The Presence, Power and Purpose of Jesus

3 Ps 1

The church is not a therapy group, or an advice repository. It is a gathering of unique people who experience the Presence, Power and Purpose of the living God as we come together in his name.

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EXPERIENCING LIFE TOGETHER #2

We were almost all set to wrap up the house-church meeting. Our discussion was over, we had spent some time in worship and now we were praying for one another.

“Does anyone else want prayer?”

“I’ll take prayer.” It was a neighbor lady, who came to house church, off and on. She had been raised Roman Catholic, and it was clear that she knew the right answers. But it was also clear that somehow, she had not fully connected with the life that is in Jesus Christ. She shared a few things that she wanted prayer for: her relationship with her boss, a sore back and a few other things. These were mostly shallow issues and it seemed to me that if all her prayers were answered the way she wanted them to be, nothing much would change in her life. But we stepped forward to pray for her anyhow. Tonight, we were anointing the people with oil as we prayed for them. I explained that this practice came from the book of James 5:13-16. I opened my Bible and read from it. Usually, I simply read vs. 14 to show newcomers that were not completely wacky to anoint people with a little olive oil as we pray for them. But for some reason, this time I continued to read all the way to the end of verse 16. And this is what vs. 16 says:

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”

I opened my mouth to begin the prayer. But the woman held up her hand and said “wait.”

She continued, “that little verse you read at the end, about confessing your sins to one another? I need to confess something. I’m a witch.”

It is my suspicion that in many churches this is not a particularly common scenario. In any case, however, she spoke a little longer, and then we prayed with her and for her, and the next day she took all of her witching paraphernalia and burned it. Shortly after that she turned her life over to Jesus Christ as her Lord and savior.

In our experiences of networked-house-church, we could tell many such stories — all of them true. But the fact is, these things don’t happen simply because we strictly adhere to some sort of methodology. They happen because house-church ministry is used as a vehicle for the Presence, Power and Purpose of Jesus Christ. Last time, we considered the fact that our basic need is Jesus, not a certain way of doing church or small groups. We believe that house-church ministry lends itself quite well to being used by Jesus. But when we come together, we are not meeting as a therapy group, social club or even a Bible study. Instead, we come together to experience that Presence, Power and Purpose of Jesus Christ. For the sake of brevity, we often call these the three P’s. Whenever we come together, we keep in mind that we are here to facilitate the three P’s. Sometimes, like in the case above, this happens quite dramatically. At other times, we seem to have a “normal” night. We usually employ a house-church agenda, but we always have in mind that the true agenda belongs to the Holy Spirit.

On the night which I described above, we did not set out to find out if there were any witches in our midst and to get them to confess their sins and come to Jesus. We purposed instead to experience the presence, power and purpose of Jesus in our midst. It was the Holy Spirit who prompted me to read a verse that I don’t usually read. It was the Holy Spirit, working on that woman’s heart, who prompted her to confess her involvement in witchcraft. It was the Holy Spirit who directed our response. We had an agenda for that evening, and in fact we followed it for the most part. But when something came up that was not on our agenda (for example a person confessing involvement in witchcraft), we adjusted our agenda to fit what God was doing that night.

Let’s take a brief moment to examine the biblical bases of the three P’s.

1. The presence of Jesus.

I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven. Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:18-20, HCSB)

These verses are about exercising the authority of Jesus. It is a promise that when we come together under his authority, for his purposes, his presence is with us. In fact, this verse ties together the three P’s — his power (authority), his and his presence. When we come to house-church meetings, we are not there merely to socialize, nor even simply to study the Bible. We are there to be in the presence of Jesus.

We know that Jesus is always with us. He said he would be, in Matthew 28:20 (more on that in a moment). But this verse tells us, and Christians have always recognized, that Jesus is with us in a special way, when we gather together in his name. The gathering of believers is not just social interaction – it invites Jesus to be with us in a way that he cannot be with us when we are alone. I believe he does this because he wants his people to understand that they need each other. The Holy Spirit expressed His desire for His people to keep meeting together in Hebrews 10:24-25

And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25, HCSB)

We need each other, because the Presence of Jesus is expressed differently through each individual.

2. The power of Jesus.

For I didn’t think it was a good idea to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a powerful demonstration by the Spirit, so that your faith might not be based on men’s wisdom but on God’s power. (1Cor 2:2-5, HCSB)

The fact is, if we are going to follow the agenda of the Holy Spirit, we must rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to do so. There is a tendency at times within small groups to try and find a solution within the resources of the group itself. For instance, if somebody is struggling with an emotional issue, other group members may be tempted to offer their advice or to share their past experiences with similar issues. While advice is not always inappropriate, we must make sure that it does not keep us from relying on the power of God. We must always keep in mind that the only resource of lasting value within the house-church group is the power of God. In practical terms this means that prayer is almost always a first response to a need or problem that a shared with the group. This doesn’t mean that the group never offers practical help to its members, however, that practical help should arise from the Lord’s direction as we look to him for his resources. We don’t rely on human wisdom, but rather, the Spirit’s power.

Practically, that means when someone shares a struggle, we should start racking our brains for a solution; nor should we simply pretend we are therapists, and just listen sympathetically. Instead, we should listen carefully, both the person, and the Lord. We should ask the Lord quietly, “What do you want to do here and now? In what way do you want to use me to accomplish your goal?”

3. The purpose of Jesus.

Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20, HCSB)

When we come together in a house-church group we ought to have one unified purpose: to make disciples of Jesus. Making disciples involves helping those who are already Christians to grow in their faith (becoming better disciples) and also helping to lead others who don’t know Jesus to true saving faith in him. We don’t come to church simply to increase our knowledge or to fulfill a program of the church. We come to be motivated by Jesus’ mission.

It should be obvious as we consider the presence, the power and the purpose of Jesus, that we cannot experience these things without being completely dependent upon God. We cannot make Jesus come to us. We cannot fake his power. And we cannot fulfill his purpose without his presence and his power. In the house-church we do not depend on our own resources, rather we depend fully and completely upon God. God may use other house-church members to minister to you; or he may use you to minister to other house-church members. But in the end it is God who is doing the ministering through us.

