bad, normal, it doesn’t matter. Give thanks all the time.”

Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1Thess 5:16-18, HCSB)

And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.  (Col 3:15-17, HCSB)

Devote yourselves to prayer; stay alert in it with thanksgiving.  (Col 4:2, HCSB)

When we give thanks in all things – especially in hard things – the love of God begins to take root deeply in our hearts.

Thankfulness also leads to peace and contentment. Philippians 4:5-7 teaches that thankful prayer is an antidote to worry:

Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  (Phil 4:5-7, HCSB)

Yes, it is good and proper to ask God for what we need, and to share our burdens with him. It is also important to thank him as we offer up those prayers. Through turning our burdens over with thankfulness, we experience the peace of God, which is beyond understanding. The fact that it is beyond understanding means that sometimes we will experience peace when our circumstances suggest that we shouldn’t be able to do so. It is thankfulness, at least in part, which leads to this sort of peace in all circumstances.

Many of you know of my own struggle with chronic pain. I hate the pain. I hate what it is doing to my body. But I have learned to be truly, genuinely thankful to God in the midst of it – not ignoring it. I feel closer to God today than ever before.

So giving thanks does not mean that everything is just the way we want it. Giving thanks is an expression of trust in a God who is beyond human understanding.

HOW TO LIVE A LIFE OF THANKFULNESS

I want to hasten to say that I am no expert on thankfulness. Many of you are probably better at it than I. What follows are merely suggestions from one who is still learning to live in thankfulness. I have found that thankfulness (and the benefits of peace, grace and faith which come with it) can be encouraged by some self-discipline. Sometimes, it is helpful to just make myself start thanking God. I don’t like mornings, and I’m not usually very happy until after mid-morning. But, stepping into the shower grumpy and irritated, I can begin by thanking the Lord for running hot water, and then soap, and then a towel. I can thank him that I have my own bathroom. That reminds me that I have my own house to live in, and it is plenty for my whole family. I can go on, and thank the Lord for warm, clean socks, and the existence of coffee, and then for my wife and children. You see how it goes: once we get started, there are an endless stream of things to thank the Lord for. I think one thing that is Biblically appropriate is to frequently thank Jesus for his sacrifice for us, and for his promise of eternal life to us.

When you read the Bible, or a devotional, stop and thank the Lord for what you are reading. Pay attention to anything that jumps out at you, and thank him. Even if the Bible passage is describing something difficult, you could pray something like: “Lord thank you that you are with me in all the difficulties and hardships that I face. Thank you that this passage shows me that it is normal for us to face hard times, even when we follow you.”

Thank the Lord today, and this week, and every day. Let him encourage thankfulness in your heart!

 

1 PETER #4: GRIEF AND JOY IN TRIALS

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is normal and appropriate to grieve when we face hard things in our life. Even so, God uses those things to cause us to grow, and to refine our faith in Jesus. We can trust His work through our suffering because His greatest work came through the suffering of Jesus Christ.

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 4

1 Peter #4. 1 Peter 1:6-9

6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:6-9, ESV

Last time, we saw that Peter began by encouraging his readers with the amazing promises of our eternal inheritance. He now provides a contrast. We have that amazing inheritance, a treasure that will always be there for us. It cannot be corrupted, and it will never lose its freshness or joy. Peter now acknowledges that in the meantime, before we receive that inheritance, we may experience various kinds of difficulty and hardship. The word Peter uses for these struggles is usually translated trials. This is a word that is often used in the New Testament.

I want to take this opportunity to address a misunderstanding that some Christians seem to have. Many people seem to think that the only kind of hardship that “counts” as suffering for Christ is persecution. In other words, (they think) if you are persecuted, any hardship that results from that persecution is suffering for Christ. But if a drunk driver hits you and you lose your legs, that’s just bad luck, and it isn’t the same thing as Christian suffering. But Peter here refers to “various kinds” of trials. This is exactly what is sounds like: it means that there may be many different kinds of hardship and struggles that you encounter. It could be illness, or something caused by an accident, or something done to you by someone else. It might be financial hardship, or emotional problems, or struggles in your relationship with someone. The point that Peter makes is this: whatever the source of the suffering, when we are in Jesus, God uses it to create character, or to test character, or both. It ultimately results in praise and glory and honor.

