FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

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FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (ESV) John 8:31-36

 When we talk about following Jesus, there are certain things that we can do that are like opening up channels to the Holy Spirit. If we are serious about the fact that Jesus is our Lord and savior, we ought to do these things, in order to grow closer to him, and be the people that he intends us to be.

I’m talking about things like  reading your Bible every day. Now, don’t sweat if you a miss day, or even two or three, once in a while. But if want to allow God into our lives in greater measure, if we want to grow spiritually and become what we were meant to be, we can’t do it without regular infusions of God’s Word, which we get from the Bible.

Prayer is another one. If  you are struggling in your Christian life, and you never pray, there is no mystery about why you struggle. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says we ought to pray continually. It’s like a long, ongoing internal conversation with God, along with times that are dedicated specifically and only for prayer.

There is also fellowship with other believers. If we don’t have regular Christian community, our walk with Jesus will suffer. The same is true of worshipping God with other believers, and also serving others. All of these are practices and disciplines that are channels between us and God. The Lord can and does use things to pour more of his love and grace and joy and peace and so on into our lives. We really cannot expect to move closer to God without them.

Now, I want to make sure we have this straight. We don’t do them to please God, or to motivate him to bless us. These are means by which we can connect with the Life he offers. He still has to choose to bless us – we can’t make him do it. But he has designed us as human beings to need these things, and also to have them as resources to help us.

If we do these things regularly, it is likely that we will, at God’s chosen pace, grow in our faith, and also grow in the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

However, there are a few situations in which these things are not enough. The first situation is one that I have experienced during the past few years. At times, the Lord calls his people to suffer. No matter how hard we try, there is at least part of life that simply cannot work, because God has given us the honor of growing through suffering. This is a mystery, of sorts, but there can be wonderful grace as we suffer for him. Sometime, I’ll expound more on this.

There are times, however, when we suffer unnecessarily. You see the Bible insists that we are in a spiritual war. Sometimes, we face struggles and hardships because we are not paying attention to what is going on in that war. Listen to some of what the Bible says about this:

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12); the devil stalks around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8-11); the devil has schemes against us (2 Corinthians 2:11) we are waging spiritual war (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).  We are urged to participate in that war:  We should act as soldiers of God (2 Timothy 2:4); we must resist the devil (James 4:7); fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12) and contend for our faith (Jude 3).

You see, sometimes we think it’s hard to be a disciple because…it’s just hard.  But why is it hard?  Because we have enemies who make it hard for us.  These enemies are not flesh and blood.  Our battle is

against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm (1 Timothy 6:12)

“Rulers” and “authorities” do not refer to earthly government, but to different sorts of evil spiritual entities called the devil and demons.

Now, there are two mistakes we make in the spiritual war. The first is assume that neither the devil nor his demons are real, or that the threat they pose is not significant. Prior to September 11, 2001, in the United States, Americans were only dimly aware of radical elements of Islam that hated the United States. No one took the threat seriously, and that resulted in tragedy. Let’s not make the same mistake with regard to the spiritual war.

The second mistake is to imagine that everything that ever goes wrong is because of the devil. If you never maintain your car, and it breaks down on the way to church, that probably is not spiritual warfare. Sometimes mental illness is medically based, requiring medications and other treatments. Sometimes, life just doesn’t go the way we planned. It is not necessarily all the fault of the devil.

This is tricky, for instance, when we talk about something like depression. My wife Kari has struggled with depression off and on throughout her life. One time, we prayed about it, and we were convinced that her depression had a spiritual cause. We engaged in spiritual warfare, and the depression lifted for several years. After many years, it returned. We prayed, and we realized that Kari’s life was very hard at that time, and her depression was a natural result of her circumstances, and so we needed to change some things.  A third time, the depression returned, and this time we were led to seek medication, and found that in this third case, there was a chemical imbalance. I encourage you to seek out all possibilities, but do not discount the spiritual one until you have investigated it.

The Bible also tells us that these entities work against us primarily by influencing how we think and feel. The battleground of the spiritual war is in our mind and emotions.

And so, at times, there may be a kind of spiritual block that is interfering in your relationship with Jesus. The Bible calls these spiritual blocks: strongholds.

A stronghold is a place in your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus. Maybe it helps to think of it as a room in your house that is locked off from the rest of the house. Inside that room, it is not Jesus who is in charge. We may think we are the one in charge in that area, but the truth is, if we have locked it off from Jesus, that area will be under the influence of the devil and his demons. If you walk past that room, they can use that as a base to dart out and attack you.

3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (ESV 2 Corinthians 10:3-6)

If there is some area of your life where you seem stuck, where you can’t get victory and you just don’t understand why, there is the possibility that it is because of a spiritual stronghold.

Bitterness and unforgiveness are major sources of spiritual strongholds. In Ephesians 4:26

26 And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 for anger gives a foothold to the devil. (NLT Ephesians 4:26-27)

Jesus himself said that when we refuse to forgive others, we are closing our selves off from God’s forgiveness:

14 “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NLT) Matthew 6:14-15

Now, I don’t think God is being vindictive. I think that unforgiveness creates a major stronghold that interferes with us being able to receive God’s grace. It isn’t God being mean, it is us cutting ourselves off from his grace.

Other strongholds can be created when we make a firm decision – what I call, an internal vow – that excludes God. Perhaps a woman grew up in poverty. At some point, she felt so humiliated by her family’s condition that deep inside, she made a vow, something like this: “I will never, never allow myself to be poor again.” But what if the Lord calls this woman to marry a missionary, or to have a career in some area that doesn’t make much money? Her vow excludes God’s authority in her life, and it will cause all sort of issues later on.

Some people make vows that they will never allow themselves to be emotionally hurt badly again. Sometimes this works in the short term, but usually that sort of thing gives an opportunity for the devil, because God often calls us to self-sacrificing love for others. That sort of stronghold could really play havoc in a marriage. It could seriously interfere in someone’s ability to be close to others.

Addictions often accompany strongholds, or vice-versa. Without consciously saying it, we have decided God can do anything he wants, but he just can’t touch my habit of….fill in the blank.

Any area of your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus will be unfair game to the forces of evil. Any place where you are excluding God can become a stronghold.

There is, however, terrific news. One of the reasons we create strongholds in the first place is because we don’t trust that God will truly do what’s best for us. Or, we think he will do what’s best for us, but we believe that we find that very unpleasant. You will indeed find God’s purposes for you to be troublesome and unpleasant for as long as you hold on to your own right to manage your own life. However, when you surrender to the Lord and receive whatever he wants to do in your life, you can find grace and joy in any situation.

I know what I’m talking about. I have suffered severe, intense pain for the past four years. The short description is that it feels like I have been trying to pass a kidney stone, 24/7 365 days a year, for more than four years. The first two years were horrible in every possible way. I still find it daunting to get through some days. However, I also find a great deal of joy, peace and meaning, even in the midst of this, because I am accepting whatever the Lord is doing. I believe he is good, he is powerful and he loves me. The pain has impressed that into every fiber of my being. So, even that which looks terrible from the outside can become joy and blessing when we surrender to Him.

The good news, we can be free, and the Lord has made it simple to be free.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (ESV Galatians 5:1)

In the first place, Jesus took all the guilt of our sin upon himself at the cross. In Jesus, you are now declared “not guilty” – even of the sins you have committed. Second, through the cross, Jesus defeated the powers of evil:

13 You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. 14 He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. (NLT Colossians 2:13-15)

The spiritual powers of evil – including those which inhabit any strongholds – have been disarmed by Jesus. They have suffered a public defeat. Therefore, when we command them in the name of Jesus, they must go. They go, not because we are strong enough to resist them, but because Jesus will back us up when face them. He will make them go way when we tell them to.

