1 Peter #1: A LETTER FOR HARD TIMES

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This time we look at the history and setting surrounding the New Testament book of 1 Peter.

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 1 Peter Part 1

1 Peter #1. Introduction

We are starting a new series, today, on the first letter of Peter. I am not utterly against doing topical sermon series’, but I’d like to encourage you to think a little differently about that. As we look at First Peter, the text will introduce a number of different topics. When we do things like that, then I am not deciding which topics to preach about. Instead, the text of the Bible tells us which topics to consider. So, this is a topical series, in a sense. It is just that the bible itself will determine the topics.

Peter wrote only two letters that have survived. We will be looking at the first of these. I’ll take this opportunity to give a reminder about how the New Testament came to be. In addition to the New Testament, we have some of the writings of Christians who lived immediately after the time of the apostles, as well as writings of later Christians, down through the centuries. All of the books of the New Testament are mentioned, referenced and/or quoted from the time of the very earliest writings of Christians. So, for example, the first generation of Christians after the apostles mention 1 Peter, and quote from it. Of course, later generations do as well.

About two hundred and fifty years after the time of the apostles, when Christianity became legal in the Roman empire, a large body of leaders, representing most Christians in the world at that time, gathered together. Among other things, they compared notes about which writings were clearly from the apostles (or others who knew Jesus, like Luke and Mark). To be included in the “canon” (later called the Bible) a document had to have evidence that it was considered genuine since that first generation of Christians, as evidenced by early Christian writings. In addition, it had to be recognized by virtually all Christians in the world at that time as having been used by churches for the previous two-hundred and fifty years. So, if a book was only used, for example, in Alexandria, Egypt, but nowhere else in the world, it would not have been considered a true part of the New Testament. Or, if one group claimed a book was written by an apostle, but no other Christian traditions had a record of it, it was not included.

It is quite clear that very early on, all Christians were aware of 1 Peter, and considered it to be genuine, and were using it to encourage one another in following Jesus. In other words, it is a genuine part of the New Testament, as are all of the books in our modern Bibles.

As is true of many of the books of the New Testament, we have a very good idea of exactly when and where Peter wrote this letter. At the end of the letter, at 5:13, Peter writes:

13 She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. (1 Peter 5:13, ESV)

“Babylon,” is almost certainly a code-name for Rome. Well before the birth of Jesus, the literal Babylon in Mesopotamia was in ruins. The majority of those living within its ancient walls were goats and their herders. There is no evidence that Peter or Mark ever went there, and there would be no reason for them to do so, seeing as there were almost no people remaining there. However, in the Roman Empire, persecution was beginning to become more and more of a reality, as the words of this letter will show us. Probably less than a year after Peter wrote, the Emperor Nero instigated a vicious persecution against Christians in Rome, in which Peter himself was killed. I’m sure Peter could tell that things were getting more and more dangerous. If his letter was intercepted by the government, it would have been disastrous if he explicitly mentioned a Christian church in Rome. So, Peter uses the word “Babylon,” which Christians would have understood to mean “a great city that is opposed to the people of God;” or, in other words: Rome. “She, who is likewise chosen” means, of course, the church. So, to make it plain, Peter means: “The church in Rome sends you greetings.” In keeping with the dangerous times, he mentions only two personal names, Mark, and Silvanus. To name others would be too risky.

Mark is also known as John-Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, and sometime companion of Paul. Most scholars believe that he spent several years also with the apostle Peter. He wrote the gospel of Mark.

Mark would have been quite young when Jesus was crucified – possibly a teenager – but he was probably one of those in the larger group of Jesus’ followers; some people think he was the young man who ran away naked at the garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:51-52).  In any case, one of the house churches in Jerusalem met at his mother’s home (Acts 12:12), and he would have known Peter for most of his life. Much of Mark’s gospel is likely based upon the stories and teachings of Jesus that Mark learned from Peter.

I mention Mark, because his presence with Peter in Rome helps us set the date for 1 Peter. Mark was in Rome with Paul when Paul wrote Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon. If Peter had been there then, Paul surely would have mentioned it. So Peter cannot have been in Rome, nor written his letter before Paul wrote those letters, which would have been AD 62 at the latest. I would guess that Paul left Rome in 62, traveled in Asia minor, and then returned to Rome, probably at about the same time Peter arrived there, either late AD 63 or early in 64. After a brief reunion, Paul traveled on to Spain, while Peter stayed in Rome, along with Mark and Silvanus (also called Silas). Peter wrote his first letter after Paul left, or he, for his part, surely would have mentioned Paul’s presence with him. A few months later, Peter wrote his second letter.

In any case, we know that in July of 64, the city of Rome burned, and the emperor Nero used that as an excuse to start a horrifying persecution of Christians. He blamed Christians for the fire, and it is possible that he executed some Christians by burning them alive in his palace gardens as human torches. Whether or not that last is true, he most certainly sought to kill Christians and destroy the church. At some point during Nero’s persecution, Peter was found and executed. Tradition has it that he was crucified upside down, though I have my doubts about how that actually works. There is no doubt, however, that Peter perished in Nero’s persecution. Many people think that Paul returned to Rome during this time, and was also killed by Nero.

