Revelation #14 THE THRONE AT THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

glowing Jesus

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Revelation #14. Revelation 4:1-11

We have come to the end of the first section of Revelation. Each of the seven major sections of the book begins with a view from the perspective of Heaven. Section one began with a vision of Jesus, and his words about being the first and last, about having control of all things. After that initial vision, which established the perspective of Heaven, there were seven letters, addressing the concerns among churches here on earth. Now that the entire first section is done, we return once more to the perspective of heaven.

To understand Revelation chapter four, it is useful to think of an analogy. In our world, a thing can move in three different ways: forward-backward; side-to-side; and downward-upward. Every direction is either one of these, or a compromise between them. We call these the three dimensions. If you are using only one dimension, you could draw a straight line, like this:Slide1

If you are using two dimensions you could draw a figure, say a square. The figure is made up of straight lines in combination, like this:

Slide2

If you have three dimensions you could build a solid body, like a cube. Now imagine a world which was only two-dimensional; populated, I suppose, by stick-people. How could we communicate to those two-dimensional people what our three-dimensional world is like? If we simply tried to show them something three dimensional, they couldn’t comprehend it. For instance if we stuck cube in the middle of their world, they would only see a square, where the cube intersected with their two-dimensional plane. A better way might be to draw a cube. It would thus represented in a two dimensional way. Unfortunately, it could easily be misunderstood as simply six squares that are connected, like this:

Slide4

I’m sure you are all thrilled by my grasp of spatial relations, but the point is this: When God tries to communicate with us about heaven and what eternity is like, it can be difficult for us to understand. He tries to use language that we are familiar with, and “word pictures” that help, but ultimately we cannot understand completely until he takes us there. It is sort of like we are living in a different dimension from him. That is why we find some of the language in Revelation so difficult – John is trying to use human words to describe something that human existence cannot fully comprehend. So he says things like: “he was like a jasper; or “the rainbow was like an emerald;” and so on. It’s OK if this is a bit confusing, because it is a bit beyond us. So what we will do as we continue to study Revelation is to seek out the main points that John is making, without getting lost in the sometimes-confusing details. I continue to believe that the major points of most Biblical passages – even in Revelation – are clear.

And so we come to Chapter 4. Remember what chapter one was all about? It was about God in control. Chapter four is a repetition of the same theme – God is in control – using different images to convey the same message. In chapter one God told us he was in control. He said things like “I am the Alpha and Omega, who is, who was and who is to come (1:8),” and “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one; and I was dead and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and Hades (1:17-18).” Now, in chapter four through what John saw, he shows us that he is in control. He shows us this by means of “pictures” that John records.

For example, John sees a throne standing in heaven, and the throne is not empty! There is One sitting on the throne (4:2). The secular people in the 90’s AD were inclined to believe that the Roman Emperor was in charge of the world. Secular people today, though they don’t admit it, are inclined to believe that the throne should be occupied by self. They believe that we are supposed to pursue fulfilment by focusing on our own needs and desires. Others believe that the “throne of the universe” is entirely empty, and we are simply meaningless by-products of a random process.

Revelation chapter four contradicts these world-views. The control of the universe is not up for grabs. The direction of history is not controlled by a worldly ruler. Neither are we in charge of our own destiny. Nor does the universe roll on by mere chance – someone is sitting on the throne of heaven, ruling and directing – Someone is in charge.

When we get to the description of that Someone, we come to one of those places where a five, or ten, dimensional world is trying to communicate with our paltry three-dimensional senses. John says the one on the throne (in case you haven’t figured it out, it’s God) is like jasper and sardius in appearance. The truth is, we don’t know for sure which particular stones John’s language is referring to – the names of precious stones have often changed over the years. I personally resort to the idea that God simply looked amazing, but mostly indescribable to human senses. I place the emerald rainbow in the same category, though the reference to the rainbow could be a reminder that God has never forgotten his promises (Genesis 9:12-17). In any case, it is God’s position (on the throne) and not his appearance, that matters most.

John goes on to describe the rest of what he sees – what I call “heaven’s throne room.” Near the throne are twenty-four other thrones, with twenty-four elders on them (v. 4). There is quite a bit of speculation about who these elders are. They are often said to represent God’s people throughout history: twelve elders for the twelve tribes of Israel (representing the faithful before the coming of Christ) and twelve for the twelve apostles (representing the Christian church throughout history). There are a few clues, however, that suggest that instead these twenty-four elders are not human, but rather are angelic beings. I will not go into all the details here, but suffice it to say that elders “act” more like angels than like redeemed human beings. They appear expedite the prayers of the saints (5:8); they communicate God’s truth to men (7:13-14) and when they praise God they do not sing the song of the redeemed – instead they sing about the redeemed (5:9-10). They also cannot learn the song of those purchased by the lamb (14:3). So they appear to be some sort of heavenly council of elders, perhaps angelic beings who represent the interests of God’s people in the throne room of heaven.

The spirit of God is present in its fullness in heaven’s throne room (as represented by the seven lamps), and the presence of God is forcefully felt by thunder and lightning. God is not just a benign old man – sort of a white-robed Santa Claus – instead, he is an awesome and powerful being. His presence cannot be ignored. The ruler of the universe is not an ineffectual, weak king – he is firmly in control, and has the power to effect his will.

The living creatures are fascinating. They appear elsewhere (in similar form) in Ezekiel 1:4-28 (in a vision which is quite similar to John’s). Once again we are talking about a dimension we know very little about, but my best guess about the creatures is as follows: They represent the fullness of God’s creation, and possibly also they symbolize that his will is done all over the world, and that he knows and sees everything that happens in this world. The lion’s face represents God’s presence in, knowledge of, and provision for, the wild places of the earth. The ox-face likewise tells us that God does his will in, and provides for, the rural areas. The man-face indicates God’s activity in civilizations and cities, and the eagle represents the air. Probably there is no representation of the oceans and waters of the world because in Revelation John usually uses the sea as a picture of all that is evil. The fact that each creature has eyes everywhere indicates that God sees everything. The fact that the creatures are engaged in praising him indicates that all creation is under the authority of God, and gives him glory.

