COLOSSIANS #16: GROW LIKE A TREE, NOT LIKE A WEED

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Sometimes our  Christian culture can give us the idea that we ought to be constantly having amazing spiritual feelings and experiences. But at best, that idea is distorted. The message of this text – the message of the Bible – is that a lot of the growth we have in Jesus takes place below the surface. A lot of it is kind of ordinary. It is quiet and deep, and maybe even slow. This applies to both churches and individual Christians. Growth is something Jesus does in us and for us. He uses simple, straightforward means to grow us, and anyone can participate in those means.

COLOSSIANS
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Colossians #16. Colossians 2:7

Remember last time, we considered the very important phrase: “as you received Christ as Lord, so continue in him.” Verse 7 is connected to that thought:

You have been and will continue to be rooted in him. You are being firmly built up in faith, you are being established in accordance with what you were taught, and you overflow with thanksgiving. (my own translation/paraphrase from Greek)

The verbs here are all present tense, passive voice. What that means is that they are describing something that is being done to you, and that continues to be done to you. We talked about how we received Jesus not by doing good things, but by trusting that he has already done them. So he is also rooting us (that is connecting us deeply to him). He is building us up in faith, he is establishing us – that is giving us a firm foundation in Christ. All of this is according to what we were taught, that is, according to the Bible. And it results in joyful gratitude on our part.

As we think about all this, a few things come to mind. First, in our mortal lives right now, following Jesus is something of a process. We are being rooted in him, built up in faith and established. It is ongoing. It isn’t that one moment we are godless pagans, and the next we are ready to be missionaries or monks. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is working to enlarge our spirits, to wean us away from our sinful flesh, and to draw us more and more into His abundant life. We should also make sure to understand that these words apply not only to individuals, but also to church communities. People in those days were just as likely to think of themselves in terms of “us” as often, or more, as “me.”

The words used to describe the process are not dramatic. Instead they indicate patient, deep growth. First, we are being rooted. If you think about the plant world, you can’t even see roots growing. That all happens beneath the surface. Roots are vital to the survival of any plant, but roots are not flashy. They are not quick. They grow slowly and hidden.

When we think about the next one, being built up, we can see something happening in that process. However, in Paul’s day, before modern technology, buildings took a great deal of time to take shape. In the ancient Mediterranean world the majority of the buildings would have been made out of stone. The stone had to be cut by hand, hauled by hand, or horse, and put in place by hand. The ingredients of the mortar had to be ground (perhaps with the assistance of a some sort of primitive mill) and mixed by hand. So, though you can see the results of building up, that too, takes a lot of time.

Then we come to being established. Again, this is something we can’t really see. Being established, in this context, means that we are firmly set in Jesus. An established business is one that has been there for a long time, and has roots in the community, and strong financial and marketing practices. An established fact is one that is not in doubt. When we are established in Christ, We have strong spiritual practices (reading, praying, serving), and a meaningful connection to Christian community (church). When we are established, whatever comes, we won’t be shaken from the foundation we have in him.

Being rooted, built up and established is all in accordance with what we were taught. Paul is referring to the teaching of the Apostles, which, these days, we call “The Bible.” The Bible is one of the primary places in which we get to know Jesus, and by which we give him access to our lives. The other ways are based upon the Bible: the sacraments (especially communion, since it happens regularly) and Christian community. If we cut ourselves off from any of these three (The Bible, The sacraments or Christian community) it will interfere with the growth that the Lord wants to provide.

I want us to understand what good news this is. In the first place, these are all things being done to us by the Holy Spirit. We aren’t rooting ourselves, or building ourselves. The Spirit is doing it. All we have to do to receive it is to trust Him.

Now he does use certain methods to root us and establish us in Jesus. But these are not complicated. And if we really do trust Jesus, at least a part of us will actually want to do these things. Anyone can read the Bible, or listen to it in an audio version. Anyone can receive the sacraments. Anyone can be part of a church. It doesn’t require something exceptional on our part to grow in Jesus. We don’t have to be a certain kind of person. We don’t have to have certain kinds of experiences or emotions or passions.

Sometimes, our present Christian culture in the Western world seems to push toward having big, exciting experiences, filled with wonderful feelings. It seems like we are supposed to always feel these amazing emotions toward God. We are supposed to be continually blown away by what God is doing in our lives. Think of a typical worship video. There’s a huge crowd. The people on stage are raising their hands and singing with deep emotion. The music creates a big atmosphere. Cut to the crowd where people stand with their hands up, tears streaming down their faces or kneel, shaking with feeling.

I don’t think that sort of thing is bad in and of itself, but it tends to send a misleading message. It encourages us to think we should move from one high to the next. We think maybe there is something wrong if we aren’t moving in a huge, obvious, upward spiritual trajectory. We think we must be terrible Christians if our faith doesn’t look like those YouTube worship videos.

But that isn’t the case. The message of this text – which is the Bible, not a worship video – is that a lot of the growth we have in Jesus takes place below the surface. A lot of it is kind of ordinary. It is quiet and deep, and maybe even slow. I have amazing spiritual experiences once in a while. Probably not more than once or twice a year, probably less, and they last only a few minutes. And it might be that Jesus gives me them that often because I’m not normally an emotional person, and he wants me to grow in that area. These spiritual experiences are great. But they are not the substance of my faith. I would grow even without them, because it is Jesus who causes me to grow.

This is really important. Yes, we should be growing as Christians. But the pace and type of growth are up to Jesus. The growth comes not because we earn it, but because we trust him. We may not even be able to see some of it. Think about roots again. You don’t really know how good the roots of a tree are until a storm comes. Then, and only then, you can tell if a tree’s roots are strong or not. If you are worried about the rate of your growth, trust Jesus. Ask him to cause you to grow, and trust him to do it. Don’t fight with him about basics like reading your Bible, and praying, and being involved with Christian community, but understand even if you do all that, you won’t grow unless Jesus makes it happen.

I also want you to think of these things in terms of your local church. It is easy to get impatient with your church. But here, spiritual growth for both individuals and churches is described in terms that are slow, gradual and patient. Yes, there are big, exciting churches out there. It is not my job to judge them but I realized years ago that spiritual reality can be very different from how things look on the surface. Not every big, exciting-seeming church is spiritually healthy or pleasing to the Lord.

I want to consider the next piece: overflowing with thanksgiving.

I think it is clear that thankfulness also has great power to transform our attitudes and thoughts. It is very difficult to be both bitter and thankful at the same time. It is hard to thank God profusely for what he has done for me, and, at the same time, be angry at him. When we thank God, it helps us to focus on what is good, and ultimately on the Good Giver. Being thankful to the Lord for all things, including my pain, has been part of the transformation for me of turning my struggle into a blessing.

But thankfulness is more than just a way to manipulate us into a positive attitude.