Peter addresses his letter to Christians in a number of different Roman provinces (Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia). All of these are found in modern-day Turkey, and cover the northern three-quarters of that country. Some commentators think that Peter was writing mainly to Jewish Christians, but the text of the letter makes it clear that he was writing to both Jewish and non-Jewish (Gentile) Christians. In fact, it is likely that the Gentile believers outnumbered the Jewish believers in those areas.

The Christians in those areas were living in uncertain times. Christianity was already getting noticed by the Roman authorities, and the emperor Nero was increasingly unfriendly to it. The rest of the empire took their cue from the emperor. Although the recipients of the letter were probably not persecuted as brutally as the church in Rome (until about thirty years later), it was clear that Christians were not welcome in the general culture of the world at the time. In addition, Peter was writing to people who were experiencing struggles and difficulties of all different types, including things that didn’t have much to do with persecution. In short, 1 Peter is a book written to Christians who were facing hard times. As such, I think its message is very encouraging to us today.

For the rest of this sermon I want you to read the entire book of 1 Peter in one sitting. It isn’t long. Or listen to it, as I read it on the recording above, here at clearbible.blog. I think it is often helpful to start a book by reading the whole thing at once, so we can see how one part flows into another. Without further ado, let’s do it.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #11: REST FOR YOUR SOUL

Jesus invites us to take on his yoke. What he means is that he is inviting us to take on only his burden, and to do so with his own strength. To accept this and find the rest for our souls that He promises, we must first drop our own load – our ideas and expectations and demands about what we think we need to be happy and to be “OK.” We might think we need a certain amount of money to be OK. We might think we need to live in a certain place in order to be happy. We need to have this kind of relationship, or that kind of car. That’s the stuff we need to drop. If we try to add Jesus on top of all that, it will feel like a burden.

But Jesus invites us to drop it all. It’s the only way to find rest for your souls. Instead of trying to make sure we have everything we think we need, we trust Jesus to supply all that we need. When we allow him to live through us, so that we have no agenda other than “Christ in us, the hope of glory,” we find his yoke is easy. We find rest for our souls.

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 Living Crucified Part 11

LIVING CRUCIFIED #11. Matthew 11:28-30

If Jesus is really going to live his life through us, it can’t be only on Sunday mornings. It can’t be just when you have your quiet time with God each day. It can’t be only Sunday mornings, plus quiet times and small group meetings. It can’t be only after work. It can’t be only on weekends or mission trips.

You see, in America especially, we tend to have our own goals and ambitions, and we try to wedge God into our life as one piece of a very full pie. We’d be quite happy to let Jesus have more of us, but we just don’t have the time. Our plates our full. Our time and energy is used up. Then we come along and read something like this:

28 “Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30, HCSB)

We think, “That sounds great, but frankly, it doesn’t feel that way. It feels following Jesus just adds to all the hard work I’m doing.”

But we’re forgetting two things. First, we are forgetting that Jesus has already done it all. He has forgiven us. He has made us holy. He is the one who wants to live through us. We don’t have to make it happen. We don’t have to make ourselves holy. We simply need to respond to Jesus in faith.

Sometimes we come across passages in the bible that tell us how to behave. Like this one:

17 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. 20 But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.
25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. 26 Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and give no opportunity to the devil. 28 Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. 29 Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:17-29, ESV)

 We might think, “That sounds like hard burden, not rest for my soul.” But we sometimes read too quickly, and miss where it says, “put off the old self…and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and  put on your new self, created after the likeness of God.” So this is something that happens as our mind is renewed. That happens through faith, and through frequently putting the scriptures into our minds. But our new self has been created, not by us, but by God. So, maybe, when we read those verses we could pray something like this: “Holy Spirit, thank you for showing me what the life of Jesus looks like as he lives through me. Please help me to step aside so that you can manifest your life in me and through me, for your glory. Renew my mind, and keep creating my new self.”

When we find ourselves in a situation where we want to do one thing, but we know Jesus wants to do something else, we can pray: “Lord, thank you that you are the one living my life. I can’t do what you want. My flesh doesn’t want me to do it. My flesh is not strong enough, or good enough, to do it. But I surrender to you, and I ask you to work in me anyway. I have no power to stop myself from doing wrong, no power to do what is right. But I give you permission to do the right thing through me right now.”

That prayer might sound too simple. But the Lord answers it. I have had times when I wanted to sin. I knew what I wanted to do was wrong. But I felt I had no power to stop myself. I prayed a prayer like the ones I just shared (above). And somehow, I just ended up doing what the Lord wanted, and not the sin I had intended to do. It didn’t feel dramatic, except that somehow, I ended up doing the right thing. You see, we really can trust him to live through us, if we only give him permission to do so. So these things don’t need to be burden. We simply ask Jesus to live holy lives through us, and then let him.