As we continue through Revelation we will be periodically brought back into the heavenly throne room, to be reminded that no matter what is going on here on earth, God is in control. He is awesome, powerful, and nothing escapes his attention. He knows exactly what is going on. When we look at the book of Revelation through this lens (as we should) it becomes a source of great joy and comfort.

Let’s try and make this practical. Is there some area of your life that is bothering you right now? Is there something that you are trying to control, or some outcome you are trying to achieve? Put God on the throne. Let Him be the one in charge. Picture Him dealing with the problem, and leave it with him.

Perhaps there is some area of your life where you feel like God doesn’t even know or care. Rest assured, he is paying attention. He knows exactly what is going on with you. We are called to hold on, even when it is long, and hard, even when it is boring and soul-numbing, because God is indeed at work, even when we don’t see it. As we go through Revelation, we will see that he has a grand plan that will culminate with God himself wiping the tears from your eyes. I’m not exaggerating, listen to the end:

3Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. 4He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away. (Rev 21:3-4, HCSB)

Listen to what the Spirit is saying to you today!

Revelation #12 The little, no-account Church

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This is a gracious word to the humble, faithful believer who feels small; perhaps even illegitimate or worthless. Jesus sees your faithfulness to his word. He sees your endurance. You are honored, legitimate and precious in His eyes. Nothing can prevent you from walking through the door He opens for you.

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Revelation #12. Revelation 3:7-13

The church at Philadelphia was in a situation quite similar to that at Smyrna. It was apparently a small congregation, which had “little strength;” a literal translation is something like “micro-power.” As in Smyrna, the believers in Philadelphia were faithful, and Jesus has no rebuke for them – only praise and approval. Also, like the Smyrnan congregation, the Philadelphian believers were persecuted by the Jewish community, who accused them to the Roman authorities and took great pains to distinguish between the Christians and “real Jews.” In fact, Smyrna and Philadelphia are so similar that I began to ask myself why Jesus would include messages to both of the churches. Surely the message to one is sufficient for the other one too. The answer is, of course, obvious. He spoke the Christians in Philadelphia because he cares about them too. This re-affirms the idea that the Bible is not only a book from which we derive principles (although it does offer us wonderful principles). The Bible is also God’s personal message to individual Christians. Rather than lumping them in with a bigger church, Jesus speaks directly to the believers in Philadelphia, assuring them that he remembers, he sees and he cares. God is not simply a “mass communicator” – he created our individuality, and he cares about us as individuals.

To fully appreciate the promises given to the Christians at Philadelphia, we have to remember their situation. They were a small congregation, and perhaps “I know you have little strength,” (v.8) refers to the fact that they were not influential or well regarded in their city. Christianity was not in any sense a “major religion” in the eyes of the world in A.D. 90. In fact, it was not recognized as a religion at all. The Jews, who were following one of the “recognized religions,” were telling them that they were illegitimate, deriding them as a cult and insisting that they would be cut off by the Holy God of Israel.

From other New Testament passages, we can guess that the Jews in Philadelphia despised the Christian Church for including Gentiles (non-Jews). During New Testament times Jews insisted that Gentiles could not be holy, and even Jews who didn’t follow ceremonial laws would be considered unclean. In present times of course, Christians can simply and confidently disagree, and get on with their lives. But in those days it was a precarious and uncertain step to become a Christian. It had no external legitimacy (except perhaps for the miracles that were performed by the power of the Holy Spirit). No one would say to a Christian, “sure, your religion is valid.” In the eyes of the world, Christianity was a cult.

Jesus therefore begins his message to the church in Philadelphia with a re-affirmation of his (and therefore their) legitimacy: “The words of him who is holy and true, who hold the key of David. (v.7).” Just that sentence alone would have provided a world of comfort to those in Philadelphia. Jesus is trustworthy. The legitimacy of the Christian faith is based in reality – in truth. He is also holy and he imparts that holiness to his followers. They don’t need the false holiness of the Jews, who called them unholy. They are not a cult, and they will not be cut off from the Holy God of Israel. “The key of David” refers to God’s promise to King David that he would make one of David’s descendants a king forever. The Jews were probably posturing that they alone had the key to salvation (following the law in the Jewish tradition) whereas Jesus reminds his followers that He is the key to salvation. He is in fact, the one who was promised – he is the descendant of David whose kingdom shall never end. In essence, Jesus is saying to the Christian in Philadelphia: “you aren’t the ones who have missed out – they are the ones who missed it. You have the true descendant of David.”

Once again (as in Smyrna), Jesus says that the tormentors of the Christians who claim to be real Jews are not. This is a reference to the concept given in Romans 2:29

28For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, and true circumcision is not something visible in the flesh. 29On the contrary, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and circumcision is of the heart — by the Spirit, not the letter. That man’s praise is not from men but from God. (Rom 2:28-29, HCSB)

Jews classified themselves as “Abraham’s seed” (that is, descendants of Abraham). Paul writes:

“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29)

So Jesus is affirming here to the Christians in Philadelphia that they are legitimately the people of God, “real Jews,” if you will, because of their faith in him. The others who do not put their trust in Jesus are not actually true Jews, in the spiritual sense.

Jesus also says he is the one who opens, and no one can shut; he is the one who shuts, and no one can open. I think this probably refers, first and foremost, to salvation. But I think it includes all of the benefits of salvation, also: love, peace, joy, grace, honor. He is saying that no one can keep these faithful believers out of his kingdom. No one can prevent them from receiving what gives. No one can take away their opportunity to receive from Him.

In verse 8, he says specifically: “See I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut (v. 8).” Again, I think he is saying, “Don’t let anyone take away your peace. No one can keep you out. No one can prevent you from receiving from me. No one can call you illegitimate.”

Jesus says he knows that they have “kept” his word. This is what makes them one of only two churches that he does not criticize. They haven’t had the strength to do much else. They are small, no-account. But they’ve kept his word. And so he is keeping a door open for them. This is one reason I am so passionate about learning the Bible, and teaching others to learn it for themselves. The word “kept” means to guard, and to watch over. They have been faithful to keep it by obeying it, and faithful also to guard the word, and keep it from being distorted and misused. Their faithfulness has not resulted in a large powerful church, but they have done what Jesus wanted them to do.