ONLY JESUS SATISFIES

housechurch13

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Experiencing Life Together #1

Psalm 63

The chances are, if you’ve decided to try out this “house-church thing” you may be feeling a bit dry in your Christian life lately. One person I know expressed it as a feeling of “surface-level interaction.” Another expressed it as a shallowness. Others may feel like they’re running on empty. It may be that you are dissatisfied with the way things are, particularly in your church, and you are interested in trying something new. Make no mistake about it — we (the developers of this curriculum) believe very strongly in the house Church model, and we think it presents solutions to many common church problems. However, there is no structure or method of doing church that can, in and of itself, offer true spiritual life. The answer to our struggles and issues is not a new way of doing church, but rather Jesus himself. Therefore we want to start this “house Church experience” by focusing not on house Church, but on the person of Jesus Christ.

On the surface, a feeling of dryness or shallowness in one’s spiritual life seems like a bad thing. After all, it can be frustrating to feel that you aren’t connecting with God, or with fellow believers. Worship might seem dull, and prayer might feel like empty repetition. There might be almost a dreary sameness to your spiritual life. But believe it or not, these are good signs! The problem is, we don’t always recognize them as such, and act accordingly. Many people blame themselves for these symptoms, and they try to overcome these feelings by sheer willpower. Some may blame their worship environments, and either work hard to change things, or simply leave. Others simply grit their teeth and wait it out. But sometimes God is responsible for our feelings of dryness and shallowness! That is because God wants to give us a greater thirst for Himself. God does not want us to become complacent, or self-satisfied about our relationship with Him. And so while feelings of discontent, restlessness and shallowness can be disturbing, they actually serve the wonderful purpose of making us hunger after more of God’s presence in our lives.

How should we respond to these feelings? I believe that there are several responses that are helpful, and some that are not helpful. Keep in mind that what God is after is a deeper relationship with you – the end result should be more of God’s presence in your life. First, some things to avoid – these are things that will cover up, or waste the thirst that God is creating in you:

1. Avoid making other people responsible to “fix” the problem. It may be a temptation to look to your church or your pastor to make things “deeper” or more meaningful. Maybe if your pastor was more like Chuck Swindoll, or your worship leader more like Michael W. Smith, you wouldn’t feel this way. While you certainly ought to bring up concerns you have about your church to your pastor or another appropriate leader, you cannot make them or anyone else responsible for your spiritual condition. God doesn’t want you to thirst for a certain kind of structure– He wants you to thirst for Himself. If you respond by seeking God, I can almost guarantee that your experience of house-church meetings during these few weeks will also be richer, particularly if others in your house-church do the same. If, on the other hand, you respond to spiritual dryness by trying to find some kind of experience (within, or outside of the house-church) you will eventually be disappointed. Once again, it is certainly legitimate to bring up for discussion issues that your church ought to address. But the start of a richer house Church experience is always found in a richer personal experience with God. The house-church model cannot take you farther than you are willing to go with God alone. The house-church cannot satisfy a thirst for God – only God can.

2. Avoid trying to fix the problem with other things. Human nature is such that we are almost always discontent. The great Christian thinker, C.S. Lewis found this to be one of the greatest indicators that we have an eternal, spiritual nature. Unfortunately, many of us attribute our discontent to something other than a need for more of God’s presence in our lives. We sometimes try to fill the void with relationships, activities, material things or lifestyle changes. While none of these things are of themselves bad, they are not the proper prescription for someone whom God has made thirsty. Some people may respond to spiritual dryness by attending all sorts of conferences and meetings and increasing the number of “spiritual” activities they are involved in. Once again, though these things are not bad, they miss the point – in fact, one of the greatest dangers to the spiritual life is often busyness with church and para-church activities. God is calling you to get alone with Him, and receive a deeper measure of His presence in your life. Church activities, shopping, friendships and so on will not accomplish this for you.

3. Don’t Ignore your thirst. Actually, the things I have just written about are ways to ignore, or divert, the thirst God is giving you for Himself. Don’t put it off until later – our spiritual sensitivity decreases every time we put God on hold. Own up to the dryness you feel, and own up to the reason for it – it is something that God wants you to respond to.

On the other hand, here are some thoughts on how to cultivate, and make use of, a thirst for God.

1. Get alone with God. Though we are responsible to other people, no one else is responsible for us. Only you and God know the status of your walk with Him. When He gives you a thirst for Himself, it can only be quenched in His presence. Get up early, or stay up late to be with Him. Perhaps you could go for a walk by yourself on your lunch break, or trade off watching the kids with your spouse on a Saturday, so that you can each have some time alone with Him.

2. Read your Bible. Peter said to Jesus: “You have the Words of eternal life.” Scripture is God’s primary way of “talking to us.” Hearing God through the Bible helps us to soak in presence. Without the written Word of scripture, our faith experience can become just so much spiritualized imagination. We can rely on God’s voice through the Bible. Some good places to read for those thirsting for God are Psalm 119, 63 and in fact, any of the Psalms. One of the Prophets, like Hosea, Isaiah, Malachi or Joel can also encourage the thirsty reader.

3. Pray conversationally. As you get alone with the Lord, talk to Him just like you would to a best friend. I personally pray this way best while I walk. Others may find kneeling more helpful. We can take for granted that He is with us and listening. As you pray, also take time to be quiet and “listen” to the thoughts and feelings that the Holy Spirit plants in your heart. If they truly are from the Lord, these thoughts and feelings will agree with what scripture says, which is another reason why it is so important to read your Bible.

What if you’re not thirsty right now? I believe a thirst for God is a gift that God gives His children. I believe very strongly that He will give it to you if you ask him for it. The key of course, is to recognize it for what it is, and not cover it up by trying to acquire more things, or by trying to satisfy it by church activities or human relationships. In addition, you can help fuel a desire for God by avoiding television. No other single influence does so much to direct us to seek contentment in things other than God. A hunger for God can also be aided by reading devotional books and/or listening to audio tapes. The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer is a terrific book I know to encourage a thirst for God’s presence in your life. Another is “Journey of Desire” by John Eldredge.

SHARE THE BURDEN, LIGHTEN THE LOAD

share burden

No one in the church needs to face their struggles alone. Is your marriage difficult? Let your brothers and sisters and Christ know. Give them the chance to pray for you and encourage you. Maybe your burden is a wayward child, or a dead-end job or a troubled friendship. Allow your fellow believers to fulfill the law of love, by sharing your burden.