I want to make sure we are clear here. I don’t mean that God deliberately inflicts pain directly upon people. But when pain comes, he puts it to good use. The Holy Spirit, in Romans 8:28, says this:

8 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30, ESV)

God uses all things in the process of making us more like Jesus, more like the people we were originally intended to be, apart from sin. “All things” working for our good includes trials and suffering, obviously. So, when difficult times come about as a result of living in a world full of sin, and living in bodies that are corrupted by sin, God uses those to develop and refine our character.

3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5, ESV)

The Spirit inspired James to write something similar:

 2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4, ESV)

I can say, without a doubt, that God has used suffering to make me a better person. He has used suffering to help me feel more close to Him than I had ever felt before. He has used suffering to wean my affections away from the things of the world, to help me become less interested in sin. As Paul, and James write, there have been times when I have rejoiced in the suffering that God entrusted to me. Suffering has made my faith far deeper and stronger than it was before – it has been tested, like gold in the fire, and purified in the same way. By the way, I am not claiming to be some great person. I just mean that God has made me more like Jesus than I was before I began to suffer. I’m still not very far along that road, and I don’t claim to be better than anyone else, but I believe I am farther along than I was before, as a direct result of my struggles.

But I am so glad that the Holy Spirit inspired Peter to remind us that there is also grief in suffering. Peter writes here that we rejoice in our eternal inheritance, while the trials are bringing us grief. I don’t believe that there is a conflict in these perspectives. It is possible, and good and right, to rejoice in suffering. It is also good and right to grieve in suffering. Even Paul, who also wrote about rejoicing in suffering, in addition, recorded his deep distress, many times:

8 We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. 9 In fact, we expected to die. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NLT)

I think there are times when suffering results in rejoicing. But at other times, we are pressed beyond our ability to endure (as Paul confesses), and we grieve, and cry out. This too, is an appropriate, godly response to trials, when we cry out in tears, yet still with faith:

11 What strength do I have that I should continue to hope?
What is my future, that I should be patient?
12 Is my strength that of stone,
or my flesh made of bronze?
13 Since I cannot help myself,
the hope for success has been banished from me. (Job 6:11-13, HCSB)
16 I weep because of these things;
my eyes flow with tears.
For there is no one nearby to comfort me,
no one to keep me alive.
My children are desolate
because the enemy has prevailed. (Lamentations 1:16, CSB)
3 I am weary from my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes fail, looking for my God.
4 Those who hate me without cause
are more numerous than the hairs of my head;
my deceitful enemies, who would destroy me,
are powerful.
Though I did not steal, I must repay. (Psalms 69:3-4, CSB)

Why do I call these passionate, desperate, words, responses “of faith?” Because they were poured out as prayers. They are full of sorrow, and pain and despair, but even in the midst of all that, they were poured out to the Lord. Job, Jeremiah and David (the writers of the three passages above) fully experienced their pain and suffering. They did not pretend that they were OK. They were honest and eloquent about how hard it was. But even so, they brought their pain to the feet of the Lord. Yes, the pain is deep, and even despairing, and yet, by bringing their pain to the Lord, they are showing faith. They are terrific examples for us. I’ll be personal for a moment. Today, I feel much more like the verses I just gave you (by Job, Jeremiah, and David), than the ones about rejoicing in suffering. Yet, I know that I am OK with God. There is room for many different responses to suffering. God can handle it. We have a God who personally knows what it is like to suffer within a human body. The writer of Hebrews says (about Jesus):

17 Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. 18 Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. (Hebrews 2:17-18, NLT)

For the first two years of my suffering, I was confused and troubled; that was OK. God handled it. Then for almost four years, I did truly rejoice in my suffering. But now, today, I identify with the Biblical writers who talk about despair and hopelessness. I don’t believe that God loves me any less now than he did when I was doing well. He knows what it is like. He can handle our unexpected courage and fortitude, and he can handle our crushing despair. He won’t let either one go to waste, but instead, will use all things to cause us to grow into the people he intends us to be. He will use them ultimately to bring praise, glory and honor, where right now we experience suffering, grief and despair. Again, this is something that the entire New Testament affirms in many places:

17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. (Romans 8:17-18, NLT)

And, what has become my life-verse:

16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NLT)

One gigantic difference between Christianity and every other world-view is this way of thinking about suffering in the light of eternity. If you are an atheist, life is simply fundamentally unfair to most people, and then you die, and it is over. If you live in a wealthy country, you might not see just how deeply unjust and terrible life is for millions, but it is true. If you are a Buddhist, suffering is ultimately meaningless; it is merely an illusion. If you are a Hindu, all of your personal suffering is your own fault; perhaps from a previous life, but it’s still all on you to pay back your debt to karma. But we Christians see suffering in the light of a glorious eternal future, trusting that a God who is far beyond our comprehension is indeed making things right. It is only logical that an infinite God would do things, or allow things, that we don’t understand. Understanding doesn’t always bring comfort anyway. But our comfort comes from trusting God; trusting that He is indeed good, and that he loves us, and we can rely on that, even when we don’t understand, because he went through incredible pain and suffering himself, for our sake.

Remember when Jesus was on the cross? He cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He understood what it was to have grief and despair in trials. And the cross gives us confidence that even when we don’t understand, God is doing something good. At the time, it seemed to the disciples as if it was a disaster. How could God use the crucifixion of the Messiah for good? And yet, through the suffering of Jesus, God brought about the eternal good of untold numbers of people. If God can use the death of Jesus for good, we can trust that he can use our sufferings for good as well, even when we don’t understand what he is up to, or how it could possibly result in good.

Peter has acknowledged the reality of the grief that suffering brings. He has also set up the eternal perspective, and so, he goes on:

8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:6-9, ESV

Peter saw Jesus personally. It must have been a kind of wonderful thing to him to meet so many people who developed faith in Jesus without ever meeting Him personally. I am sure he was reminded of Jesus’ words to his friend, Thomas:

29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29, ESV)

Paul makes it clear, also:

7 For we live by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:6-7, ESV)

Again, from 2 Corinthians 4:18 (quoted above), we are to fix our attention on things that are not seen physically. I’ve said this before, but faith requires a kind of surrender. We have to give up control in order to trust. We have to accept the possibility that we are being foolish. Even so, Peter gives us a clue that when we do trust our unseen Lord, there is a confidence that results. Many people have asked me over the years whether it is possible to know if you are being saved. Well, Peter makes it crystal clear here. He is writing to people who have taken the leap of faith. They are trusting the unseen and infinite God. As a result, they are filled with joy, and they can be sure that they are receiving the goal of that faith: the salvation of their souls.

Of course, as with anything the idea that you can be sure of your salvation can be abused. I have met people who prayed a prayer with a preacher, and got baptized, and have since had nothing to do with Jesus whatsoever. They live the same kind of life as people who have no faith. Even so, they seem to think they will be saved. Thankfully, I am not the one who will judge their fate; even so, I think such people are probably mistaken, and they are often the “so-called Christians” who give other Jesus-followers a bad name.

If you truly do know that you are saved, if you truly believe what the Bible says about Jesus, it will affect how you live. Certainly, you won’t become perfect, and sometimes it will be two steps forward, one step back, but our actions will reveal what we truly believe.

However, we need to be clear. We don’t have faith in our own ability to be good. We don’t have faith in our own strength of faith. We have faith in the person of Jesus Christ, and on His ability to keep us and guard us until we receive the amazing eternal inheritance he has promised (which we talked about last time). We can indeed have confidence that we are receiving the goal of our faith, the salvation of our souls. In the meantime, yes, we experience  trials and grief, but they are nothing compared to the joy of our eternal future.

Will you trust Him with whatever trials you face today?

1 Peter #1: A LETTER FOR HARD TIMES

Photo by Davi Pimentel on Pexels.com

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.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #10: WALKING BY THE SPIRIT

Photo by Caleb Oquendo on Pexels.com

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

Living Crucified #10. Walking by the Spirit

Galatians 2:20; Colossians 1:27-29; John 15:4-5; Galatians 5:16-25; Romans 8:1-8; Romans 12:1-2.

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.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #8: BORN AGAIN

Photo by Spencer Davis on Pexels.com

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.