DO YOU REALLY NEED JESUS?

 

Jesus

 

As always what is at issue is not “religion,” but Jesus himself and how we respond to him. Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees was not that they were religious. The issue was, they did not think they needed him. They were satisfied with themselves as they were. They weren’t willing to admit their need for grace, nor were they willing to humbly follow Jesus Christ. You can be a self-righteous Pharisee, and think you don’t need Jesus. You can be an obvious sinner, and still think you don’t need Jesus. Either way, it’s the same thing, and it’s a tragic thing.

 

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Matthew #31 Chapter 9:9-17

As Jesus went on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and He said to him, “Follow Me! ” So he got up and followed Him.

While He was reclining at the table in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came as guests to eat with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners? ”

But when He heard this, He said, “Those who are well don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Then John’s disciples came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast? ”

Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests be sad while the groom is with them? The time will come when the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one patches an old garment with unshrunk cloth, because the patch pulls away from the garment and makes the tear worse. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. But they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matt 9:9-17, HCSB)

Matthew records that Jesus came to him when he was a tax collector. In this incident, Mark and Luke call the same individual “Levi.” However, later on, when the twelve special apostles of Jesus are named, Luke and Mark use the name “Matthew” and mention no one named Levi. The obvious solution to this puzzle is that just as the apostle Peter once was called Simon, and Paul was once Saul, before he was changed by Jesus, Matthew was known as Levi. Matthew himself, feels the change is so profound that he does not even refer to his old name in the telling. He is fully convinced that he is not the old person, Levi, but rather the new person, saved and changed by Jesus Christ. He isn’t who he used to be. He is done with his former way of life.

What was his former way of life? Well, Matthew/Levi was a tax collector. The Romans controlled Judea and Galilee and the whole region, and they required taxes from it to run their empire. They used underlings who were not Jewish to help them – these underlings were the Idumean people, the most famous of whom was Herod the Great. The Idumeans owed the Romans the taxes for the region, and they also collected their own taxes to run the provinces and also to enrich themselves. The Idumeans, in turn, left the dirty work of actually collecting the taxes to traitorous, unscrupulous Jews, who willingly cooperated with these foreign oppressors because they could get rich doing so. Matthew was one such person.

Basically, the way it worked was this. Matthew was given an amount that he needed to collect to satisfy his Idumean masters (who in turn, also had to satisfy the Romans). But Matthew could collect any amount he wanted. In other words, suppose his masters needed a thousand dollars from each family. Matthew could charge a family $1500, give the Idumeans the $1000 and pocket the $500 for himself, and go on to the next family and do the same thing. So he was a traitor, because he worked to support the foreign oppressors, and he was a parasite, even a thief, because using his position, he took whatever he thought he could get from his fellow countrymen. If anyone objected to what he was collecting in taxes, he simply whistled for the soldiers, and the person who refused to pay was beaten and imprisoned, and the tax was forcibly taken anyway.

Not to belabor the point, but Matthew was not “good people.” He was a quisling and a snake. People looked at him the way you and I might view a pimp, or an organized-crime boss. He might have money, but it was the kind of money no good citizen would touch. Respectable folks did not hang around with people like Matthew.

We have to understand this, because it was shocking – scandalous, even, that Jesus, a godly Jewish Rabbi, would invite Matthew into his core group. It was even more shocking that right afterwards, Jesus went to Matthew’s house for dinner, and Matthew invited such friends as he had – none of which were good people, because good people wouldn’t hang around with Matthew. So use your imagination to recreate the picture. Jesus is at the house of a local organized crime boss. Next to him on one side is a drug dealer. Two places away is a pimp. Across the table from Jesus is a guy who makes his living breaking the legs of people who don’t cooperate, and he’s in the middle of a discussion with a hit man. The meal is being served by hookers.

If this makes you uncomfortable, then you are getting a sense of why the Pharisees reacted the way they did. They ask him why he’s hanging out with such people. It’s not an unreasonable question. Jesus says, basically, “I’m here for sick, not the healthy.”

It’s easy to mis-apply the words of Jesus here, so pay attention. What Jesus basically means by his words is, he is seeking people who need him, and who know it. Some people mistakenly claim that Jesus prefers blatant sinners to religious people. But Jesus’ problem was not with the fact that the Pharisees were religious. The issue was, they did not think they needed him. They were satisfied with themselves as they were. They weren’t willing to admit their need for grace, nor were they willing to humbly follow Jesus Christ.

Applying this to today, a “Pharisee” may or may not be religious, but the defining characteristic is that such a person does not truly, in his honest heart, admit that he needs forgiveness, grace or Jesus. So today, like back then, you find some “Pharisee-types” in churches. These people are concerned with the form of religion, but their hearts are not humbly surrendered to Jesus. They have never truly acknowledged that they need him.

Surprisingly, you can also find many “Pharisees” who never go to church, and who sin blatantly. They are Pharisees not because they are religious (they aren’t) but because they don’t think they need Jesus, or they aren’t willing to follow him. They may admit (even somewhat cheerfully) that they are sinners. But obviously, they don’t take it seriously, and they refuse to humbly receive the grace that Jesus offers them and to follow him.

You can be a self-righteous Pharisee, and think you don’t need Jesus. You can be an obvious sinner, and think you don’t need Jesus. Either way, it’s the same thing, and it’s a bad thing. As always what is at issue is not “religion,” but Jesus himself and how we respond to him.

There is no doubt that in the church we still have some people who look down upon those who are caught in overt sin. Jesus’ words should speak to us. He came precisely for everyone who knows they need him and want him. We have no right to reject, or look down upon, anyone who wants Jesus and is willing to take him on Jesus’ own terms. He says, “I’m here for those who know they need me, who want me, who know the desperation of their situation without me.” Matthew was precisely one such person and that is why Jesus called him. We can assume that Jesus was hoping to find other people like him at the dinner party in Matthew’s house. By all accounts he did.

Jesus was not affirming the sin of the sinners. But he was also not affirming the self-righteousness or prudishness of the Pharisees. As Christians, it is good for us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and welcome sinners who want him. We shouldn’t exclude anyone, no matter what they have done, no matter how bad they are. Jesus makes it very clear: his mission is to call sinners to repentance and faith in Him. Our mission should be the same.

It is also true that not every sinner wants Jesus. And I think it is a mistake to affirm people who are not interested in repentance or in following Jesus. We are not doing them a favor if we give them the impression that a sinful lifestyle is okay. Part of the proof of this is that Matthew’s own lifestyle changed radically. Matthew left his position as a tax collector. He gave up cooperating with the foreign authorities and he gave up vast wealth to follow Jesus. The same is true of other sinners whom Jesus encountered. For instance, Mary Magdalene, who gave up prostitution and followed Jesus, Zacchaeus, another tax collector, followed Matthew’s path, and even the thief repented as he was crucified next to Jesus.

The Pharisees were not the only people who failed to understand the mission of Jesus. The followers of John the Baptist were also puzzled. They approached the disciples and asked them why they and Jesus did not engage in fasting. What this has in common with the problem of Pharisees is that Jesus is not conforming to their expectations. The Pharisees expected Jesus to stay away from sinners. The followers of John expected Jesus to fast. Jesus did neither one.

Jesus’ reply to the followers of John is yet one more instance where he claims to be divine. His response is essentially, “Why would anyone fast when I’m here with them? The whole reason for fasting is to get close to me, and here I am!” Jesus clearly saw himself as the “bridegroom.” This picture is drawn from Jewish weddings, but basically what it means is that Jesus sees himself as the one everyone has been waiting for. Once more, this is not great moral teaching – unless it is true. Once more we are confronted with this choice: Jesus is either a megalomaniac, or God come in the flesh.