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Galatians #23 . Chapter 6:1-5

Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1-2, HCSB)

With these verses, Paul gives some practical applications of what it means to walk by the Spirit. He mentions the case of someone caught in wrongdoing. “Caught” could mean that a person’s wrongdoing is discovered, or it could mean that the person was entrapped by sin; as in caught in a trap. I think the Greek favors the second meaning. I think common sense favors it as well. Otherwise, it sounds like, as long as you aren’t caught by other people, it’s OK to sin.

Paul says “you who are spiritual” should restore such a person. He’s just been talking about walking by the Spirit. I think he means, “You who are walking by the Spirit, help someone who is trapped in the ways of the flesh.”

By the way, I want to make this very clear. Our business in this case is with Christians who are in our own circle of friends, family and church. There’s no point in trying to get a stranger to shape up to your standards. And there is no point trying to get someone who is not a believer to stop sinning. Of course, in appropriate ways and moments, we should tell the truth about God and sin, but no one is going to shape up their behavior to conform to something they do not believe in the first place. With non-believers, we may need to talk about sin as we preach the gospel, but the message of the gospel is not “shape up.” It is: “You can’t shape up. You need Jesus for forgiveness and for transformation.”

Telling non-Christians to shape up and stop sinning is like telling people with the flu to stop having a fever. It is pointless, until the root problem has been addressed. Moreover, I am sure that most of them feel it is pointless also. Since they don’t share our core beliefs, it is unreasonable to expect them to live by our morality. With non-Christians, the first thing to talk about is who Jesus is. Lifestyle changes only come after they trust Jesus.

Paul, however, is talking about people that we personally know, and whom have put their trust in Jesus, and yet, fall back into sin. They haven’t abandoned their faith. There is war in their souls between the Spirit and the Flesh. Paul says we should help each other in this situation.

I hesitate to get more detailed, but I want us to have a defined idea of the kinds of situations Paul is talking about. First, I think Paul is implying that the Galatian leaders who were trying to lead the church astray were trapped in wrongdoing. Paul is saying, “restore them to the right faith.” So, some people are trapped by false teaching. Usually, some sort of straightforward conversation or intervention is needed to address the false teaching.

Second, I think Paul means this generally when someone in our church-family is trapped in sin. There are certain kinds of things I think of when I hear “trapped in sin.” Addictions and regular “binging” trap us. We keep on doing these things, and can’t seem to quit. I think this passage is applicable when Christians are caught by addictions and binging. Again, that is a situation where intervention is warranted. Another common sin-trap for Christians is an adulterous affair. That’s the kind of situation that often benefits from intervention by other mature Christians.

An additional kind of situation where we should get involved is when there is some kind of ongoing, major hypocrisy. Suppose you have a an elder or deacon, or some other sort of leader in the church. He professes faith in Jesus. He talks a great talk about Christianity and the Christian life. But then, you discover that he is dishonest in his business dealings, treats his employees poorly and shows no real evidence of his faith when he is not at church or around other members of the church. This is a big problem, because it means he is deceiving himself and others about his own standing with God, and what it means to follow Jesus.

These probably aren’t the only situations, but I won’t go on. The main thing, is that Paul is talking about serious situations, situations where either a Christian is following an ongoing pattern of the flesh, or a single failure that creates serious consequences (like adultery). I think especially if there is deception behind it (as there is in false teaching, addiction, adultery and major hypocrisy) it may be a situation that requires restoration.

Paul says that the Spirit-walking Christians should restore the person who was caught in sin; they should do it gently and they should do with humility, being aware that they are also susceptible to failing. I want to touch on each of these things.

The Greek word used for “restore” is the same word used of setting a broken bone, or putting a dislocated joint back in place. This is important, because it means our call is not just to tell people when they are wrong. It is to help them get rightly related to Jesus again. Paul does not have in mind that Christians should go around telling other Christians, “You’re sinning!” That may be required, if someone who claims to be a Christian doesn’t acknowledge their sin. But there is so much more to it than that. Paul says, there should be restoration.

Some churches do this with pastors who are caught in a serious sin. There might be a process that they go through. The sinning person needs to be repentant, to start with. He needs to submit to accountability. In other words, he needs to be willing for his life to be an open book, with no secrets. Those who are restoring him should have access to the details of his life, so they can know if he has truly turned away from the sin that caught him before. Part of the restoration, I think, should involve points along the way, where the person has opportunity to really feel and express that he has turned a corner. As the person proves trustworthy, there should be points along the way where greater trust is restored to him.

Paul says we should be gentle with each other as we do this. We aren’t meant to be watching over each other, so we can jump from around a corner and shout “Aha! Gotcha!” every time someone screws up. But when someone gets trapped in a sin or has been deceptive, we have their best interests at heart. We initiate restoration out of love and hope, not anger, frustration or the desire to put someone down. Matthew Henry wrote about these verse:

“[Jesus] bears with us under our weaknesses and follies, he is touched with a fellow-feeling of our infirmities; and therefore there is good reason why we should maintain the same temper towards one another.”

Paul also says that we should watch ourselves, so that we don’t caught in the same way. In other words, we maintain a healthy dose of humility. We don’t need to live in fear and self-doubt, but we should realize that no one is immune to temptation. We can look at the person whom needs restoration, and say, “There, but for the grace of God, am I.”

Paul adds this beautiful and significant thought:

Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:2, HCSB)

In other words, no one in the church needs to face their struggles alone. Without a doubt Paul sees the struggle against sin, and the process of restoration as part of carrying each other’s burdens. I think it also goes beyond that. Is your marriage difficult? Let your brothers and sisters and Christ know. Give them the chance to pray for you and encourage you. Are you having financial troubles? Let your church family come alongside you with encouragement and prayer. Give them a chance to ask the Lord if they should give toward your need. Maybe your burden is a wayward child, or a dead-end job or a troubled friendship. Are you sick? James tells the sick person directly to ask for prayer.

Others cannot help you bear your burdens if you will not be honest and open about them. This too, requires humility and vulnerability. But think of it this way. Paul says right here that bearing each other’s burdens fulfills the law of Christ. It is the practical application of what Jesus meant when he said:

“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, HCSB)

If we refuse to be humble and honest with each other about our struggles, we are denying each other the chance to practice love. Jesus’ call to love each other can’t be fulfilled without honesty and vulnerability.

