FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

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FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colossians Part 3: The fountain of Love and Hope.

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Colossians Part 3: The fountain of Love and Hope. Colossians 1:3-9

When we truly hope for something important, that hope creates fellowship with others who have the same hope. Therefore, when the grace and love of God are poured into us, they create a kind of fountain that first fills us, and then pours out of us into our relationships with other Christians, and then fills the church (our fellow Christians) and pours out into the world. That is God design. If the fountain doesn’t seem to be working, the first place to check is the source: our own connection to the love of God in Jesus.

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By the way, I take all of the five verses above in one piece, because, in Greek, they are on sentence. There is a lot to this sentence (paragraph, in English) but all of the thoughts hang together. The ESV translation captures this quite well. Obviously, as we discussed before, Paul has never met most of the Christians in Colossae. But here he points out that because of their common faith, it is appropriate for Paul to give thanks for them, and it is appropriate for all Christians to love even those believers whom they have not yet met. It is worthwhile to notice that the Apostle Paul often gives thanks when he writes. But we should also notice that his giving of thanks is very specific. He thanks God, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He does not thank “the universe,” nor does he just feel vaguely thankful. He is thankful to a specific person, God, that is, the Father of our Lord Jesus (not a pagan god, nor some god-principle). He is thankful to the One the Bible describes as the only true God.

Second, Paul is specific in what he is thankful about. In all his letters, he is especially thankful when he hears that people are putting their trust in Jesus, and receiving the salvation that comes only through him. I think it is often helpful to be thankful for little things, like warm biscuits, and fresh cold water, and good friends and a working vehicle. However, none of those things is guaranteed in life. We can be rightly grateful for them. But we may not always have them. But there is one thing that is guaranteed. One thing, if we want it, is ours forever, and can never be taken from us. There is one thing for which we can give thanks, no matter where we are, or what is happening. That one thing is the love of God given in and through Jesus Christ. Every single person, in every time and place, from a cold dungeon to a sumptuous palace, can thank God for his love given to us in Jesus. God’s greatest gift to us is himself. If God is, well, God, then He is simply the greatest, most wonderful thing in the universe. He gives us many other things, but he also gives us what is best: Himself. He does it through Jesus.

I have said before that giving thanks has real spiritual power. One of the primary ways we can truly “take hold of” some of the “abstract” gifts of God (like love, peace, joy and so on) is to thank him for them. So, one of the primary ways to receive more of Jesus in our lives is to thank God for Him. Paul knew that, and did it regularly.

Paul is thankful for their faith in Jesus, and for the love they have for the saints (remember, that means, all Christians) because of the hope laid up for them in heaven. When we put our faith in Jesus, we gain an everlasting hope. One of the results of that hope is that we learn to love the other people who share it. Not too many weeks ago, we spent time thinking about the hope we wait for in the new heavens and the new earth. This is the hope Paul is talking about. The hope of having our sins and mistakes wiped away beyond memory, and being made perfect, to fulfill every purpose for which we were created. The hope of being completely and utterly known, and still loved. The hope of eternal, abundant, fulfilling, joyful life in the New Creation. The hope of being with Jesus, and our other loved ones, forever.

Hope brings people together. This might surprise you, until you think about it. Have you ever been a fan of sports team, hoping your team will win the big game? When the game is on, and you are gathered with others, don’t you feel a kind of fellowship with those who, along with you, hope for your team to do well? You have a warm fellow-feeling, even with people you don’t know, if they root for the same team. Hope creates fellowship. Also, the more important the hope is to you, the stronger you feel fellowship with those who have the same hope. Elsewhere Paul writes this:

5 This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (CSB Romans 5:5)

Before we move on, I want point something out. Most of the verses in the New Testament that talk about loving other people are written to tell Christians to love other Christians. Now, it is certainly not OK to hate anyone. Jesus himself tells us to love our enemies, and even to pray for those who persecute us. But Christian love begins with love from and for Christ, and moves from there to love for other Christians. If you love those who are not  Christians, but fail to have love for your fellow-believers, something is wrong. Imagine a fountain that bubbles up into a small bowl at the top. The water fills that bowl, and then spills into second, larger bowl below it. It fills up the second bowl, and spills out over to a third, even larger one below that. That might work as a picture of Christian love. The first bowl is ourselves. The love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5). The second bowl is other Christians. The love that God gives us, spills over into love for others who have the same hope. Next, together, the love that Christians have for each other spills out into love for the world – including those who are not Christians.

Now, if we try to take short cuts on that process, it doesn’t work. If our own bowl is not full of God’s love, we will have nothing to give to our fellow Jesus-followers. Our bowl is the smallest. Loving the world is too big a task for individuals on their own. It needs the second bowl – the combined love of the fellowship of believers – to love the world.

Also, Jesus was very clear – one sign to those who do not know him is that those who do know Him will love each other. People will see quite quickly how we Christians treat one another.

35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (CSB) John 13:35

Think about it. If I see a group that sort of barely tolerates each other, that’s not something I want to be a part of, even if the group claims to love me. If they don’t truly love each other, the moment I become a part of them, I will no longer be loved them. You see? So we must love each other, or we cannot hope to love the world.