The church at Philadelphia has also kept Jesus’ command to endure. Endurance is one of the major themes of Revelation, and in fact of the entire New Testament. We need to stick with Jesus, stick with His word even when we suffer. We need to hang in there when it is boring, hard, painful, discouraging, or tough in any way. We need to be willing to make difficult choices in favor of Jesus, and His Word. We need to be in it for the long haul. The church at Philadelphia endured in this way, and Jesus praises them for it.

Jesus promises the faithful in Philly that he “will keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come upon the whole world to test those who live on the earth (v.19).” This is the same word, “keep,” that means to guard, or to watch over. Unfortunately, the word “from” is a bit tricky in Greek. It could mean that Jesus will keep them “right through” the trial (in the midst of it) or that he will keep them from undergoing the trial at all. Also, the word “trial,” in my version is the same Greek word used for testing and temptation. It might be that Jesus is saying, “I don’t need to test your faith any further. I don’t need to keep trying to see if it is genuine. I know you have the real thing.

This might be a good place to point out that there is very little, if any, support in the book of Revelation for the idea that Christians will be “raptured” out the world before anything seriously bad happens during the end times. In fact, this very verse (3:10) with its tricky Greek words is about as close as Revelation comes to suggesting such a thing, and it is a promise only to small number of believers, not to all of the Christians to whom Revelation was written. There is much more support, both from this verse and others, for the idea that Jesus will take care of his own who are living on earth during the tumultuous times preceding his return. The sealing of the 144,000 in Revelation 7 seems to be an expression of this idea. In any case, it is clear that while God’s judgment may not touch Christians, ungodly rulers and authorities will continue to persecute and kill them. If this were not so we would have great difficulty explaining the circumstances of Christians who have suffered unspeakably from the time of Jesus until now. The most Biblical theme about suffering is not that God removes it, but rather that he walks through it with us (see Isaiah 43:1-5; Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-4; John 15:18-21; John 16:33).

Jesus is recklessly generous with his promises to the church in Philadelphia. “I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have so that no one will take your crown.” Jesus’ promise to come soon is of course, immensely comforting, and I want us to note that he takes it for granted that these believers already have a “crown.” He tells them to hold on to it, to seize it with both hands. Don’t let anything interfere with it.

He also promises to the over-comer that he/she will be a “pillar in the temple of my God.” Since Revelation actually tells us that there will be no need for a temple in heaven (Revelation 21:22) this has to be figurative language. The “temple” stands for God’s presence with his people. The one who overcomes in this life will never leave the presence of God. God’s name will be written on him/her and also the name of Jesus and of the New Jerusalem. They will belong fully to God.

This is a kind and gracious word to the faithful and humble. You don’t have to be big, you don’t need to be accomplishing great things. The Lord sees your situation. You have limited strength, but you’ve kept His word. No one can keep you out of His kingdom. No one can shut the door he opens for you. He will make those who scorn you right now be humbled before you later.

For application, I want to simply share how all this strikes me. Perhaps that will help you hear what the Spirit is saying to you also.

At this point in my life, I take a great deal of comfort from these verses. In fact, I feel a little bit like the church at Philadelphia. All of our house churches are small, and our ministry organization is small. We have little power. Sometimes, we even look illegitimate. Lately, my health struggles have made my world even smaller. Sometimes, I feel weak. But we have kept God’s word. We have been faithful to it as best as we are able. That has not resulted in growth or increasing power. Here’s a paraphrase of what I hear the Lord saying to me, and to our little churches:

“I know your situation. I know are considered small, weak and of no account. But you have done what is most important: you’ve held on to my Word, and not compromised it. You’ve guarded it from being undermined. You have also kept my command to endure, and I’m proud of you. The world doesn’t regard you, but I do. The world doesn’t know if you are legitimate, but in my eyes, you are. I call you legitimate. Your faith is the real thing. You may be weak, but I have opened a door for you – you don’t have to open it, or hold it open, yourself. Nothing, and no one, can prevent you from receiving what I give you. No one keep you out of my kingdom, out of my grace and love. You will be a pillar that supports my kingdom. I call you mine. I will always be with you.”

PREPARING FOR THE END OF THE WORLD

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Advent Week 3 (sermon #2). Matthew 24:36-44

As you are probably aware, there are only seventeen shopping days left until Christmas. This is the season when we remember how God selflessly surrendered the powers of his divinity and came to us as a helpless human baby. We typically commemorate this by generously cursing the people who steal our parking places at the mall, and mediating peacefully on new credit card debt while we drift off to sleep.

Of course, there is something else we can do as the days lead up toward Christmas. We can spend the time and energy in expectation. We can focus on the coming of some really cool Christmas presents! Ha Ha! Just a little pastoral humor for you there. Actually, while the time leading up to Christmas can be a wonderful time of remembrance and focusing on Jesus’ birth, it is also a time that can help us think about Jesus’ next physical visit to our world – his triumphant return. In fact, that is the traditional purpose of the church season of Advent, which we are now in.

As we read in the Bible about the things that led up to the birth of Jesus, it becomes obvious that the people living at the time did not know exactly what was coming, but all the signs and prophecies pointed to this: God was going to act in History. Mary, Joseph, Zechariah, Elizabeth, John the Baptist, Anna and Simeon – all experienced things and remembered prophecies that encouraged them to get ready for the Lord to come to his people. None of them understood completely how it was all going to play out, but they believed and they acted in obedience and prepared for the Lord’s arrival.

Now, where are we today? Jesus has already come as a baby. He grew up. He sacrificed his innocent life for us. And he was raised from the dead, and left our world physically. It’s wonderful to remember that. It helps our faith. I also want to encourage us to also do what those faithful believers did before that all happened – to prepare for the coming of Jesus. In our case it is not his coming as a baby, but rather his coming into our lives personally, and of course, his triumphant return to earth. To help us do that I want to look at some things Jesus said before he left us. Please read Matthew 24:36-44 in your Bible.