Matthew closes out this section with a comment from Jesus about patches and wineskins. Unfortunately, these days, many of us have never even patched a piece of clothing, let alone seen a wineskin or used one. We need to understand the cultural reference before we can realize what Jesus is talking about.

This was long before the invention of polyester or nylon so imagine a piece of cotton clothing. Cotton shrinks appreciably when it is washed and dried. So if you sewed a brand-new cotton patch onto a piece of clothing that had already been washed and dried, the first time you washed it after the repair, the new patch would shrink more than the fabric around it, and simply tear the shirt again.

The picture with the wineskins is similar. In those days most wine was not put into bottles like we do today. Instead, the wine was put into containers made from animal skins – basically, leather. However, the wine was not fully fermented when it was placed into the skin container. As the wine continued to ferment inside the leather container it bubbled and released gases, putting pressure on the sides of the container. If it was a fresh new wineskin, it would stretch with the expanding gases within it and continue to hold the wine securely. However, if you put new wine, not completely fermented, into an old leather skin that was already stretched out, when the gases expanded, the leather would have no more flexibility left, and it would burst.

It amounts to this: both the Pharisees and the followers of John wanted Jesus to conform to their own expectations. But Jesus was telling them “something new is happening here. You can’t contain it within the old forms of the Jewish religion. You can’t make it fit your own personal expectations.” It took a long time for both sides to realize, but this is the beginning of the split between Christianity and Judaism. Jesus was saying, “this is not the religion you have known. Something new is happening now. It will take a new approach to get the good wine I’m offering.”

So what does all this mean for us today? Have you thought of yourself as a sinner? Do you feel that you don’t deserve grace love and forgiveness? The wonderful news is that Jesus came precisely for you. His whole mission was to find people who are not perfect people, not “good” people, but rather, people who know that they need him and are willing to receive him. So receive him. There is nothing that you have done, or could have done, that puts you beyond his grace and forgiveness. He says that he came for people just like you and me.

As you receive Him, he calls you also to follow him by obeying Him, to the best of your ability. As you continue to trust Jesus, the Holy Spirit will make you more and more able follow him in obedience.

Next, I think it is important for us who have begun to follow Jesus to recognize that Jesus’ mission is to sinners. We don’t get to decide who deserves his grace. The fact is, he offers his grace to everyone: even tax collectors and prostitutes and hit-men. I believe he wants us right there beside him offering his grace to everyone. On the flipside of course, just because someone is a sinner does not mean that she automatically wants the grace that God offers to her in Jesus Christ. And it is not helpful for us to pretend that it is better to be an honest, yet unrepentant, sinner than a dishonest religious person; the truth is it is better to be neither, and instead to be a repentant Jesus follower. Even so, we Christians should not dismiss anybody out of hand. Jesus came for those who are sick, those who are sinners.

Another thing is that, like the Pharisees and John’s followers, I think we all tend to want Jesus to conform to our own personal expectations. But he has a way of bursting our paradigms like old wineskins. Are we willing for Jesus to be himself even if that turns out to be different from how we expect him to be? I think one of the biggest reasons that people reject God is because he often does not behave the way we want him to. He doesn’t always heal those we think he should heal. He doesn’t always answer prayers that we think are reasonable and even righteous. Jesus is calling us to forsake our own paradigms and accept him as he is; to follow him in trust, even when we don’t understand.

What is the Holy Spirit saying to you today?

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WHAT ABOUT THE NO-ACCOUNT, GOOD-FOR-NOTHING PEOPLE?

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Jesus came first to the backwaters; the boondocks; the sticks. He went to where people felt shame and humiliation and hopelessness. He brought light to dark places. He still does.

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Matthew #8 . Matthew 4:12-16

We’re going to cover some historical and cultural details this week. Please have patience with this. First, I believe it will pay off in understanding what the Holy Spirit might want to say to you today, through these verses. Second, this information will useful many times as we continue our study of Matthew’s Gospel.

Apparently some time passed between chapter four, verse eleven, and verse twelve; we don’t know how much. We do know that the gospel of John records events that must have occurred between Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. Particularly, John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to Andrew and Philip, who then introduced him to Peter and Nathaniel and perhaps others. In any case, after a period of time, John the Baptist was put into prison by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great who had killed all the babies in Bethlehem. At that time, Jesus went back to the region of Galilee, and remained there for some time.

The region is named for the Sea of Galilee, which is a very large freshwater lake. At its widest points, the lake is thirteen miles long, north to south (21 km) and eight miles wide, east to west (13 km). The total surface area is about sixty-four square miles (166 square km). If you walked the entire shoreline of the lake, you would go about fifty-one miles.

Just to be confusing, the Sea of Galilee is also called Lake Tiberias and the lake of Gennesaret. In modern Israel it is sometimes known as Kinneret. To make matters even worse, the New Testament also refers to two towns (on the shore of the lake) with the same names as the lake: Tiberias and Gennesaret.

By the time of Jesus, the area around the lake had a checkered past and a questionable reputation. It was the ancestral home of the tribes of Zebulon, Napthali and Mannaseh. After the time of Solomon, when the Israelites split into two kingdoms, this area, being in the north, went with the Northern kingdom, of course (usually known as “Israel” while the Southern kingdom was called “Judah.”). The Northern kingdom was ruled from the city of Samaria, which was some distance from the lake. During its existence, The kings of Israel did not want their people going south to Jerusalem to worship (because it was in the kingdom of Judah), so they set up their own worship system in the north. They quickly became corrupted in their beliefs, and began to abandon worship of the One true God, instead, worshiping like the pagans. Though prophets called them to repent, they did not, and the Northern Kingdom was eventually wiped out by Assyrian invaders in about 723 BC (in other words, more than 700 years before Jesus was born). The people were deported and scattered around the Assyrian Empire.

The Assyrians resettled people from other places into the region of the old Northern Kingdom of Israel. There were still a few Israelites living there, and they began to intermarry with the foreigners. As time went on, they developed a kind of hybrid-Israelite religion, believing in the first five books of the Old Testament, but interpreting them differently, and not accepting the books of the prophets (i.e. the rest of the Old Testament). These hybrid-Israelites with their hybrid-religion became known as Samaritans, because Samaria was still the chief city of the area (all this is a simplification, but it gives you the general idea).

In terms of theology, it might have been a bit like the differences between Mormons and Christians. Mormons and Christians have a lot of outward similarities. At times, Mormons will even call themselves Christians. However, Christians know that there are profound differences between the Christian faith and the Mormon religion. We would say that it is totally inaccurate to consider Mormons the same as Christians. In the same way, Samaritans regarded themselves as a division of Judaism, but the Jews did not feel that way.

North of Samaria was the sea of Galilee. For a long time, no Israelites or Jews lived there, but a few hundred years before Jesus, Jews began to re-colonize the area around the lake. Those people saw themselves as connected with Jerusalem and Judea (previously known as “Judah”) in the south, and not a part of their nearer neighbors, the Samaritans, who were in between them and Judea. Immediately surrounding Galilee were other foreign powers. In fact, Jewish Galilee could really only claim the west side of the lake. The other parts of the lake, and the regions to the north, east and south-east were all inhabited by Gentiles (non-Jews).

Here is a map that roughly shows the territories involved. You can see Galilee near the top.

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When Jesus was a boy in Egypt, the Jews in Galilee, being some distance from Judea, had tried to rebel the son of Herod the Great. It was a bloody, violent rebellion, and was put down ruthlessly, with the assistance of the Romans.