The Lord has already defeated the devil. So, for us, destroying a stronghold has three simple parts. First, we identify the stronghold. Next, we repent of it, and ask Jesus to come and take control there. Finally, we speak a prayer by the authority of Jesus, telling the powers of evil to release that stronghold. I have helped many people clear there lives of various spiritual strongholds. I have cleared a few out of my own life, also. It can be shocking to see how free and joyful we can be when all areas of our lives belong fully to Jesus.

I don’t mean that we are perfect, and we never thwart his will. But a stronghold is a place where we persistently, continually thwart God’s control of our lives. When are free of such things, it makes a tremendous difference.

Really what I am talking about is taking inventory, and consciously allowing Jesus to be in control of every single part of your life. Paul did that, and that is why he wrote this:

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. (ESV, Galatians 2:20)

That life, by the grace of God, is a life of love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. It is also a life filled with tremendous hope.

Take  a moment right now to examine your heart. Pick a time this week when you will spend an hour – or several – thoroughly surrendering every part of your life to care of our loving savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.

COLOSSIANS #7: If We Belong to the Head, We belong to the Body

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Christ is the head of the body, the church. You are part of the body, the church. That’s the deal. That’s part of what you sign up for when you surrender your life to Jesus. Part of trusting Jesus is trusting that he has made you part of his body.

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Colossians  #7.  Colossians 6:18

 18 And he is the head of the body, the church.

In this message, I am going to say some things that may be difficult for some people to hear. I want you to stay with me. It may seem like I am being unrealistic at one point, but hang in there, because I will cover our topic today as thoroughly as I can, including taking into account the reality of this sinful world.

In verse 18, Paul moves from a universal view of Jesus to a more personal one. He is the creator of all things, Lord of the universe. That is true, and wonderful. Even more wonderful is that this Creator God takes a personal interest in you and me. He is the head of the body, the church. He attained resurrection so that he could give it as a gift to us. He is God, and yet, he took upon himself the responsibility to repair what we had broken: ourselves, and this world.

And he is the head of the body, the church. There are two important things for us to understand in this statement. The first is that one metaphor for church is that of a body. This is extremely important, for a number of reasons. Let’s look at the idea in greater depth, as Paul does in 1 Corinthians 12:

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.
21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (ESV 1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

This has huge implications for how we live our everyday lives as followers of Jesus. We follow Jesus as a part of his body. It seems to me that millions of Christians don’t understand this. So many people think that religion is very personal and individualistic. There is a small element of truth in this. We do each need to have our own connection to Jesus, because ultimately, he is the only one we can always rely upon. We each have to receive the grace of God, and not reject it, as individuals. But once we are connected to Jesus, we are also connected to his body. And this connection to the body of Christ – that is, to others who follow Jesus – is supposed to last as long as the connection to Jesus himself: that is, eternally.

I have met many, many Christians who claim they are fine “going solo.” Unless everyone else you know who claims to be a Christian is actually a hypocrite – that is, they don’t really believe – there is no justification for that. “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” Could it be any more plain than that? You cannot say to other Christians, “I have no need of you.”

Have you ever met a toe? Just a single toe, wiggling around through the world? Obviously not. A single toe, unconnected to the body will die. That is a biological reality. That is also a spiritual reality. A Christian without regular Christian fellowship will eventually wither away. People have asked me, “Can’t you be a Christian, and not be part of a Church?”

My answer has always been, “Yes, but not for long.”

Some people say, “I am connected to the head, (that is, Jesus) just not the rest of the body.”

All right then, have you ever met a head with a toe sticking out of the side of it? Stay with me here, I know I am being ridiculous – but so are the Christians who claim they do not need to be connected to other believers. Now, if you are a toe, and you are connected to the head, let me ask you two questions: how do you think the head looks to other people? Pretty weird, right? You aren’t doing Jesus any favors, and you aren’t helping him look appealing to the world if you are not connected to the rest of the body.

Second, this: if you are a toe, and you are connected to the head, and nothing else, what is your function? Why is there a toe on the head? How does the toe help out, up there on the head? If a toe is connected only to the head, it contributes nothing to the rest of the body. There is no purpose for it.

Are you starting to get it? The whole idea of a Christian who is not connected to the church is utterly silly and ridiculous. It gives other people  a skewed view of Jesus Christ, and it takes away the purpose that Jesus has for you in blessing others.

By the way, sometimes, I think this is why people are turned off by Christians and churches. Metaphorically speaking, The face of Jesus is covered by toes and fingernails that should be rightly connected elsewhere, but they aren’t, and so the church does not seem to be an attractive place.  Or, even if the face of Jesus is fine, they see a body that is missing feet and fingernails and eyelashes, and think, “That’s a little strange and creepy. I’m not sure I like it.”

Christ is the head of the body, the church. You are part of the body, the church. That’s the deal. That’s part of what you sign up for when you surrender your life to Jesus. Part of trusting Jesus is trusting that he has made you part of his body.

I meet some Christians who say, “I love Jesus just fine, but I really don’t love other Christians.” Listen, brothers and sisters that is impossible. If you love Jesus, you will love your fellow Jesus followers. If you don’t love your fellow Christians, then either you haven’t met enough of them, or there is something wrong in your relationship with Jesus. There are some things in the Bible that are difficult to understand, or are unclear. This is not one of them:

9 Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (ESV, 1 John 2:9-11)

If you think you are a Christian, and you hate other Christians, then you are mistaken. Being connected with Jesus means you are connected with his body, because he is the head. One sign that you are a Christian is that you love other Christians.

11 For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. 12 We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. 13 Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. (ESV, 1 John 3:11-14)

Now, at this point, some of you may be getting a little nervous. The reality is, you just haven’t met many Christians that you can connect with. You feel like you really don’t love the rest of the body, but you really do love Jesus. What can you do? What does this mean?

If you are sure that you love Jesus, and you are sure that you don’t love other Christians, there are a few possibilities. The first is that you are mistaken about either one, or the other. Maybe you really don’t love Jesus. Maybe you still have not surrendered control of your life to Jesus, and you think you have the right to arrange your life however you want, even if sometimes that goes against what Jesus wants. All Christians fall back into this pattern  at times, but I am talking about something deeper than just falling back into sin from time to time. If you really don’t love your fellow believers, perhaps there is something wrong in your relationship with Jesus.

There is another possibility, and that is that you have not yet found your place in the body of Christ. There are many Christians that I can appreciate from afar, but with whom I will probably never be very close. I love them in the sense that I am committed to their best good because we are fellow believers. But I don’t necessarily enjoy hanging around with them. I believe the Lord has a place for each person who belongs to him, a place of deep, loving community with others. Not all churches are the same, and I think this is by God’s design. If we want to use our body analogy, the hand is made up of all sorts of bones, and tendons and tissues and blood vessels. The knuckle of the first finger on the hand works very closely with the other parts of the hand. It is also connected, ultimately, to the stomach, but the hand and the stomach don’t spend a lot of time together. They need each other, but they are not working together as closely as they are with the parts that are nearest to them.

The devil is against us. The world is against us. Our own sinful flesh is against us. Should it be any surprise that it is difficult to find a group of fellow-Christians with whom we can really connect? Of course it is going to be hard, at times, to find the part of the body where we truly belong. But it is absolutely essential that we do.

As a pastor, I need to be connected not only with the people in my churches, but also with the leaders of other churches. It took me the better part of twelve years to find good connections with other church leaders near where I live. I went to pastor’s gatherings, prayer meetings, and events for church leaders. I prayed, and I asked around. Finally, at a retreat for men, I met some other pastors and leaders that I can connect with at a deep level of fellowship. I never quit looking. If I was that intentional about finding secondary fellowship (with other pastors – I already had fellowship in my congregation) then it may require some diligence on your part to find your primary fellowship. Do not stop looking until you find it. It is an essential part of belonging to Jesus. If you belong to Him, you belong to the body. If you do not belong to the body, you will not belong very long to him.