This teaching of Jesus occurred during the week before he was crucified. Just prior to saying this, Jesus said that it will be possible to notice and consider “the signs of the times” that indicate his return is near. His next statement is this: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” Now, I have met people who like to describe in detail what everything will be like just prior to the ending of world. I’ve met others who feel that they can guess with some degree of accuracy when it will come. I think, if we consider carefully what Jesus is saying here about his return, we will realize two things:

1. It is possible to recognize the “season” just prior to Jesus’ triumphant physical return to earth.

2. It is not possible to accurately predict specific details about the future, just prior to the return of Jesus, nor the exact time it will happen. Even Jesus himself did not know, prior to his leaving our world.

I think the Lord has set things up like this because he wants his followers to live in a state of continual expectation of his return. Look at this way: if we knew that Jesus would come back exactly at 9:00AM on November 2, 2027, I think we would all relax a bit and say, “well, I don’t have to bother about that for quite a while yet.” Let’s face it – some of us wouldn’t start to get ready for his return until 8:15 that morning. But if we look at this little passage, we can see that the point Jesus is making is that we should always be ready. The fact is this: it could be any day now. It could be today.

Jesus indicates that the season of his return can be recognized. Are we in that season? I think so. I recognize, however, that the apostle Paul thought so too. Fifteen hundred years later, and 500 years before now, Martin Luther thought he was living close to the end times. This doesn’t discourage me in the least, because I believe Jesus wants every generation of his followers to live as though his return is imminent. Some of the things that indicate to me that the season of Jesus return might be near are these: the formation of the Jewish nation in 1947; The dramatic increase in the number of lives lost through war in the twentieth century; the incredible spread of immorality and godlessness in the world. I think huge natural disasters like the tsunami a few years ago are also significant.

But even if I am mistaken in one sense, consider this. It is entirely accurate to say that, for all intents and purposes, Jesus will return by the end of my lifetime. When you die, it has virtually same effect, for you, as if it was the end of time, and Jesus has returned. At the time of your death you will meet Jesus face to face. Your existence on the old earth will have ended for you. If you think this old world will keep spinning in space for another 4 billion years, fine. But you won’t be on it for much longer, all things considered. It is not given to us to know when we die. I may get in a car wreck next week, and for me, Jesus has returned. So you also must be ready, because “the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Jesus says it will be like the days of Noah. Virtually every culture that keeps any sort of history, has a historical tradition that includes a story very much like Noah and the ark. The Samburu people, living in the near-desert of Northern Kenya have a flood story. The people of India have one too, as do those in Indonesia, and around the world. There is debate about whether the flood was worldwide or local, but the historical and genetic evidence is that all people on earth are descended from one family, a family which apparently survived a great flood. The people in the days of Noah were warned about the flood. It didn’t seem to them like anything would ever change. Noah took 300 years to build the boat, and probably even he wondered if it would really come. But one day it did, and it destroyed everyone but the family that believed and prepared for it.

The return of Jesus may seem like it is a long way off. It may seem like things will never change. But those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.

So how can we be ready? How do we “keep watch” as Jesus said? First, we need to receive and welcome Jesus as he comes to us right now. Consider Hebrews 3:7: “So as the Holy Spirit says, Today if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion” 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 adds this thought: “As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.”

Jesus’ coming happened yes, at Bethlehem when he was born as a baby. And yes, He will come again in Judgment. But right now, He comes to us every day. He comes to us to spend time with us. Maybe that is time in prayer and meditating on the scriptures, or time going for walk and talking to him as well as listening to him. He comes to us, wanting to bless other people through us. Are you receiving him today? Maybe you’ve never received him into your life at all before. If not, please pray a simple prayer, something like this: Lord Jesus, I want to receive you in my life. I need your forgiveness and love and grace. Please come now and take over my heart and my will, and live your life through me. Thank you for hearing and responding. AMEN.

There’s really no point in getting all excited about the return of Jesus if we aren’t interested in the ways he comes to us right now. But if we have received in him into our lives, I think, as I said earlier, he would like us to live each day in expectation of his return. How would you live today if you knew, absolutely for sure, that Jesus was coming back at 11:00PM tonight. Would you express your love to your friends and family? Who would you spend time with? What would you say to people? How would you spend your time on the last day in history? Now, why can’t you do some of that every day, no matter how many or few days you have left? Why can’t you regularly tell people about Jesus? Why can’t you always affirm your loved ones and express your love for them? Why can’t you just avoid sin, just for today? Why can’t you fully surrender to Jesus every day?

It’s not a gimmick – Jesus really is going to back, whether we are ready or not. Instead, it’s grace – he’s told us he is. He wants to live his life through us, in the expectation of what he will do when he comes back. Will you let him?

WHEN JESUS OFFENDS YOU

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Sooner or later, Jesus will behave in a way that could offend us. Sooner or later he will allow something to happen that we think he should not have allowed, or he will fail to do something that we think he should have done. Our thinking will not appear unreasonable to us; it may not appear unreasonable to anyone. And yet, Jesus won’t conform to it. What do we do when that happens?

 

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Matthew #36 . Matthew 11:1-6

When Jesus had finished giving orders to His 12 disciples, He moved on from there to teach and preach in their towns. When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent a message by his disciples and asked Him, “Are You the One who is to come, or should we expect someone else? ” Jesus replied to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. And if anyone is not offended because of Me, he is blessed.” (Matt 11:1-6, HCSB)

I believe that one of the first two or three sermons I ever preached was on this text. I really wish I could remember what I said, because I’m sure it was brilliant. Actually, of course what we do here is always to try and listen for what the Holy Spirit has to say to us through the text right now. So perhaps it would be a bad idea to simply go back to something I said 20 years ago.

Let’s get a little background here. As we know, John the Baptist started preaching before Jesus began his public ministry. We saw already in the book of Matthew, that John (the Baptist) believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and pointing people to Jesus was John’s major mission. In addition, we learned that Jesus’ mother and John’s mother were cousins, and while they were both pregnant they spent some time together. At that time, John, still unborn, leaped in his mother’s womb at the approach of Mary when she was with pregnant Jesus. So these two have a long history together.

There is evidence that after Jesus came upon the scene, many of John’s followers left him to follow Jesus. Apparently John felt that this was good and right and appropriate. The apostle John (a different individual) records that some of the Baptist’s remaining disciples complained about those who left John for Jesus. But John the Baptist responded like this:

“No one can receive a single thing unless it’s given to him from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:27-31, HCSB)

John viewed Jesus as the bridegroom, the man of the hour, and himself as the best man. This was absolutely correct and good. But no one, not even John, knew before-hand quite what Jesus’ mission on earth was really supposed to look like. As Jesus’ ministry unfolded, circumstances caused John the Baptist to wonder.