When you put this all together, it is not surprising that, although it was an area full of natural beauty, Galilee was considered to be an undesirable, no-account sort of place. It was surrounded by foreigners who did not worship God. It was far from the center of power and learning (Jerusalem). It had a history of violence and war and turning away from God. People in Jerusalem thought of Galilee the same way that people in New York City might think of the remote valleys of Appalachia. It may be pretty, but who would want to actually live there? The whole region was depressed, with nothing worthwhile going on, it was populated by “rednecks.”

If wanted to start a movement, and really influence people; if you really wanted to be someone, Galilee was not the place to go. It had been a no-account backwards place for seven-hundred years. But Jesus specifically chose Galilee as the starting place for his ministry. This depressed, hillbilly haven was where people first heard the good news of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ first miracle was performed in one of its towns (Cana). The Messiah grew up there. The light of the world (as John calls Jesus) first shined in this place. Matthew records that this fulfilled another Old Testament prophecy, Isaiah 9:1-2.

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, along the sea road, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles! The people who live in darkness have seen a great light, and for those living in the shadowland of death, light has dawned. (Matt 4:15-16, HCSB)

Let’s just pause here a moment and see if the Lord has anything to say to you through this. It isn’t just about where Jesus chose to live. It is about the fact that he knew that this place and these people were held in contempt; he knew that they felt shame, and that is why he went there. He did this because He cares deeply about people who are overlooked by others, people who are living in shame, people who are considered no-account.

Perhaps you have felt overlooked. Maybe you’ve believed that you are unimportant. Maybe you have shame placed upon from something you’ve done, or by how others have treated you. Jesus isn’t afraid of your shame; he’s not worried about being tainted by your humiliation. He comes to you, deliberately, and says, “Let me remove your shame. Let me shine the light of my grace into your life. Let me show you that you are important to me, and I am the only one that really matters.”

Possibly you feel that you have been “walking in darkness” for a while now. Could it be that the Lord is saying to you: “A light is coming to you. You won’t be in darkness forever!”

As for being unimportant, or doing unimportant things, listen to what the Holy Spirit says through Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:26-30

Brothers, consider your calling: Not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world — what is viewed as nothing — to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one can boast in His presence. But it is from Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became God-given wisdom for us — our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, (1Cor 1:26-30, HCSB)

Jesus came to take our shame and humiliation upon himself. He came to take our checkered pasts, our sordid family histories. He came to shine light into places that may have been dark for centuries. If you think you are of no account, or you are not worthy, then know this: he came exactly for you. He comes to us all, continually. Open your heart to the light.

~

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PAGAN PRIESTS FIND JESUS THROUGH HOROSCOPE

Astrologer

The story of the Magi is actually kind of strange and disturbing when you think about it. Pagan Shamans were led to Jesus through astrology. What can we learn from this?

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Matthew #3 . Chapter 2:1-12

To be honest with you, if I was God, inspiring people to write the Bible, I would either keep the wise men out of the gospel of Matthew, or I would explain more about them.

Only two out of the four gospels tell us much about the birth of Jesus in the first place – Matthew and Luke. Matthew leaves out the shepherds; Luke leaves out the wise men. In the first six chapters of his gospel, Matthew takes great care to point out how the birth and early life of Jesus fulfilled various prophecies about the Messiah from the Old Testament. In fact, in the first two chapters, Matthew points out four specific instances where prophecies were fulfilled. Surely, if there was a prophecy in the Old Testament about these visitors from the east, Matthew would have mentioned it.

Not only does this incident have nothing to do with prophecy, at first blush it seems to have nothing to do with Biblical Christianity or even Orthodox Judaism. The term translated “Wise men” or “Magi” usually refers to a sort of Babylonian priest or scholar who was especially acquainted with the study and interpretation of the stars, and of dreams and things like that. In different times or places they might have been called Shamans, or Druids, or Seers, or even Magicians. That’s right. The Babylonian or Arabian Magi held roughly the same position in their society as Druids did in Celtic society. Do you understand? – we are talking about pagan priests, coming to see Jesus. Now are you interested?

Not only are these people pagan priests, but somehow, they have learned about Jesus’ birth – through astrology. It was the behavior of the stars which told them that someone very important and significant was born. The stars even told them generally where in the world to look for the child. As far as we know, it was not because they searched the scriptures, or listened to a Jewish preacher on TV or anything else. The wise men don’t really fit into my typical way of looking at world. Pagan priests are drawn to Jesus through astrology?! I think what bothers me most is this question: does this mean that all religions really do lead to the same God?

First, I want to point out that this is another one of those passages that seems to confirm the authenticity of the New Testament. If we are honest, we must admit that it raises troubling questions and ideas. If the New Testament were made up, or if the stories about Jesus were extensively edited and changed, this story would have been one of the first to be cut. In other words, there seems to be no reason to have this here unless it really happened, and God wants us to learn something from it.

I want to briefly set up the historical timeline here. Matthew makes it clear this occurs after Jesus was born (2:1). Herod asks the Magi when the star appeared. When the Magi find Jesus, he is living with his parents in a house (not a stable). Later, Herod thinks that Jesus might be up to two years old (2:16). So, while it is very picturesque to imagine the wise-men standing in the stable with the shepherds and donkeys on Christmas night, that is almost certainly not how it actually happened.

So, what does the Lord want to say to us through this little section of scripture? First, and probably most importantly, the message is this: This little baby, born in Bethlehem, in accordance with the prophecies for the Jewish Messiah, is for all people. His life, death and resurrection and his teaching also, are not intended only for the Jews and the small nation of Israel. From birth, his influence and significance are there for the whole world. The wise men were not Jews by religion nor by birth. But Jesus was for them too. We call Christmas a “Christian” Holiday. But God calls it a gift for the whole world; a gift for all people – including pagan priests.

Second, let’s look at those wise men. By the way, the Bible does not actually tell us how many of them there are, or what their names were. All of that is folk legend. Probably, the idea of three wise men came about because three kinds of gifts were presented: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We only know that there was more than one (the Greek word for Magi is plural), and it is reasonable to suppose that it wasn’t an extremely large group either. In any case, we can be reasonably sure that not every pagan priest in the region came to see Jesus. Presumably, other pagan priests also studied the stars. They saw what the traveling wise men saw. But why did only these particular men come to see Jesus?

I think the answer is this. These men saw Jesus in the stars because in their hearts, they were honestly seeking the truth and they were hungering for God. When they made it to Jerusalem, they told Herod they were there to worship the child revealed in the stars. When they actually found Jesus, that is exactly what they did – they worshiped him. You see, I don’t think this is an affirmation of pagan religion. Instead, it is an affirmation of honest seeking. These pagans didn’t know any of the Bible. They had never heard of the Messiah. But in their hearts, they hungered for God, and they pursued him honestly and diligently. And even though they were looking in the wrong places, they really were looking. Since there were no other means available, God used the stars to direct them to him.

This is in contrast to Herod and the Jewish leaders. Herod wasn’t a Jew, but he was surrounded by them and easily could have learned about God if he chose. The Jewish leaders studied the scriptures. They knew that Messiah was supposed to be born in Bethlehem. In fact, Matthew lists the scripture here, allowing us to see yet another way in Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy. But the Jewish leaders at that time weren’t seeking God. Instead, it was pagan priests, completely ignorant of the Bible, who found God when he came into the world. Jeremiah 29:13-14 says this:

If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the Lord.

Jesus says it like this:

Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matthew 7:7-8)

The wise men were seeking. And in accordance with the promises listed above, when they looked wholeheartedly, they found the true God. It wasn’t their pagan religion that led them to “the same God worshiped by all religions.” Instead, it was that their seeking, hungering hearts led them to true faith in Jesus Christ. Other pagans didn’t come to Bethlehem, even though they had the same information. Those men didn’t have the same hearts. Herod didn’t come, and neither did the Jewish leaders – even after they heard what the Magi had to say. They didn’t have seeking hearts as the Magi.