In case I haven’t been clear: it is OK if you don’t connect with the very first church you visit. It may take you some time to find “your people” in the body of Christ. But it is not OK to stop looking until you do. This is of utmost importance. Pray for fellowship. Talk to people you know and ask for suggestions. Be willing to give people a few weeks of your time before you decide you can’t connect with them. Also, be regular. You will never develop fellowship with people if you visit once a month. Also, try and meet Christians outside of Sunday morning church. Fellowship will come extremely slowly if you only see your fellow members of the body once a week.

Now, I have been very strong about this as something that we must do. And we must. Some of you reading this may need to adjust your behavior to conform with Christ as the head of the body. But the reason for doing so is because being a part of the body of Christ is a tremendous blessing. Christ is the head of the body because the best thing for his followers is to be a part of that body. When we commit to Christian community as the Bible describes it, it is an inexpressibly wonderful blessing.

I am an introvert. I need to spend time alone in order to regain energy. Even so, I feel tremendously blessed to have genuine, honest relationships with many Christian brothers and sisters. There is no secret in my life known only to myself – I have the kind of Christian friends to whom I can tell everything. I know that I am loved and appreciated. I know many people who won’t let me get away with stupid stuff or pretensions. I have laughed harder and more often with my fellow Christians than anyone else. I have their backs. They have mine. During the best times, I realize that the love and fellowship I feel with my fellow Christians is a true foretaste of the joy of eternal life. In short, the body of Christ is one of the greatest blessings in my life, and has been for decades. It takes work to get here. You sometimes have to work hard to find the right people. You have to be willing to go through conflict with one another, and work through issues together, without running away, or giving up on each other. But when we live in accordance with the head, Christ, being part of his body is one of the greatest joys we can know on earth.

Colossians #5. Endurance With Joy; Walking By the Spirit

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When we face hardships, struggles and sufferings in the strength and joy that God gives, we show the world that God is good, that he is powerful, and that he loves us. Part of this strength flows to us as we trust what God has already done for us in the spiritual realm. The Bible calls this “walking by the spirit.”

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Colossians #5. Colossians 1:9-14

9 And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. 13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (ESV) Colossians 1:9-14

Last time we focused on verses 9-10, and the fact that true salvation through faith in Jesus results in a changed life. I want to point out, that the idea of changed life is encased, before and after, with the truth that it is  God who does the work to create that changed life. We can say “no” to him, and stop the process. But it is important for us to understand that we don’t achieve a changed life from within ourselves. We don’t get it by trying harder. We get from God himself, when we trust him fully. We obey the commands of scripture because we trust. Another way of saying it is that obedience is the result of genuine faith. If we have an obedience problem, it is most likely because, deep down, we have a problem trusting that God is good, and all powerful, and he loves us.

We talked about what it means to be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding, and that such a thing is a gift of God, from the Holy Spirit. We talked about the importance of walking in a manner worthy of the Lord. Next, Paul prays that the believers would be strengthened with all power, according to God’s glorious might for all endurance and patience with joy. I want us to pay attention to that little word, for. In Greek, it is the word eis, occurring here as an accusative preposition. What that means is that it indicates the purpose of something. You see, we might be tempted to go a certain direction when we hear: “strengthened with all power, according to God’s glorious might.” We might think that this means we Christians are to move from victory to victory. It might sound like we have God’s glorious might so that we ourselves should become mighty and glorious. I have heard Christians who talk as if following Jesus means that everything in life just gets better and better, and you suffer less and less. You go from victory to victory, and the picture of “victory” is more or less, “everything goes well for you.” But it is very clear here that the purpose of our strengthening, the purpose of God giving us his glorious power is so that we might endure with patience and joy.

Enduring with patience and joy implies first of all that there is something to endure. Generally, that means something difficult, since we don’t talk about “enduring” the best day of our lives. Also, what we must endure requires patience, which again, does not sound like one great victory after another. Finally, it seems like what we are called to patiently endure might not normally be thought about as joyful. In simple terms, Paul is praying that the faith of these believers would strengthen them to face trials, sorrows, suffering and difficulties in a way that shows Jesus to the world.

Some of you know that I experience a great deal of physical pain almost every single day of my life.  It is true, that if I were to be healed miraculously, many people would praise God. But I am convinced that more people have been blessed by watching how Jesus strengthens me with endurance, patience and joy in suffering than would have been blessed by my miraculous healing. Through the endurance, patience and joy God has given me, the world sees that Jesus is sufficient and good, even in the middle of hard times. That is a powerful testimony; I think more powerful than many more obvious miracles. Don’t get me wrong. I believe in the obvious kind of miracles, also. But we sell God short when we forget that he can heal and strengthen us from the inside in ways that are truly miraculous.

All of us face difficulties of one sort or another. We battle the sin in our own flesh. We are tempted, and lied to, by the devil. We live in a sinful world. Sometimes, one, or all three of those things makes life extremely difficult and trying. The promise of scripture is not that we never face trials, but that, when we do, we can press in to the goodness, power, strength and love of God.

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (ESV, Isaiah 43:1-3)

Sometimes we do pass through the waters, or the fire. I am in the fire right now. I am in pain as I write this, the same pain that has plagued me every day for four years now. God meets us in the fire and in the flood. His mighty power will strengthen you, and you can endure. Not only that, but you can endure with patience. Wait, there’s more: you can endure with patience, AND joy. The promise is here in scripture, and that should be enough, but I add my testimony. Those of you who know me personally know that it has been true in my life.

Those who know me also know that I am not walking around, pretending everything is great. Of course I struggle. I’m not talking about a fake happiness, or pretending nothing is wrong. But on the whole, the mighty, glorious power of God gives me strength to endure with patience and joy. I believe with all my heart and soul that God is good, he is powerful, and he loves me, and the pain cannot shake that. In fact, through my pain, I know it better today than I did before the struggle began. Many people ask me how I do it. I don’t. God does. And what he has done for me, he will do for you, if you let him.

The next phrase from the text is: giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.

Certainly everything we have talked about so far is worth giving thanks for. But there is more. He has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. If you think that you are not qualified to be a saint, you are both right, and wrong. No one is qualified to be a saint. No one deserves the inheritance that is given to us in Jesus Christ. But God has qualified those who trust him. So it is not our qualification that makes us worthy to be saints, or share in the inheritance of Light. It is God himself who makes us qualified. Paul explains briefly how:

13 He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, 14 in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

In the Greek (as in English) both of the verbs “delivered” and “transferred” give the sense that this is a done deal. It is an action that is completed. I know that we look around us, and say, “it doesn’t look complete to me. It looks like I’m still in between. I’m still being delivered, and being transferred. But that would not be the correct interpretation here.

This is a very important concept. The Bible teaches us that we live in two worlds at the same time. This is possible, because there are three distinct aspects of being a human being. We have bodies. We have souls. And we have spirits. Our bodies are fully in the world we see. Our bodies have not been delivered – they suffer the effects of sin, and will eventually die because of it. Our spirits, however, have already been delivered from darkness and transferred into God’s kingdom of light. If you are a believer, your spirit-person is already perfect, already holy and blameless; it’s a done deal. Your soul connects your body to your spirit. This is where the main battle is fought. Your soul is connected to your spirit, which is “already there.” It is also connected to your body, which will never be perfect, and never be in heaven. Your soul is where the tension is.

So when we hear these things, we have to understand it really is true. You (your spirit-person) has already been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of Jesus. It is already done. Yes, this mortal body will have to die. Yes, there is still  struggle going on in your soul. But in your spirit, it is a done deal. A lot of what we call Christian living is all about believing that this is true, and allowing what has been done to your spirit to flow down into your soul and body, so that you are influenced by the spirit, rather than the flesh. This is what the Bible calls “walking according to the Spirit.”