Thankfulness is both a result of, and a means to, trust in Jesus. The more we really believe what he has done for us, and learn about it, the more grateful we will be. On the other hand, thankfulness helps us to receive in faith what Jesus has given us. You can’t touch forgiveness with your hands. You can’t touch love, or hope, or grace or joy. But when we thank God for these things, we receive them more deeply in our hearts. Thanking him helps us receive, and also strengthens our connection to the One who gives.

I am not naturally a grateful person, perhaps because I have had so many good things handed to me during my life. But I have found that if I can find some way to start thanking God, even for something quite small and insignificant, it gives the Holy Spirit a crack to work with. Then I gradually become more and more thankful, for deeper and more important things. So I might start as I shower, thanking the Lord for hot water, or even just running water. Then I might thank him that I have the ability to stand up and take a shower. I’ll thank him for water. That might remind me of my baptism, and so I thank him for adopting me as his child and giving me the Holy Spirit. And so on.

Some thoughts for application:

  • Have you been tempted to be impatient with yourself or your church because growth seems so slow? How does this text address your impatience?
  • Have you thought that your spiritual growth all depends on your own efforts? What does this text say to you about that?
  • What are some things that you can be thankful for? Take ten minutes (time yourself!) to thank God for various things, big and small.

COLOSSIANS #15: GRACE FOR THE CHRISTIAN LIFE

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Our lifestyle of being in Jesus is based on exactly the same facts as our salvation. We now live in the same way. We stop trusting in our own efforts to perform well. We trust that Jesus is, and will be, at work within us according to his promises, and that his work, not our own efforts, will make us into the people that God desires us to be. Trust does require a sort of surrender, that is, we need to lean into Jesus, to learn to rely upon him more and more. But we walk in Him the very same way that we came to him in the first place: by trusting in his grace for everything we need.

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Colossian #15  Colossians 2:6-7

Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

Colossians 2:6-7 is easy to read, but there is a wealth of grace, wisdom and knowledge in this one sentence. It is important for us to pause and understand the huge significance of it says, and what it means.

As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.

We have two, almost opposite problems when it comes to verses like this. But the solution to both problems is the same. In the first place, sometimes people act as if receiving Christ as Lord is no big thing. Some people may think of receiving Christ as Lord as sort of like something on our to-do list:

  • Fill the car with gas
  • Reserve Hotel for Vacation
  • Accept Jesus as savior
  • Take out garbage

It is something we have to do, we think, of course. But it’s just one of many things. We have busy lives, after all. So we “walk in him,” the same way as we received him, which is, he doesn’t really have much to do with anything in our actual lives.

My Dad tells a story about when we were living in Papua New Guinea as missionaries. A friend of his was teaching on the Island of Karkar. The island is basically just a large cone-shaped volcano sticking out of the ocean. It was a very active volcano that occasionally killed people with poison gas. While this missionary was teaching, there was an earthquake, and they could see ashes and gasses spewing from the top of the cone. The missionary paused and said, “Why don’t we pray about the volcano?”

The island’s residents were puzzled. “Pray to God? About the volcano? We don’t pray to God about that. For that, we pray to the spirits of the volcano.”

The missionary was puzzled. “Well, what do you pray to God about?”

They shrugged. “White people stuff. Missionary stuff.”

They had somehow got the idea that Christianity was not about real life, not about all of life. Instead, they believed in God just for one narrow purpose. It did not affect how they lived the rest of their lives.

We can laugh about primitive people praying to a volcano, but sometimes, we do the same thing. We believe in God for heaven, and for church stuff. It’s one narrow thing: our eternal future. When we have this attitude, Jesus doesn’t have much to do with the way we live. But that was never the case for the first Christians. It is not the teaching we get from the Bible. Receiving Christ as Lord changes everything. Everything we do is now related to the fact that we have Christ as Lord. Our relationships are now lived out in the context of the fact that we belong to Jesus. Our decisions are deeply influenced by the life of Jesus in us. Life becomes about receiving from Him, and loving him back. Jesus becomes the primary influence in all of life.

Receiving Jesus is a bit like getting married. You don’t get married, and then just go off and live the way you did before. No, after you get married, you do life alongside your spouse. You are no longer just a “me,” you are half of an “us.” Some things remain more or less the same, of course. You still go to work. You still do a lot of the things you used to. But now, another person enters as a major factor in all of your decisions. You can’t just decide to take a job in another state; no, you have to talk to your spouse and listen to what he or she says. You don’t just spend the evening however you please without first talking to your spouse to see how he or she would like to spend the time. Ideally, a lot of that time is spent together. You love your spouse, and you like being close to him or her, and so you try sincerely, but not perfectly, to live with your spouse in a way that make him or her happy. Usually, when I do that, I find that my life is happier also.

By the way, this is one of the reasons that the Bible tells us marriage is so important. It is a picture of our relationship with God. When we don’t value marriage as a solemn, joyful, lifelong commitment, we start losing our understanding of what it means to be in Jesus. Even as I write this, I know that some people don’t “get it” when I use the illustration of marriage. This is a terrible tragedy. Married people owe it not only to themselves, not only to their children, but to all people, to make their marriage more important than anything but God. When we do so, it is a beacon to others, showing what it is like to be loved by Jesus, and to love him.

So it is with Jesus. When you receive him as Lord, you are not longer just a “you.” You are now in the family of God, in a way that only comes with receiving Jesus Christ.

10 He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. 11 He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. 12 But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. 13 They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. (John 1:10-13 NLT)

Now, you no longer just live however you please. You “do life” with Jesus, and with his people, who are now your brothers and sisters. Jesus is now a major factor in all your decisions. You talk to him and listen to him (through the Bible, and other Christians, and His Holy Spirit) before you make major decisions. You love Jesus, and you like feeling close to him, so you try, though not perfectly, to live in a way that makes him happy. Thankfully, doing that also makes you happier.

If you don’t really understand all I have written so far, go back and read it again, slowly. If you still don’t quite get it, please contact me, and we can have a conversation about it. This is vitally important.

Now, there is another, vitally important part to this. Some people do take receiving Jesus as Lord seriously. We know what a big deal it is. But then somewhere we get the mistaken idea that we are saved by grace, but after that it is up to us to perform well. In other words, God gives grace to save us, but daily living in Christ comes about mainly by our efforts.

But once more, listen to what Paul says: As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him.

How is it that we received Christ the Lord? There is only one way that people can receive Jesus: by trusting him. When we received Jesus, we stopped trusting in our own efforts to perform well. We stopped thinking that we could somehow manage to behave well enough to please God, or make up for our sins. Instead, we believed that what Jesus did for us was enough, and that it is the only thing that is enough to make us right with God, right with ourselves and right with the world and other people. We gave up on ourselves, on trying to control outcomes, and trusted Jesus with our eternal future, and also our present life here on earth.