The wise men who saw Jesus didn’t go to Bethlehem and then perform pagan worship rituals. They went to Bethlehem, put their faith in Jesus, and worshiped Him, specifically. To express it another way, the moment they worshiped Jesus, they were no longer pagans, but Christians.

That may answer the question about other religions. I think the idea is sort of this: a true seeker will not remain in a false religion, but that false religion may be the initial point from which a true seeker eventually comes to know Jesus. The wise men didn’t receive eternal life through pagan religion – they received it through faith in Jesus. A Hindu won’t get to heaven by being a good Hindu. But suppose something in Hinduism leads him to find out about Jesus. Suppose he eventually puts his faith in Jesus – then he would have eternal life. It would not be Hinduism that saved him, but Jesus. By and large, Hinduism does not point to Jesus; but God could certainly use some aspect of it to draw a true seeker to the truth and salvation found only in Jesus Christ. That is very much like what he did for the Magi.

What initially drew the Magi to study the stars was only a shadow of the reality found in Jesus, who is called the Bright Morning Star (Numbers 24:17; Revelation 22:16). The Christmas tree is a pagan symbol too. But maybe the pagan imagery of tree worship, like that of astrology, is just a memory of the real thing, which goes farther back still, all the way to the Garden and the tree of life. The real thing is what those pagan priests sought.

So, with these strange pagan shamans in mind, I think there is a question worth considering: What are you seeking these days? Are you interested in finding the truth? Do you really want God himself, or do you just want God to do something for you? Maybe, like Herod or the Jewish leaders, your biggest concern is how Jesus might affect the plans and ambitions you have for your life.

What has led you to this place? Family, friends or your horoscope? The hope of a day’s comfort? Whatever it might be, let go of the shadow, and see the true reality that the Magi saw – the little toddler, invested with all the fullness of God. True hope. True life. True love. With the wise men, fall down, and exchange the empty shadows for the truth. Worship him. Receive him.

WHAT DO CHRISTIANS DO WITH SILLY OLD TESTAMENT LAWS?

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Jesus did not set aside the laws of the Old Testament. He fulfilled them. This is very important, as we seek to understand the law-genre we find in the bible. When we really understand how to interpret those ancient laws, there is tremendous blessing and grace there for us.

 

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Understanding the Bible #7 .

One of the most misunderstood and misused genres in the bible are the laws, particularly the laws contained in the Old Testament.

Here’s an example. I have heard it said, many times: “In the same section of the bible where it says homosexual sex is wrong, it also says eating shellfish is wrong. It also says it is wrong to wear clothes with more than one kind of fiber. Therefore, unless you want to stop eating shrimp and wearing anything that isn’t 100% cotton, you can’t say that homosexual behavior is a sin.”

Let me say that I do understand the confusion. However, let me also say that if you say some such thing, it reveals that a) You haven’t read the bible in context and b) You don’t understand how to read laws in the bible.

First, let me remind you about context. The verse in question is Leviticus 18:22. The immediate context includes more laws regarding sexual behavior. The verses just before 18:22 prohibit incest, including child sexual abuse. The verses just after it prohibit sex with animals, and also the practice of burning babies alive. So, if you throw out Leviticus 18:22 because of context, congratulations! You’ve now endorsed incest, bestiality and the brutal murder of live infants. You don’t get to the part about two kinds of cloth for another 28 verses, and before you get there, you find laws protecting the poor and prohibiting oppression and hatred. By the reasoning I shared above, you ought to throw those things out also! (By the way, the verse about shellfish isn’t anywhere near Leviticus 18:22 – it’s in chapter 11).

However, there is a legitimate core question here. Let’s move the question over to Leviticus 19:17-19, to make it more clear:

“You must not harbor hatred against your brother. Rebuke your neighbor directly, and you will not incur guilt because of him. Do not take revenge or bear a grudge against members of your community, but love your neighbor as yourself; I am Yahweh.

“You are to keep My statutes. You must not crossbreed two different kinds of your livestock, sow your fields with two kinds of seed, or put on a garment made of two kinds of material. (Lev 19:17-19, HCSB)

Here we have a law that says you should not hate or hold grudges. It says we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Immediately after, we have a law against cross-breeding and also the one against wearing clothing made up of mixed fibers. Why do we agree that we shouldn’t hate, but yet we have no problem wearing something that is 75% cotton and 25% polyester? That’s a legitimate question.

There are three types of laws given in the bible: Laws for Ancient Israel; Ceremonial Laws for Worship; and Moral Laws. One of the difficulties is that the bible doesn’t always make it clear which ones are which kind; even worse, sometimes you find all three different types of laws mixed together. Sometimes you might have a moral law (“do not commit adultery”) combined with a law that applies only to ancient Israel (“adulterers must be put to death”) as in Leviticus 20:10. Since we feel free to not execute adulterers any more, does that mean we should also feel free to commit adultery?

The laws for ancient Israel are exactly that: laws that applied literally and directly to the nation of Israel from about 1400 BC until Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BC. No one lives in ancient Israel any more – that nation has not existed for more than 2,000 years. There is a modern nation of Israel, but they are set up with a constitution and a set of laws that are different from those given by Moses. So when we read a law that applies to citizenship in ancient Israel, we know right away that we should not apply it literally without further investigation.

Some Jewish leaders once tried to trick Jesus with one of these ancient laws. They caught a woman in adultery, and brought her to him, and said “According the Law, we should stone her.” The truth was, they weren’t serious. At the time of Jesus, the Jews lived under Roman law, which forbade such things. It was illegal for them to stone her. If Jesus affirmed the Old Testament law, they could bring him before the Romans for attempted murder. If Jesus rejected the law, they could claim to his followers that he did not follow the teaching of Moses. It’s the same thing I’ve seen countless times on blogs and facebook posts: “You claim to follow the bible, but the bible says this. Are you going to do that, or not?”

Jesus knew it was a trap. He couldn’t explain about ancient laws without being misquoted. So he said

“The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7, HCSB)

Caught in their own trap, they left. When they were gone, he told the woman that he did not condemn her (meaning, condemn her to death) but he also said: “Go, and from now on, do not sin any more.” (John 8:11). The whole story is in John 8:1-11. It shows us Jesus’ attitude toward two kinds of laws. The laws of the ancient nation of Israel no longer apply in the literal sense. Jesus himself changed all that (more on that in the next paragraph). But the moral law – “do not commit adultery” – still applies. Jesus called it a sin, and told the woman to stop it.

There is something else. The law of death for adulterers was fulfilled. There was death for the woman who committed adultery, the one they brought to Jesus. Only, it wasn’t her death. Jesus died in her place. He did not set aside the law – he fulfilled it. Death came as a result of her sin. This is why she did not have to be condemned – he chose to fulfill the law on her behalf. He also chose to fulfill the law on our behalf. Do you see, how (as Jesus said) all the law and the prophets are fulfilled in Jesus? When we understand that, so much more of the bible opens up for us.

I want to pause here and reiterate something I said earlier in the series. Even though the ancient laws of the Israelite nation no longer apply in a direct, literal sense, they do still apply in the sense that they teach us important eternal principles. We no longer directly apply the law “death to adulterers.” But it still means something for us. It means that adultery is a very serious thing in God’s eyes. It is a graphic illustration, even today, that sin leads to death. It shows us again our need for Jesus, and how amazing is his love and grace to us.

By showing us Jesus’ attitude toward Old Testament law, I just did something that demonstrates the final common sense principle of bible reading. I used one part of the bible to help us understand another, more difficult, part. We call this rule Scripture Interprets Scripture. The idea includes several things.