Second, we are forgetting that when Jesus invites us to rest in Him, we have to drop our own agenda in order to do so. Imagine you are carrying a sixty pound backpack. Then you come to Jesus, and he says, “Take my burden upon you; it is easy and light.” Jesus points to his backpack, which weighs fifteen pounds. You think “That doesn’t feel easy. Now instead of sixty pounds, I’ll be carrying seventy-five pounds.”

You grab his pack and sling it on top of yours. Now your heavy burden feels almost intolerable. But Jesus laughs, and pokes you in the ribs. “You’re not listening,” he says. “Drop your load. All of it. Carry only my fifteen pound pack. Everything you’ll ever need is in there.”

And that uncovers the real issue. It’s hard to believe that Jesus could give us everything we’ll ever need with only a fifteen pound backpack. Does it have our favorite food? What about the television? What about the clothes I like? And so on. But the only way to find out is to trust Jesus, and drop our own pack.

What I am calling our own backpack is all of our ideas and expectations and demands about what we think we need to be happy and to be “OK.” We might think we need a certain amount of money to be OK. We might think we need to live in a certain place in order to be happy. We need to have this kind of relationship, or that kind of car. That’s the stuff we need to drop. If we try to add Jesus on top of all that, it will feel like a burden. But Jesus invites us to drop it all. It’s the only way to find rest for your souls. Instead of trying to make sure we have everything we think we need, we trust Jesus to supply all that we need. When we allow him to live through us, so that we have no agenda other than “Christ in us, the hope of glory,” we find his yoke is easy. We find rest for our souls.

This is what we’ve talking about with this sermon series. Life is not found in our circumstances. There is no life in having everything we want. There is no life in denying ourselves everything we want. The only true life comes from the realm of the spirit. It is found in Jesus alone. When we have Jesus, we have the life. As a discipline to help us find the true life that Jesus offers, we put God after the but. We live by faith, trusting the words of the bible that tell us we have been thoroughly separated from sin and the law, and we have been born again into God’s kingdom, even if we don’t look like it, or feel like it. We now live only for God’s glory, and find that the burden of doing so is light, since it is Jesus who lives through us.

We started to talk about this last time, but let’s continue to consider what it looks like to drop our own agenda, and take up the easy, restful yoke of Jesus. What is like to have all of life be about the glory of God through us? First, for many of us, the change is mostly internal. Externally, we might still do most of the same things. We will still go to work, and come home, and eat with our families, and go fishing on the weekends, and so on.

The change comes in the way we go about these things, an also in the why we go about them.

Let’s start with the change in the “why.” When we realize that all of life is about letting Jesus live through us so that God is glorified, it reorients us. Going to work is no longer primarily about making money and creating a secure financial future for ourselves. Instead, going to work is an opportunity for Jesus to be there with your co-workers – through you. You aren’t working to advance your career; you are working to let Jesus advance His agenda in your workplace.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the Bible does says that, apart from unavoidable exceptions, people should arrange to make sure that they support themselves and their families financially (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12; 1 Timothy 5:8). By the way, this could involve mothers staying at home with kids while husbands work to support them all, so stay-at-home-moms have no reason to feel bad at all. In fact, that too, can often be a calling which brings glory to God. If you are a family breadwinner, it also brings glory to God that you do honest work for which you are paid. Even so, the point of working is not to create security for yourselves, but primarily to be about whatever business God has you in, so that he can use you there. The reason you work is now so that God can show his glory through you.

As far as the way we live for God’s glory at work, God might show his glory through you in the calm presence that your co-workers feel from you. He might do that in conversations you have with coworkers. He might do that just by having your do work excellently, so that it becomes part of his glory. Others will notice how you work, and if you let Jesus work through you as he wants to, it will have an impact on them. Again this comes as you lean on him in trust, and let your mind be renewed by the Bible.

This is true also of leisure time. We aren’t supposed to stop having any kind of relaxing time, and just serve God directly at church with every spare minute. Instead, every minute of every day is in service to God, no matter what we are doing, and that includes the time we spend relaxing.

Let me give an example. I love to fish. Years ago, I used to fish at least once a week during warm weather, often all day; sometimes I fished even more than that. One day, I realized what we are talking about here, that all of life is about God’s glory, and I understood that something needed to change. It wasn’t that I needed to stop fishing. But I needed to let God use the time I spent fishing. So, I did two things. First, I became open to inviting others along with me as a I fished. Then, if God wanted, he could us to encourage one-another as we fished. We were still fishing, and catching fish was the primary goal. But the time now belonged to God, and so when someone else was with me, there was an opportunity there for us to encourage one another in following Jesus. Usually that happened very organically and naturally, around the activity of fishing. Sometimes, it was just building relationships, and we had no conversations that were especially spiritual. But either way, the time belonged to Jesus, to use as he wanted.