What happened was this. Sometime after Jesus began his public ministry, John the Baptist, being the outspoken person he was, criticized Herod Antipas, who, under the Romans, was ruler of Galilee (this was the son of Herod the Great, who had tried to have the Messiah killed as a baby). He chastised him for taking his brother’s wife, Herodias, as his own wife. Herod might have put up with this, but Herodias did not, and John was thrown in prison (Matt 14:3).

John, like most Jews of his time, probably had the idea that the Messiah was going to liberate the people of Israel from foreign oppressors like Herod and the Romans. He went into prison believing that the Messiah was his cousin, Jesus. This is just a guess on my part, but I think it’s a pretty reasonable one: I believe that John expected Jesus to liberate him during the course of his messianic campaign. So John went to prison thinking: All I have to do is wait and when Jesus starts the war to drive out the Romans and the Idumeans, he’ll free me from prison, and I’ll join him in the victorious campaign.

Even if John was not caught up in that sort of thinking about the Messiah, he still probably thought: the Messiah is my cousin. I’ve served him and his cause faithfully. Surely he will not let me rot in prison. After all, that’s reasonable. Friends don’t let friends die in prison, if they have the power to prevent it.

At least, that’s what we think.

So after John had been in the dungeon for a while, it was natural for him to become a little bit impatient. After a little while longer, it is clear that he began to wonder if he had been wrong about Jesus being the Messiah; that is, in fact, the reason he sent people to Jesus as recorded in this text.

Now, I want us to observe something very significant. What caused John to wonder? Think about it. John had a deep knowledge of the Old Testament, and his preaching about the coming of the Messiah was based upon those Scriptures. But those Scriptures had not changed since John was put into prison. John also knew Jesus personally, and Jesus was still the same person that John had known since before he was born, the same person, in fact, whom John had pointed out to others and said “There is the Messiah. He’s the one I’ve been talking about.” So John’s knowledge had not changed, and the Scriptures had not changed, and Jesus had not changed. What caused John to wonder was that his own circumstances had changed, and Jesus had done nothing about it.

This is tremendously important. Jesus was not meeting John’s expectations. He was not behaving the way John thought he ought to behave. As crass as this sounds, the truth is that Jesus was not doing what John wanted him to do, and that caused him to doubt Jesus.

I have met many, many people who have the same struggle as John. For years, I’ve eagerly looked forward to the day I could meet with someone who was an atheist for purely intellectual reasons. In my imagination, when I met such a person, we would have an engaging, far-reaching, stimulating discussion. It would end with the atheist realizing for the first time that his arguments are in fact illogical and not founded on the truth. With the intellectual obstacles removed, the atheist would become a person of faith.

But the truth is, everyone I’ve ever met who claims to have an intellectual objection to Christianity, in fact rejects faith in Jesus because God has disappointed them personally in some way. It never fails. It sounds noble to have intellectual objections to faith. But the truth is that people reject God because at some level he did not behave according to their expectations, or do what they wanted him to do. At times, I’ve had the same struggle myself.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that what John the Baptist wanted Jesus to do was trivial. It was no trivial thing to be put in prison in first century Galilee. The prisons were generally damp and unsanitary, filled with rats and disease. Nutrition was poor, fights and abuse by guards were frequent. Many people died simply from being in these conditions for long period of time. John had no standing, no patron to plead his case with Herod. His prospects were incredibly grim. It wasn’t unreasonable for him to want Jesus to rescue him. What could be more natural than to expect the Messiah to rescue his own cousin, the same man who had proclaimed him to be the Messiah to many people?

Many of the things that we want God to do for us are not unreasonable either: to save the life of a child, to heal a parent, to restore a marriage, to prevent something that any reasonable human being would call a tragedy.

But we find, like John, that sometimes Jesus simply doesn’t do it.

This fact made John wonder, perhaps it even caused him to doubt. At least John did the right thing with his doubts: he was honest about them, and he took them to Jesus.

Jesus did not chastise him for having doubts. He said this:

Jesus replied to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, those with skin diseases are healed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor are told the good news. (Matt 11:4-5, HCSB)

This little statement from Jesus makes reference to no fewer than five messianic prophecies from the Old Testament (Job 29:15; Isaiah 26:19, 29:18, 35, 61:1-2). In essence, Jesus’ reply is this: “You want to know if I’m the Messiah? I am fulfilling the messianic prophecies about healing the blind, healing the lame, cleansing those with leprosy, healing and death, raising the dead, and proclaiming the good news to the poor.”

To say it even more plainly, Jesus was telling John to remember and rely upon the scriptures. He was reminding him what the Old Testament said about the Messiah, urging him to compare it to Jesus himself, and then to trust.

Jesus then adds this comment: “and blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me,” (my translation). I think Jesus is cutting to the very heart of the matter. He knows that we are sometimes offended or scandalized by the fact that he does not conform to our expectations. Again, in John’s case it wasn’t about social or religious expectations; it was about a personal desire that was entirely good and appropriate, which Jesus chose not to fulfill. In a way, he is saying, “I know you don’t understand, John. But you will be blessed if you don’t let your lack of understanding cause you to be offended by me.”

But Jesus is not only talking to John. His words are for all of us. Sooner or later, Jesus will behave in a way that could offend us. Sooner or later he will allow something to happen that we think he should not have allowed, or he will fail to do something that we think he should have done. Our thinking will not appear unreasonable to us; it may not appear unreasonable to anyone. And yet, Jesus won’t conform to it.

Like John, the best thing to do, the only thing to do, is to bring our doubts and wonderings to Jesus himself. We can be honest with him. He did not rebuke John for doubting, or for his honesty. His answer to John is also for us: Look to the Bible, it is the most reliable witness to whom Jesus is. The Bible has not changed. Jesus has not changed. The only thing that has changed is our circumstance, and that is not a reliable guide to truth. There are hundreds of reasons to believe that Jesus Christ is the same person we read about in the pages of the Bible. There are hundreds of reasons to believe that the Bible is reliable and can be trusted (By the way, if you are not sure about that, I encourage you to go through my 10 part sermon series entitled, “Understanding the Bible.” The first sermon can be found here, and you can go on sequentially from that). We know from all this that Jesus is real, and that he loves us. We know also, that this life is not all there is, and there are many reasons for things that we will never be able to comprehend. Sometimes, we can only see part of the picture, and the rest of the explanation can only be understood in the light of eternity.