First, we let the clear parts of the bible shed light on the obscure parts. Remember our book on penguins? The author said “Penguins are large, flightless birds.” Later she said she rejoiced as she observed them “soaring and diving through the open blue.” The first statement is very clear – it tells us that penguins are birds that cannot fly. Therefore, when we look at the second statement, we already know that it must not mean flying. We should use the bible in the same way. Much of it is very clear. We should use the clear parts to help us understand the more difficult things.

There’s another thing with the bible, however. The New Testament quotes and explains the Old Testament on numerous occasions. We use the explanations of the New Testament to help us understand the Old. The bible explains itself in many places, if we pay attention.

Scripture Interprets Scripture is a very helpful principle when it comes to understanding the laws of the Old Testament. What I mean is, the New Testament helps us a great deal in understanding those laws. Let’s look at how:

1. Laws of Ancient Israel. We’ve already looked at how Jesus viewed these. He fulfilled them in his life, death and resurrection. What remains are not things for us to do, but principles that we can learn. Paul demonstrated this when he referred to law about not muzzling oxen (1 Corinthians 9). That is no longer a law for anyone to obey literally. But that ancient law does contain an eternal principle that we should try to apply to our own lives as Jesus-followers. The same is true of all of those ancient-Israel laws. Sometimes it takes work to uncover the principle. We have to read in context, and learn the cultural and historical setting of those laws. We are guided by the New Testament. We don’t apply these thing literally. But there is good stuff for us there.

2. Laws regarding worship ceremonies. There are hundreds of laws in the Old Testament about how the people of Israel were to worship God. Among these are laws about what makes a person ceremonially “clean” or “unclean” – including what we call “kosher” laws about food. Thankfully, the New Testament is very clear about all of this. Jesus himself said this:

“Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him? For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated.” (As a result, He made all foods clean.) Then He said, “What comes out of a person — that defiles him. For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-23, HCSB)

Mark comments “As a result, He made all foods clean.” He is clear that Jesus eliminated the kosher laws, while, at the same time, affirming the moral laws.

Peter had a vision that confirmed the fact that kosher laws are not necessary for those who are in Jesus (Acts 10:9-16). The first apostles wrestled with what the law meant after Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. Acts 15:28-29 records their conclusions:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from idol-offerings, and from blood, from smothering [abortion], and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell.”

(Acts 15:28-29 My rendering from Greek. The word variously translated “what is strangled” or “smothered” was a colloquial expression referring to the practice of smothering unwanted newborn infants)

In other words, the New Testament permits you to eat all the shellfish you want, and wear what you choose.

In addition, the book of Hebrews deals extensively with the laws regarding worship. The short version is this: All of the Old Testament worship ceremonies and practices were designed to do two things: 1. Show us our need for a Messiah, a savior and 2. Help us to understand what he would do for us.

Therefore, Jesus fulfilled all of these laws. It is not necessary for us to practice them any more.

These serve as a copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was warned when he was about to complete the tabernacle. For God said, Be careful that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown to you on the mountain. But Jesus has now obtained a superior ministry, and to that degree He is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been legally enacted on better promises. (Heb 8:5-6, HCSB)

Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the actual form of those realities, it can never perfect the worshipers by the same sacrifices they continually offer year after year. (Heb 10:1, HCSB)

So we do not need to sacrifice animals in worship, or wear special clothes, or burn incense, or live “kosher” or follow any of those Old Testament regulations for worship or festivals and feasts. However, learning about those things can still greatly enrich our appreciation and understanding of Jesus and what he has done for us. For example, our family has celebrated the Passover Feast for the past 20 years. We don’t believe it is necessary. But it is a helpful tradition that points us toward Jesus and reminds us of all the promises God fulfilled in Him. We can learn similar things by studying these other Old Testament worship laws. But we do not have to literally follow them as written.

3. Moral Laws. The moral laws in the bible are a reflection of God’s Holy nature. They do not change. The ten commandments are moral laws. Laws about not hating and sexual purity and loving others are all moral laws. The New Testament teaches that Jesus fulfilled the entire moral law for us, so we do not have to do the impossible task of keeping the moral law perfectly. However, Jesus, living inside us, wants to continue to keep the moral law. He doesn’t want to hate, or murder, or commit sexual sin or lie or cheat. Therefore the moral law remains a standard for Christians. Jesus himself affirmed the ten commandments. He affirmed that sexual purity is found in abstinence before marriage, and faithfulness in marriage. He affirmed that we should love others, and not hate. He taught that lies and oppression were sinful. The apostles of Jesus also affirmed the moral law in every book of the New Testament.

We can’t keep it perfectly, but when we break the moral law, it is sign that there is something wrong in our relationship with Jesus. We are not meant to engage in a lifestyle in which we regularly break the moral law that is a reflection of the Holy nature of God. When we do as we please, and consistently, deliberately live in a pattern of breaking the moral law, we reveal that either we don’t have real faith in Jesus, or that we are in danger of rejecting Jesus.

Thanks to Jesus, the moral law is no longer a standard we must reach in order to be reconciled to God. Jesus has already done that for us. Even so, it’s a good thing to want to please God by doing the right thing. I’m pleased when I see my kids following the moral law – being kind, being responsible, staying away from drugs and so on.  But it doesn’t cause me to love them more nor does it have any bearing upon their identity as my kids.

In addition to showing us how God would like us to live, the moral law remains like a warning sign. The moral law tells us when we are danger of messing up our lives. It tells us when we are in danger of moving away from Jesus, and heading toward rejecting who He is, and what he has done for us. It is a message that shouts “Danger! Wrong Way! Turn Back! Death Ahead!” We ignore the moral law to our own peril and destruction.

I encourage you to take some time with these sermon notes. This is an important subject that too few Christians genuinely understand. As you do, I encourage you to listen to the Holy Spirit. As we Christians, we do not need to be afraid of the law any more. In Jesus, the law is no longer dangerous and condemning – it is a blessing. The ancient laws show us God’s grace and compassion. The ceremonial laws show us God’s holiness, and how much we need Jesus. And the moral laws protect us, by keeping us away from danger, and close to God.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.

SOWING THE SEED

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To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Experiencing Life Together Part 12

EXPERIENCING LIFE TOGETHTER #12

You are almost at the end of 15 weeks of a cell/house church experience. Hopefully this is been a positive experience. If things have gone as they often do, you might not want this experience to end; you might want this group to continue to meet together. That is generally a good thing, and our hope is that your group does continue for many months to come. In many ways a house church group that has been together for 15 weeks is only just beginning, and there might be months, or even a year or two of meeting as you are. But in the life of every house church group there comes a time when things ought to change. Your group leader has probably spoken about this already during one of the previous house church group meetings. In house church group circles this change is called “multiplication.” Generally, a healthy house church group in the United States should multiply after it has been together for between nine months and two years. So your 15 week group is probably not ready to multiply, and that’s okay. But this business of multiplication is sometimes hard to understand and even harder to accept, and so as we reach the end of this group curriculum it is an important topic to devote some time to.

Just in case anyone is still confused about what “multiplication” or “multiplying” is, let’s review it briefly. House church groups are supposed to be small groups. Technically a small group consists of 15 members or less. There is a certain dynamic in a group of this size that helps it to feel “small.” This dynamic is what facilitates the ministry of house church groups. In a small group all members are more likely to feel included. In a small group, it is easier for members to use their gifts to serve one another. In a small group sharing and praying take place on a deeper level. In a small group it is easier to recognize and welcome new visitors, and to devote the energies of the group to minister to particularly needy families. Of course the true key to house-church ministry is the Lord working in and amongst the members of the house church group. But this working is greatly facilitated by keeping the size of the group relatively small.