So, once we have trusted Jesus in this way, how are we to live? What comes next? The answer is quite simple: we continue in the same way. In the same way that you received Jesus for salvation, now continue to walk in Jesus; that is, continue to live, continue a lifestyle.

Our lifestyle of being in Jesus is based on exactly the same facts as our salvation. We now live in the same way. We stop trusting in our own efforts to perform well. We trust that Jesus is, and will be, at work within us according to his promises, and that his work, not our own efforts, will make us into the people that God desires us to be. Trust does require a sort of surrender, that is, we need to lean into Jesus, to learn to rely upon him more and more. But we walk in Him the very same way that we came to him in the first place: by trusting in his grace for everything we need.

I have said before, and I will say it again, probably until my dying day: belief comes first, and then behavior. In other words, we behave based upon what we believe to be true. If we believe we are saved by grace, then gradually we will begin to become gracious people. We will eventually begin to behave according to character of Christ because we believe that Christ is, in fact, doing his work in us. The more we trust him, the more we become like him.

There are many verses in the New Testament telling us about how Christians should behave. You may not have noticed this, but almost invariably, those verses come only after we learn who Christ is and what he has done for us. This is true in our present book, Colossians. We’ve been taking things slowly, let’s remind ourselves what Paul has already said:

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (Colossians 1:15-23, ESV, italic formatting added for emphasis)

Christ has reconciled us to himself. We are presented as Holy and blameless. We live as we were saved: by trusting that Jesus has already done it. We have nothing to prove. Jesus has done all of the proving already. The “if indeed you continue in the faith…” comes only after “you…he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.”

And in this text today, we learn how to continue in the faith: the same way we began it: by trusting in the grace of God given to us freely in Jesus Christ.

For me, there is no greater deterrent to sin than being close to Jesus. When I lean into his grace I don’t have to work hard to avoid sin – I just don’t want to sin so much. Please understand, I am not claiming to be without sin myself. I know I am a miserable sinner, no better than the worst person alive. But I find that this miserable sinner is slowly, imperfectly, sinning less and less as he trusts Jesus more and more.

Let’s think about marriage again, marriage as God intends it. It is a sacred covenant relationship. Marriage is not just finding “the one” who will fulfill all our needs. That idea has led to countless divorces, once one partner stops meeting the needs of the other in the way the other demands. It isn’t a contract that can be broken or renegotiated. I have no idea whether, after 27+ plus years, Kari has done more for me, or I more for Kari. I hope neither one of us ever thinks that way. We love each other. We entered a sacred covenant, and it is not about keeping track of who owes whom.

In love, we do seek to fulfill the needs of the one we marry, but it is because of love, not obligation. Now, it is true, there are times when being married is work. That is because, like following Jesus, marriage requires us to die to ourselves so that we can love another person. We find many opportunities in marriage to do something that is loving and pleasing to our spouse. This sometimes means not doing something we might otherwise be inclined to do. We put their needs in front our own: we die to ourselves. Sometimes, as I have said, this is hard work. But even though it is hard, we do it out of love. Whether we always feel it or not, we recognize that we can help the happiness and well being of our spouse. So we do it. And we are not doing it in fear that otherwise we will be divorced. We work hard out of love. And there is tremendous payoff in living with your spouse like this. After almost 28 years, I can say the joy and satisfaction we have in our marriage is wonderful. Not perfect (no marriage is) but very good. It has been a labor, but a labor of love, and that labor of love has benefitted each of us.

So it is with Jesus. We enter into a sacred covenant relationship with him. We follow him, we do the things that the Bible talks about, not because we are afraid, or because we feel that we owe him (though we do owe him our very existence), but because we love him, and because we are secure in the knowledge that he loves us. We don’t keep score anymore, in order to know if we are doing OK. Instead, we trust his love for us.

And ultimately, we know that he wants us to do these things because he also wants the best for us. And we cannot doubt his love for us. He didn’t just die to his own desires for a moment. He literally gave up his own life for us.

When you are concerned about whether or not you are being good enough, remember: we walk in faith the same way we came to Jesus in the first place. That is, by trusting that he has done all that is required from us. The more we really believe that, the more we will act like we are indeed, in a covenant of grace with God, a special relationship, almost like a marriage. And the more we see it that way, the more we live as God intended.

I need to make sure this is very clear: Even “living as a Christian” comes about not by us trying harder, but by us trusting even more in God’s grace for us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

COLOSSIANS #14: THE WISDOM THAT COMES ONLY FROM TRUST

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True wisdom comes from trusting Jesus Christ, and anyone can do that. It is a wisdom imparted spiritually, first to our hearts, not our brains. As we trust Jesus, His wisdom and knowledge begin to come out in our decisions, and the way we treat other people, and in our understanding of the Bible.

I don’t mean to say that there is no value in thinking rationally, or getting an education. Those are good things. But we can receive a practical, heart-wisdom from Jesus that the most educated person will never have without Jesus. And our understanding of God, and of his love, begins not when we “figure it out,” but rather, when we really trust him

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Colossians #14  Colossians 2:2-5

1 For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, 2 that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, 3 in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4 I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. 5 For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. (Colossians 2:1-5, ESV)

Last time we concentrated on verse 1, and examined Paul’s struggle, and how his words about struggle might apply to us. The struggle is real, but it also has a purpose, and, according to the scriptures, we can confidently expect that the struggle will eventually accomplish its purpose.

Paul’s struggle for the Colossians (and others) was for this purpose: that their hearts would be encouraged; that they would be bound together in love; that they would absorb the incredible value of Christ himself, and all that is found within Christ. In addition, this purpose results in something else: if we understand and grasp the incredible value of Christ, we will not be easily led astray. We can live in full assurance of faith, firm, and confident, even in times of trouble; even in the face of those who might want to deceive us.

I don’t suppose there was a worldwide epidemic going on when Paul wrote these words. But it wasn’t terribly long after Paul wrote these words that Christians in this area of the world began to be persecuted. Paul is telling us that if we can truly grasp Christ Himself, and all that is found within Him, we can be firm and secure, no matter what goes on around us, no matter what plausible sounding arguments are used to try and sway us from our faith. That’s the big picture, the framework. With that understanding, let’s take it apart and see everything we can today.

Paul believes that our hearts can be profoundly encouraged. The Greek word there includes the idea of comfort and counsel, of someone walking alongside us. When we know Jesus, in something of the same fashion that we know another person that we are very close to, our hearts receive deep, real encouragement. When we take that “trust fall,” and agree with Jesus that no matter what we see or think, He is in control and He has our best interests at heart, then we receive a deep sense of peace and encouragement.