Another way the Bible describes it is like this:

11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (ESV, Romans 6:11)

I think we have several important things to meditate on throughout this next week.

  • What are the struggles that you face? Have you availed yourself of the strength of God to allow you to endure with patience and joy? What are some ways that you might do that more?
  • It is God himself, through Jesus Christ, who has qualified you to be a saint, to share in the inheritance of the kingdom of light. Do you believe this? If not, what are the thoughts that you need to battle in order to trust that this is true?
  • Do you know, that if you are a disciple of Jesus, your spirit-person has already been fully transferred from darkness to light? What are the things that will help you believe this truth, and walk according to this spiritual reality?

COLOSSIANS #4: WALKING WORTHY, BEARING FRUIT

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 When we truly believe the gospel, it changes us. We enter into a new relationship with God, a relationship that the Bible compares to marriage. Just as with marriage, this new relationship means we live differently than we did before we entered into it. It changes us. If we find we are not changed, then perhaps we need to meditate on the cross, where both the depth of our sin, and the greatness of God’s love are demonstrated.

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Colossians #4. Colossians 1:9-10

As we start on this text today, I want to remind you of  part of the process I go through in preparing these messages. The word of God is living and active. I think there are many directions a sermon might go, based upon this text, because there is so much here. I don’t mean you could get anything at all out of any given text, but I do think in each one, there are a variety of things to emphasize, and many different possible ways to apply the meaning of the Bible to our lives. I try to prepare these messages while depending on the Holy Spirit to lead me. So, I have gone one direction that the Spirit seemed to lead me this time, for this text. There are other possible things to emphasize here. But I trust that someone needs to hear what I will say this time.

For this reason also, since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you. We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, 10 so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God

“For this reason also.” We shouldn’t pass over this phrase lately. Paul is about to launch into a long prayer for the Colossians. There is much we can learn from the prayer. But the reason for the prayer is that the Colossians have received the gospel, and responded in faith. None of what comes next is possible without that reason. In many ways, in the world view of our faith, there is only one thing that is important: how to do you respond to Jesus Christ? Everything else in the world depends upon that question. If that question is answered with faith, then everything in the universe is eternally shifted to grace, joy and life. When Paul writes about growing in Jesus, we need to understand that such things are only possible because Jesus has first given us his grace. We can’t endure patiently, or bear fruit, or walk worthy of Lord on our own. It happens only because Jesus has first saved us, and next, given us His Holy Spirit to empower how we live. Paul is not praying these things so that the Colossians can be saved; no, he is praying these things precisely because they have already been saved.

With that understanding, let’s see what the Holy Spirit, through Paul desires for those of us who follow Jesus. That you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.

Understand that this is passive. It is God, through the Holy Spirit who fills you with knowledge of his will, and gives you wisdom, and a spiritual way of looking at the world. We cannot fill ourselves with these things. It comes from the Holy Spirit.

10 But it was to us that God revealed these things by his Spirit. For his Spirit searches out everything and shows us God’s deep secrets. 11 No one can know a person’s thoughts except that person’s own spirit, and no one can know God’s thoughts except God’s own Spirit. 12 And we have received God’s Spirit (not the world’s spirit), so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given us.
13 When we tell you these things, we do not use words that come from human wisdom. Instead, we speak words given to us by the Spirit, using the Spirit’s words to explain spiritual truths. 14 But people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means. 15 Those who are spiritual can evaluate all things, but they themselves cannot be evaluated by others. 16 For, “Who can know the Lord’s thoughts? Who knows enough to teach him?”  But we understand these things, for we have the mind of Christ. (NLT 1 Corinthians 2:10-16).

So, spiritual wisdom and understanding are given as free gifts of God. Now, we can, however, if we choose, interfere with the Spirit’s work in our minds and hearts. For instance, one of the indispensable tools used by the Holy Spirit is the Bible, the Word of God. If we choose to remain ignorant of the Bible, we make it extremely difficult for the Spirit to accomplish his work of filling us with spiritual knowledge and understanding. If we give more influence in our lives to the things of the world than the things of God, it will be harder for this prayer to be fulfilled. I’ve used this analogy before, but it is worthwhile. Imagine you have two dogs inside you, fighting each other for dominance of your soul. Which dog will win? The one that you feed. You feed your flesh-person by indulging its desires, by spending your time and energy and focus on the things of this world. You feed your Spirit-person by reading the Bible, by spending time with other Christians who are following Jesus, by worshipping Jesus, and praying, and doing the good things Jesus asks you to do. I don’t mean it is all up to you. If you give him room, God will supply the power and will to feed the Spirit-dog. But we have to let him, and part of letting him is allowing him to change our behavior.

All this is very much related to the next verse:

so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God,

Where I live, this is one of the most neglected concepts of the Christian faith. I live near Nashville, TN, in an area that is sometimes called “The Bible Belt” because it is known to be a place where people are religious. Sometimes, Nashville is even called “The buckle of the Bible belt” because we have several huge Christian publishing companies here, we are the center of Christian music in the Western world, and the area is filled with big churches.

But in the middle of all this religion, it is surprising to find a huge number of people who are quite ignorant about what Christianity really means. You see, people around here are pretty good at telling others that Jesus died for their sins. They are good at explaining that you need to “get saved.” But what so few churches near me seem to teach is that all this results in a change of life. If you repent and “get saved,” then it makes a difference in how you live. You begin to walk in a way that is worthy of the Lord, pleasing to Him. You begin to bear the fruit of good works. You start growing in the knowledge of God, and are strengthened with His power so that you can endure patiently and joyfully.

I have met Christians who claim they are “saved” but who regularly have sex outside of marriage, who often get drunk or high, who cheat their bosses, or their customers, or the government, out of money when they think they’ll get away with it, and so on. But someone who is truly saved does not continue to do these things. Perhaps, if such a person did them in the past, they might fail once in a while, and fall back into the old ways. But those old ways are no longer the pattern of life for someone who belongs to Jesus. If you continue with such things as a regular, normal part of your life, you are walking away from Jesus. It is like you are standing with one foot on a dock, and the other on a boat that is pulling away from the dock. If you don’t make a choice between living as the world does or following Jesus, a choice will be made for you.

Now, someone may have a question something like this: “I get the general idea, but what does having sex, or getting drunk, or cheating the government have to do with loving God or not? Why can’t I love God, and still do those things? What’s the connection?”

I understand the question. I don’t have a complete answer, but let’s think about loving other human beings for a moment. My wife Kari really likes a clean house. When she sees dirty dishes, or junk laying around, or clothes on the floor, she feels compelled to clean it up. Therefore, when I leave messes around the house, Kari can’t relax. It creates a problem for her. I don’t entirely understand this. On the other hand, if I take time to really listen to Kari, I find it makes more sense. Now, knowing that a messy house is a problem for Kari, I have a choice. If I really love her, and want to show her I love her, I try to clean up after myself. My love for her changes my behavior.

Now, from the outside, someone may ask, “What does cleaning up your lunch-dishes have to do with love and marriage?” It may seem, to someone who doesn’t know Kari, like the two things are unrelated. But in real life, this is how love works. Kari has told me clearly it is important to her. Therefore, the loving thing for me to do is clear. I may not completely understand why, but what I need to do is not confusing at all. Any of you who have been married very long should understand this sort of thing. We all have things that are important to us that seem difficult to explain, but it doesn’t change the fact that they are important. When we love someone, what is important to them becomes important to us.

So it is with God. Why should a clean house be connected with me loving Kari? It is hard to explain, but I can’t deny that it is. Why should our sexual behavior, or honesty, or anything be connected with loving God? I don’t know entirely, but he has made it quite clear that it is. And when I take more time to listen to him, by reading his Word, I find it easier to accept and to understand.

“But wait!” say some of these folks. “God loves me no matter what, right? I am saved by grace, not by my performance, so why does it matter how I live? You’ve been telling me that God does all the work here, so why do I have to change my behavior, even if it is important to him?”