For those of us in the Life Together Churches network, this is a tremendous affirmation of house churches and house church networks. It’s difficult to bear each other’s burdens if we only see our fellow-believers as we sit, facing the front on Sunday morning, and for ten minutes of coffee after the service. It can happen, but only really accidentally. If we bear one another’s burdens as a result of being in a choir, it is only accidental. The same is true of Sunday school, committee meetings and almost any program you care to name.

We need some context where we can get to know each other and be safe as we are humble and vulnerable. That is one reason that in our house churches we don’t share, outside the group, what other people say in the group, unless we have permission from them.

I’m not saying that house-church or cell-church is the only way to do things. I know many of you who read this are not part of a house church or cell church. But a committed, regular small group is a tremendously effective context for sharing our burdens with each other. Before I move on, I want to offer a quick reminder. When someone shares a burden in church (small group), it is easy to become a therapy group. But our groups are not for therapy. They are for Jesus. The thing to do when someone shares a burden is to turn to Jesus with them. That may mean sharing a scripture that comes to your mind, or a thought or picture that the Lord seemed to put in your head. It definitely means going to the Lord together in prayer, maybe laying hands on the person as you pray, to be Jesus’ hands, touching them. We don’t have the answers. Jesus does, and he is revealed in the bible and manifested in the work of the Holy Spirit.

Paul goes on:

For if anyone considers himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each person should examine his own work, and then he will have a reason for boasting in himself alone, and not in respect to someone else. For each person will have to carry his own load. (Galatians 6:3-5)

Once again, Paul is encouraging the Galatians (and us) to be humble. This reminds me of a verse from Romans:

For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one. Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another. According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts. (Rom 12:3-6, HCSB)

Paul doesn’t want the business of restoration, and bearing each other’s burdens to become an opportunity for people to judge each other, or to boast. If someone has an affair and goes through restoration, it might be easy for a person who never failed in that way to feel superior. Paul says, it is not. You aren’t judged based on how someone else struggles. That means there is no place to feel that you are better than someone else. As it says elsewhere:

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom 14:4, ESV2011)

We are called to share our struggles and bear each other’s burdens. At the same time, each person has his or her own relationship with Jesus. Our burdens can be shared. We must also take responsibility for ourselves. We can’t take spiritual responsibility for someone else, and others cannot do that for us. The sharing of burdens is not an excuse to give up responsibility, nor an opportunity to look down on others for how they struggle.

This passage gives us some tremendous helpful insight into how we interact in Christian community. Ask the Lord to make it real to you right now. Listen to what he has to say to you.

AN INVITATION!

group hands

My first title for this post was: “Give us Money and You’ll get a Special Place in Heaven.” Some people did not think that was as funny as I did. So it has been renamed. It really is an invitation to partner with us in prayer and in giving.

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We’re just kidding about the place in heaven of course. But we do want to make you aware of a real need.

For the past several years, this website and these podcasts have been offered, free of charge, as a ministry of New Joy Fellowship and me, Pastor Tom Hilpert. We will continue to offer them freely.

At the same time, we want to make you aware of the fact that right now, our ministry is in a time of transition, and quite frankly, we are in a place of financial need.

We thought about telling you that you would have a special place in heaven if you sent us some money. Another idea we floated, was to tell you that you might go to hell if you didn’t send a gift.

As attractive as those ideas are, we decided instead, to say this: would you please pray about giving to this ministry? If you visit this website very often, chances are, the Lord has blessed you through these messages. The truth is, he blesses a lot of others through them as well. More than 200 unique people visit this blog site each week. Almost 400 people are subscribed to receive new posts through email.

Over the years these messages have gone out all over the United States, and overseas to places like Finland, Brazil, India and the U.K. The only person who ever offered to send us money was a pastor in India, and at that time, we said no.

But we have come to a point where the blog/podcast audience is much bigger than our little church, New Joy Fellowship. Our church is going through some tough times, and they haven’t been able to pay me (Pastor Tom) my normal salary (which was not extravagant to begin with).

We’d like to ask you to consider three things:

1. (and this really is number one): Please pray for us. Pray for our church, and for our family, that we will receive what we need.

2. Pray about and consider giving a one-time gift

3. Pray about and consider sending us monthly support.

If the Lord leads you to give, there are two ways. You can scroll down a little, and on the right hand side of the page is a “Paypal donate” button. You can donate through that with a credit card, bank account or your own paypal account. This gift goes directly to me; therefore it is not tax deductible.

The second way to give is to send a check to

New Joy Fellowship

3029 Kelly Lynn Court

Lebanon, TN 37090

Your gift sent in this way is tax deductible. Just write “Clear Bible” in the memo for our records.

Thank you for your prayers and support!

THE RACE

marathon

Jesus has done everything for us. But being Christian is not really just about agreeing to the fact that Jesus has done it all. It is about personally trusting Jesus. It isn’t about a fact, it is about a person. We aren’t saved by facts; we are saved by Jesus himself.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Galatians # 16 . Chapter 5:7-12

You were running well. Who prevented you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from the One who called you.

Paul says that up until this point, the Galatians had been running well. I want to talk about that word-picture he uses: running. The Christian life is not a one-time ticket-purchase. It is a race. And I will add that it is not a sprint, but a marathon. There are several places where Paul makes this analogy, and the writer of Hebrews also uses it.

Don’t you know that the runners in a stadium all race, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way to win the prize. Now everyone who competes exercises self-control in everything. However, they do it to receive a crown that will fade away, but we a crown that will never fade away. Therefore I do not run like one who runs aimlessly or box like one beating the air. Instead, I discipline my body and bring it under strict control, so that after preaching to others, I myself will not be disqualified. (1Cor 9:24-27, HCSB)

Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us. (Heb 12:1, HCSB)

Too many “Christians” look at Christianity like life-insurance. Their attitude is, “Sure, it’s something you need, but you don’t really benefit until you die.” So they get baptized, or “make a decision” or get “confirmed” or something like that, and then they ignore Jesus for the rest of their lives, unless, of course, they get into trouble and need his help. Some of these folks think that “going to church” is part of the ticket price, so they may go to church too, but it doesn’t affect how they live here and now. Incidentally, it is those people, and their typical pattern of behavior, who are mostly responsible for giving Christians such a bad name.