9 The one who says he is in the light but hates his brother or sister is in the darkness until now. 10 The one who loves his brother or sister remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. 11 But the one who hates his brother or sister is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (CSB 1 John 2:9-11)

John writes this because if we have the love of Jesus in our hearts, we will naturally love our fellow Christians. The two go hand in hand. Let me be really clear. If we don’t love our fellow Christians, the solution is not to try harder. The solution is to connect more deeply with the way God loves us, and hope we have together in Jesus. The more we really trust how much God loves us, the more real our future hope is to us, the more we will love our fellow believers. The first will cause the second. And the more we love our fellow believers, the better we can together love the world.

Paul mentions that this very thing is happening both with the Colossians, and around the world. As a result, the gospel is bearing fruit. There are two kinds of fruit that come about. The first is inner growth. Paul says that the gospel is bearing fruit and growing in you. That means that it is causing them to grow inwardly. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. (CSB Galatians 5:22-23)

These are things that grow inside us as individuals, and which we practice in our relationships with each other. I would add, based upon many other texts, that we also grow in knowing what the Bible says, and what it means, and how it applies to our lives. There is also growth in the sense of learning to say to “no” to the ungodly world, the devil and our sinful flesh, while we say “Yes,” to God, more and more.

There is an outward kind of fruit, and that is: new disciples. The gospel makes us grow inwardly, and also it grows outwardly, by adding more people to those who have the hope that is found in Jesus alone. Paul says that all over the world, more people are coming to know Jesus. In fact, as we grow inwardly, that causes to treat people differently, and also to motivated to share with them the grace we have received from God.

Did you know that, just as it was true when Paul wrote it, it has been true throughout all of history, and is true even today? I live in the Western World, where Christianity has begun to sort of “age,” and perhaps show signs of decline. But the fastest growing religion in the world today is still Christianity. Though we don’t notice it in America, there are other places in the world where Christianity’s growth is dynamic. In the past, America, and Western Europe sent missionaries all over the world. Today, many of the places that used to be mission fields have such strong churches that they are sending missionaries themselves. I have personally met missionaries from Korea, China, Japan, Brazil, Angola, Kenya, Ethiopia, Bermuda, Tonga, and probably a few other places I have forgotten. Christianity is not, by any means, in decline, when you consider the worldwide picture.

Paul ends this sentence by praising Epaphras, who was the missionary to the Colossians. It is good and right for them to recognize and honor the one who brought God’s word to them.

Some areas for application: Should we consider making it a regular practice to give thanks to God for Jesus, and our salvation? What kind of difference might that make in our day to day life of following Him? Do we love our fellow-Christians? If we don’t, then answer is not to beat ourselves up, but rather, to dig more deeply into the that hope we share with all believers. Finally, is the gospel bearing fruit in your life? I am not concerned about the amount or “size” of fruit in the lives of disciples. I think the real issue is, is there any kind of fruit from the gospel in your life? You see, God is the one who provides the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7: John 15:4). How much, and in which ways, we grow, is up to Him. So the issue is simply this: if you have truly believed the gospel, there will be some fruit in your life, however small. It is usually best to ask a trusted Christian friend about how they see the fruit of gospel in you. We tend to either minimize, or exaggerate what God is doing.

Pray and meditate on these these things now.

Colossians Part 2: IN CHRIST, IN THE WORLD

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Colossians, in many ways, is all about what it means to be in Christ, and, at the same time, in the world. We generally understand the second part. We know we sin. We know we hunger, thirst, and experience pain and sorrow. We also experience joy and happiness in the world. But we often struggle to know what it means to be in Christ at the same time. This is one of those cases where we must first trust it is true before we can begin to experience what it means. God is calling us to trust him when he says we are holy, and that he offers us the same Grace and Peace that are found in Jesus Christ.

COLOSSIANS PART 2: COLOSSIANS 1:1-2

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

The letter begins with Paul who also says Timothy is also writing. There are two reasons that Timothy is mentioned. In the first place, from very early on, Paul was a mentor to Timothy. He regarded him almost as an adopted son, and he appeared to be grooming Timothy to replace himself when he died. So several of his letters are  sent from both Paul and Timothy. Also, Timothy already had a special connection and ministry to the City of Ephesus, which was the only big city near Colossae. The Colossians might have already known who Timothy was. In any case, this is not just Paul’s letter, it is a letter containing true Christian teaching, approved not just by Paul, but by the other Christians who were with him there in Rome when he wrote.

The second reason Timothy might be mentioned is that it was probably Timothy who actually physically wrote the letter, while Paul dictated. It appears that Paul dictated most of letters, while others did the actual physical writing of what he said. So for example, at the end of the book of Romans, Paul is greeting the Christians in Rome, and then there is this:

22 I Tertius, who wrote this letter, greet you in the Lord. (ESV Romans 16:22).

Tertius doesn’t mean that Paul didn’t compose the letter; it is just that Tertius is the one who took Paul’s dictation.