I am in pain as I write this. I don’t know what the future holds: it might be another forty years of pain. But I have taken the leap of trust, and I know, deep in my heart, that he loves me, and that if it is to be forty more years of pain, that pain will be far outweighed by the grace I receive, both during the pain, and also when it is finally over and I stand with him face to face. My heart is encouraged. Yours can be too. I think however, that it is probably necessary, if you want receive that encouragement, to surrender control to him, and trust, often in spite of the evidence, that He loves you, and is doing for you what is ultimately good, ultimately best.

This is the path to grasping all the riches of knowledge and understanding in Christ. If you think about it, it almost has to be this way, otherwise, only smart people could get knowledge and understanding from God. But if the way to get it is simply to trust, then anyone and everyone who is willing to trust can have the same knowledge, wisdom and understanding.

If that sounds foolish to you, read on. Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians:

18 The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. 19 As the Scriptures say,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise
and discard the intelligence of the intelligent.”
20 So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish. 21 Since God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never know him through human wisdom, he has used our foolish preaching to save those who believe. 22 It is foolish to the Jews, who ask for signs from heaven. And it is foolish to the Greeks, who seek human wisdom. 23 So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s all nonsense.
24 But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 This foolish plan of God is wiser than the wisest of human plans, and God’s weakness is stronger than the greatest of human strength.
26 Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. 27 Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. 28 God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. 29 As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18-29, NLT)

True wisdom comes from trusting Jesus Christ, and anyone can do that. It is a wisdom imparted spiritually, first to our hearts, not our brains. As we trust Jesus, His wisdom and knowledge begin to come out in our decisions, and the way we treat other people, and in our understanding of the Bible.

I don’t mean to say that there is no value in thinking rationally, or getting an education. Those are good things. But we can receive a practical, heart-wisdom from Jesus that the most educated person will never have without Jesus. And our understanding of God, and of his love, begins not when we “figure it out,” but rather, when we really trust him. If you are having a hard time grappling with something in the Bible, the best place to begin might be to make sure you have fully surrendered in trust to Jesus.

Paul does encourage us to use this heart wisdom, and combine it with thoughtfulness. He says that he does not want the Colossians to be easily deluded by plausible arguments – that is, tricked by lies that sound good. I want to identify just two of the plausible arguments that are common to our culture and time in the United States in 2020.

Some of our big “plausible sounding arguments” are quite similar to some of what the Colossians heard in their time and culture. For now, I’ll cover just two. Here’s the first one:

  • Big Lie #1: It is OK to worship Jesus, as long as you don’t claim He is the ONLY path to God, goodness and “heaven.”

In other words, “it’s fine if you choose Christianity as your path, but you can’t claim that it should be the same for everyone.

This was something the Colossians faced, also. Eventually the Christians were persecuted not because they worshipped Jesus – people worshipped all kinds of gods, and they didn’t care. But the culture did care when the Christians worshipped Jesus alone, and claimed that everyone else ought to do so as well. In this day and age, that is also true. People are fine with you being a Christian, as long as you don’t claim that Jesus is the only way for all people. But Jesus himself claims to be the only way for all people.

6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6, ESV)

10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (1 John 5:10-12, ESV)

Shortly after these verses, Paul is going to teach about exactly who Jesus is. If Jesus is indeed God in the flesh, then He is the God for all people and all times. If He is not, then He should not be the God for anyone.

It’s almost like saying: “2+2= 4 is not always right, for me. That’s your way of doing mathematics. My way of doing mathematics is different.” That’s ridiculous. If mathematics is what it claims to be, then it is true for all people in all times. If it isn’t, then it isn’t actually mathematics.

  • Big Lie #2

Happiness is found by focusing on yourself, and pursuing the deepest desires you have within you. If you have a desire, no matter how weird or different, you should follow it. If you have an attraction or impulse, you should act on it. Nothing you deeply yearn for should be considered wrong. The only wrong thing is to suggest that anyone should control themselves, rather than giving in to what they want.

This lie is at the root of all the debate about Christian sexual ethics; the arguments about homosexuality, sex-before-marriage, gender identity and so on. We Christians have not always relied upon the wisdom and knowledge that is in Jesus. The wisdom of Jesus teaches us to get to the heart of the issue. And the heart of the issue is this: Is Jesus your King, or isn’t he? Does he have the right to lead you down a path where your sinful flesh would prefer not to go? Does he have the right to lead wherever and however he chooses, or not?

The reason our culture hates Christian sexual ethics is because, even in heterosexual marriage, we are called to surrender our desires to Jesus, and allow him to limit them. Our culture wants no limits, and it even views self-imposed limits with suspicion.

But it is a lie to believe that to live with self-discipline is wrong. It’s a lie to believe that we shouldn’t trust that God wants the best for us when he prescribes limits for us. It is exactly the same lie that led Eve to commit the first human sin. There was one limit in the garden of Eden: don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The devil came to Eve and convinced her that God was withholding something good from her, that this limit was evil. Our temptations to live for whatever “feels right” to us are exactly the same temptations, and they come from the same source.

If we surrender to Jesus in trust, that means that he has the right to ask anything of us. It means our choices are defined not by our own desires, but by what Jesus desires for us.

Far too often, people think they want to have Jesus, and also want to run their own lives however they please. They want to have Jesus, but they don’t want to give up things they think are just as important, or even more important (in their minds) than Jesus. Jesus encountered a person like that once. It was a rich young man. He was willing to do a number of things to follow God but there was one thing that he didn’t want to give up. Jesus identified it easily:

22 When Jesus heard his answer, he said, “There is still one thing you haven’t done. Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.23 But when the man heard this he became very sad, for he was very rich.” (Luke 18:22-23, NLT)

This isn’t a universal command for every person to sell all they have. But it is an example for us, that teaches us that if we want to follow Jesus, we cannot make anything more important than him. We are called to have Jesus as our greatest treasure, and also as our Lord and King. He is patient with us, but if we ultimately insist on withholding from him something that he asks, we will, like the rich man, go away sad.

What Paul is trying to tell us here is that Jesus is worth far more than anything he asks us to give up for his sake. As we learn to trust Jesus, we also learn to value him more than anything else in the world. Paul says that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself spoke in parables about how when we receive him, we get the most valuable treasure in the world, a treasure that is worth more than anything we might give up for it.

 44 “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field.
45 “Again, the Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls. 46 When he discovered a pearl of great value, he sold everything he owned and bought it! (Matthew 13:44-46, NLT)

Paul himself made that sort of trade long before. He told the Philippians how it was for him:

7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him (Philippians 3:6-9, ESV)

In Jesus are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. We get that treasure when we trust Jesus, even when we don’t understand. Often, understanding follows trust, and we gain practical wisdom about how to live. When we are surrendered in trust to Jesus, our hearts are profoundly encouraged, and we have the ability to identify the lies of the world and the devil, and to avoid falling into their traps.