But Paul says, “No, that’s not how it is. This is a race we have entered.” We are supposed to remain in the race, committed to, and focused on the goal. It isn’t a little side-part of our lives. It is our life. It isn’t life insurance. It isn’t something we do when the mood strikes us. Yes, we still go to work and pay our bills and take vacations, but all these things now come under the context of the marathon, the race we are running toward heaven. As Paul says, we don’t live aimlessly any more. We aren’t running for no purpose. Marathon runners are not people who just get up on day and say, “I feel like running twenty-six miles today.” They train. They focus. No real marathon runner starts the race, and then, half a mile later, says, “I’m stopping for coffee. Maybe I’ll get back in the race later on.” No, once they are in the race, they don’t stop until they cross the finish line.

That is what it is like to become a Christian. We have entered something. We are engaged upon a lifelong quest. We don’t embark upon it lightly, and we don’t abandon it lightly.

We Christians have sometimes mixed up the gospel. Becoming a Christian is not primarily about agreeing to a certain set of facts. You’ll meet people who present it this way. If you believe A, B, and C, and utter prayer D, then you are a Christian. I remember in college, getting some training in evangelism. That’s how they trained us. We were supposed to share certain facts with people, support the facts with bible verses, and ask for their agreement:

A. The bible says that all people, including you, have sinned (Rom 3:23).

B. Our sin means we are under condemnation from God (Rom 6:23). We can’t fix it ourselves (Eph 2:8-9)

C. God took it upon himself to restore us to him, by coming as Jesus the Son (John 3:16).

D. Everyone who believes in Jesus is saved from their sins and will have eternal life (1 John 5:11-12; Rom 10:8-13).

E. Do you believe this? If so, say this prayer with me….

These things are all true. But the way I first learned to present them might very well have given someone the impression that all they had to do was agree with the facts, say the prayer, and then get on with life.

I don’t want us to get confused in the series on Galatians. Jesus has done everything for us. But being Christian is not really just about agreeing that Jesus has done it all. It is about personally trusting Jesus. It isn’t about a fact, it is about a person. Because it is about a person, it is about personal trust and personal relationship with the One who has saved us. Don’t get me wrong: the things that I preach about Jesus are factually true. But we aren’t saved by facts; we are saved by Jesus himself.

The goal of all we have been learning so far in Galatians is not to get people to say, “Great! I agree that Jesus took care of all it for me. Now I’m off to do my own thing.” No. The goal is for all of us learn to trust and love Jesus. If we already do, it is to increase our trust and love for him. The facts should be inspiration and motivation to do that.

So Paul says that the Galatians were in the race, running well. He goes on:

Who prevented you from obeying the truth? This persuasion did not come from the One who called you. A little yeast leavens the whole lump of dough. I have confidence in the Lord you will not accept any other view. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. (Gal 5:7-10, HCSB)

When he was with them, it seemed that they got it. But now suddenly someone has cut them off, changed their conviction. Paul says that the persuasion that is changing their minds is not from Jesus. He then quotes a proverb that Jesus himself said: “a little yeast leavens the whole lump of dough.” We make bread in much the same way that people did in New Testament times. You combine, flour, water, oil, honey salt and yeast. In a 1kilo (2 pound) lump of dough, you use about 10 grams of yeast (1 tablespoon). By weight, that means the yeast makes up about 1% of all the bread. And yet it profoundly affects every bit of the dough, changing it dramatically. Both Jesus and Paul meant two things by turning this into a proverb:

First, like yeast, false teaching tends to spread and have a much wider influence than you might expect. It only takes a little bit of false teaching to start affecting a lot of people.

Second, I think this comparison shows that many times, false teaching might be just a little bit of lie combined with a lot of good truth. This is one of the favorite tricks of the devil. When he came to Adam and Eve, he said: “Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden’? ” Of course, God said they couldn’t eat from just one tree, that was true. But he insinuated the lie that God had forbidden all trees. Then he said,

“No! You will not die,” the serpent said to the woman. “In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:4-5, HCSB)

That’s true, in a way. Once they sinned, suddenly they knew about evil in a way that they never did before. They had a greater understanding. But it wasn’t the kind of understanding that the devil led them to believe it was. It was a half-truth. False teaching and temptation often work like this.

One of the most prevalent false teachings in America now is the “prosperity gospel.” It comes in several different forms, but basically it goes like this: “God loves you, and wants to bless you. If you get right with him, and have the right attitude of faith, if you claim what is yours in faith, he will bless you financially.” Subtler forms of this message might end instead with he will heal you; or, he will give you what you want; or, he will make your life easy. There are many different things people add in there. Now, in many ways, a lot of this is true. God does love us. He does want to bless us. We should approach him in faith. There are just two small lies here. The first lie is that if you simply do your part by having enough faith, or the right kind of faith, or testifying to your faith in the right way, God will always do what you want him to. That’s not true. Faith is not lever that we pull to manipulate God. It is the abandonment of ourselves to the One we trust.

The second small lie is that the blessings we want to have are exactly the same as the blessings that God wants to give us. Many times, we want things that, for reasons we may never understand, are not what God wants to do for us right now.

In any case, the point is, false teaching – whatever the specific lie – is very dangerous and powerful. It is often just a few small lies combined with a lot of truth. Paul says those who are doing this – leading the Galatians astray – will pay the penalty. He doesn’t specify what the penalty is, but we can assume it isn’t good.

Paul goes on,

Now brothers, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. (Gal 5:11, HCSB)

The doctrine of the cross of Christ is offensive. To the Jews, it was offensive to say that the law was irrelevant, that you could be saved through trusting Jesus rather than doing the law. It took away the power and influence of the leaders of Jewish religion. In fact, it was a fundamental change.

But it is offensive to others in other ways too. For some people, it is offensive to say that Jesus is the only way to God and to eternal life. We covered that in more depth last week, if you want to go back and read it. Another offensive idea is this: there is something fundamental in each one of us that deserves crucifixion. The cross shows us how evil and ugly sin is. In fact, the cross was the physical judgment of sin, so in the cross sin is judged to be sinful. When we tell people that their favorite, self-serving or sinful activities need the forgiveness brought by Jesus’ death, they often get offended. A lot of folks are willing to acknowledge some petty little sin, or something they don’t mind not doing, or giving up. But if the cross shows up the sinfulness of their lifestyle or of a cherished activity, watch out! It is offensive.