Often, Paul wrote a line or two of greeting in his own handwriting, even when the rest of the letter was dictated. Consider these examples:

17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. (ESV. 2 Thessalonians 3:17)

21 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. (ESV. 1 Corinthians 16:21)

11 See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. 12 (ESV. Galatians 6:11-12)

Remember, the manuscripts that we have today are copies of copies, so we don’t have an actual sample of Paul’s handwriting. But it appears that he was a little self-conscious about it. Personally, I think he had problems with his eyes, which made it difficult for him to write well.

Let’s move on.

2 To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae:  Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

I want to say a word about gender language here. I remember a time, when I was growing up, that the normal usage in language was to write “he/him/his” when the person involved was generic – that is, it could be either a a male or a female. So you might write: “A traveler could very easily lose his luggage in place like Baghdad. He should never take his eyes off his bags.” Now, the traveler could be male or female – it didn’t matter. This was not offensive to anyone at the time. Everyone understood you had to use some kind of pronoun, and he/she was awkward, so it was “he.” However, these days, we have become extremely sensitive, and easily offended, so that sort of thing doesn’t fly anymore. Even so, English still does not have a singular generic and neither does ancient koine Greek. So, when it says, “brothers” everyone in those days would have understood that this included both men and women. Almost every time it says “brothers” in the New Testament, what it really means is “fellow Christians, both male and female.”

So Paul writes this to “the saints and faithful fellow Christians in Colossae.” I don’t love how this sounds in English, because it makes it seems as if we have two groups: saints, and then faithful brothers and sisters in Christ. Actually, it leaves room for a potential third group: fellow brothers and sisters who are not faithful. However, Paul clearly did not intend us to think there was a such thing as a Christian who is not faithful, and he did not even mean us to think there is a difference between “saints,” and “fellow Christians.” The Greek word for “faithful” could actually be translated as “believing.” The word “and” is actually a very flexible conjunction, and in this context, I don’t think it means “in addition to.”

So, I think what Paul means to say is this: “I write to the saints – that is, those who put their faith in Christ.”

I don’t want to breeze over the word “saints.” According to the Bible, every Christian is a “saint.” The word “saints” in Greek (agiois) is literally “holies.” If you have surrendered your life to Jesus, you are a “holy one.” This is not a special privilege given to people who have proven themselves to be a cut above the rest. This is the title given to every single person who has faith in Jesus. If you are in Christ, you are a “holy one.” When you trust Jesus, you receive the very holiness of Jesus. This is going to come up again, later in Colossians.

Holiness is a concept that we don’t talk about very much. Of course, part of it is a sort of “goodness” – an unusual, special kind of goodness. Part of being holy is also about being different. Holy things are not like every day things. Holiness makes something special, set apart.

Many years ago, a friend of mine – let’s call her “Jane” –  had the experience of being made into one of God’s holy ones. We were praying for every individual in our house church meeting. For each person, I was praying, “Holy Spirit, pour out yourself on [this person].” When we came to my friend Jane, I paused. She was not yet a Christian. My theological side thought, “The Holy Spirit cannot come into Jane, because she hasn’t yet received Jesus.” But, I thought it would make her feel awkward if I prayed anything different, so I asked the Holy Spirit to pour himself into Jane, also. Afterwards, she said to me: “When you prayed that prayer, He really did!” You see, when I asked the Lord to do that, Jane believed that he did do it. And by that believing, she received it.

She went home that night, and said to her boyfriend, “Honey, I love you, but we can’t sleep together anymore, or live together, until we are married.” When he asked why, she said, “Everything is different. I have the holy Spirit in me now.”

That’s exactly the heart of holiness. When we belong to God, everything is different. We aren’t like everyone else in the world. God lives inside of us through his Spirit, making us holy, set apart, different. When my friend Jane believed this, it became a reality to her. Listen – brothers and sisters in Christ – it is also a reality for each one of us. I know we see things that appear to contradict that reality. But God’s word is more powerful than those temporary setbacks. When we believe we are holy, we begin to act like we are holy – just as Jane did. And God says it, so we ought to believe it.

There is another thing about the people to whom this letter is written. Greek, of course, has different rules than English. This opening phrase does something interesting in Greek that it cannot properly do in English. Let me try to give you  sense of it.  Paul says he writes to the:

In Christ holy-ones, that is, the believing brothers In Colossae.” These believers are right in the middle of two important places. They are In Christ, and they are In Colossae. Literally, in the Greek, they are in between Christ and Colossae. This is kind of picture of where and how we live out the Christian life. We Christians are in Christ, and we are also in the world. We have a heavenly home. Our future is in heaven. As we will see later in Colossians, in some ways, our life is already in heaven, in Christ. And yet we also live right here on planet earth where we have to pay bills, and eat, and where we can still find joy and happiness. The whole letter of Colossians, in some ways is about what it means to be In Christ, in Colossae. Though we aren’t in Colossae (any followers in Turkey, please give me shout!), thankfully, the Colossians were human beings, and human nature doesn’t change that much. In this letter we will find valuable lessons about what it is to be In Christ, in whatever situation we find ourselves. I am in Christ, in Lebanon, TN. You might be in Christ, in Southern CA, or in Chennai, India, or anywhere else. The things that the Holy Spirit said to the Colossians will help us still today. We are in Christ, and In the world. Following Jesus is really all about figuring out what it means to be both of those things at the same time.