Second, when I was fishing alone, I also used that time to pray, and to deliberately let the Lord refresh my soul. Again, I was definitely out there to fish. But I was also there – even by myself – to be used for God’s glory, and part of that involves Him pouring his life into me. For me, time alone is very helpful for that sort of thing.

So, for you, maybe it is golf. Don’t stop golfing. But surrender your golf time to the Lord. He may call you to golf (or fish) a little bit less. (At this stage of my life, he has me fishing less than I used to.) He may, or may not, call you to golf less. But he wants to use the time you are on the course to bring Him glory. The same could be true of crafting, or watching and talking about movies, or sewing, or getting together with friends to hang out.

All of life now belongs to Jesus. Sometimes, our priorities are out of line. We may need to spend less time and work, and more time with certain people that God has put in our lives. Or, maybe the opposite. I have noticed as life goes on that Jesus frequently wants to make adjustments in how I spend my time.

Even ordinary things like grocery shopping, are there for the Lord to use. Sometimes, I ask a cashier how I can pray for her. Others time I pray silently, without talking about it. Many times, the Lord uses my time at Walmart to reveal my mean-spirited heart to myself, and bring me to repentance for the way I look at some people. Going to Walmart can build real Christian character if you take on the yoke of Jesus.

One thing that may help us to remember to let Jesus live through us is to say a quick prayer whenever you transition between activities. For instance, maybe you are wrapping up work for the day. You could say, “OK Lord, thanks for living through my work today. Please now live through the time I’m going to spend with my family.” (Or “the time I’m going to spend fishing, or shopping, or whatever…”).

Another thing about the yoke of Jesus. I think most Americans probably try to do far too much. We have so many opportunities, and most of them are truly good. But sometimes “good” is the enemy of “best.” For a lot of Americans, I think Jesus wants to invest more deeply in fewer things, rather than trying to be a part of every opportunity that crosses our paths. Especially when our kids are young, we often enroll them in band, sports, dance club, chess club, music club… I don’t even know all of the options. But often this means that our kids never have unstructured time, and never have alone time. If you don’t have those kinds of time as you grow up, you end up having a hard time being alone, and a hard time thinking deeply about things, and hard time structuring your own life, and all of those are important to following Jesus. Leave some time for Jesus to work with nothing particular going on. Give God space to work.

I was working on this part of the sermon late at night. I took a break and went into the kitchen where I was all set to make some toast, upon which I was going to put Nutella chocolate spread. I was thinking about Jesus living my life, through me, and how it is supposed to happen even in ordinary things, like making lunch, or a snack. And then, I felt quite clearly that he was telling me something like this: “I don’t want to put that Nutella toast into this body of ours at this time.” This is exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about: Being willing for Jesus to direct us and live through us, even in ordinary things. I didn’t hear a voice or anything, but I knew what Jesus wanted. That’s how the guiding of the spirit works. So, I put the bread away. I must admit, if I hadn’t been preaching on this, I might not have done that.

Sometimes it’s hard to be a preacher.

However, I don’t want you to miss a point here. I have been trying to control my late-night snacking, without much success. But, simply giving Jesus permission to decide what goes into my/His body somehow made it easier to not have the toast. I’m not trying to stop myself from eating delicious, rich, chocolate coated, toasted, home-made, crusty white bread. I’m giving Jesus permission to live through me, and that includes him deciding that my body won’t have that right now. I’m not gritting my teeth with will-power. I’m surrendering, and letting Jesus say “no,” since I don’t have the strength to say “no” on my own.

 I think he’s OK with a little watermelon soon, though, so that’s nice.

Also, as you noticed, along with making it easy to eat healthier, he gave me a perfect example of how everyday life looks with the yoke of Jesus. So, he even made my sermon easier. That’s because, as he says, his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. It’s a piece of cake (or, maybe, watermelon).

Why don’t you try it right now? (Not the watermelon, or the cake. The lifestyle of living crucified.) As the psalmist says:

​​​​Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! ​​​​​​​Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Oh, fear the LORD, you his saints, ​​​​​​​for those who fear him have no lack! ​​​ (Ps 34:8-9, ESV)

LIVING CRUCIFIED #9: THE GLORY OF GOD

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The most wonderful thing in all of existence is God. He is the most beautiful, wonderful, joyful, exciting, heart-pumping, loving thing in all the universe. When we talk about God’s glory, we mean displaying all this wonderfulness of God to the rest of existence. Nothing is better in any way than God and his glory. God designed it so that we are bound up with his own glory. When the best thing in the universe happens – God’s glory is revealed – that blesses us also. It didn’t have to be that way, but God made it that way.

We were literally made to display part of the glory of God.

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 Living Crucified Part 9

Living Crucified #9. God’s Glory.

Romans 9:21-24; Ephesians 2:4-7; Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 4:6-11; Luke 8:16-17

Some of you may be wondering: what exactly is this sermon series about? I mean the title, “Living Crucified” sounds nice and pleasant and all, but what does it really mean? What’s the point here? In other words, some of you may want the “big picture” concerning this series.