Paul is entirely willing to suffer persecution for the sake of Jesus. That doesn’t stop him from being a human person who was irritated with those who oppose him. His final thought of these verses deserves mention:

I wish those who are disturbing you might also get themselves castrated! (Gal 5:12, HCSB)

With that pleasant thought, let’s pause and listen to what the Holy Spirit may be saying to us.

Have you been looking at following Jesus as sort of ticket that you bought for heaven, or a kind of part time hobby that you do when you feel like it? Let the Holy Spirit correct you and speak to you about that. Let him also speak forgiveness and restoration to you. Trust Jesus, personally.

Are you in danger of believing a lie because it sounds good, or because at least part of it is true? Let the Lord protect you and speak to you about that too.

Finally, are you prepared for the fact that the cross of Christ is offensive to people? Are you ready to run the race, in spite of the scorn and anger of others?

Above all, remember, all this is not about a set of facts, it is about a person, Jesus Christ, who love you, who gave up his life to save you and so that you could be with him.

SELF-JUSTIFICATION, OR JESUS-JUSTIFICATION?

what-is-justification-by-faith-part-5-21502697

Only Jesus can satisfy the demands of the law. Only Jesus can make you holy. Only he can make you good. You don’t have to try any more.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 15

GALATIANS #15

Galatians Chapter 5:2-6

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal 5:2-4, ESV2011)

Before all you ladies quit reading, I want to make it clear that these verses have to do with some timeless and important principles. It isn’t really about the male anatomy at all. Remember, the situation in Galatia is that some false teachers have come in and are saying that although Jesus is the Messiah, in order to be right with God and be truly saved, you must follow Jewish law. For men, that meant that they must be circumcised. Some of these folks were in Jerusalem with Paul at one time:

But some of the believers from the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses! ” (Acts 15:5, HCSB)

Now, let’s be clear. Paul himself was circumcised. At one point, he had his helper, Timothy, circumcised, so that he could stay the houses of non-Christian Jews (Acts 16:3). So clearly, Paul did not view circumcision itself as evil or always wrong. The problem was, the Galatians were starting to believe that circumcision was necessary (for men) to get right with God. For both men and women, they felt it was necessary to follow Jewish law.

Paul is saying this: “We are saved by Jesus plus nothing. If you want to count circumcision or the Jewish Law toward your salvation, then you can’t count Jesus. If you want to follow the law, you have to follow the whole thing perfectly, your entire life.” Jesus presents us with an either/or proposition. Either we receive him, and him alone as our only hope, or we try and get right with God through our own efforts. But we can’t do both.

If you think anything other than the death and resurrection of Jesus will get you right with God, then you are on your own. If you say, “well, God needs to let my aunt into heaven because she was so kind and generous,” you are really claiming that one way to get right with God is kindness and generosity. Paul, Jesus and entire New Testament disagree.

You can come to God through Jesus, have no other claim or hope; or, you can come to God with anything else you want, but not Jesus. Jesus is exclusive. Martin Luther, writing about these verses, put it this way:

“This teaching is the touchstone by which we can judge most surely and freely about all doctrines, works, forms of worship, and ceremonies of men. Whoever (whether he be a papist, a Jew, a Turk, or a sectarian) teaches that anything beyond the Gospel of Christ is to necessary to attain salvation; whoever establishes any work or form of worship; whoever observes any rule, tradition or ceremony with the opinion that thereby he will obtain the forgiveness of sins, righteousness and eternal life – will hear the judgment of the Holy Spirit pronounced against him here by the apostle: that Christ is of no advantage to him at all.” (Martin Luther).

People these days do not like the idea that there is only one way to God, and therefore only one way to heaven. According to the Bible, there is only one way to God, and that is through Jesus Christ. Jesus said it himself:

“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6).

“Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it. (Matt 7:13-14, HCSB)

The apostles all reiterated this teaching of Jesus. John wrote:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. (1John 5:11-12, HCSB)

The reason Jesus is the only way, is because it is only through his life, death and resurrection that God’s holy standard is satisfied. God is holy. Holiness destroys sin. If we come into God’s presence with sin in us, we will be destroyed. Jesus embodied both the holiness of God the flesh of sinful humanity. Because of who he was, his life, death and resurrection satisfied the holy standards of God’s nature. He was the only one who could do that. As we trust him, he includes us in what he has done. But if we try and justify ourselves in any way, Jesus is useless to us. The Galatians were trying to do it through Jewish law. Let me share a few ways I’ve heard people these days try to justify themselves apart from Jesus:

“Well, I’m basically a good person.”

“I’m no saint, but I’m no worse than anyone else.”

“I’m no saint, but at least I’m not a hypocrite.”

“I’ve gone to church all my life.”

“I take care of the people around me. The bible says to love your neighbor, and I do that, probably better than a lot of church people.”

Folks, this is all self-justification. These statements are all about getting into heaven by your own merit, or at least your own merit compared to other people (but not compared to God’s Holy Standard). This is living by law. In terms of relating to God, it is no different from insisting upon following Jewish law. It is up to you to be good enough, or to be at least no worse than others, or to behave religiously. Paul says that if you rely on such things, Jesus Christ is of no value to you.

Some people look for justification in other religions. They may say that all religions lead to the same goal. I always find that idea kind of humorous, because the one thing all religions seem to agree upon is that the other ones are wrong. Islam claims to be the one right way. Jesus himself excluded any other way but himself. That means you can follow other religions if you want, but you won’t have anything to do with Jesus. Even Hinduism and Buddhism, which many people think are so inclusive, are not really that way. They might be willing to includes Jesus as another one of their thousands of Deities, but they absolutely refuse to let him claim the exclusivity that he claims. In other words, they are inclusive only if you accept their way of looking at things, which of course, means they aren’t that inclusive.

There is one more thing people do to justify themselves. They simply change the standard. Listen carefully here, because it doesn’t sound like living by law, but it is. The ten commandments command us to put God first, to not make or worship idols, to not take the name of the Lord in vain and to observe a day set aside for rest and worship. They tell us we should honor our parents. They say we should not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet. Jesus said they were all summed up by these two ideas: Love God, and Love your Neighbor.

So our current culture says “It’s all about love. As long as you act ‘loving,’ you are a good person.” So, you can cheat and steal and lie as long as you do it to the government or a large corporation, where no one (that you know about) gets personally hurt. You’ll still be a good person. You can have sex with someone you aren’t married to, as long as it is loving. You can have greed and envy and hatred in your heart, as long you don’t hurt anyone. You can gossip, or get drunk, or lie to your boss about why you weren’t there. Our culture has reduced holiness to innocuousness.