As you reflect on God’s word today, here are some questions for application:

  • What is your greatest obstacle to trusting Jesus?
  • What lies are you tempted to believe?
  • What would help you to remember and believe that Jesus himself is a treasure greater than anything else in the universe?
  • Think about and describe a time when trusting Jesus has led to practical wisdom or understanding that you might not have had before?
  • What do you treasure about Jesus? What would help you to consistently seek him as your highest treasure?
  • What is the Lord saying to you through the scripture today?

THE SHOCK-WAVES OF A SINGLE CHILD

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If God really came into the world, we would expect that to create some changes. The event would reverberate through history. In fact, that is exactly what we find.

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CHRISTMAS 2019: THE SHOCK-WAVES OF A SINGLE CHILD

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).

24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25, ESV)

The central claim of Christmas is that at a certain point in time, at a certain place in history, God himself came to earth as a baby. Matthew said that this God-child will be called Immanuel, which means: God with us. It is a stunning claim; if it is true, there are huge implications for every area of existence. Think about it this way: if God came to earth, it would be like dropping a boulder into a still, calm pond. The ripples would go out in every direction and disturb and change the surface of the pond. If God came to earth, it would change everything, and the changes would continue to be felt, long after the event.

So, what do we find? The God-child went around with the name Jesus. Jesus grew into a man who gathered followers, and he taught them God’s truth. Part of the truth that he taught them was about his own identity as God-in-the-flesh. Part of his mission was not just teaching, but also to die on our behalf, and he fulfilled that mission. What effect did all this have on the course of human history? Can we see any ripples in the course of human history?

I’m going to start with something that is frivolous, but actually somewhat remarkable, if you think about it. It is now roughly 2,000 years since Jesus was born. Even today, even in 2019, when we enter the season of remembering the birth of Jesus, millions of people behave better than at other times of the year. Throughout late November and December, people in the Western world are typically much more generous to each other, and to those less fortunate. We do little favors for strangers. We feed the poor. We give to charities. We overlook little offenses because we are influenced by the “season.” I think that the power of that original event can still be scene in how millions of people are a little bit more kind, caring and loving when we remember the birth of Jesus. That little child entered the world twenty centuries ago, and we still feel the shock-waves of it at the end of every year.

There are bigger things, also. One of the central truths that Jesus imparted to his followers was that all human beings are equal in value. Nowadays, we in the Western world take this for granted. But in the history of human cultures, this is a unique idea that came from one source: the teachings of Jesus Christ. Before Jesus, people in every culture, all over the world, took it for granted that human beings were NOT equal. Generally speaking, women were considered second-class. Noblemen were more valuable than peasants. Slaves existed to serve their betters. Adults were better than children. No one questioned this view of the world.

In recent years, as our culture has grown less Christian, some academics have tried to suggest that modern democracy arose only from ancient Greece, and Rome. They don’t want to credit Christianity with anything positive. It is true that the creators of modern democracy found inspiration in some of the writings of those ancients. But even the most enlightened of the ancient Greeks and Romans approved of killing unwanted babies (especially girls); of pederasty (that is men, sexually abusing boys); of slavery; and of the second-class status of peasants and women. They believed in a ruling class that was intrinsically better than anyone else. If there was a country today that practiced democracy in the same way as ancient Athens, that country would be condemned by the Western world for abuse of human rights.

No, the idea that all human beings are equally valuable came from Jesus Christ alone. That one idea has created innumerable ripples throughout human history. The teachings of Jesus on this issue elevated the status of women. His teachings are the source of the idea that children are precious and should be protected.

During the 1700s in the American colonies a revival of Christianity occurred. This was known as the first Great Awakening. It was the power of Christianity, bolstered by the first Great Awakening, that led the founding fathers to create modern democracy. Author Dinesh D’Souza writes:

The first great awakening, a Christian revival that swept the country in the mid eighteenth century, created the moral foundation of the American revolution.

…Historian Paul Johnson writes that the American revolution is “inconceivable… Without this religious background.”

Even before the Great Awakening, the political philosophers who inspired the American revolution (people like John Locke) were applying their devout Christian faith to political systems. The very idea of limited government, with rights to individual people, is a result of the teaching of Jesus. To put it simply: one of the ripples of the Christ-child is modern democracy. Millions of people live in freedom today because of that child born in Bethlehem.

In 1785, a British politician became a true follower of Jesus. The influence of Jesus on his life led him to believe that slavery was morally wrong, because, in the sight of God, all people are equally valuable. The name of the politician was William Wilberforce, and his Christian faith led him and sustained him as he created a movement that ended slavery in the British empire.

The abolition of slavery in the United States was largely a result of the second Great Awakening. Again, D’Souza writes:

The second Great Awakening, which started in the early nineteenth century and coursed through new England and New York and then through the interior of the country, left in its wake the temperance movement, the movement for women’s suffrage, and most important, the abolitionist movement.

Another one of the great ripples of this child coming to earth, was literal freedom for slaves. Slaves were freed only in countries where there was a significant Christian presence. Elsewhere in the world, slavery was ended only when Christian nations used their power and wealth to pressure other nations into freeing slaves.

Before Jesus, the Greeks and Romans had a few small facilities to take care of wounded soldiers. However, nothing like hospitals existed anywhere in the world. It was people who were trying to apply the teachings of Jesus who created the first hospitals; hospitals that were open for anyone in need. Even today, there are hospitals that exist for profit, and those that are run as charities (that is, they are not trying to make a profit, but rather simply to serve the community). Christian charitable hospitals outnumber all other charitable hospitals by a crushing majority. The compassion to help the sick, merely for the sake of helping them, is just one more ripple of this God-child.

In fact, there are so many significant ripples, that there really is not time to tell about all of them, nor to go into how they all came about. Universities would not be in this world if it were not for this God-child. Modern science would not have been possible without him. The whole idea of nuclear family, which is the only solid building block for stable, free societies, arose from this God-child. Our economic system, which recognizes human selfishness and manipulates it for human good, and has led to best standard of living the world has ever known, was made possible only by a Christian view of the world, which was only possible because of the child in the stable. Without that child, most of us would not be able to afford the presents under the tree.

Many of us don’t know a lot about history, or about other cultures. We may not have realized just how brutal and unfair life was before Jesus Christ came into the world. But his entry into history has profoundly changed the entire course of human culture. That is what we would expect to find if the claim is true.

Part of the power of this Child is that he not only entered history: he also enters the hearts and lives of all who will receive him. Just as his entry into the world caused profound changes, so also, his entry into our lives, personally, creates deep changes in us. When we invite him in, he brings love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. He changes our eternal future. He brings internal freedom, and wisdom, and compassion for others.

My prayer for you this Christmas is that he will indeed enter your hearts, and that you will continually receive, and rejoice in, the power of God with us. If you allow him to, you will find that it is the best Christmas present you have ever received.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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.