This week I want to back out to a bird’s-eye view. Here’s the really big picture: God is the ultimate good. He is the most glorious, wonderful, beautiful, intelligent, powerful, delightful, honorable, pure, excellent being in all of existence. Because there is nothing better than God, not in any possible way, the best possible thing in the universe is God’s own glory. By “God’s glory,” I mean “displaying the wonderfulness of God.”

If you ask the question: “What is the best possible thing that could happen in this moment?” the answer is always: “For the glory of God to be revealed.” When we share the joy of love with another human being, that is part of the glory of God being revealed. When a doctor, using the capacities and opportunities given to her by God, saves a life, the glory of God is being revealed. When we hear beautiful music, see beautiful scenery, or read wonderful writing, the joy and goodness of those experiences are part of the wonderfulness of God being displayed. Even the sins that entice us tempt us because they are corrupt counterfeits of God’s glory. If we could truly see sin for what it is, we wouldn’t be interested. But we fall for it because it seems like shortcut to the experience of something wonderful – a shortcut to the glory of God. So the glory of God is always the best thing that could happen in any given situation.

Now, here is the amazing thing. God decided to make us – human beings – part of his glory. Our existence, and the way he relates to us, is designed to display his wonderfulness to the universe. However, we need to know that He didn’t have to do it that way. He could just have easily had made us so that destroying us would display his glory. Instead, he made it so that when he is good to us, it accomplishes the purpose of showing his glory. Paul makes this exact point in Romans 9: 21-24.

21 When a potter makes jars out of clay, doesn’t he have a right to use the same lump of clay to make one jar for decoration and another to throw garbage into? 22 In the same way, even though God has the right to show his anger and his power, he is very patient with those on whom his anger falls, who are destined for destruction. 23 He does this to make the riches of his glory shine even brighter on those to whom he shows mercy, who were prepared in advance for glory. 24 And we are among those whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles. (Romans 9:21-24, NLT)

Understand what this means: God made it so that when the best possible thing in the universe happens (his glory), it results in good things for us, too.

Let me offer a few analogies to help us understand. Imagine there is an incredibly talented architect. He is as creative as Picasso, and as talented as Michelangelo. He is as detailed and knowledgeable as any engineer, and as practical as a mother on a limited budget. His buildings create a sense of wonder and surprise. They are beautiful, but also very useful and functional. If he wanted, he could work for giant, rich corporations to create stunning corporate headquarters for wealthy CEOs to show off. He could even create buildings that were simply sheer works of art, to be admired by generations to come. Instead, this architect devotes his entire career to creating beautiful, functional housing for people with limited incomes. His work shows off his amazing talent, but he chooses to “show off” in a way that benefits others, especially others who stand in great need. That’s a little bit like God. God could have chosen to show his glory in a way that had nothing to do with human beings. But he chose to show his glory in a way that benefits us.

4 But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, 5 that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) 6 For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus. 7 So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7, NLT)

God saved us – and we contributed nothing toward that salvation. And one reason God did it is so that he can point to us as examples of his grace and kindness – that is, as part of his glory.

Picture a brilliant musician and composer. His understanding of music is deeper than Bach’s. His creativity greater than all of the music producers in the world put together. His music is stunningly beautiful, moving the heart and delighting the mind. He could make millions upon millions as a recording artist. He could show off his skill by recording each part himself. Instead, he writes symphonies that involve every musical instrument known to humanity, and he uses other musicians to play each part. So, when his music is performed, every instrument is involved in demonstrating the glory of this composer, and many different musicians get to be a part of it. So those other musicians get to participate in the glory of that talented composer.

Another one would be that of a stained glass window, or a tile mosaic. Each piece of glass or tile shows one small part of a bigger picture. Each one is interesting in itself, but their main use is to display the larger picture that the artist wants to convey. In the case of the stained glass, the light of the sun comes through each piece in a slightly different way, and they all combine to give one, beautiful and coherent picture.

So God chose to make human beings part of the displaying of his glory.

6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:6-11, ESV)

God desires to manifest his glory through our mortal flesh, yes, even through the lives that we live in these flawed bodies. Remember, we have talked about the two realms? There is one realm that is unseen, eternal and spiritual. There is another realm – the realm in which we live our daily lives. This realm is made up of things that can be seen; things that are physical, and temporary. The things that are true in that eternal realm are more powerful than our feelings and experiences in the physical, temporary realm, because they will outlast the physical. We are to draw life from the unseen realm, and set our minds on it, and focus on it.

However, it would be a big mistake to say that everything in the physical realm is bad, or useless, or meaningless. Because the fact is this: God has chosen to display his glory, not just in the eternal, unseen realm,  but also in the physical, seen, temporary realm. That means that this world, including our temporary, physical experiences have meaning and importance. The temporary realm is a platform to display the wonderfulness of God, and that makes it significant indeed. So, our physical actions and choices are important.