For myself, and most of those I know, the primary difficulty is about what it means to be “in Christ.” We  know we are in the world. We know we sin, we know we get hungry, and have needs, and experience sorrow and pain. But we are different from those who do not yet have Christ. We aren’t only in the world. God calls us his holy ones. At the very end of verse two, we are offered grace and peace from God our Father. That offer comes through Jesus Christ, because of Jesus Christ. So, for those who are in Christ, we have the very grace and peace that God the Father gives Jesus his son.

I mentioned the story of what happened when one woman who believed it. She was in the world, for sure. She had her struggles with addictions, immorality, anger, selfishness, depression, all of it. But when she believed that she was in Christ, when she believed that God had made her one of his holy ones, it changed everything.

So today I ask you: believe it. Count on it. God has granted you grace and peace. He has made you one of his holy ones, part of his family. We can count on this, not because or our own strength or any kind of quality in ourselves. We count on it because of Jesus. I paraphrase Martin Luther when I say: “If I look at myself, I cannot see how I could possibly be saved. But when I look at Jesus, I cannot see how I could possibly not be saved.” Our faith is sure because of Jesus. Though we are in the world, we are in Christ Jesus.

As we close today, I want us to meditate on what it means to both in Christ, and in the world, to be one of God’s holy ones. Hear the Father’s welcome: “Grace and Peace to you, my child!”

 

 

REVELATION #46: FAITH-WORTHY & REALITY-DEFINING

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The words of Revelation are true, and worthy of our faith. The words of the whole Bible describe reality, and are worthy of our faith. Jesus Christ is the ultimate Word of God, and he created reality. He is more than worthy for us to put our faith in him. Among other things, that means that we believe what the Bible says, and act accordingly.

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Revelation #46.  Revelation 22:6-11

The book of Revelation ends with…(get ready… do a drum roll…) that’s right, you guessed it –   Chiastic structure! What I consider to be the last section consists of chapter 22:7-21. In these verses, we have seven different declarations made by Jesus Christ himself. I will try to combine some of them, but for now, we’ll just take the first. It know it may seem like we are dragging out the end of the book, but these are the last seven things that Jesus Christ himself said to His people, the church. It’s worth focusing on them for a while.

Verses 6-9 are a little confusing because John is conversing with an angel, and then Jesus makes his first proclamation, and then John goes on talking to the angel. I will walk us through it. It is the angel who says: “These words are trustworthy and true and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.”

The fact that the angel says it does not make it any less true or powerful. Now, at the time, John undoubtedly believed that this statement applied directly to the book we have just been reading: Revelation. However, the Holy Spirit, who inspired these words, obviously knew that the writings of the apostles would be collected together and called the New Testament, and combined with the Old Testament to be called the Bible. So, we must understand that these words apply specifically to the book of Revelation. That is the first meaning, in context. But it also good and right to apply this statement to the entire Bible.

There are pieces of these verses that come across more powerfully in Greek. So, in a few places,

I am going to give you my own rendering of this text from the Greek. For those of you who are Greek scholars, I am simply trying to convey how it comes across. I am not saying that this is more accurate. But hopefully, it provides an accurate feeling of how it sounds in Greek. Here we go:

“These words are worthy of complete faith, and they present reality as it truly is.”

It is not just that the words are accurate. They are the basis for faith. The Greek word for “trustworthy” is the same root word used for “faith” as in “put your faith in Jesus Christ.” In addition, the word for truth is not just “accurate.” It means something that defines reality. Also, the word for “word” is logos. That is the same word that John uses in the beginning of his gospel for Jesus himself:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God….14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (ESV John 1:1 &: 14)

Now, here in Revelation 22:6, the word “words” is in plural form. But I think it is appropriate to let this text remind us that behind the words of the Bible is the very Word of God, Jesus himself.

The words of Revelation are true, and worthy of our faith. The words of the whole Bible describe reality, and are worthy of our faith. Jesus Christ is the ultimate Word of God, and he created reality. He is more than worthy for us to put our faith in him.

Virtually all Bible translators believe that next, we have a statement not from the angel, but Jesus himself: “Behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” One reason to think it is Jesus, not the angel, is because Jesus is the one who is coming soon, he is the one whose return really matters. Once again, let me give you my own partial rendering from the Greek. As before, I just want to give you sense of what it feels like in the original language:

“Give me your attention! I am coming quickly. You will be supremely blessed if you guard and hold on to the words of this prophecy – this Bible.”

Yes, the Greek word for “book” is bible. Now, any time you say “book” in ancient Greek, bible is the word to use. So that, in and of itself doesn’t mean it applies to the whole Bible (as we mean the Bible). But Jesus could have just said “prophecy” and left off there. In fact, he did that, earlier on, in chapter 1:3. Or, perhaps, he could have used the word for “letter,” or “document.” I can’t help thinking that Jesus knew that much of the world would come to call one particular book “The Bible,” and so used the word to mean not only the prophecy of Revelation, but the entire book that he inspired.

This statement reminds me of what Jesus said at the very beginning of Revelation:

3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. (ESV Revelation 1:3)

I do notice that here, Jesus does not use the word “book” (that is, bible). But the fact that this promise and this command are given twice means that it is important.