When the group has more than 15 members, the group dynamics change. There are so many different possible relationships, that the group no longer feels small; often, sub-groups start to form. It becomes harder to tell if someone within the group is hurting and sometimes absences may even go unnoticed; needs may go un-ministered to. When the group is large enough for people to sit back passively and not participate, they do not usually grow as disciples very much. A large group certainly has its purposes. Notably, it is often more fun to worship in a large group and it is more effective to teach a large number of people at one time. But a large group is not the most effective weekly context for making disciples. A large group does not make a good house church. Therefore when a house church group grows by reaching out to new people, eventually it becomes time to take what has become a large group and make it into two new small groups. This is what we mean when we say multiplication — the one group multiplies into two.

There are a few common objections that people offer to multiplication. Many people feel that the new group, because it is missing some of the members of the old group, could never be as close or effective in ministry as the old group was. Other people simply enjoy the group so much they don’t want anything to change. It is easy to empathize with these feelings — none of us enjoys changing things that don’t appear to need change. We all like to feel secure and have a group with whom we feel safe. Others fear that relationships will be lost without the continuity of a regular group meeting.

All these fears arise when we are focused upon ourselves, our desires, and our comfort. But Jesus calls us not to be comfortable, but to let him live his life out through us. Paul put it like this:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20, ESV2011)

We are here to let Christ live in and through us. His purpose is to make disciples. He said:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father and of the sun and of the holy spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).

The church is not on earth to please itself. If we are Christians, our purpose in life should not be to make ourselves more comfortable. Every single believer in Jesus Christ should be about at least some aspect of the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ. We need to be about this business even when it involves sacrifice and discomfort for ourselves. After all, Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us. Jesus describes his own sacrifice, and the call to live for his purposes, like this:

I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24-25).

Jesus is explaining that in order to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God, God’s people must sometimes make sacrifices. A way of paraphrasing this for house church groups might be as follows:

I tell you the truth, unless the members of a house church group are willing to move out of their own comfort zones and multiply, the house church group remains only a single group and its influence for the Kingdom of God is limited to just the members of that group. But if the members are willing, and the group grows and multiplies, many more groups may be formed as a result and many more lives may be touched by Jesus. For if group wants to stay together for its own sake eventually it will become stale and stagnant and may even end. But those who are willing to multiply will find that they have fellowship with their dear friends even if they are not in the same group, and will find the reward of serving their Lord and Savior.

Over the past few months, we’ve looked a little bit at early church in Jerusalem, as described in the first few chapters of Acts. It was surely one of the most wonderful churches that anyone could be a part of. They had such sweet fellowship, and everything seemed to work together. And yet, the Lord allowed persecution to break out against that church, and it was scattered. This appeared to be a negative thing and it appeared as though their sweet fellowship had been broken. And yet, as a result of this scattering of the church, many more people in other places were given the chance to know Jesus.

On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria…

So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of good news…

Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them…

So there was great joy in that city (excerpts from Acts 8:1-8)

The breaking up of the sweet fellowship in Jerusalem resulted in the spreading of the good news, and the joy of salvation in other places. They were scattered, like seed, and that seed took root, and bore even more fruit.

The 12 apostles, while they had their occasional quarrels, must surely have been a tight group. And yet, once the Holy Spirit came upon them, they never were all together again — they never were the same small group that they had once been. While they could have chosen to look on this as personal tragedy, instead they accepted what the Lord was doing, and as a result, we know Jesus today. If those first Christians had not been open to multiplication, we probably would not be Christians today. Consider what results may occur years down the road if you too, are open, as they were.

The truth is, those that fear a new house-church group could never be the same as the old, overlook the fact that the power, and joy and love that they feel in a house church group comes not from the members, but really from God through the Holy Spirit as he works in and through the members of the group. And when a group multiplies, the Holy Spirit goes with each new group. Therefore the same love, the same power, and the same fellowship are all present in the new group just as they were in the old.

Some of you reading these notes may not even be in a house-church. How does this apply to you? At a personal level, these verses call all believers, wherever they are, to be ready to let Jesus work in them, and through them, even if it involves sacrifice. Some people, even today (in some areas of the world), give up their very lives for the sake of Jesus. At the very least, we should be willing to give up our personal comfort, so that someone else might be able become his disciple.

But I want to encourage each one of you, our comfort really comes from the presence of God, and his Holy Spirit goes with us, even when we leave our comfort zone. Jesus’ mission was to leave his comfort zone, and reach out to those who would receive him. Now, he lives in us, through the Holy Spirit, and he still wants to fulfill that same mission. There is joy and grace for us when we let him do that through us.

HOW SHOULD YOU PRAY?

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For to pray is to open the door unto Jesus. And that requires no strength. It is only a question of our wills. Will we give Jesus access to our needs? That is the one great and fundamental question in connection with prayer. – Ole Hallesby

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Experiencing Life Together Part 4

Experiencing Life Together #4. Acts 2:42-47: Prayer

When you pray, don’t babble like the idolaters, since they imagine they’ll be heard for their many words. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows the things you need before you ask Him. (Matt 6:7-8, HCSB)

“I assure you: Anything you ask the Father in My name, He will give you. Until now you have asked for nothing in My name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. (John 16:23-24, HCSB)

“Keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. What man among you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him! (Matt 7:7-11, HCSB)

Prayer is the final of four things that those first Christians were devoted to. Remember, that word “devoted” means that they held closely to it, they committed to persisting in prayer in spite of resistance and struggle. Prayer was a defining characteristic of their lives.

If you have never read a Christian classic, we highly recommend Prayer by Ole Hallesby. It is possibly one of the best books on prayer ever written. As we begin to look at prayer this week, in connection with God’s plan for the church, and for all Christians, consider some of what Hallesby says:

To pray is nothing more involved than to let Jesus into our needs. To pray is to give Jesus permission to employ His powers in the alleviation of our distress…

The results of prayer are, therefore, not dependent upon the powers of the one who prays. His intense will, his fervent emotions, or his clear comprehension of what he is praying for are not the reasons why his prayers will be heard and answered. Nay, God be praised, the results of prayer are not dependent on these things…

For to pray is to open the door unto Jesus. And that requires no strength. It is only a question of our wills. Will we give Jesus access to our needs? That is the one great and fundamental question in connection with prayer.

One of the reasons Hallesby’s book is so helpful is that he takes the mystery and “hocus-pocus” out of prayer. Explained like it is above, prayer no longer seems like such a difficult enterprise. It even seems (gasp!) like anyone could do it.

There are two core questions that arise when we read that the first Christians devoted themselves to prayer. First: how did they make prayer central to their lives? What does a life devoted to prayer look like? And second is the question of methodology: how did they pray? What did it sound like? What “method” did they use?

The first question is perhaps the most important for us. The apostle Paul exhorts the Thessalonians to “pray continually.” How can this take place? How can a life be devoted to prayer? The first thing is to get rid of the idea that prayer is a formalized ritual wherein a person comes to God with a list of petitions and presents them in as spiritual a manner as possible. If that were the case, no one could “pray continually” (even super-Christians have to sleep!) And though it might still be theoretically possible to devote our lives to prayer, frankly it sounds like it would be pretty boring. You’d need to become a monk and have others support you and make knee pads for you. However, as Hallesby says, prayer is simply giving Jesus access to our lives. If we endeavor to be open to Jesus at all times and in all places, we will end up devoting ourselves to prayer. If we make a habit of opening up to Jesus in every situation, we will learn how to pray continually. I don’t want to minimize the power and usefulness of concentrated, deliberate prayer. Even so, we need to see that prayer is more than just the ten minutes we set aside, during which we list our requests and concerns to God. Prayer is a constant, ongoing connection with the Lord, which learns to release every aspect of our thoughts, circumstances and lives into the care of the loving heavenly Father.