And Jesus says to us, “You are blessed when you’re not offended by me.” We are blessed when we allow Jesus to be who he is, even when it doesn’t conform to our own expectations of him. We are blessed when we trust him, in spite of our circumstances.

John never did get out of prison. But Jesus says, later in this text, that while he is alive, John is not as well off the very least individual who is already in the kingdom of heaven. There is a plan. There is an answer. It is just that sometimes the plan and answer extend into the next life, where we cannot see right now. Ultimately, in the light of eterinity, John was better off more quickly because he was not released from prison.

With John, will you hear the words of Jesus now? Will you trust him? Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

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WHEN TRADITION HURTS FAITH

traditions

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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

GALATIANS #11 . Chapter #4:8-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DADDY TIME!

daddy&baby

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

 

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 10

 

 

 

Galatians #10 . Chapter 4:1-7

1 Now I say that as long as the heir is a child, he differs in no way from a * slave, though he is the owner of everything. 2 Instead, he is under guardians and stewards until the time set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were in slavery under the elemental forces1 of the world. 4 When the time came to completion, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to * redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our2 hearts, crying, “* Abba, Father! ” 7 So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God

The last thing we looked at was how Paul describes the law as a Chaperone, or Guardian. This is a continuation of that thought. He says that the heir lives as a slave until he comes into inheritance at the time set by the father. The heir is not free when he is a child – he needs to obey the guardians and stewards in his life.

So, Paul points out that even the chosen people of God (the Jews) were “slaves” in a sense – slaves to the guardian, the Law. We too, before coming into the full inheritance of Jesus Christ, were slaves. We were slaves to the “elementary forces” of the world. The Greek word is “stoikeon” (stoiceion, if anyone cares). Essentially it means “basic, sequential principles.” You might say it is the idea of “one thing leads to another.”

Here is an example of stoikeos in action. You bend down to pick something up off the floor in the kitchen. Next, someone opens a drawer above you. Then, you straighten up and hit your head. Finally, your head hurts. Next time you are there when a friend or family member bangs her head, and exclaims that it hurts, say, “that’s just stoikeos in action.” She’ll appreciate it greatly.

If you take two things and add two more things, you have four things. That’s stoikeon. You might even call it natural law. Here’s another example of a stoikeon: If you sin, the presence of God is so holy that it will destroy you. Sin separates you from God. The spiritual side of stoikeos, is that you get what you deserve. You earn God’s favor and blessing, or his wrath. That’s the natural state of things. It is similar to the idea of karma – you get what you deserve. Your actions lead to either things that are good for yourself, or bad for you.

That is how the law works. If you do the right thing, you get the good thing. If you do the wrong thing, you get the bad thing. Remember, the law isn’t bad. It isn’t wrong or inaccurate. It just isn’t possible for us. Because of that, this arrangement really didn’t work out for us.

Paul has been telling us that there is a new arrangement. The law can’t be eliminated. But we can’t do it. So Jesus did it on our behalf. And he took on himself, our consequences for failing to do it. The law is now satisfied, not broken. And we can move on, in the presence of God, without being destroyed.

Now, I don’t mean to say that now we should sin all we want to. I have talked about this in every message for the past several weeks. We admit we cannot do it; we believe that Jesus can and will do it for us, and we trust him to do it in us and through us.

But a lot of believers are mistaken about how things work now. We think, “OK, Jesus saved us from being destroyed by God’s presence. Now, I am in relationship with God. If I take care of his stuff, he’ll take care of mine.” This is a trap. We think that if we are good little boys and girls, then God will reward us with candy: that is, earthly blessings. Then, when that doesn’t work out the way we think it should, we get angry and upset and disappointed with God. We did our part, why didn’t God do his part? Or, maybe we didn’t do our part, because we didn’t hear from him what we were supposed to do. Why didn’t he make it more clear?

We do not live in relationship of karma. We don’t have the kind of relationship with God where if we do something for him, he does something for us. Instead, God says, “That won’t work, because you can’t do anything that is worthwhile to me. How about instead, I treat you as my children, my heirs? I will do for you what I know is best for your eternal self, and you just keep trusting that what I am doing is good, and good for you.”

We sometimes say, “I don’t care about my ‘eternal self,’ I just want to feel good now.” I understand that attitude. I’ve had it at many points in my life, and I won’t say I’ll never have it again. But it is not a mature attitude. It isn’t wise, or even smart. We see this in three year olds, who think they want many things that will not actually make them happy. Three-year-olds aren’t mature enough to distinguish what is truly best for them, so wise, loving parents do not always give them what they want.

Now, I am not saying that there is no order in the universe. Often times, one thing really does lead to another. If you manage your money wisely, it is likely that you will have enough. If you spend your money frivolously and without thought, you might end up short. Even morally, there is order. Wrong-doing tends to lead to bad results. Avoiding sins like drunkenness and promiscuity and dishonesty often leads to a better life here and now than engaging in those things. That’s because that is how the universe works – God made it that way.

But we don’t have a quid-pro-quo relationship with God. It isn’t “I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine.” It is, this: “Lord, I owe you everything and I can’t repay it. I trust you. I’m in your hands.”

Jesus was born under the law, as we are. He was born of a woman – that is, in addition to being Divine, he was also human, like us. Because of that, he could fulfill the law. The result is our adoption as sons.

I pointed this out last time, but it bears repeating. We are all sons. Not that we are all male-children, but that we are all the legitimate inheritors of God’s family name, the legitimate inheritors of his riches and grace. Through Jesus Christ, we truly belong to God, and belong in his family.