You may notice that for the word “keep” in Revelation 22:7, I used “guard, and hold on to.” That is because those are part of the meaning of that Greek word. To keep the words of this prophecy (or, of the whole Bible) doesn’t mean you just keep it in your house, on a shelf. It means you are actively engaged in preserving it, protecting it from harm, and making sure that it fulfills its purpose. Once again, I think it is appropriate to apply this to both Revelation, and also, all of scripture. It is good and right that we have studied and wrestled with this prophecy called Revelation. It is part of the word of God, and here in these verses, we see that Jesus highly values it.

Moving on to verse 8, John mentions that after the whole vision – that is, I think, the whole of Revelation – he falls down to worship the angel, who showed him the vision. The angel stops him: “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.”

By the way, this is one of the key ways in which Jesus claimed to be God. When people tried to worship him, he never stopped them.

Then, the angel continues:

“Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, for the time is near. 11 Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.”

I do not think that God actually wants people who are doing evil to continue to do so. However, this is a warning. If you are determined to do evil, and if you continue down that path far enough, you will reach a point of no return. The analogy I use for this comes from swimming.

Imagine you are in a little boat, carrying a large block of gold. Imagine that the gold falls out of your boat, and you dive in, after it, and reach it ten feet below the surface of the water. Gold is one of the heaviest metals – roughly as heavy as lead. This block of gold weighs one hundred and twenty pounds. You grab on to it, and try to swim back to the surface. However, the gold is too heavy. Instead of you dragging it up, it is dragging you in deeper. You kick with all your might, and you slow your rate of descent, but you don’t actually make any progress back toward the surface. You are still sinking. Sooner or later, if you are going to live, you must let go of the gold. If you allow that gold drag you too deep, you will no longer have enough air to make it back up to the surface before you drown. You pass twenty feet, and the thirty. How long will you hold on? Maybe eventually, you decide, it is not worth living if you can’t have the gold, so you hold on, and it drags you to your death.

I think this is something like the warning to those who are doing evil. There is a point of no return. There is a point when it is too late to turn back. Now, when it comes to salvation, this point of no return is not about how terribly you have sinned. But suppose you sin, and you know it, and you know God wants you to repent, and turn back to him. Your attitude is: “Later. I’m not going to do that right now. I want to keep enjoying this sin for a while.” The next time, it is harder to hear God’s call to repent. Several times after that, it may not even occur to you that you ought to repent. The more you say “no” to God, the more you damage your conscience. The more you say “no” to God, the harder and harder it becomes to hear him anymore. If you continue to ignore God, if you continue to go your own way, and shut out the call of God, eventually, you won’t care anymore. You will harden your heart so much that you won’t even notice, won’t even be able to hear his call to repent. I think the message is this: We have heard in Revelation all about the coming judgment, and God’s vast patience. One of the major messages is that although God is inhumanly patient with evil-doers, there will be an end to that patience – there must be an end to it, if we are to have the joy of the New Creation. Now, with all these stern warnings, if we still say, “No, I’ve got plenty of time to turn back to God. I’ll do it later.” If we continue to stop our ears against God, eventually, we will no longer be able to hear him. Eventually, we will no longer care about following him. At that time, we may be passing the point of no return. God says, “OK then. Do what you want.” He doesn’t mean that it is OK to do so. It means, that God has done all that he can to save a person who has the will to reject Him, and that person has made a decision that is final.

By the way, if you are worried that you have passed the point of no return, then, by definition, you have not passed it. When you pass the point of no return, you will no longer care about, or be interested in your relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Those who have passed that point don’t care anymore. Also, I want to make it clear, I am not talking about a Christian who struggles with a sin that they just can’t seem to beat. Such a Christian does indeed sin, but each time, that person is heartily sorry for their sin, and intends to continue on following God. They really would like to stop sinning, even if they can’t seem to find a way how. Such a person is not ignoring God. They are still responding to him in repentance, confession and receiving God’s forgiveness.

All of this reminds me of something that Paul wrote to Timothy:

2 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (ESV 2 Timothy 3:12-17)

This is really another way of saying exactly what our Revelation passage says. Evil people will go from bad to worse, being deceived, and deceiving others. But we, the people of God, should hold on to Word of God – both the scriptures in general, Revelation in particular, and, above all, Jesus Christ himself. These are worthy of our complete faith. God’s Word (and his words) are not just accurate – they define reality more fully than any human wisdom.

I don’t know when Jesus will return. But I can promise you, if you are reading this, the time when you will stand face to face with Jesus is no more than one-hundred years away, almost certainly a lot less. It could be any moment now. The time is soon. No one has to wait very long. Let us live our lives accordingly.

REVELATION #45. THE TREE OF LIFE

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Virtually all human beings have a deep desire to live in a world that is perfect. All of us have to reckon with that desire, one way or another.

But here is the problem: If there was a perfect world, we ourselves could not live there without destroying the perfection of that world. If we entered a perfect world, we would bring our selfishness, our pettiness, our impure desires and thoughts, and so on, and before long, the perfect world would be just as bad as this one.