REVELATION #35: THE CULTURE CLASH

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We have now come to the point when Western Culture is, in fact, incompatible with  Biblical Christianity. By using the image of the prostitute, John tells us that there is a certain kind of attraction toward ungodly culture. We are prone to be drawn into it. To remain Christian, and to pass on the Christian faith to future generations, we are going to have to live lives that are radically different in the eyes of our culture. We are going to have to be the church, no matter what it costs. John saw this inevitable clash of cultures in his time, and explains, for all time, the reasons behind it. 

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Revelation #35. Revelation #17.

We have come to another one of those places in the book of Revelation that is just plain weird. However, I believe that we can make at least some kind of sense of this. In the first place, remember that we can use the chiastic structure of Revelation to help us. At the end of the third major section of Revelation (the trumpets), there was an interlude. The interlude at the end of section 3 was about the struggle for God’s Word to go forth. You might say it was from the perspective of the good guys, who had to suffer and even die; although, ultimately, they were vindicated.

We are now at the end of section 5 of Revelation (the bowls of wrath). This section is related to section 3 (the trumpets), and so, here too, we have an interlude. This interlude (chapters 17-18), coming after section 5, is from the perspective of the bad guys. Evil, corruption, and depravity appear to be winning. And yet, ultimately, they will be thoroughly judged and defeated.

The thought in the first interlude was that the witnesses to God’s truth would complete their mission. However, we did not see the final result back there in chapter eleven. The thought here, in the second interlude, completes the first: the judging of the evil powers of this world. God is wrapping things up, leaving nothing unfinished in his task of putting everything right.

There are many specifics in chapters 17 and 18. Whenever we feel that we are getting bogged down in the details of those things, we should return to the big picture; the ideas I have just expressed here.

Chapter 17 introduces us to the woman and the beast, and then “explains” them (if you can really call it an explanation). Like the first interlude, it is one of the more confusing passages in the most confusing book of the Bible. Let’s take this piece by piece:

1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me: “Come, I will show you the judgment of the notorious prostitute who sits on many waters. 2 The kings of the earth committed sexual immorality with her, and those who live on the earth became drunk on the wine of her sexual immorality.” 3 So he carried me away in the Spirit to a desert. I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and 10 horns. 4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She had a gold cup in her hand filled with everything vile and with the impurities of her prostitution. 5 On her forehead a cryptic name was written: BABYLON THE GREAT THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE VILE THINGS OF THE EARTH. 6 Then I saw that the woman was drunk on the blood of the saints and on the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. (Revelation 17:1-6 HCSB)

This prostitute is not a literal person. She is a representation of all world empires, governments, and powers that seduce people away from God, and that persecute God’s people. Throughout the Bible, the practice of idolatry is often called a kind of spiritual adultery, or prostitution. So it is here. I believe she represents both the ongoing ungodly world powers, and also a particular empire or civilization that will be present at the very end of world history. The description of her shows that the civilizations she represents are wealthy and corrupt. She is named “Babylon” but again, I believe that is a “code word” for any civilization or empire that leads people away from the worship of the one true God, and which persecutes God’s people. The reason it is in a kind of “code” is because, unquestionably, at the time of John, it meant the Roman Empire: verse 18 says:

And the woman you saw is the great city that has an empire over the kings of the earth.

Also, by using a symbolic name, the Holy Spirit allows this to be applicable throughout world history, although, as I said, I think there will also be a particularly, “ultimate” version of Babylon during the last days before Jesus returns.

I want to point out something else that I believe is important. God’s people were represented by the picture of a woman, a mother, in chapter 12. Here, we have the devil’s counterpart: an adulterous, evil woman, a prostitute. The devil can only imitate and corrupt God’s creation. He has nothing new of his own. In God’s Kingdom, we have the bride of Christ, the mother of the Messiah. The devil’s imitation is a prostitute, a woman full of wickedness and evil.

The same is true of the beast. Jesus is “the one who is, who was and is to come.” In verse 8, the beast attempts to imitate Jesus, but fails. He is the one: “who was, is not, and will come again, only to be destroyed forever.”

Verses 7-17 attempt to explain the “secret meaning” of the woman and the beast. If you are like me, the explanation is worse the puzzle. Verses 9-14 speak of 18 different kings. Or maybe, it is only 12 kings, or possibly 11. Or, perhaps, it is speaking not of kings, but of kingdoms and empires. John says five kings have “fallen,” another one is, and another is yet to come. Many, many people get bogged down trying to figure out which rulers or empires John is prophesying about. Some say these are Roman emperors. Others connect them to various world powers from ancient Egypt all the way to the present. The problem is, neither one of those theories fits the actual facts of world history. I caution you not to get sucked into that sort of thinking. As I have said before, that sort of thinking creates a situation where the book of Revelation is only relevant to a few specific people at a few particular points in time. Instead of letting the text speak into our lives about how we live right now, we spend time trying to “solve the riddle,” as if the Bible is just an interesting puzzle.

So, if we aren’t meant to figure out who or what these rulers represent in history, what are we supposed to do with this text? I think we are meant to understand, in general, that throughout history there is a connection between evil, ungodly world empires (the Great Prostitute), and the underlying work of the devil (the heads and horns of the beast). That doesn’t seem like such a stretch when you think about the reigns of people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, and Pol-Pot, along with ancients like Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.

When it appears as if evil and ungodliness is running unchecked throughout the world, this text tells us that God knew these things would happen. He has a plan to deal with it. He isn’t shocked, surprised and wringing his hands. He will make everything right.

I think we are also meant to understand that the end of human history will be characterized by a particularly corrupt, wealthy, idolatrous empire.

Finally, we are to be encouraged by the fact that evil devours itself. Ultimately, the dark spiritual power of the beast will turn upon the corrupt, idolatrous world empire. Evil itself will be made to serve God’s purposes:

16 The 10 horns you saw, and the beast, will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, devour her flesh, and burn her up with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out His plan by having one purpose and to give their kingdom to the beast until God’s words are accomplished.

Once more, the question is, where does this leave us? I believe that in the past 15 years, our culture has become far more anti-Christian than we realize. I am not talking about persecution. But the worldview that now dominates Western Culture is not only not Christian, but it is in true opposition to the Christian world view. I saw a TV episode the other night, in which the main plot had to do with sexual identity. I realized that it wasn’t just disagreeing with some of the particulars of  the Bible – it was an entirely different way of looking at what it means to be a human being, a way that flatly contradicts the Christian vision of humanity. I think that TV episode (which was 6 years old) is a reflection of what most of our culture already believes. According to it (and, I believe, our culture at large), your very identity is defined by whom you desire sexually. The greatest evil possible is to deny someone the opportunity to behave however they see fit, especially when it comes to sex. Self-denial, in the current world view, is not just difficult, it is tragically wrong; there is no place for it, not even as a way of loving another person self-sacrificially (that was one of the plot points of the episode). There is no greater authority than the desire of each individual to be whomever they want to be. That means, that no one, not even God, has the right to tell someone that anything they want is morally wrong, or even unhealthy. But Jesus calls us to surrender to his authority, and to deny ourselves, so that we can find true life:

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).