Imagine a woman who is not perfect – she’s never pretended she was. She meets a caring, kind, loving man. This guy knows she has her issues, but he loves her anyway. The woman also falls in love with the man, and they get married. In their marriage vows, the commit to be faithful to one another, to love and honor and serve each other.

Soon after the marriage, the woman starts sleeping with other men, staying away from home for days at a time without calling her husband. She spends all their money without consulting him. When someone asks her why she is treating him so badly, she says this: “Look, my husband says he loves me unconditionally. He said that he knew I wasn’t perfect, but he still loves me. He made a vow when we got married that he would be faithful to me. So, now, because he loves me, and I love him, I can go out and party, and sleep with other men, and ignore his needs and feelings. I can do all this because he loves me. He knows I’m not perfect.”

When we put it in that context, we can all see how ridiculous it is. Why did this woman say her marriage vows, if she doesn’t want to live like she is married? How can she possibly say that it is OK to sleep around, because her husband loves her? The fact that he loves her makes it worse when she betrays him, not better.

The marriage analogy is a good one, because the Bible uses it all the time. We believers are the bride of Christ.

22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, 23 because the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of the body. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives are to submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her with the washing of water by the word. 27 He did this to present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and blameless. 28 In the same way, husbands are to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own flesh but provides and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 since we are members of his body. (CSB Ephesians 5:22-30)

1 I hope you will put up with me in a little foolishness. Yes, please put up with me! 2 I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. 3 But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. (NIV) 2 Corinthians 11:1-3

Jesus often referred to himself as “The Bridegroom,” and Revelation 21 describes the church as the “New Jerusalem, prepared like a bride for her husband.” Now, you see how it is. If this woman’s marriage was real to her, she would never behave like this. In other words, if she really did love her husband, and they really were married, it would make a difference to her. She is acting as if she doesn’t believe that they are truly married.

And that is what happens to many who call themselves Christians. Many people call themselves Christians because they grew up that way, or maybe because they believe in some sort of God, but they aren’t Muslim or Jewish, so they think they must be Christian. Maybe when they were young, someone pressured them into “getting saved.” Maybe, for a while they felt some sort religious impulse, but never really connected to Jesus. But if you truly believe the gospel, it has an effect on your behavior.

If someone does not behave like a Christian, I think the problem is that they don’t really believe the gospel. They don’t really believe that they are sinners who need a savior. They don’t really believe that Jesus died a horrible death on their behalf, or maybe they don’t believe that he needed to. Bad behavior is a symptom of bad belief. The way to correct the problem is not to grit your teeth and try harder, but to truly repent of your sins, and to truly surrender your heart, mind and will to Jesus.

Some people understand this, but they still struggle. I have some advice: ask God to help you truly believe the gospel. Ask him to show you your sin, and show you his love. The best place to look at for this is the cross. The cross shows you how terrible your sin is. See, here’s the thing: we haven’t all done what Adolf Hitler did. But the same evil that lived inside of Hitler lives inside of you and I. Your sin merits a savage, bone-bruising beating. It deserves people surrounding you, mocking you, spitting on you, hating you for no apparent reason. It deserves execution without a proper trial, a brutal, vicious, torturous death that was ultimately considered too barbaric to keep, even by a barbaric people.

The cross also shows you the depth of God’s love for you. Instead of giving you what you deserve for your sin, He took all of that on himself. He took the beating, the mocking, the injustice, the savage, intense, barbaric death-by-torture. His love is so great for you that he did it before you even cared, long before you repented, even while you were indifferent to him, or even while you hated him. He didn’t just keep the house clean for you – he gave his life for you in the most difficult way possible.

Meditate on that depth of sin, that depth of love, and it will be life changing.

Revelation #49. THE END.

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Remember the first readers of this book? They wondered if Jesus had forgotten his promise to return. They wondered if God had forgotten about them. They wondered how God could possibly be involved in the crazy, brutal, senseless, evil world they lived in. Sometimes we want to know God’s plan. Revelation shows us that we may not understand God’s plan, even if he reveals it to us. But what we can understand is that God is in control, and one day he will finally defeat all evil, make all things right, and bring his people to be with him in the New Heavens and New Earth where there is no more sorrow, death or suffering. He has promised, and he will do it.

I strongly encourage you to listen, even if you normally read, because we have a special treat at the end of the audio.

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Revelation #49. Revelation 22:18-21

 18 I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.

Let’s consider this warning. Let me start by being very clear about what this does NOT mean. It does not mean that we cannot ever talk about the bible, or the book of Revelation. It does not mean that it is wrong to write books (or sermons!) about the Bible, or Revelation. I say this because sometimes, Christians in the Western World have come to think religion is something intensely personal, something that is really all about you. Nothing could be further from the perspective of the Bible itself. Every part of the New Testament assumes that believers are living in fellowship with each other, and that they are led by people who are teaching them the Word of God.

To put it another way, teaching people about the Bible is not the same as “adding to, or taking away from the Bible.” The Bible itself is very, very clear that some people have been called by God to teach others the truth of God from the bible.

Now, certainly not everyone is called to this ministry. In fact, James warns that the gift of teaching is somewhat rare, which is why it should be respected. He says:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. (Jas 3:1, ESV2011)

However, it is still very clear that some people do have that calling, and gifting. Consider these verses:

6 In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. 7 If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. 8 If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly. (NLT Romans 12:6-8)

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. (NLT Ephesians 4:11-12)

God gives people gifts to use so that his people can encourage one another, and follow Jesus better. One of those gifts is that of teaching Bible truth to other Christians. In fact, teachers are part of a special group that is supposed to help other Christians to live for Jesus.

Also, consider these verses about church leaders:

1 This is a trustworthy saying: “If someone aspires to be a church leader, he desires an honorable position.” 2 So a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. (NLT, 1 Timothy 3:1-2)

7 A church leader is a manager of God’s household, so he must live a blameless life. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or dishonest with money.
8 Rather, he must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must love what is good. He must live wisely and be just. He must live a devout and disciplined life. 9 He must have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with wholesome teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong. (NLT, Titus 1:7-9)

Christians are supposed to respect those who teach God’s word, and to support them financially, because they are doing part of God’s work:

Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:13-14, ESV)

6 Those who are taught the word of God should provide for their teachers, sharing all good things with them. (NLT, Galatians 6:6)

17 Elders who do their work well should be respected and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. (NLT 1 Timothy 5:17)

God would hardly want his people to pay those who teach His Word unless he really wanted them to teach. Just one more verse:

7 Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God. Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith. (NLT Hebrews 13:7)

So, we should not think that this verse here in Revelation means that when someone teaches about a Bible passage, that person is somehow “adding to” or “taking away” from the Bible. That cannot be what this verse means, or it would contradict all those other verses I just gave you, and many more that I didn’t share here.

But it does mean something important. This statement is first and foremost about the book of Revelation, but it is not wrong to also apply it to the Bible as a whole. No teaching is at the same level as the Bible. No teacher is at the same level as the Bible. No other book should be considered as on the same level as the Bible. The Bible stands alone as the Word of God. It alone has the authority to tell us about God, humanity, salvation, and how then we should live.

Good teachers are important, and the good ones will encourage you to read the Bible for yourself. Even so, every person including Bible teachers, is flawed. I am bound to make mistakes. If I say one thing, and the Bible clearly says something very different, then I am the one who is wrong. How will you know if I’ve made a mistake about the Bible? Only if you read it yourself.

Mohammed (founder of Islam) both subtracted from, and added to, the Bible. So did Joseph Smith & Brigham Young (the founders of the Mormons). The Roman  Catholic Pope claims to have authority to add to what the Bible says. This gives Christians a clear basis for understanding where we stand in relationship to  these people – they are bringing down plagues upon themselves. We should not listen to them.