We have seen in several places that one way that God shows his glory through us is by saving us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But there is more to it than that. He created each human being to show off his glory in unique ways. When we are crucified with Christ, we are raised to a new life, and the purpose of the new life is to display some unique piece of God’s glory. Since God is infinite, there will never be too many humans to do this. The Holy Spirit tells us that God prepared in advance the ways he wants to use us to show his glory:

For we are his craftsmanship, created in Christ Jesus for the purpose of works that are good, which God designed and appointed ahead of time, so that we should spend our lives in doing them. (Ephesians 2:10, my “expanded” translation)

So, for example, part of the way God shows his glory through me is through the teaching of the Bible. It may even be that one unique aspect of God’s glory that shines through me is the analogies he gives me to help us understand things like this. Years ago, a visitor to the church came up to me after hearing me preach, and said, “You’re really good at this.” I don’t know if he realized it or not, but what he was seeing was not me, but the glory of God coming through me, as it was designed to be.

God does not use me to display his glory through building things, or fixing engines. But he does show his glory that way through people whom I know. I just got a text from a friend who fixed the alternator on his boat engine. I didn’t even know boats had alternators! But when my friend applies his skill, and fixes something to the best of the ability that God gave him, it shows a piece of God’s glory. I have a couple other friends who build their own houses, or do other things related to physical craftsmanship. I find myself in awe of them. But, whether I always recognize it or not, what really impresses me is God’s glory shining when they walk in the good works that God designed for them ahead of time. It isn’t really about them, no matter how skilled they are. It is about the glory of God which comes through them.

If music was the NFL, I might be good enough to be a backup offensive lineman (for non-football fans, this is a backup to the least “skilled” position; sort of the bread and butter players). But I know people who are good enough to be the star quarterbacks. The fact that they aren’t actual music celebrities, does not take away one bit from the fact that the glory of God shines through them when they do music. The point is not that we are all famous for our gifts. The point is that we let God’s glory shine through us whenever, and however, we have the chance.

I think that quite often, we lose track of the fact that this is God’s primary purpose. This is what he is up to. And that means, it doesn’t really matter how many other human beings see it, here and now. In the end, God will make it all contribute to his own glory.

Several years ago our church was not yet doing house-church. We were in transition, and sometimes our Sunday morning attendance was rather small. One Sunday, the weather was bad and it was a holiday weekend, and I found myself preaching to just my own family, plus about four other people.

As I was preaching, I was also praying. I said: “Lord, what’s the point here? Do you really want me to do this for so few people?”

His response, spoken into my heart was this: “How would you feel if you were preaching to an audience of one – that is, just one person, but that one person was the president of the United States?

I thought: “It would be an honor, Lord.”

“What about if you are preaching to an audience of one, and that person is Me, Lord of the Universe?”

“Really, Lord?”

“Really. I want to hear this sermon you are preaching. Now stay focused and keep going. I’m listening, and I like what I hear.”

It was a kind of stunning moment. I serve at the pleasure of the Ruler of the Universe. If he wants me to preach to the birds, like St. Francis, then that should surely be good enough for me. I preach not for myself, not even for you who might be reading this, but for my King. If I rely on him as I do it, He will look after how it brings glory to Himself. It may be that at the end, the things we do in obscurity will be showed to the whole universe. Jesus seems to say as much on several occasions:

16 “No one lights a lamp and then covers it with a bowl or hides it under a bed. A lamp is placed on a stand, where its light can be seen by all who enter the house. 17 For all that is secret will eventually be brought into the open, and everything that is concealed will be brought to light and made known to all. (Luke 8:16-17, NLT) (See also Luke 12:2-9; Matthew 10:26)
22 For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. (Mark 4:22, NIV)
So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden. (1 Timothy 5:25, ESV)

Even if only God knows about it, it will contribute to his glory. So, if you are a builder, build for the glory of God, and don’t worry who else will know or see what you have built. If you are an artist, do your art for the Audience of One, and trust Him to look after how it will be part of his glory. Same for you musicians, you craftsmen, even you who delight in sports, or stamp collecting. There was a time in my life, working on my Master’s of Divinity degree, when I realized that all I had really done was go to school. But I believe that being the best student you can be is also something that can bring glory to God. Everyone has some way to let God’s glory shine through.

Quite literally, this is what we were made for.

Next week, I’ll start talking about how we go about this in a practical way, and draw some more connections with other things we’ve been learning so far.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #5: YOU’RE DEAD!

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What we believe determines how we act. If we want to change our behavior, we must start with changing what we believe, what we trust. The scripture calls us to believe that when we receive Jesus, not only did he die for our sins, but he also immersed us into his own crucifixion, so that in a spiritual sense, we were crucified with Christ. This means we are now dead to sin, and alive to God. I know it doesn’t feel that way, but we need to put God’s word after the “but.” Read on to learn more.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Living Crucified Part 5

LIVING CRUCIFIED #5: LIVING DEAD

As a teacher of God’s word, I am usually aiming toward one primary goal: that is, to strengthen and encourage your faith. That may seem fairly obvious, but I want you to think about it a moment. Why is faith so important? Isn’t faith kind of esoteric, and “out there?” Isn’t it, after all, not very practical? I disagree.