Most often we simply think of prayer in terms of those special times when we purpose to pray. We sit down, fold our hands, (or lay them on someone) and then pray. Sometimes, we may wonder why these times aren’t more meaningful, or why we don’t experience more of God when we do it. For some, the answer to this is that they are not praying at any other times as they go throughout the day. What I mean is, some people go through the whole day without consciously giving Jesus access, and sort of keep prayer in its allotted time slot with their quiet time, or with cell. In short, many of us only really pray when that is our consciously stated purpose for the time. Now it is important to set aside specific times when we do nothing except pray. But these are supposed to be just the pinnacle times of a whole life that is bathed in a constant referral of things to God. When we begin to live this way, we will start to yearn for times when we are doing nothing but praying, and we will start to experience His peace and presence more fully in those special times. What I’m trying to say is that we need to look at what we call “prayer times” (set aside for prayer and nothing else) as special times, while we give Jesus access at all times. It is true that there is no life devoted to prayer without those “special times” set aside purposefully for prayer alone. But there is also no devotion to prayer if we try to fit all of our praying just into those “special times” only. God designed prayer not just for the “prayer closet” but also for the construction site, the office and the ball field. He made things in such a way that our praying can take up a lifetime, in a very real and useful way. Make an experiment of this during the next week. Try to give Jesus access into whatever you are doing or saying, at each moment of your day. As concerns or people come to your mind, refer them to Him. When you need to make decisions, give Him permission to help you. You may find that sometimes you want to stop for a moment for more deliberate prayer. Perhaps that would be all right too. J

The second major question was: how did they pray? Frankly, the only reason this is important at all, is because it can become a hindrance to prayer. Often people are intimidated by considering the praying of other people. We feel that we could never pray like them. In this connection, let’s consider a few more comments from Ole Hallesby:

Prayer is something deeper than words…Prayer is a definite attitude of our hearts toward God, an attitude which He in heaven immediately recognizes as prayer, an appeal to His heart. Whether it takes the form of words or not does not mean anything to God, only to ourselves.

What is this spiritual condition? What is that attitude of heart which God recognizes as prayer?

Hallesby explains that there are two essential conditions that, when taken together, God recognizes as prayer: helplessness and faith. Helplessness combined with faith equals prayer. Helplessness without faith is simply despair. Faith without helplessness is arrogance. But put the two together, and you have prayer.

Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Consider the helplessness of a baby, which so moves the hearts of its parents. A baby cannot formulate words, but its helplessness and dependence are a powerful appeal to the parents. Just as parents are continually occupied in helping their helpless newborn, so God is attuned to the cries of His helpless, dependent children. God does not “help those who help themselves.” If we ask God for something, but are actually relying on some other source for help, are we really praying? Are we truly depending helplessly on God? This helplessness applies also to our own inability to pray. When we feel so sin-ridden and worldly that we cannot see how our prayers can be answered, our very helplessness arises as a prayer to the Father.

Faith is also inseparable from prayer. Without faith, a person does not even turn to Jesus for help in the first place. Prayer is a definite thing. We cannot simply claim some kind of vague feeling about “the universe,” and claim “I’m praying all the time.” The “faith” part of praying means that our hearts and minds are truly turned toward God, and looking to Him for help, grace, comfort and, yes, answers.

I would like to add “looking to God alone.” What I mean is, all our help comes ultimately from God, even if it comes by means of another human being sometimes. For instance, suppose you are sick. It is only common sense to go to a doctor. I have done so, many times. But even as I go to the doctor, my hope and trust are in God, more than the doctor. I trust that it is God who will work through the doctor. There is nothing wrong with praying for healing, and then seeing a doctor. But even as I submit to the care of the doctor, my trust in in God for healing, through whatever means he chooses.

Now, God does not need some kind of tremendous level of faith to help Him answer our prayers – He just needs enough faith for us to truly say “yes Jesus,” to open the door and allow Him access. In case we might feel too helpless to have faith, or be concerned that we do not have a enough faith when we pray, let’s hear again from our friend Ole:

You and I can now tell how much faith we need in order to pray. We have faith enough when we in our helplessness turn to Jesus.

So you see, it doesn’t much matter how the first Christians prayed. They allowed themselves to be helpless before God, and they had enough faith to ask Him in to their lives and into specific situations. That’s all we need to do as well. I honestly don’t think God cares how your prayer sounds. He isn’t concerned about how long or short your prayers are. All he wants is access, and he can teach you how to have a life devoted to prayer.

I want to add a few more practical suggestions. You may have heard people say, “All we can do now, is pray.” The attitude behind that statement, is that prayer is a last resort. I want to encourage you instead, to make prayer a first response. If we think prayer is not really “doing something,” or that it isn’t helpful to people, then we don’t really understand what prayer is all about.

Another suggestion is to get into the habit of praying with other believers. I don’t mean, “have prayer meetings.” I mean make prayer more a part of everyday conversation. When I was a young man, I had several mentors who modeled this beautifully. Many times we would be talking about things, and some concern or need or struggle would come up. In the middle of the conversation, my mentors would stop and say, “let’s pray about that right now.” We would pray, and then go on talking. I admit, I have lost this habit in recent years, but I would like to get back to it, and I encourage you to do the same. It feels a little funny at first, when you are the one to say “let’s pray about that right now,” but I know from experience that others will be tremendously blessed by that.

For those of you who are worshipping in house church networks or cell churches, I want to emphasize how important prayer is to your effectiveness at making disciples. Prayer is what will cause you and others to grow in Jesus. Prayer is what will bring new people to Jesus. Prayer is what will heal your relationships and change the lives of those we pray for. Prayer is what will address the sicknesses and needs in your life, and the lives of those you want to reach. If your group is praying group, you will have a great impact for God’s kingdom.

GOD’S CHOSEN ONES

chosen people

God had us in mind, all throughout history. You are specially chosen by God. Jew or not, circumcised or not, regardless of what kind of ancestors you had, you are one God’s specially chosen people, if you trust Jesus.

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Galatians #25 . Chapter 6:11-17

Look at what large letters I use as I write to you in my own handwriting. Those who want to make a good impression in the flesh are the ones who would compel you to be circumcised — but only to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even the circumcised don’t keep the law themselves; however, they want you to be circumcised in order to boast about your flesh. (Galatians 6:11-13)

I’ve mentioned verse 11 before. I think it is evidence that Paul had some sort of vision problem, and that he was slightly self-conscious about it. In most of his letters he has something like this:

This greeting is in my own hand — Paul. This is a sign in every letter; this is how I write. (2Thess 3:17, HCSB)

So his handwriting was somewhat distinctive, and perhaps not very good. That’s one of the blessing of our modern times – most of you will never know what my handwriting looks like! In any case, Paul may have a reason for referring to his handwriting here. It was, as I have said, apparently awkward and not very skillful. He is saying, “Look at my handwriting – it looks childish! I’m not trying to impress anyone. Those who want to impress you are the ones you need to watch out for!” He is referring, of course, to the false teachers who are trying to make the Galatians believe that they must not only trust Jesus, but also keep the Jewish law.

Paul makes three claims about the Galatian false teachers. First, he says that they want to make a good impression in the flesh, in order to avoid persecution. In the early days of Christianity, most of the persecution of Christians was instigated by Jews. Many Jewish people felt that the teaching about salvation through Jesus was a corruption of Judaism, a blasphemous heresy. They didn’t see it as a separate religion (and to be fair, neither did the Christians, at first). Christianity is based upon the Jewish Bible (which we call the Old Testament), as well as the teachings of the apostles (which we call the New Testament). So the Jews thought they needed to stamp out this Jewish blasphemy. They were frequently directly violent toward Christians. In places where Roman law was strongly in place, they used Roman regulations to get the Christians imprisoned, whipped and punished. Paul himself had once been a Jew whose life mission was to persecute and destroy Christianity.