But there is something else. Many individual human beings are guilty of adding to, or taking away from the Bible for themselves. If you have decided that you will keep the parts you like, and ignore the parts you don’t, then you are doing the same thing as Mohammed and the Pope, even if you don’t lead a world religion.

There are some other implications, about the book of Revelation itself. Over the years, many people have added their “end-times-system,” to the book of Revelation. I have spoken about this before. They take this book, and make it fit into their ideas concerning what will happen at the end of the world. They speak confidently of the rapture, and the one-world-government, and one-world-currency as if those things are actually found in Revelation. This warning is for them, also. Those things are not in this book.

So once, more, we find that among the last things Jesus tells his people is to read and know His Word.

He closes with this:

20 He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
21 The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen. (ESV Revelation 22:18-21)

Remember the first readers of this book? They wondered if Jesus had forgotten his promise to return. They wondered if God had forgotten about them. They wondered how God could possibly be involved in the crazy, brutal, senseless, evil world they lived in. Jesus revealed this vision to them.

Sometimes, we want to know what God’s plan is. Well, here’s God’s plan to return to this world and make everything right. How do you like it? It’s not very easy to understand all of it, is it? Since it is God’s plan, that ought not to surprise us. We shouldn’t expect to understand it all, since we are not God. But here, Jesus is saying, “Yes, you have heard the plan. I will return. I will make everything right. You are not forgotten. I will come back, and save my people, and bring them into a beautiful new creation where there will be no more sorrow, where the past suffering is not worth mentioning compared to the present glory. If you want to be a part of it, all you have to do is trust me, surrender your life to me, and your name will be in the book of life. I have said it, and I will do it.”

I hope and pray that you have a better understanding of the Book of Revelation. I hope and pray that especially, you have a sense of peace and joy about Jesus coming back, and that it becomes something that you long for, and pray for.

We have spent almost one year worth of sermons, and two years real time, in this book. I hope it was helpful. Because, we could have done the entire book of Revelation in just two minutes, like this: (credit goes to my dear friend, pastor Peter Churness, of Gig Harbor, WA, for making my work meaningless. This is at point 24:48 in the audio):

The Apostle John sees a vision of Jesus, Jesus gives him messages to give to seven churches, then he sees the throne room of God, and there are four mutant creatures having a worship jam, and they all see this scroll, and then they are whining, “who can open the scroll?”  John then hears the lion of Judah but sees the Lamb of God, he can do it!  But first they have to break these seven seals that are sealing the scroll.  And four seals are these four horsemen dudes representing bad stuff, and the fifth is the martyrs, sixth is Day of the Lord, part one, then there’s intermission and we get to see a multi-ethnic party in heaven, then seventh seal broken, but before scroll is opened seven warning trumpets come, and fire from altar shoots up and casts to earth bringing more Day of the Lord judgment stuff.  Then these seven trumpets start going off bringing more bad stuff like hail and poison water and blood and locusts and county music, then there’s another intermission as the scroll finally gets opened, and then John eats it, and then he has two more visions, one of a bunch of dead Christians hiding under an altar, then of two Jehovah witnesses guys getting killed by this Beast thing, but then come back as zombies.  Then the last Trumpet sounds, and God’s kingdom comes and shakes the nations like a shake n bake chicken.  Then comes a bunch of signs, one of this cosmic battle, and this pregnant lady floating in space comes down and has a baby, and this space dragon comes over and attacks it, but the baby grows up and defeats the dragon. Then there are two more beasts and everybody has to get the number 666 tattooed on them if you want to eat, or use the Apple store, then the Lamb comes again, fights the beasts and wins.  Then comes these seven bowls of wrath with things like sores and blood and fire and more blood and darkness.  Then the dragon and beast hook up together and fight one last great battle of Armageddon.  Then there’s this Day of the Lord scene… again.  But this time nations defeated for good.  Then there’s this woman riding the dragon and she’s really bad, and she fights God’s kingdom and loses.  Then comes this sixth bowl of wrath and this final final battle (in addition to the “first final” battle of Armageddon).  Then Jesus comes and he has this sword sticking out of his mouth and he wins, locks up Satan, and then Jesus and us Christians rule for 1000 years.  Then Satan makes a jail break, though Jesus really let him out, but not sure why, possibly for good behavior, seems unlikely.  Anyway he deceives everybody again.  Then there is a final final final battle, in addition to the other two “final battles” that previously happened.  Then there’s a wedding, and earth gets rebuilt, and heaven gets remade, and Jerusalem gets a makeover and comes down out of heaven like a spaceship, and all of us live there happily ever after.  And that’s the book of Revelation.

REVELATION 48: “BECAUSE I SAID SO.”

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When we take these two declarations of Jesus together, they share a common theme: You can count on Jesus. You can rely on his word. Come to Him, be satisfied in Him, by reading his word. At the same time, understand this: all satisfaction in this life is only a foretaste of what is coming. So we, the Bride of Christ, say with the Spirit to world: Come and drink now, feed yourself on the Word of God, the Son of David, the One you can rely on. Don’t wait.

At the same time, we the Bride of Christ, also say with the Spirit: Come Lord Jesus, return soon!

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Revelation #48. Revelation 22:16-17

16 “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.”

We are considering the last things that Jesus has to say in His revealed word. We have covered three of his last seven statements. The next, the fourth, comes in the center of the chiastic structure of this little section. That means it is “highlighted,” or italicized, so to speak.

Jesus signs off with two titles. The Romans, intercepting this message, would not have known that “root and descendant of David” refers to the Messiah. Unfortunately, many modern readers don’t either. But that is why Jesus chose that title. To remind those persecuted Christians (without tipping off the Romans) that he is the Messiah who was prophesied by the Old Testament. It also reminds us that he is the God of all time. He is the descendant of David, yes, but he is also the “root,” or “source,” of David. He is both God and man. The second title is “bright morning star.” This is a bit more obscure. When Balaam was hired to curse Israel (while they were wondering in the desert between Egypt and the promised land), instead, he prophesied blessing over God’s people. Among other things, he said this, in Numbers 24:

17 I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth.
18 Edom shall be dispossessed; Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed.
Israel is doing valiantly. 19 And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion
and destroy the survivors of cities!” (ESV Numbers 24:17-19)

Once again, Jesus is the fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies. Not only that, but Balaam’s prophecy above sounds a little bit like some of the events proclaimed by the book of Revelation. In addition, if the title “descendant of David” seems to emphasize the human nature that Jesus took into himself, “the bright morning star” seems to emphasize his Divine nature.

Remember, at the very beginning of the book, we learned that those who first received this prophecy were under a tremendous amount of hardship and stress. They were persecuted. They wondered if maybe the Lord had forgotten them. But Jesus sends them this sweeping vision of God making everything right, and of the eternal future he has for those who trust him. He is now saying this:

“You can count on what I say. This is from me personally: the Messiah, the one the Old Testament prophesied about so much. I am coming back, I have not forgotten you. I am in control of every part of history. Rely upon it. I give you my word as the Messiah, and as the Son of God.”

Let’s look at Jesus’ fifth declaration:

17 The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.

This is another passage that is hard to capture fully in English. The Spirit, is, of course, the Holy Spirit. The Bride is the church, and I think this refers to the church right now, before the Lord has fulfilled all that He promises in Revelation, because it is describing her desire for Jesus to return.

R.C. Lenski, a terrific Lutheran Bible commentator, renders the Greek more literally like this (I agree with it, which is why I share it with you. But in any case, Lenski is a far better Greek scholar than me):

And the Spirit and the Bride are saying, Be coming! And the one hearing, let him say, Be coming! And let the one thirsting be coming! Let the one willing take life’s water gratis!