We don’t live in a perfect world precisely because we live in it.

The problem is us. So, what is the solution? What hope can we possibly have, if by our very existing, we destroy the thing we desire so deeply?

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Revelation #45. Revelation 22:1-5

1 Then he showed me the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 down the middle of the city’s main street. The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, 3 and there will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 Night will be no more; people will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, because the Lord God will give them light, and they will reign forever and ever. (CSB Revelation 22:1-5)

By the way, today I will focus almost exclusively on the tree of life and the water of life. Last time we talked a little bit about the part where it says there will be no night, and no need for the sun. This is not a literal description of the New Creation, but rather it is meant to tell us that God himself will satisfy every need we have, directly.

So, moving on, let me set the stage.

I’m picturing a scene from a simply amazing moment in my life. After years of wishing, then about six months of hoping, then three months of planning, through the blessing and generosity of many people, my family and I had the opportunity to take a sabbatical in Europe, Switzerland in particular. On our first full day there, we went for a hike through some woods, up a steep slope. We came out on a green meadow that was maybe five hundred feet higher than the surrounding countryside. It was sunny, and about sixty-five degrees. To our right, a lone, snow-capped mountain peak towered above us. In front, and to the left, stretched a chain of little towns at the edge of a mountain lake. Beyond the lake lay more snow-capped mountains. It was like a postcard, someone’s idyllic dream of what Switzerland is supposed to be. We all exclaimed in wonder, and took pictures, and, without even talking about it, we sat down, and decided to stay up on that meadow for a while. (One out of about two dozen pictures, above).

I found something interesting about that moment, however. I loved it. I was full of joy and wonder. And yet, even in the middle of that moment, I found myself still desiring something. I wanted to keep it somehow, to be in it. While in the moment, I wanted the moment. I longed for it. Now, this is puzzling. It does not entirely make sense. When I tried to analyze it, I realized I didn’t really want to move to Switzerland – that was not what I was desiring. I didn’t just want to stay there on the hillside forever. It’s hard to express. C.S. Lewis said something about this:

We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words – to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe and it, to become part of it.

That is close to how I felt. And it was not a new feeling. I have felt it before when I see beautiful scenery. I have felt something very much like it after reading a moving book, or watching a poignant movie. On a few occasions, I have felt it with close friends and family. In fact, when we say that something deeply moves us, this is often what we are talking about – a deep, inexpressible feeling, and sometimes, part of that feeling is longing, or desire.

This is all very relevant when we talk about the New Heavens and the New Earth. I read our text today, and say, “OK, a river that flows through the city. That sounds…OK. Just like Luzern, Switzerland. Or Florence, Italy. Or, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or, the Twin Cities Minnesota.” What I’m saying is that often, we aren’t terribly excited when we read the Bible’s descriptions of the New Creation. We’ll be worshipping God forever. We’ll be in a giant, cube-shaped city that sticks halfway out of the atmosphere. The city will have a river. Sometimes, that all can sound less than exciting.

I want to remind us, however, that we are not meant to take all of this literally. I think one thing we are meant to understand is that these longings we have in moments like the one I described are actually longings for the New Creation. What I was really wanting on that hillside in Switzerland was deeper communion with God, life in the New Creation. I was wanting the river of life, and the tree of life.

I think I am correct in connecting these things to our deep longings and desires. Proverbs 13:12 says this:

12 Hope delayed makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life. (CSB, Proverbs 13:12)

I believe this is more than just a saying about how nice it is to have our desires fulfilled. It is saying that our ultimate desires are fulfilled only when we can eat from the Tree of Life. Let’s go back to the garden of Eden. Young, unencumbered by the physical problems that come with sinful flesh, Adam and Eve chose to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The result was that sin entered the world, and has been passed down to each generation ever since. The garden of Eden was lost to humanity. Even now, deep in our hearts, we know we are missing something wonderful and beautiful. We know the world is not the way it ought to be, which is a very strange thing to think, unless something very like the Biblical story is true.

There was another tree in that garden. Adam and Eve were allowed to eat from it, but they did not. After they sinned, this is what happened:

22 Then the Lord God said, “Look, the human beings have become like us, knowing both good and evil. What if they reach out, take fruit from the tree of life, and eat it? Then they will live forever!” 23 So the Lord God banished them from the Garden of Eden, and he sent Adam out to cultivate the ground from which he had been made. 24 After sending them out, the Lord God stationed mighty cherubim to the east of the Garden of Eden. And he placed a flaming sword that flashed back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life. (NLT) Genesis 3:22-24

God knew that if sinful humans were given eternal life, they would become like demons – living forever, but unable to be saved. If sinful flesh was immortal, by definition, sinful flesh could never die, and therefore never be redeemed. We would be stuck in sinful flesh forever. So, God sent human beings out of the garden, and protected them by blocking access to the tree of life.

In the New Creation, our sinful flesh will be destroyed, and we will be living in new, resurrected bodies that have no sin. Then, at last, we can eat from the tree of life – and the text says we will do so repeatedly.

Let me put this all plainly. I believe that virtually all human beings have a deep desire to live in a world that is perfect. Many people recognize that is unrealistic, and bury that desire, but it is there, nonetheless. All of us have to reckon with that desire, one way or another.