37 The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. 39 Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matthew 10:37-39)

Suddenly, John’s picture of a great prostitute manipulating cultures seems uncomfortably close to home. John is saying that our culture is under the influence of evil, depraved spiritual power; he is using very lurid, picturesque imagery to do so. The cultures of the world are not neutral. They are influenced by the beast, which is to say, they are influenced by the devil and his demonic forces. The cultures of the world are captive to spiritual prostitution.

By using the image of the prostitute, John tells us that there is a certain kind of attraction toward ungodly culture. We are prone to be drawn into it.

John, in his vision, was shocked and astonished by this (v 7). I think most of us are, also. I believe the time has come for Christians to pay attention, and to see that our culture is neither good, nor morally neutral, but completely opposite to a Christian vision of humanity and God. Again, I do not meant that we are being persecuted. But I do mean that the world view of Western culture is antithetical to the Christian world view, and seeks to replace it. Practically speaking, we may have to change how we live in order to avoid getting sucked in. Author Rod Dreher, in The Benedict Option urges us to consider carefully how we live:

The time was coming… when men and women of virtue would understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who wanted to live a life of traditional virtue.

We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.

He points out not only cultural developments, but also legal decisions that have changed how the laws views Christian beliefs. Speaking of the Obergefell decision of the Supreme Court, he says:

Post-Obergefell, Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists.

He continues:

We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.

I agree, wholeheartedly. From now on, it is going to cost us to be Christian. I think we need to carefully examine the TV shows, movies and music that we consume. If we continue to absorb this anti-Christian worldview without thinking critically about what we watch and listen to, our beliefs will eventually conform to the culture, and be truly anti-Christian. We may have to limit the kind of things we watch, and the media we consume.

Some careers may no longer be appropriate for Christians. A year or two ago, a county clerk in Kentucky was jailed for not issuing a marriage license to a gay couple. In the eyes of the law, she was wrong. I think she was wrong to continue to be a county clerk with the beliefs that she holds, though I completely understand her position. I’m very sad that our culture has come to this, but I believe it has. I think that many Christians in various positions in government may need to consider resigning in order to remain true to their faith. Christians also may not be able to have other certain careers, because to do so would cause us to violate Christian ethics. The list of careers that violate our ethics is likely to grow in the coming years.

If we are to remain Christian, we are going to look radical to a culture that has radically changed in the past twenty years. John tells us that there is a spiritual reason for this, and also that God will eventually take steps to hold accountable the powers that are responsible.

Let the Spirit speak to you today.

Revelation #29: 666 – THE NUMBER OF LIES, PEER PRESSURE AND THE SELF

Second beast

Whatever we see as the Supreme Good, unless it is God, is an idol; even if it is our own well-being. Pressure to conform to the culture, enticement to idols, false teaching – all these are the work of the second beast. They aren’t neutral, they aren’t just about fitting in. They are part of the cosmic spiritual battle between the Dragon and those who hold to the testimony of Jesus. The stakes are high.

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Revelation #29.  Revelation 13:11-18

One of the reasons I like to teach the Bible is because I learn so much by doing it. As we have gone through the book of Revelation, my own understanding has been broadened and clarified. Before we tackle the text for today, let me restate clearly my own approach to Revelation for the purposes of this series.

I believe that biblical prophecy often has more than one fulfillment. I mentioned this briefly last time: many prophecies are “now, and not yet.” In other words, we can find partial fulfillments of various prophecies throughout history, but if we treat the prophecies fairly, we also must recognize that, in many of them, there are fulfillments still to come. At the same time, all prophecies also speak to all people, at all times. There are enduring principles, and ever present lessons, even in prophecies about the future.

It is sometimes useful to consider the past fulfillments of prophecies, because it strengthens our faith in the uniqueness and truthfulness of the Bible. But ultimately, the best thing to do with each prophecy is to understand what it meant to the people who first heard it, and then apply that meaning to our own lives today. That is, we should focus on the enduring principles and present lessons. Speculation about future fulfillments tend to separate us from the Scripture. Such speculations rarely encourage us in practical ways in the here and now.

For example, suppose I were to say, “The mark of the beast will be a computer chip, implanted into people either on their hands or foreheads.” How does that encourage us in our daily walk with Jesus right now? And what if my speculation is wrong, and it isn’t anything like that? Or, suppose I am right, but it doesn’t happen until long after we are all dead. What good is that to us in following Jesus today?

I say all this so that you understand why I have not been speculating about possible future fulfillments of Revelation. I think that the best way to get the most out of this book is to focus on what each passage means for us today.

Last time we considered that the first beast (the beast from the sea) represented political power that was set up in the place of God, and used to persecute Christians. It was given power to “conquer the saints.” This seems to me to mean a physical/material conquering; it cannot mean spiritual conquest. This second beast has a more religious flavor. It performs “miraculous” signs, and it is concerned with making everyone worship something that is not God. The second beast is not about overt power used to persecute Christians. It is about lies and deception; it represents false philosophies and religions that are used to lead the world astray, and, if possible, to try and deceive God’s people. It even looks like a lamb – trying to imitate Christ. However it speaks like a dragon – that is, it speaks with the lying voice of Satan.

Remember the letters to the seven churches? Some of those churches faced severe overt persecution (the first beast). But several of them also faced the pressure of lies and false teachings. In Thyatira, the town of “trade guilds,” people were faced with a terrible choice. If you wanted to be, say, a blacksmith, you needed to belong to the blacksmith trade guild (something like a union). In order to belong to that guild, you had to regularly worship the god of blacksmiths. If you didn’t, you could not participate in the economy as a blacksmith. No one would give you any business. Thus, I am quite sure that many of the first Christians to hear this passage were reminded that they were facing a choice between worshipping a false god, or, not being able to “buy, sell or trade.” They would have realized that God knows the terrible situation they are in. They would have felt warned that it wasn’t simply a matter of paying lip service to an idol – if they compromised, and worshipped for the sake of the trade guild, what they were worshiping was Satan’s own beast. They would have heard this passage and understood that what they were going through was part of the cosmic spiritual battle between Satan and the followers of Jesus. There was much more at stake for them than making a living – it was a matter of eternal life or death.

Other churches were facing false teaching and compromise within the church. The Ephesians faced the teaching of the Nicolaitans. Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis and Laodicea all had Christians who were compromising with the culture, particularly in the area of sexual immorality. This passage says to them that the false teachings and compromises are not benign. They are a really big deal. They are the work of a beast from the pit of hell; they are part of Satan’s strategy in the cosmic battle.