(Lenski’s Commentary on the New Testament. Revelation 22:17)

It is important to know that these Greek verbs are in the present tense. This is not about the Spirit and the church saying, just once, “Come, Lord Jesus!” The Holy Spirit places the longing for the return of Jesus into the hearts of the people of His church. The Spirit, and the church, led by the Spirit, are continually longing for Jesus to return. They are always saying “Oh, I wish Jesus would return and bring us into the glory and grace and joy that we were made to have!”

Aside from the Spirit and the Bride, there is another set of “characters” in this little statement. There is “the one thirsting.” This person is called not just to ask Jesus to return, but to personally come to Jesus and drink. Then there is “the one willing.” This person, again, is not just asking something from Jesus, but is told to go ahead, and take the water of life for free, and drink of it.

After last time, when we had a warning about those who reject God’s plan, we now have a welcome for those –anyone – who is willing to come to Jesus.

Once again, these verbs are present tense. We are called to find satisfaction for our souls in Jesus continually. It is not a one time event called “getting saved,” or “conversion.” It is a continual lifestyle of coming back to the well – that is coming to Jesus every day, like children coming to a beloved parent for what they need. Once is not enough. “Be coming, be drinking.”

How do we do this? John Piper wrote a biography of a famous Christian named George Mueller. Mueller had a remarkable ministry from age 25 until his death at 93 – almost seventy years. He personally saved 10,000 orphans from the streets of 19th century England, and put them in homes that he built and set up. He inspired his fellow-citizens to also engage in orphan work, which, until then, had been largely ignored. He encouraged countless missionaries, and even mission-agencies. He served as a pastor for most of his life, also. He suffered the loss of his beloved wife, and all but one of his five children. In all his work, he took no salary, and asked for no contributions (not even for the orphan ministry) but asked for money from God alone, and God provided. Discussing his ministry, and all that he had been through, and what sustained him, he claimed that his secret was that his soul was perfectly satisfied in God alone, and whatever God had for him, whether difficult or easy.  In other words, he listened to the command of Jesus, and came continually to the water of life to drink. But how do we get that satisfaction? How do we come to Jesus and drink? John Piper quotes Mueller:

But in what way shall we attain to this settled happiness of soul? How shall we learn to enjoy God? How obtain such an all-sufficient soul-satisfying portion in him as shall enable us to let go the things of this world as vain and worthless in comparison? I answer, This happiness is to be obtained through the study of the Holy Scriptures. God has therein revealed Himself unto us in the face of Jesus Christ.
Happiness in God comes from seeing God revealed to us in the face of Jesus Christ through the Scriptures. “In them . . . we become acquainted with the character of God. Our eyes are divinely opened to see what a lovely Being God is! And this good, gracious, loving, heavenly Father is ours, our portion for time and for eternity.” Knowing God is the key to being happy in God. (George Mueller’s Strategy for Showing God)

I cannot say it often enough: Christians, read your Bibles! If you don’t like to read, then listen to them in an audio version. I love this next quote from Mueller, also, because he said what I have been saying also, for years:  don’t just read a chapter here and there. Pick a book, and read through the whole book (say, the book of Ephesians). Then pick another (say, Micah), and read through it. And so on. Piper writes the first two sentences below, the rest is all George Mueller:

Therefore the most crucial means of fighting for joy in God is to immerse oneself in the Scriptures where we see God in Christ most clearly. When he was 71 years old, Mueller spoke to younger believers:
Now in brotherly love and affection I would give a few hints to my younger fellow-believers as to the way in which to keep up spiritual enjoyment. It is absolutely needful in order that happiness in the Lord may continue, that the Scriptures be regularly read. These are God’s appointed means for the nourishment of the inner man. . . .Consider it, and ponder over it. . . . Especially we should read regularly through the Scriptures, consecutively, and not pick out here and there a chapter. If we do, we remain spiritual dwarfs. I tell you so affectionately. For the first four years after my conversion I made no progress, because I neglected the Bible. But when I regularly read on through the whole with reference to my own heart and soul, I directly made progress. Then my peace and joy continued more and more. Now I have been doing this for 47 years. I have read through the whole Bible about 100 times and I always find it fresh when I begin again. Thus my peace and joy have increased more and more. (George Mueller’s Strategy for Showing God. I added the bold  and italic formatting for emphasis)

I want to add something to that. This past week, I’ve been reading about George Mueller for my own enjoyment. Yes, I’ve used it in this message, but that wasn’t why I was reading it. I encourage you to also read biographies of Christians like him. They are very helpful and inspiring. Again, if you aren’t a reader, that is no longer an excuse. There are audiobooks for everything, nowadays. George Mueller’s biography is a good one to start with. Through the Gates of Splendor (about Jim Elliot) is another good one. Here I Stand (Martin Luther) by Roland Bainton, is another good one.

When we take these two declarations of Jesus together, they share a common theme: You can count on Jesus. You can rely on his word. Come to Him, be satisfied in Him, by reading his word. At the same time, understand this: all satisfaction in this life is only a foretaste of what is coming. So we, the Bride of Christ, say with the Spirit to world: Come and drink now, feed yourself on the Word of God, the Son of David, the One you can rely on. Don’t wait.

At the same time, we the Bride of Christ, also say with the Spirit: Come Lord Jesus, return soon!

DESIRE, HOPE & THE RESURRECTION

resurrectionmatt2017

What if our deepest desires – and our deepest disappointments – are really signs that we were made for something more? Jesus, by letting Lazarus die, was trying to get the attention of his loved ones. He wanted to reconnect them with their deep, unfulfilled desires, so that he could show them that He himself can and does fill them. He wanted to show them both, the depth of their desire for a world without death, and also, how completely unrealistic that desire is – apart from Himself

 

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RESURRECTION SUNDAY, 2019

John 11:1-53

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central truth on which all Christian theology depends. If Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead, then he was a madman or megalomaniac, or maybe a demon. But if he was truly raised, then what he said was true; and he said he was God the Son, come into the world for our salvation.

I have talked before about the theological implications of the resurrection. I probably will do so again in the future. I have shared with you substantial evidence that supports the claim that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. I’ll do that again in the future also. But this year, I want to talk about the resurrection in a personal way. To do that, I want to consider a different resurrection: the resurrection of Lazarus, recorded in John chapter 11:1-53. Don’t get me wrong, this is also about the resurrection of Jesus. However, I think by considering what happened in this incident, we can learn some things about Jesus’ resurrection, and the eternal life he offers us.

Jesus was at least two days of traveling away from his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Lazarus became seriously ill, and so the sisters sent word to Jesus. What John says next is pretty strange:

Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.

John connects two things that don’t seem like they should be connected. He says Jesus loved Lazarus, so when he heard Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was. What kind of sense does that make? I can see John writing, “Jesus loved Lazarus, but when he heard he was sick, he stayed where he was anyway.” Or it would make sense to say, “Jesus loved Lazarus, so when he heard he was sick, he hurried to his side.” But John very deliberately connects the fact that Jesus loved Lazarus to the fact that he didn’t go to him, and allowed him to die.

Now, of course, that isn’t the end of the story. Jesus does go back – after Lazarus has died and been in the ground for four days. He speaks to Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This is actually a statement, but implied here is a question: “Why did you let him die? Why didn’t you come when we called?”

Jesus, typically, doesn’t answer her unspoken question. Instead, while their brother is still rotting in the tomb, he asks them to put their faith in him. You see, Jesus had bigger plans for Lazarus than merely healing him from a deadly disease. He had plans for resurrection.

We want to restore things as they were. Jesus wants to let things “as they were” die, so that he can resurrect something better in its place. In order for resurrection to occur, death must occur first. In other words, Jesus cannot resurrect something unless it dies first. To go back to the point I made earlier: Jesus loved Lazarus, therefore he let him die. This isn’t necessarily a pleasant thought. Usually, we want to skip the dying part, and go right to the resurrection; but death is a part of the equation. Jesus said:

24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  (John 12:24, ESV)

This is an obvious truth when it comes to seeds. When you plant a seed, you destroy it, as a seed. But the destruction of a seed results in something new and wonderful, something that is actually much greater than the seed was. In the same way, resurrection requires death. This truth is all over the bible:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?  (Matt 16:24-26, ESV)

When Jesus says “take up his cross” he means quite simply, “be willing to die.”