Almost everything we think and do proceeds from what we believe. When I buy groceries, I have faith that the food meets some quality standards: that it is not poisoned, and it is not going to make me sick. Based upon that faith, I take action – I buy the food, cook it, and eat it. When I eat, I am living out my faith. The same is true of the water I drink. Every time I drive, I am living out my faith. I do not really understand how my car works, but I have faith that it does, and that faith leads me to the action of driving my car. I don’t really know how the internet works, but I have faith that it does, and that faith leads me to post these messages.

Even most things that we think of as objectively proven, we take on faith. For instance, nuclear fission (the process used to create nuclear energy, including nuclear bombs). I have not personally verified the nuclear fission reaction through my own calculations. I have not stood by and watched while it has been demonstrated to me. I believe (that is, I have faith) that other people have done the science, and actually observed the results. But even though some people have actually verified nuclear fission, most of us take it on faith. We haven’t actually verified for ourselves. This is even true of historical events in which we all believe. I believe that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. But I wasn’t there, I didn’t see it happen. I bet no one reading this actually saw it with their own eyes. While we think of such things as established, objective facts, we actually only “know” these things by faith.

We human beings could not exist if we only acted when we knew for certain everything that is involved in our actions. We couldn’t eat, or drink without faith. We couldn’t do business, use machinery or technology. We couldn’t engage in meaningful relationships without faith.

I want to point out two things about this. First, faith is indispensable. We operate on faith of some sort every single day; we simply couldn’t live without it. Second, because we live our lives based upon faith, our lives are profoundly affected by what we believe.

Some of you know the story of the “four minute mile.” For the first hundred years of keeping records of human races, no one was able to run a mile in less than four minutes. It was widely believed that this was the limit of human ability. Then, in May of 1953, Roger Bannister came close. He began to believe he could do it. A year later, Bannister did, in fact, run a mile in less than four minutes. Now, everyone believed that humans could a run mile in less than four minutes. Once Bannister proved it could be done, everything changed. Bannister’s record was broken only 46 days later. Within the next decade, five more people ran a sub-four-minute mile. Sixty years later, almost 900 people had done it.

Now you could probably make a case for nutrition and a more sports-oriented culture to explain some of this. But I personally believe that the biggest difference between the first hundred years of records, and the last sixty, is that now people believe it can be done.

Your belief affects how you act, what you attempt, and what you achieve.This is indisputably true about our physical lives, our life in the realm of the seen, temporary reality. Just take the weather as an example. If you believe that a storm is coming, you will take shelter. If you believe it will rain, you carry an umbrella. If you believe it will be nice, you’ll go fishing (at least, any sane person would 😊). What you believe determines how you act.

 When it comes to the unseen, eternal, spiritual reality, faith is even more powerful. However, sometimes we have not learned this lesson, or we forget it. So often, when we are trying to follow Jesus, and live as is right for people who belong to Him, we begin by trying to change our behavior. We want to be more Christ-like, and so we make a big effort to behave better. It takes a lot of energy and self-discipline. We work hard to try and be more kind and loving. We try to remember to control how we speak to and about others. We try to make ourselves stop sinning.

Now, when we do this, I believe our intentions are good. But it often doesn’t work out very well. Even those who do seem to succeed in making themselves more Christ-like through sheer will-power eventually become proud and legalistic, and then they are no longer Christ-like again.

The Bible does teach us that Christians ought to behave in certain ways, and refrain from other behaviors. But so many Christians do not realize how this change in behavior is actually supposed to come about. In fact, I would guess that most Christians do not understand the process that changes a loud-mouthed braggart into a humble, loving servant; or a lustful person who wants to have sex with virtually anyone, to someone who joyfully submits to God’s design for sexuality.

Here’s the secret: It begins with faith. If you want to change your behavior, the only way to really do it is to change what you believe. (Of course, it is not supposed to be secret.)

If you want to begin to live as Jesus wants you live, let’s start not with living, but dying. Here’s the first belief to accept: You are dead to sin. According to scripture, when you receive Jesus, you are crucified with him, and that “co-crucifixion” broke your connection to sin:

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:6-7, ESV)
By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death..  (Rom 6:2-4 ESV)
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:11)
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God (Romans 7:4)
But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code (Romans 7:6)
Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3)
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.  I have been crucified with Christ. (Gal 2:19-20, ESV)
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations (Col 2:20, ESV)
The saying is trustworthy, for: ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​If we have died with him, we will also live with him; ​​​ (2 Tim 2:11, ESV)
He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness (1 Pet 2:24, HCSB)
For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Cor 5:14-17, ESV)

According to the bible, Jesus was crucified for your sins. But there’s more. We were also crucified, with Christ. In Jesus Christ, you have died in such a way that the connection between you and sin is broken. Paul says we are dead to the law. Think about it. There are no laws for dead people. A dead person is beyond the law. Imagine you committed a horrible crime, and you were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Now, once you die, your sentence is over. They bury you in the prison graveyard, and you are done.  Once you are dead, the law can require nothing more from you. Paul says “You are released from the law. You died to what held you captive.”