Paul adds this:

And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father! ” (Gal 4:6, HCSB)

“Abba” is basically the Aramaic word for “Daddy.” Through Jesus, we are such legitimate, dearly loved children, that we can call God “Daddy.” Paul writes something very similar in Romans chapter 8:

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father! ” The Spirit Himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, (Rom 8:15-16, HCSB)

I am fortunate in that my earthly, physical, father has always been an overwhelmingly positive influence in my life. But I know many people who do not have a positive view of fathers, because their own dad was distant, or troubled, or even abusive. Some people respond to this by saying we should not talk about God as a Father, because that is negative for a lot of folks. Nobody has a perfect dad – not even my kids. So, for some, the picture of God as a father may at first be negative or scary or distant. But the point is, God is a perfect father. He loves us perfectly. He cares for us more than any earthly father is capable of. What your earthly father lacked, God does not lack. What your earthly father did wrong, God does not do. The love, attention and affection you may have craved and never received from your earthly dad, is available to you now, in your heavenly Daddy.

Take a moment to Listen to the Father’s heart:

“But now, this is what the Lord says – he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you O Israel: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine…

Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life. Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth – everyone who is called by my name…” (Isaiah 43:1,4-7)

This is God’s attitude toward us – his children. He calls us his sons and daughters and he says we are precious and honored in his sight. He says we are his. He loves us and is willing to make huge sacrifices for us. He is on your side. You can feel safe when you talk with him.

I took a break from writing this to pick out the songs for the service this week. I realize we don’t have many songs written specifically to God the Father. We praise the Lord and we worship God. We praise Jesus quite frequently. There are a few songs that praise God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but very few indeed that invite us to worship and praise the Father in his Fatherhood. Even the old hymns don’t have a lot of this.

But this is a tremendous gift.

Jesus once told the parable of the prodigal’s son. When the younger, irresponsible brother returned, the Father embraced him, loved on him, and threw him a party. But the older brother was not pleased.

But he replied to his father, ‘Look, I have been slaving many years for you, and I have never disobeyed your orders, yet you never gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your assets with prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ “ ‘Son,’ he said to him, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. (Luke 15:29-31, HCSB)

The tragedy is this: The older brother had been living like a slave, when he was truly a son. So Paul says to us in verse seven:

So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God

You are no longer a slave, but a son. Again, not necessarily, a male, but the bearer of God’s family name, a dearly beloved child who can walk into the Father’s presence and say, “Hi, Daddy!” Your position as a dear child is not based upon your performance. It is based upon the performance of Jesus.

You don’t have to live like a slave. All that the Father has is yours, in Jesus.

LIFE

resurrection2

Heaven starts now. Our spirit-life with Jesus, our eternal, indestructible-life, starts when we trust him. It doesn’t start in our circumstances, or our material-life or even our soul-life. It starts in the new and holy spirit that we receive when we trust Jesus.

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EASTER 2013

Let’s talk about life.

Easter – Resurrection Sunday – is the day Christians celebrate life, more than any other. It hasn’t become as commercialized as Christmas. But then, it doesn’t seem to excite us as much, either. Why is that? Why do we celebrate a resurrection with chocolate, ham and a ho-hum attitude?

I suspect it is a symptom of three main things. First, sometimes, I wonder if we really understand the resurrection and what it means. Second, some people may not really believe it, not in a way that makes any real difference for life. Third, I think a lot of time, we are focused on the wrong kind of life, so the resurrection life doesn’t excite us that much.

I usually preach on the first two topics I just mentioned, on Resurrection Sunday each year. So this year, I thought I’d take a look at the third.

The New Testament uses three main words for “life.” The first one I want to talk about is the Greek word “bios.” This isn’t actually used that often in the New Testament, but the concept is important for people in Western culture today. Bios could be translated, “stuff of life,” or “physical things of life.” In the bible, this word is almost always used in the context of correcting people who are too focused on material livelihood. For instance:

As for the seed that fell among thorns, these are the ones who, when they have heard, go on their way and are choked with worries, riches, and pleasures of bios, and produce no mature fruit. (Luke 8:14, HCSB)

“Be on your guard, so that your minds are not dulled from carousing, drunkenness, and worries of bios, or that day will come on you unexpectedly like a trap. For it will come on all who live on the face of the whole earth. (Luke 21:34-35, HCSB)

Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For everything that belongs to the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s bios — is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever. (1John 2:15-17, HCSB)

Bios is about life in the here and now. It is about paying bills and owning houses and eating and drinking. Paul chided the Corinthians for engaging in lawsuits about bios. It is part of life, of course. We have to deal with bios to some extent, but it is not the essence of life. Mostly, it distracts us from the real thing. The consistent message of scripture is that bios-life is temporary, and it is spiritually dangerous to become too focused on it.

One of the most commonly used words for life in the New Testament is “psuche.” This is where we get our English word, “psyche.” Your psuche represents your personhood, including your personality and your existence as a unique individual. It is more than just physical existence. You might say it is your soul-life (and indeed, the New Testament often translates the word as “soul”).

Then He said to His disciples: “Therefore I tell you, don’t worry about your psuche, what you will eat; or about the body, what you will wear. For psuche is more than food and the body more than clothing. (Luke 12:22-23, HCSB)

So it is written: The first man Adam became a living psuche; the last Adam became a life-giving Spirit. (1Cor 15:45, HCSB)

Jesus came to earth as a psuche – a living, soul-man. All human beings have that kind of life. And while he was here, he had to deal with bios, just as we do. But Jesus had within him something more than psuche, more than bios. He had eternal indestructible, spirit-life. The Greek word for this kind of life is zoe (pronounced “dz-oh-ay”).

For just as the Father has zoe in Himself, so also He has granted to the Son to have zoe in Himself (John 5:26).