By the way, we might as well tackle the number 666. All kinds of weird and ridiculous theories have been forth about it. The text tells us it is “man’s number.” That is, no matter how religious or supernatural it seems, the source of this false teaching, and even of these false miracles, is not God. Remember that God’s number is seven? Seven represents God’s perfect presence and work in the world (three for the Trinity, and four for creation). Seven represents perfection. What 666 means is imperfection. It cannot reach seven, no matter how many times it tries. It always falls short. Therefore we should not be deceived into thinking that the beast or its teaching represent God’s truth. This is important, because the beast imitates God and Christ. It does false miracles. It takes a little bit of truth, and then twists it into lies that are all the more powerful because they contain some truth.

As we consider what all this says to us today, I feel sobered. Throughout history there have been many key moments in the life of Christianity. I think these next twenty years or so will bring about a massive and unsettling change in Christianity in the Western world; it may be one of those key periods. The spirit of the beast is at work. We are still in the cosmic spiritual battle.

For about three-hundred years Western Culture and the Christian faith were allies to one another. It was easy to be a Christian in Europe and North America, because the culture supported it. That has changed, but many Christians don’t realize it yet. As the change has come, many Christians have chosen to change with the culture, rather than remain with historic, orthodox Christianity. There is great pressure on other Christians to do the same.

One of the great areas of compromise is, for us today, the same as it was for the Christians who first read Revelation: sexual immorality. The culture all around them embraced and celebrated sexual immorality. So does Western culture today. Within the church at that time, some people tried to convince true Christians that sexual immorality was okay. That is happening within Christianity today. You may agree with the Bible, or not, but the fact is that it teaches there is only standard for human sexuality. According to the Bible, all sexual activity is meant for marriage between one man and one woman. Any sexual activity outside of that paradigm is called sinful. That is what it teaches. But many Christians today deny that teaching. They aren’t saying, “I don’t like this, so I won’t be a Christian.” They are saying, “I don’t like this, so let’s change Christianity.” I am not exaggerating. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Presbyterian Church (USA), The Episcopal Church, The United Church of Christ and several other large denominations are all officially denying what the Bible teaches about sexual morality. They represent tens of millions of people who call themselves Christians. There are millions more who do the same within other churches. It is easy to feel pressured when there are people all around you who claim to be Christians, but deny what the Bible says. It can be very tempted to give in, and go along with the crowd. But to do so isn’t neutral. It isn’t about being “on the right side of history.” It is about aligning yourself with the agent of Satan. It is Satan’s strategy to destroy God’s church.

Even so, going against the grain of our culture’s view of sexuality is already beginning to have economic consequences. Many companies have “diversity policies” which require Christians to agree with them and implement them if they want to have a job there. Sometimes, the policies are fine, and simply require that all people be treated equally, which is a Christian value. But there may come a time when such policies require people to explicitly endorse the lifestyles of others. Not following the Beast can have economic consequences. Simply holding a biblical view of sexuality is now considered bigotry by most of society.

The other area where the early church was threatened, and we are too, is in terms of idolatry. When you worship an idol, sometimes it represents a false god. Other times, an idol is a false representation of the one true God. The second beast encourages both kinds of worship. Some of the idols in our culture we have talked about quite often: pleasure, relationships, status, achievements, money. Anything that we see as the supreme good (other than God himself) is an idol. Whatever we put in front of God is an idol. But there is one widespread idol that not too many people are talking about. It is the idol of the self.

I don’t think it’s a mistake that the text says the number of the beast is “man’s number.” The new religion today is the religion of the authentic self. For our culture, the highest good is to “be who you really are,” and to seek total fulfillment as that person. It is entirely human-centered, literally, self-centered. Anything that gets in the way of a person fulfilling their authentic self is considered “unloving” and wrong. Therefore, there is some agreement with Christianity: that we shouldn’t hurt or abuse others, that we should treat them the way we ourselves want to be treated.

But the central message of Jesus is that the self we are born with is corrupted by sin. It must die; it must be crucified with him. Then we can live our lives not centered on self, but on God, and through God, others. There are rewards for this way of life, but it does mean self-denial. That is directly opposed to the religion of the authentic self. Jesus said:

24Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 25For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it. 26What will it benefit a man if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life? (Matt 16:24-26, HCSB)

Even so, many Christian churches have tried to attract members by preaching some version of the religion of the self. At its most basic level, their message is that the best way for the self to be truly fulfilled is to come to Jesus. That is true in one sense, and yet, it leaves the self as the main focus of someone’s life. It still views self as the most important thing; self is still the idol. Jesus is only important as the way to have the best self. That is false religion; the work of the beast. It is subtle, but it leads to worship of a false god.

These messages from our culture are everywhere, and they are relentless. There are elements of truth to these things, and it is very easy to find ourselves going along with it. Our text today says this stuff is very important. It isn’t OK to go along with these things in order to keep the peace, or fit in, or to “try and reach people.” This is part of the cosmic spiritual battle, it is part of Satan’s strategy to destroy the followers of Jesus, if possible. To deny the scripture, or to worship anything other than the one true God is to align yourself with the beast, and he does not have your best interests at heart.

Rod Dreher recently wrote a book called The Benedict Option. In it he describes how radically different our culture is from true Christianity.

The time was coming, … when men and women of virtue would understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who wanted to live a life of traditional virtue.

… We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.

That was certainly the case for the early Christians. It is becoming increasingly the case for us today. We are not openly persecuted; some of the churches to whom Revelation was written were not either. But the world around us is filled with false teachings and false worship. We must be willing to be different, even to look like fools or bigots. If we aren’t willing to do that, we may find ourselves aligned with the enemies of God.

I realize that this sounds radical. Increasingly, to be a Christian means to be radical. It always used to mean that, we are circling back around to it again. The Apostle Paul wrote about these things in his letters:

1 Now the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will depart from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and the teachings of demons, 2 through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. (HCSB 1 Timothy 4:1-2)

1 But know this: Difficult times will come in the last days. 2 For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 unloving, irreconcilable, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, without love for what is good, 4 traitors, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, 5 holding to the form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid these people! (HCSB 2 Timothy 3:1-5)

This is serious stuff. But if it concerns you, the answer is to look to Jesus. He is the Way, the Truth and Life. He has already overcome the devil and the beasts. Stick to him. Get to know him better by reading the Bible. And be prepared to make the hard choices, die to yourself, and live to him. What we receive when we do that is worth far more than anything we lose.

I pray that the Holy Spirit will give us a supernatural strength to make the hard choices we need to make, and to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus. I pray that the Spirit enables us to see clearly what is going on in our lives, and in our culture, and recognize the spiritual battle. I pray that he works within us so that we can truly follow Jesus faithfully in all things.