But if we would be realistic, here is the problem. If there was a perfect world, we ourselves could not live there without destroying the perfection of that world. If we entered a perfect world, we ourselves would bring our selfishness, our pettiness, our impure desires and thoughts, and so on, and before long, the perfect world would be just as bad as this one.

We don’t live in a perfect world precisely because we live in it. The problem is us. If we are honest with ourselves, this should be quite obvious. So, what is the solution? What hope can we possibly have, if by our very existing, we destroy the thing we desire so deeply?

That, my dear friends, is a question that only Christianity answers satisfactorily. Jesus came to take the burden of our imperfections on himself. When we trust him, he has done it. What remains still in this life is a body that has imperfection written into its very DNA. The Bible calls that body “flesh.” So, our flesh must finally be destroyed, through death, and then we can enter perfection, because Jesus has made us perfect, and death has destroyed our flesh. Our new, resurrected, perfect lives will be unable to be stained by sin and the suffering that it brings.

Then, when all that has been accomplished, we drink from the river of life, and eat from the tree of life. Our deepest, most unfulfillable desires will, in fact, be fulfilled, not by the temporary happiness that comes and goes, but by eternal, lasting joy. Our text confirms this, saying “There will no longer be any curse (v3).”

All of recorded human history is one tiny parentheses in God’s eternal plan. He created us for perfection. We blew it. He saved us, and promises us a restoration of that perfection that we ourselves destroyed. In Genesis chapter 3, human beings had to leave the garden of Eden. In Revelation 22, we enter the brand-new, Re-created Garden once more. All that was good that was lost will be restored, and made even better. This is not the end, but rather, the New Beginning.

This is not a boring, everlasting church-service. This is the fulfillment of your truest, deepest desires in ways that we can’t even imagine right now. Now, as it happens, that fulfillment will indeed involve profound worship. But my point is, even now, your desires are pointing you toward what that will feel like when we eat from the tree of life.

So, a few questions for us, by way of application. What are some things that spark that deep desire in your life? Can you remember some moments when you were filled with both joy and a profound, unnamable desire at the same time? Is there something you can do to have more of those moments?

Second, I think that even before we reach the New Creation, we can get a taste of the tree of life, and the water of life. Jesus had a famous conversation with a woman from Samaria. He started a conversation with her about water from a well. This is how it went from there. He said:

“If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”
11 “But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water? 12 And besides, do you think you’re greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us this well? How can you offer better water than he and his sons and his animals enjoyed?”
13 Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. 14 But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” (NLT John 4:10-14)

Jesus has living water for us right now. It will be even better in the New Creation, but even now, we can recognize that our deepest thirst is actually for a true, right relationship with God. We can begin, even now, to have that thirst satisfied.

How can we use our thirst for God, and hunger for His tree of life to encourage and strengthen us right now? We can ignore the thirst. We can try and satisfy the hunger with the things we can get on earth. But how can we do the opposite? How do we seek the eternal food and drink? How can we use our desires to keep us focused on the joy that is ahead of us?

Let the Holy Spirit Speak to you now, as you wrestle with these questions.

DESIRE, HOPE & THE RESURRECTION

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

 

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RESURRECTION SUNDAY, 2019

John 11:1-53

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s continue with the story:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He has risen indeed.

REVELATION #42: THE NEW CREATION

landscape photo of body of water with mountain as background
Photo by Ketan Kumawat on Pexels.com

We are promised a new world that contains the beauty, but not the fragility. It contains the excitement and wonder, but not the mortal danger. In our perfect bodies, exploring the wilderness will be a joy. In Earth 2.0, humans will not corrupt or threaten the environment. The New Creation will hold the people of God, but not their garbage, because garbage will no longer exist. These promises, and the hope they bring should affect how we live here and now.

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SERMON NOTES

Revelation #42. Revelation 21:1-8

 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

We are in the second-to-last major section of the book of Revelation, which I call “The Seven-Part Victory of Jesus.” The first part of his victory was the destruction of the beast and his followers. Next, came the thousand-year reign. The third victory was the ultimate destruction of Satan. The fourth part of his victory was the judgment of all people who have ever lived, where those whose names are in the book of life are invited into eternal life, while those who rejected Jesus are sent to the lake of fire. Today, we consider the fifth part of the Victory of Jesus, which is the creation of the  New Heavens and the New Earth. We have taken a great deal of time in other parts of the book of Revelation, in order to understand it better. We have come to some areas that are less difficult to understand, but they are wonderful, delightful promises. I want us to feast our soul on these promises today.