Now, all this is still self-justification. We aren’t putting our hope in Jesus to forgive us and make us good from the inside out. We are changing the standard of goodness and holiness so that it describes the way we prefer to behave. We are trying to make ourselves righteous by changing what righteousness is. This isn’t putting our hope in Christ – it is putting our hope in the fact that we can, through our own efforts, meet the reduced standards. If this is our approach to God, we are trying to be right with him so other way than Jesus. Paul says, if that is so, we are cut off from Christ.

Now, again, circumcision in itself is not the problem. Paul writes:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love. (Gal 5:6, HCSB)

The issue is self-justification. Circumcision might be a good thing for hygiene or even something that helps some people remember they belong to God. But it can’t be a law, or a means to get right with God.

There are many things like circumcision. Fasting can be helpful to focus our hearts and minds upon the Lord. Certain forms of worship and spiritual disciplines can really help us grow closer to the Lord. But if you ever find yourself thinking “If I just do this, I’ll be OK with God,” watch out! The devil is lying to you. If you think, “Only people who do this activity, or observe this ceremony, are real Christians,” you are in deep spiritual danger!

Let me be even more clear. Not even keeping the ten commandments will get you right with God. First, if you are old enough to read these words, you have already failed to keep the ten commandments. It’s already over – you haven’t kept the whole law perfectly for your whole life. You aren’t holy enough to come into the presence of God. You never will be. It’s good to follow the ten commandments – the Holy Spirit, living inside Christians, wants to do them. But if you are trying to follow the ten commandments in order to keep God from smiting you, you are out of luck. The smiting is coming, unless you are in Jesus.

Only Jesus can satisfy the demands of the law. Only Jesus can make you holy. Only he can make you good.

When you are in Jesus, as you submit to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, you will start to look a little more holy, because he wants to live his holy life through you. But it won’t be you trying to be good in order to please God or get to heaven. It will be Jesus in you, being good, as you. And you won’t trust your own goodness or worry if your own goodness is enough – because the goodness of Jesus is enough for you.

I know you screw up, because I know I screw up. I know that even though Jesus has made me good, I don’t always act like it. Paul knew this about himself too. And that is why he wrote verse 5:

For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. (Gal 5:5, HCSB)

The Greek word there for “eagerly wait,” frequently refers to waiting for the fulfillment of something that has been promised, but hasn’t happened yet. We have this righteousness through Jesus, and yet it isn’t fully complete at this time. So we anticipate it eagerly. Paul wrote about this in 1 Corinthians 1:7; Philippians 3:20 and Hebrews 9:28. He wrote this to the Christians in Rome:

For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it — in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits — we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. Now in this hope we were saved, yet hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:19-25, HCSB)

So what does all this mean for us now? Paul talked about freedom in verse 1. What freedom it is to be done with justifying yourself! You aren’t letting yourself off the hook – you are admitting that you can’t get off the hook and you need Jesus to save you. You are admitting you cannot do it. There is great freedom in that.

There is a warning here, too. If you think you can add to what Jesus had done for you, or if you think you have a part to play in saving yourself, you are in grave spiritual danger. And there is a warning also, to not make good things into necessary things.

Finally, there is this business of eagerly waiting. I see a lot of people who call themselves Christians who do not seem interested, let alone eager, in Jesus bringing his righteousness into their lives. It makes me wonder how much room he really has in their hearts. We don’t need to be perfect. We don’t need to strive to make ourselves good. But we should eagerly anticipate the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to do those things. We can be looking for it, praying for it, ready to respond right away as the Spirit prompts us to do something, or refrain from doing something else. We are not supposed to wander off and say, “Well, let Jesus make me righteous if he can, I’m off to do my own thing. Good luck to him.” No, Paul says that we who are in Jesus should be anticipating his work in us, eager to see it come about.

What is the Spirit saying to you today?

WHEN TRADITION HURTS FAITH

traditions

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 11

GALATIANS #11 . Chapter #4:8-11

8 But in the past, when you didn’t know God, you were enslaved to things3 that by nature are not gods. 9 But now, since you know God, or rather have become known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and bankrupt elemental forces? Do you want to be enslaved to them all over again? 10 You observe special days, months, seasons, and years. 11 I am fearful for you, that perhaps my labor for you has been wasted.

The Galatians probably worshipped the Roman/Greek pagan gods, and this is mostly likely what Paul is referring to when he refers to their past. But this makes it an interesting statement. The Galatians are not trying to go back and worship pagan gods – they are trying to follow Jewish Laws and earn something from the true God. But Paul says, this would be just the same as going back to the pagan gods. He says “How can you go back again to these bankrupt elemental principles?” Elemental principles is that word “stoikeon,” which we talked about last time. It is the idea that one thing necessarily follows another; the idea that you earn what you get, and you get what you deserve. Although many things in the universe do generally operate this way, Paul explained last time that this is not how God operates spiritually with those who are in Jesus Christ. Last time we saw that what God says to us is this: “Stoikeon doesn’t work for you, because you aren’t able to do anything of real value to me. So instead, we’ll let Jesus do all the work, and through Him, I’ll adopt you as my dearly beloved children. Let’s have no more of this ‘you do something for me, and in return I’ll do something for you.’ Instead, through Jesus, I’ll treat you as my kids, and you treat me as your daddy.”

Paul says here that going back to that idea of trying to do something for God in order to get him to do something for us, is the same as going back to the old pagan worship that the Galatians used to practice. Even if they are following Jewish Law, they are doing it with the same attitude and relationship with God that is exhibited in their old pagan worship. Pagan worship was all about “stoikeon” or “sequential principles.” If you wanted the help of a god, then you made some sort of sacrifice or vow to the deity you need to please, and you got his or her help in return. Usually in pagan worship, you had to follow the rituals of worship precisely. You had to do and say the right things at the right time in order to get the desired result.

Paul says that when they seek to follow the Jewish law, the Galatians are doing exactly the same kind of thing. They are attempting to do things for God so he will do things for them. Jewish Law emphasizes following certain rituals, and doing things the right way. Paul says, “You observe special days, months, seasons and years.” And he says that the fact that they do this scares him. It makes him think they are losing their faith.