2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  (Col 3:2-3, ESV)

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.  (Gal 2:20, ESV)

Ultimately, this means our physical death. It means that death is not something to fear. It leads to resurrection. But even now, before physical death, there are things that Jesus would like us to let go. There are ambitions, hopes, values, material things, perhaps even relationships, that we need to allow to die. [By the way, when I say “relationships” I don’t mean marriages. As always, we need to consider the whole scripture, and the Lord has made it clear that he considers marriages to be permanent in this life. Please do not interpret this message in any way that contradicts some part of the bible].  We might feel like letting go of our rights, or our dreams or material things is a terrible thing. And it might indeed be very difficult and traumatic. But there is a resurrection waiting, and sometimes the only thing holding up the glorious new life is the death that must come first.

You can’t fault Martha and Mary and the disciples for failing to see this, when it came to their brother. It is so much bigger than anything they have thought of hoping for. They are thinking of this life. They are thinking of what seems possible, given their level of interaction with Jesus. But they are not thinking like Jesus.

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”  (John 11:23-27, ESV)

I identify with Martha and the others. I usually hope for what seems somewhat realistic. Considering how they had themselves seen Jesus heal people, it was reasonable for them to hope for healing. But resurrection was outside their experience. It was outside their paradigm. So often, we are like that. We want healing and continuation of this life. Jesus wants to give us resurrection. We want what seems possible, even if unlikely. Jesus wants to give us what we haven’t even thought of yet.

Before we are too old, we learn that life is full of disappointments. We find out we can’t fly. Animals don’t talk. Mom and Dad are really going to stay divorced. Work is hard, as is managing money. The odds against winning the lottery really are one-hundred million to one against it (or even worse). My marriage isn’t perfect. I can’t make a living doing what I love to do. You know exactly what I’m talking about. So, we adjust our expectations. We adjust them radically downwards. Chocolate cake is doable. I can dream of having chocolate cake, and I think I can make that dream happen. I can’t be fulfilled in my work, but I think I can manage to be pleasurably distracted by TV, or computer games.

But what if our deepest desires – and our deepest disappointments – are really signs that we were made for something more? The great philosopher, Blaise Pascal wrote:

What can this incessant craving, and this impotence of attainment mean, unless there was once a happiness belonging to man, of which only the faintest traces remain, in that void which he attempts to fill with everything within his reach? (Pascal, Pensées)

When we get honest with ourselves, we know that the world doesn’t seem right. We have a deep restlessness. As I said, we cover it up with things we think we can realistically get for ourselves, like work, entertainment, shopping, sex, food, adventure, relationships – the list is endless. But if we would just stop, and be still, we would realize that there is a deep emptiness in us. That’s probably why we so seldom stop and be still. We often blame the emptiness on ourselves; and it’s true we certainly don’t do ourselves any favors. But the problem is not only just with us. It is that we are out of place. We were made for paradise, and instead we are living on the outskirts of hell. C.S. Lewis writes:

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object. (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

Jesus, by letting Lazarus die, was trying to get the attention of his loved ones. He wanted to reconnect them with their deep, unfulfilled desires, so that he could show them that He himself can and does fill them. He wanted to show them both, the depth of their desire for a world without death, and also, how completely unrealistic that desire is – apart from Himself. As we follow Jesus, he sometimes asks us to let some things die, so that he can replace them with that which is far better.

Let’s continue with the story:

28 Then she returned to Mary. She called Mary aside from the mourners and told her, “The Teacher is here and wants to see you.” 29 So Mary immediately went to him.
30 Jesus had stayed outside the village, at the place where Martha met him. 31 When the people who were at the house consoling Mary saw her leave so hastily, they assumed she was going to Lazarus’s grave to weep. So they followed her there. 32 When Mary arrived and saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. 34 “Where have you put him?” he asked them.
They told him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Then Jesus wept. (NLT) John 11:28-35

Jesus himself understood that this life is deeply troubling. Even though he knew what he was about to do next, he wept. It is entirely good and appropriate sometimes to grieve, to be deeply troubled – even when we have the hope that Jesus gives. This life can be terrible and tragic. Jesus did not pretend that a future resurrection meant that you should never cry here and now. We are indeed living in a place where we were not made to live. Continuing on:

36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him! ” 37 But some of them said, “Couldn’t he who opened the blind man’s eyes also have kept this man from dying? ”

And there it is: If God is so powerful, why does he let bad things happen? If he is good, why would he allow evil to exist? I think the full answer is beyond our understanding, but one reason is this: if God were to destroy all evil, he would also have to destroy all of us, because none of us is without some evil. Only those who trust Jesus to do it for them can be made holy without being destroyed at the same time. God is patient, waiting for more people to enter through the only door. I know, however that that particular answer, though correct, is not complete. There is more going on with that question than we can understand. I know that Jesus calls us to trust, even when we can’t understand. That is certainly what he was saying to Martha and Mary. Let’s finish this story:

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 “Remove the stone,” Jesus said.
Martha, the dead man’s sister, told him, “Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead four days.”
40 Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God? ”
41 So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you heard me. 42 I know that you always hear me, but because of the crowd standing here I said this, so that they may believe you sent me.” 43 After he said this, he shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out! ” 44 The dead man came out bound hand and foot with linen strips and with his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unwrap him and let him go.” (CSB) John 11:36-44

Now, as amazing as this is, I want to point something out: today Lazarus is dead again. His resurrection was not THE resurrection. It was a miracle that Jesus did to show who he is, and what is coming. But it is important for us to realize that it was temporary, because far too often, what we think we want is for Jesus to fix this life, and what Jesus wants to do is give us an entirely new life that will never be broken again. We want Jesus to raise things that will just have to die again anyway. We get so focused on this life, and the things in it. But the resurrection that Jesus offers us is not just a restoration of what we have right now. That was Lazarus’ resurrection, but it is not the resurrection that Jesus promises, and ultimately that Jesus himself had.

The apostle Paul describes both the resurrection that Jesus had, which is also promised to us, when we trust Jesus:

When you put a seed into the ground, it doesn’t grow into a plant unless it dies first. 37 And what you put in the ground is not the plant that will grow, but only a bare seed of wheat or whatever you are planting. 38 Then God gives it the new body he wants it to have. A different plant grows from each kind of seed. 39 Similarly there are different kinds of flesh—one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.
40 There are also bodies in the heavens and bodies on the earth. The glory of the heavenly bodies is different from the glory of the earthly bodies. 41 The sun has one kind of glory, while the moon and stars each have another kind. And even the stars differ from each other in their glory.
42 It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. 43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. 44 They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.
45 The Scriptures tell us, “The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam—that is, Christ—is a life-giving Spirit. 46 What comes first is the natural body, then the spiritual body comes later. 47 Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth, while Christ, the second man, came from heaven. 48 Earthly people are like the earthly man, and heavenly people are like the heavenly man. 49 Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man.
50 What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever.
51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.
54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
55 O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. (NLT, 1 Corinthians 15:36-58)

Are you willing to let temporary things die so that you can receive something that will never die? Are you willing to believe that our deepest, most unfulfillable desires might be signs that we were made for Resurrection life? Especially, are you willing to trust Jesus to be the true Resurrection and Life, to be patient until he brings that Resurrection Life to us? When we are so willing, as Paul writes, nothing we do for the Lord is ever useless!

22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. 24 We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. 25 But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.) (NLT) Romans 8:22-25

Let us look forward with hope, because the One who called us is faithful. He has risen!

He has risen indeed.