Last time, I speculated that when we die, it is possible that our spirits (or souls?) go to be with Jesus for a temporary period. Some people call that “heaven.” But the real “heaven” is actually a physical place. John explains it:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

God’s plan is to destroy this mortal world, and then to remake it in perfection. Some scholars would say that God will not absolutely destroy it, but will transform it, much in the same way that our earthly bodies will be transformed into resurrection bodies. Either way, this idea of new Creation (brand new, or transformed) is found in many places in the bible.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10-13, ESV)

17 “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. 20 No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, (Isaiah 65:17-20, ESV)

22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. 23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord. (Isaiah 66:22-23, ESV)

Our eternal future will be spent in physical bodies, living in a physical place – the New Creation. The New Creation, will be perfect, even as our new bodies will be perfect. It will not be subject to frustration because of our sin:

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it — in the hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. 23 And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits — we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 Now in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8:18-24, HCSB)

I love this world we live in. I love the ocean, and the mountains, the forests and the plains. Being in places with beautiful scenery moves me deeply and powerfully. But our amazing planet is indeed “subject to frustration” in various ways. Many of the most beautiful places on this world are also the most dangerous. A one-thousand-foot cliff is wonderful to look at, and to stand on top of one is awe-inspiring. But one miss-step, one ill-placed falling rock, and that beauty will end your life. The mountains are gorgeous. But it takes a great deal of physical effort and stamina to go into the mountains and explore, and if you go unprepared, there are seventy-three easy ways to die there. So, our beautiful world is also very harsh and difficult.

Not only that, but it is fragile. Human activity seems to be reducing the forests of the world in a significant way. In places like Europe, where humans have lived for many thousands of years, most of the wild animals are gone. Even the most remote shores of islands far from civilization contain garbage washed up from the sea, where millions upon millions of people throw it.

However, we are promised a new world that contains the beauty, but not the fragility. It contains the excitement and wonder, but not the mortal danger. In our perfect bodies, exploring the wilderness will be a joy. In Earth 2.0, humans will not corrupt or threaten the environment. The New Creation will hold the people of God, but not their garbage, because garbage will no longer exist.

Some of you may wonder about the fact that there will be no sea. That would disappoint me, because I love the ocean. Actually, if you remember, the beast came from “the sea” (Revelation 13:1). The prophet Daniel also had visions involving evil beasts, and these too, came from the sea (Daniel 7:3). So, here, “the sea” doesn’t mean “the ocean”  or anything like that. Instead, “the sea” represents the source of rebellion against God, the place from which comes chaos and evil. What John means to say is that the New Creation will have no place from which evil can come. It will not be threatened by rebellion or spiritual darkness.

Folks, that’s just the first verse! Here’s the next:

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

The city is “as a bride, adorned for her husband.” Many scholars take this to mean that Jerusalem represents the people of God, made perfect by Jesus, coming to meet him in the New Creation. That might indeed be the correct interpretation of this verse. It might also be that God’s people will have a new, wonderful, absolutely perfect home. I think, however, there are layers of meaning we might get from this.

Look at it this way: John was a Jew, who grew up thinking of Jerusalem as the spiritual center of the universe. Before he met Jesus, he probably believed that God made his home in the temple in Jerusalem. You might say that Jerusalem was the home of his heart, though he had never lived there permanently. In 70 A.D., the Romans brutally crushed a Jewish rebellion, and utterly destroyed both the temple, and the city, and caused the deaths of an estimated one million people. The Jewish historian Josephus, who was there at the time, records that the Romans left part of one wall standing, to provide  shelter for the soldiers, and to show how big were the other walls that they destroyed. But he records that the rest of the city was absolutely annihilated:

…But for all the rest of the wall [surrounding Jerusalem], it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind.

And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he [a foreigner] were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it.

(Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, as quoted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(70_CE) Accessed, 3/23/19)

That was Jerusalem at the time John recorded the book of Revelation: unrecognizable even to those who had once lived there, not even recognizable as having once been a city. Jerusalem, as John knew it, was no more; it was lost forever. It was a mark on a map, and a pile of rubble in reality. But now, John sees the New Jerusalem, the city of God, coming down from heaven.

Here is what I hear from this verse today: Whatever is good that seems to have been lost forever will be made perfect, and restored to us. Something in your heart might seem utterly destroyed. You may have no hope of ever recovering it. Yet, in the New Creation, it will be made new, and even better than before. Just as the creation is made new; just as we ourselves remade, new and better; so our hopes and aspirations are renewed and fulfilled, but even better than before.

Now, you may be tempted to say, “But I want my hope to be fulfilled in this life. I want all this now.” I understand that sentiment. But, that is a bit like a child who wants to go to a McDonald’s playland area today, rather than waiting a week, and then going to Disneyland. Any hope that we have fulfilled in this life is temporary, and it is infected with that same corruption that sours everything in this life. If your hope is only for this life in the first place, then perhaps it needs to be refined and purified. If what you really want cannot be found in heaven, perhaps what you are hoping for is not good. Our hopes in the New Heavens and New Earth are far better than anything we could imagine here and now.

These promises, and this hope should affect how we live here and now. Peter says that, in the verses I quoted above (2 Peter 3:11-12). Because we have this hope, we can be patient here on earth. Because we have this coming treasure in heaven, we can give of ourselves to others here and now. We know that the best is yet to come, so we can endure suffering in the meantime. That’s what Paul meant when he said this present suffering is not worth mentioning compared to the glory that is coming. I am reminded again of one of my favorite verses:

Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is wasting away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary, light, affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary. But what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Meditate on these two hopes right now: the New Creation, and the Great Restoration. Let the Holy Spirit speak to your heart.