Zoe was in Him, and that zoe was the light of men. (John 1:4, HCSB)

Jesus came to earth to make possible a different kind of life. He didn’t come primarily to make bios-life easier for us to get. He did not even come to give us psuche-life. He came to give us eternal life. Jesus said,

A thief comes only to steal and to kill and to destroy. I have come so that they may have zoe and have it in abundance. (John 10:10, HCSB)

Jesus didn’t come to give us abundant bios, or even psuche. He came first and foremost so that we could have zoe, spirit-life. In fact, he taught that you had to give up psuche to get zoe:

The one who loves his psuche will lose it, and the one who hates his psuche in this world will keep it for zoe. (John 12:25, HCSB)

Jesus himself came to die, to give up his psuche so that we could all have zoe:

just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His psuche — a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:28, HCSB)

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his psuche for the sheep. (John 10:11, HCSB)

This is why the Father loves Me, because I am laying down My psuche so I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down on My own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. I have received this command from My Father.” (John 10:17-18, HCSB)

One reason we don’t get excited about resurrection is because we aren’t excited about zoe-life. We already have bios-life. We already have psuche-life. Too often, all we really want is for God to make that kind of life better and easier for us. If it doesn’t immediately help us deal with bills and rebellious children and difficult work situations, we aren’t that interested. Or maybe, we get beyond that, and what we want is personal fulfillment or happiness right here, right now. But we’re still looking at psuche, not zoe.

The other thing, is that we tend to think that zoe-life is just like psuche-life and bios-life, only longer, and with less hassle. Frankly, if that’s the case, I’d say, why not just give me less hassle right now? And so, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot to get excited about. We think it’s just more of the same, only easier.

It’s like we think a piece of painted plastic jewelry is prettier than the tarnished silver ring, at least for now. We want God to improve the tents we live in at the edge of the garbage dump, while we remain barely interested in the Spirit’s description of a permanent log-home set on a lake in the mountains.

I’ve heard people say something much like this: “Oh, I’ll enjoy heaven when I get there. But for now, I want to enjoy earth.”

But our spirit-life with Jesus, our eternal, indestructible-life, starts when we trust him. Heaven starts now. It doesn’t start in our circumstances, or our bios-life or even our psuche life. It starts in the new and holy spirit that we receive when we trust Jesus.That zoe-life can begin to grow and shape your soul-life and your material-life. And we can’t really get it, as Jesus points out, until we are willing to let go of our psuche life:

Remember Lot’s wife! Whoever tries to make his psuche secure will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. (Luke 17:32-33, HCSB)

Imagine you found out that in a foreign country, you are descended from the Royal Family. The Monarchy still exists and rules in that country. The king and all the people have told you that you will be welcomed there as princes and princesses. You are to travel there soon. But before you do, in the meantime, the king wants you to do some things for him where you are.

Think about this. Would you learn the language of the country where you are a princess? Would you familiarize yourself with the customs of the place where you are a prince? Would you be interested to know the geography and culture? Would you correspond with anyone there, or call them on the phone? Would you be interested to know what it’s like there? Could you get excited about being a member of the royal family? Would you be more interested in improving your life in the garbage heap, or in preparing for your life as a royal?

Too many Christians could care less. It is as if they are saying, “I won’t care about that stupid old place until I get there. Who needs to know the language? They’ll teach me when I get there, I expect. Who cares what the place is like? I don’t have time for anyone else in my life right now. Let them wait until I get there. Time enough to learn all about it then. Right now, what I really need is a bigger tent that is a little farther away from the smelly part of the garbage dump.”

What does zoe-life mean right now?

First, it means that your circumstances, whatever they may be, are not the most important thing. Sometimes you have to deal with things, for sure, but what you are going through is temporary. It is weak in power, compared to zoe-life. So Paul, who was beaten by mobs, arrested, threatened, attacked by bandits and wild animals, shipwrecked, snake-bitten can say:

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. (Rom 8:18, HCSB)

Paul didn’t just have a good attitude. He was drawing upon the zoe-life of Jesus in himself. He also wrote:

We are pressured in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair; we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed. We always carry the death of Jesus in our body, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. (2Cor 4:8-11, HCSB)

The “life” of Jesus, is of course, the “zoe” of Jesus, in Greek.

I used to scuba dive. I learned that at thirty-three feet under water, the pressure upon you doubles. At thirty-three feet, everything is under twice as much pressure – weight – pushing on it from all sides, as at the surface. At 66 feet, the pressure is three times as great as it is at the surface. It continues on like this. Several hundred feet below the water, the pressure is so great that even if a human being could breathe, she would be killed. The pressure would compress her body like a steam-roller.

Now, picture a paper-cup, the kind of thing you might get take-out coffee in. You can turn that cup upside down and push it under water so that there is a pocket of air inside. If you maintain the size of that air pocket, and also maintain the pressure of the air in the cup, you could take that flimsy paper cup all the way down to the bottom of the deepest part of the ocean, and the pressure would not crush it. The material of the cup doesn’t matter. What matters is the strength of what is inside the cup.

If we let it, the zoe life of Jesus inside of us can be stronger than anything we encounter in bios-life or psuche-life. Jesus said it could become a well of fresh water, flowing from inside us. It is a quality of life that depends upon the strength, grace and joy of God, rather than anything in us, or in this mortal world.

Zoe-life is now is a down-payment of the full zoe-life that we will have later. The New Testament tells us that our bodies will be changed. Paul says, along with Jesus, that our psuche and bios life dies so that we can be raised in complete zoe life.

What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what you sow — you are not sowing the future body, but only a seed, perhaps of wheat or another grain. (1Cor 15:36-37, HCSB)

Jesus, in his zoe-life after the resurrection had a physical body. He was able to enjoy the pleasures of food. He was recognizable to those who had known him before He had pusche-life again – in other words, he was still Jesus, the person his disciples had known. But his body was immortal. He could pass from place to place instantly. Locked doors were not a barrier to him. Let me close with a few more words from the bible about what our zoe-life will eventually be like:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea no longer existed. I also saw the Holy City, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. Then I heard a loud voice from the throne: Look! God’s dwelling is with humanity, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will no longer exist; grief, crying, and pain will exist no longer, because the previous things have passed away. Then the One seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new.” He also said, “Write, because these words are faithful and true.” And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give water as a gift to the thirsty from the spring of life. (Rev 21:1-6, HCSB)

Then he showed me the river of living water, sparkling like crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the broad street of the city. The tree of life was on both sides of the river, bearing 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, and there will no longer be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and His slaves will serve Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. Night will no longer exist, and people will not need lamplight or sunlight, because the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever. Then he said to me, “These words are faithful and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent His angel to show His slaves what must quickly take place.” “Look, I am coming quickly! The one who keeps the prophetic words of this book is blessed.” (Rev 22:1-7, HCSB)