What were the special days and seasons they were observing? The entire letter was written because the Galatians were starting to believe that in addition to believing in Jesus, they had to follow the Jewish law. We need to understand a little bit about Jewish law. The Old Testament, of course, contains many rituals and laws that Jews were supposed to keep. But there is more to it than that. Over the years, Jewish rabbis taught extensively about the Old Testament, and their teachings were passed down orally from one generation to the next. These teachings, or commentaries on the Old Testament, came to be seen as an essential part of Jewish doctrine. Eventually, these commentaries were written down and collected, and today they are called “the Talmud.” So Jewish law came to mean much more than even just the Old Testament. Paul himself, before converting to Christianity, was a rising star in the Talmudic tradition of Hillel.

Though the Talmud was still in development during New Testament times, many of its teachings were already established at that time. So, for instance, the Old Testament commands us to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Over the centuries, the Jews grappled with what exactly that means, in practical terms. By the time of Jesus, most Jews accepted to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, there were “sub-rules,” you had to follow, rules found in Talmudic teaching. For instance, you could only take a certain number of steps, or carry certain things.

I suspect that the Galatians were following both Old Testament commands, and also commands and rituals that were part of the Talmudic tradition. They probably followed a strict Talmudic interpretation of the Sabbath, and celebrated the Jewish events like New Moon, the first and seventh month and the Feasts of Unleavened Bread, Pentecost, and the festival of Booths. Paul writes about these things more specifically to the Colossians:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. (Col 2:16-17, ESV2011)

Now, it isn’t that these things are bad in and of themselves. Our church, New Joy Fellowship, celebrates the Jewish Feast of Passover every year. But there are two important things to remember, and this is what Paul is getting at:

  1. Such things, in and of themselves do not contribute to our salvation or worth in God’s eyes. Celebrate the Passover, or don’t. Eat Pork, or not – it doesn’t matter, spiritually. You won’t be more holy if you do these things; you won’t be less holy if you do. Following laws and traditions will not get God to love you more, and they won’t manipulate God into blessing you. God doesn’t relate to us according to sequential principles.
  2. Such things are shadows; the substance is Christ. Sometimes they are helpful, but they are only helpful if they point us to the real thing, which is Christ. Tradition is nothing, Christ is everything. Tradition is great if it points us to Christ, it is inherently spiritually dangerous if it does anything other than that.

I heard a great quote last week. A pastor at a conference said, “Tradition is the living faith of dead people, but traditionalism is the dead faith of living people.” Tradition can be good. When we remember how people who have gone before us lived their lives in faith and hope, it encourages hope and faith in us. We can use memories and repeated traditions to remind us of those faithful believers who have gone on to their reward. We can use traditions to keep pointing us toward the substance, which is Jesus Christ. But sometimes our faith becomes tied to the traditions. We start to feel that we must keep certain traditions, and if we don’t, we haven’t done it right. We sort of get the idea not that traditions is there to help encourage us, but rather, that certain traditions are a necessary part of our faith. This is what Paul is so concerned about.

Let me give a few examples of good traditions that can lead us astray when we think they are necessary. One of those is the altar call. That is a tradition in most Baptist churches. Sometimes it is helpful. But if you find yourself thinking that no worship service is truly complete without an altar call, you are in danger. If you think the only proper way to get saved is to come to the front of church during an altar call, you are in grave of becoming traditionalist, of confusing living faith with tradition. Lutherans have a lot of traditions in worship too. Some of them can be helpful at times. But if we get the idea that it isn’t really a worship service unless we say the Lord’s prayer, or stand for the reading of the gospel, we are in danger of confusing living faith with tradition.

Our church typically doesn’t fight over these kinds of things, but there are thousands of churches that do fight over traditions; things that are not necessary to true and living faith in Jesus Christ. The reason it becomes such a big deal is that people start thinking traditions are the same thing as faith. They are not. They are only there to aid it, and when they are not useful, they should not be used. The danger of relying too much on tradition is that some people end up with only tradition, and no real faith that is active and alive.

Picture a battery powered radio, the kind of thing we used to call a “boom box.” Imagine someone brought one of these radios to a remote village in Papua New Guinea where there was no electricity. Picture the villagers amazed and thrilled as they hear the music coming from the radio. Imagine the hours they spend, uplifted and made joyful by the music. Every evening at the same time, after they are done with their hard work, the villagers gather together around the radio to listen to the music. They call it “music time.”

But as time goes on, those batteries will die. Picture a time when the music starts to fade, and then imagine one day, it is gone. Now, what will those villagers do? If they are sensible, they will make their own music and enjoy it, and perhaps hope for a time when someone will bring new batteries to the village, so that the radio may be refreshed. But it is entirely possible that after a long time of gathering together every night to listen to the music, they may retain the habit, even after the batteries die. The radio is no longer bringing them music, but still they gather and look at it. Eventually, the villagers may even forget why they gather each night to look at the radio. It’s just what they do. If asked, many of them will say they do it because of music. As they forget, they have started to think of the evening time gathered around the radio as their “music time,” even though music has long ceased to be a part of it.

That is how some of us are with traditions. Tradition is there to bring us the “music” of faith. But tradition itself is not the same as faith. It can bring the music, but it is not music in itself. Sometimes we continue to follow traditions long after they have ceased to encourage our faith. Sometimes we get mixed up, and we forget that our faith is something greater and more alive than the traditions that once helped us in it. We even sometimes start to think that the traditions are faith, or at least an inseparable part of it.

So, we think we haven’t worshipped if we didn’t say a certain prayer or have an altar call or sing a certain song. We think it is isn’t a real church if it doesn’t have candles, or an altar, or a cross, or if it is in someone’s home, or…[you fill in the blank]. We start to think you have to have a guitar, or you can’t have a guitar and many other silly things.

Now, let me be clear. When tradition brings you closer to Jesus and makes you more open to the Holy Spirit, it is a wonderful and useful thing. There is nothing wrong with embracing those kinds of traditions. We need all the help we can get. But we need to be careful that we do not start to think that traditions are necessary to faith, or that they are the same thing as faith.

This is a normal, human tendency, and this is why Paul was so frightened when he heard about the Galatians mindlessly following the Jewish traditions. They were perverting the true gospel, adding on requirements, as if what Jesus did was not enough. They were confusing things that were designed to help faith, with the substance of faith itself.