Paul claims that the real motivation of the Galatian false teachers is to prove that they are good Jews, and thus avoid being persecuted. So they were willing to trust Jesus, as long as it didn’t cost them anything. But when society started moving against them, they compromised the message of grace in order to avoid the difficulties of being opposed to the Jews.

I have never been seriously persecuted for the message of grace in Jesus. I have, however, seen people who share my faith mocked and derided, and even called “dangerous” in the media. They often make fun of us in films and television. I have been called names and had people swear at me because of my faith, but nothing more serious than that. But even at that level of social pressure, there is temptation to compromise. The true message of the gospel is that there is no other way to be saved, except through Jesus. That sounds narrow-minded and ignorant to our culture today. I would feel a lot less pressure if I didn’t insist on that part of my doctrine.

The bible says we all sin, and that is a problem that can only be fixed by Jesus. But there are several things that the Bible calls “sin” that our society likes to practice and approve: sexual sins of all types, drunkenness, to name a few. I’m not trying to get non-Christians to live out Christian morality, but Christians at least, need to know what the bible says, and we should do our best to live by it. However, even many Christians do not want to acknowledge the truth of the Bible when it calls certain behaviors sinful. When I insist that we need the forgiveness and salvation of Jesus because of such things, I get a lot of angry push back. It would be a lot easier for me if I quit believing that some of those things are sinful. But Paul has harsh words for those who compromise or cave in to pressure and persecution.

Paul also says that the Galatian false teachers are hypocrites. They don’t actually keep the Jewish law, they just pretend enough to avoid persecution. Third, he says that they simply want to boast about the Galatians. Specifically, they want to boast to Jews that they caused the Galatians to become circumcised.

Now, as I’ve said many times throughout this series, we don’t have a big problem anymore with Christians insisting that we follow the Jewish Talmud and ceremonial laws. But we still have false teachers. One example of false teaching is what I call the “prosperity gospel.” I pick on this one often, because it is one of the most influential false teachings within the Christian church in America today.

As a sort of practice run for identifying false teaching, let’s look at the prosperity gospel according to these three things that Paul says about false teachers.

How does the prosperity gospel relate to persecution? Well, the main message is that if you follow God, things will go well for you. They talk a little bit about Jesus, as the Galatian false teachers did. But the main message is not the inner transformation of your spirit through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Sin, isn’t presented as a moral issue, as much as it is something that prevents you from getting the life you want, here and now. In other words, the things that offend people and draw persecution: the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the problem of sin – are not central to the prosperity gospel. The message of grace in Jesus Christ is not the main thing. Instead the main thing is improving your life here and now. Most people are already seeking a better life here and now. Most people want to find a good way to health, wealth and general prosperity. There is nothing offensive about that. There is nothing to persecute, because the goal of the prosperity gospel is the same as the goal of most secular Americans: to be prosperous and have a good life here and now.

What about hypocrisy? I suggest that you find out what you can about the regular lives of the people you listen to. If they aren’t open and honest, I would be wary of their teachings. One very popular teacher who tends to give the prosperity message was recently asked about his marriage. He said, on camera, with a straight face, that he and his wife had never had any struggles in their marriage. The interviewer questioned him, asking “Not ever?” He repeated, “never.” Now, I don’t know the details of his marriage, so theoretically, that could be true. But I know human nature, and if it is true of any married couple, they are the rarest people in the history of the world. I’m not willing to say he’s lying, but I wouldn’t trust a man who says that. As it turns out, this same man has made statements about what the bible says that are completely false, so my distrust has been justified. I suspect that this man felt compelled to say he had never experienced difficulty in his marriage because his overall message is that if you follow God, you will not have trouble here on earth. False messages breed false living.

And finally, the message of the prosperity gospel directs people to focus on themselves, rather than the cross of Jesus Christ. The ultimate goal is for my life to be better. The true gospel glorifies Jesus, glories in him and his suffering, as Paul did. The prosperity gospel glorifies what happens in my life. They praise God, certainly, but the praise him because of how he makes their lives better (sometimes). The focus on my life, not Jesus’ death. The boasting is in the details of my life, not in the cross of Christ.

I think these three things: avoiding hard parts of the gospel message, dishonesty or hypocrisy and focus on something other than Jesus, are helpful markers for us to identify false teaching. The bottom line is, we should watch out for things that pander to our flesh.

Paul goes on:

But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through the cross, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14, HCSB)

Paul says to the world, “you’re dead to me. I’m dead to you.” I don’t think he means nature or “the planet.” I think when he says “the world” here, he means all the ways and customs and habits of living for the flesh, for self-gratification. Money, power, status, security, comfort, self-indulgence, excess, focus on pleasure – all these are “the world.” These are the things that Paul says he is dead to. He says that the work of Jesus on the cross has separated him from such things. Paul is not supposed to be a super-Christian. If, through the cross, Paul was crucified to the world, than we too, can experience the same thing, but it happened for Paul, through Jesus Christ.

A lot of times I catch myself wanting power, status, security, comfort etc. But oh, what joy and peace I have when I am free from those desires! I believe I can have that freedom more and more, as I trust Jesus more and more, and let him be the dominant thing in my life. You can have that same freedom too, the same way as Paul. Paul’s point in saying that was to encourage the Galatians to have the same attitude.

Affirming that point, Paul says:

For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation. (Galatians 6:15)

What matters is what Jesus is doing to transform you from the inside out. Paul put it this way to the Corinthians:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2Cor 5:16-17, ESV2011)

Paul lived, believing that was true. Through his words, the Holy Spirit calls us to live that way also. Remember, the deepest, truest, most real you, is not your flesh, if you are in Jesus. The real you, if you are in Jesus, is a new creation in Him. That’s what matters.

Just as the real you is a new creation in Christ, so the real people of God are all those who trust Jesus Christ. Paul says:

May peace come to all those who follow this standard, and mercy to the Israel of God! (Galatians 6:16)

When Paul says “The Israel of God” he is making a distinction between the physical Israel and the spiritual one. The physical Israel are those who are physically descended through Abraham and Isaac. But the spiritual people Israel, the “Israel of God” are those who, like Abraham, have faith. Remember, Paul wrote earlier:

And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:29, HCSB)

Paul said the Romans:

This is why the promise is by faith, so that it may be according to grace, to guarantee it to all the descendants — not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of Abraham’s faith. He is the father of us all in God’s sight. (Rom 4:16-17, HCSB)

There are two reasons this is important today. The first is that it changes the way we look at the Old Testament. The promises given to the people of Israel are also given to all who trust Jesus. The Old Testament is relevant, because we are the chosen people of God.

And that brings us to the second reason this is important: God had us in mind, all throughout history. He didn’t choose merely the Israelites as his specially chosen people – he also chose you, if you trust Jesus. You are specially chosen by God. Jew or not, circumcised or not, regardless of what kind of ancestors you had, you are one God’s specially chosen people, if you trust Jesus.

Paul closes with finality:

From now on, let no one cause me trouble, because I bear on my body scars for the cause of Jesus. Brothers, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. (Gal 6:15-18, HCSB)

What is the Holy Spirit saying to you today? Have you been trying to make a good impression in the flesh? Perhaps you’ve been tempted to avoid ridicule by softening the message of Jesus. Or maybe you need to identify false teaching that has swayed you away from the central gospel message. Do you need to hear that you truly are a new creation in Jesus Christ? Do you need to hear that you are truly one of God’s chosen people? Maybe you need to live in the truth that you are dead to the world, or something else. Let the Spirit speak right now.