In the same way, we are dead to sin: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” We need  to go forward from this point believing that in Jesus Christ, we have died to sin, and to the law that keeps us on the hook for sins we commit. The connection between us and sin, us and the law is so thoroughly broken, it is like trying to get a dead person to keep serving a prison sentence. It’s over. It’s a fish and  the concept of liberty. There is no connection.

I spent years trying hard to make myself behave better. I thought my old self was still alive. I thought I still had some deep internal connection to sin. And so I kept trying to reform myself, and always failing  Finally, I saw that God doesn’t try to reform the old Tom. Instead, he killed him, along with Jesus on the cross. In Jesus, the new Tom – at least the spirit of the new Tom – has already been raised. And there is no connection between that new Tom and sin. When I began to really believe that – that I am truly dead to sin – I began to sin less.

Do you believe that your old self is dead and buried with Christ through his death? Do you believe that you are dead to sin? Do believe that you are no longer enslaved to sin? Do you believe that the old has passed away and the new has come? Do you count yourself dead to sin but alive to Jesus? The New Testament clearly calls you to believe all of these things. Only when you believe them will your behavior begin to change. Only when you trust them will you begin to experience the freedom and joy that we have in Jesus.

This is the moment when the other messages in this series begin to come together. First (lesson 1) this is for those who have repented from their sin, and turned to Jesus toward Jesus alone for hope and salvation. It is not about everyone, but specifically about those who have done that. Next, we remember the two aspects of reality: the eternal, spiritual reality (“above the line,” or, “outside the book”) and the physical, temporary, seen reality, (“below the line,” or “inside the story of the book”). This business of being crucified with Christ is clearly not in the seen, physical, temporary reality. My physical body did not hang on a cross. My body was not whipped, nor beaten, nor stabbed. So, in order to understand this, we start by recognizing that we are talking about eternal, unseen, spiritual truth.

Next, we remember where to find life, and how to practice receiving that life. In this case, we would say something like this: “I don’t feel like I have been crucified. I don’t feel like I am dead to sin, or free from sin. BUT the bible says this is true. I will choose to believe that what the bible says is bigger, and more important than my own experience. I will look for life in eternal, spiritual things, not in physical things that will pass away. Therefore, I will believe what the scripture says.”

Think about it like this: If you believe that you are basically just a sinner, barely saved by God’s grace, you will act like a sinner. If you think you are half-sinner, half-Christian, you will sin half the time (at least). But if you believe that God has made you holy in your inmost being, you will begin to act holy. You act according to what you believe.

You might be tempted to say: “I don’t believe that I am dead to sin, because I still act like a sinner.” I challenge you to turn this around to reflect spiritual reality. Here’s the truth, according to the bible: “I still act like a sinner because I don’t believe I am dead to sin.”

Remember this is talking about the spiritual realm, the realm that will never pass away. The spiritual, unseen realm is greater than the “physical realm” in which we eat, drink and sleep. So the bible clearly teaches that in the most essential part of you, the part of you that will never die (your spirit) you are dead to sin, and alive to Christ. In the deepest part of your being, you died to sin. In that place, there is no connection between you and sin.

I want to give you an example of “the deepest part of you,” or the “essence of you” not being a sinner:

Suppose you come over to our house for  a meal. You volunteer to help my wife, Kari, get things ready in the kitchen. While working, you slip on some blueberries that someone had dropped on the floor, and failed to clean up. You almost fall, but catch yourself in time. You say something light and fun, like, “Whoops! I almost got clobbered by those blueberries!”

Kari turns to you and snaps: “I’m sure you keep your own kitchen perfect and sparkling clean, and no one ever drops food on the floor in your house. I don’t need any more help, thank you. Why don’t you go in the other room for a while.”

Is it possible that Kari could behave like that? Of course, it could happen. But if you described that situation to me, or someone else who knows her well, we would say something like this: “I’m sorry that happened to you. But I want you to know, that’s not what she’s really like at all. She must have been having a bad day, because that’s just not Kari.”

And it’s true. Kari could behave like that once in a while. But that’s really not what she’s like at all. She’s not perfect, but she is almost never sins like that – being sarcastic or mean. It’s really not “her” to be like that. It is out of character, when you think about who she really is.

This is the situation with us, now that we are dead to sin. We might still sin, and I’ll talk about that more in the coming weeks. But the essence of who we are is dead to sin. Therefore when we sin, we can say: Obviously, that happened. But that’s just not “me” anymore. It doesn’t reflect my real character, the deepest part of my being.

We need to believe that when God says we died with Christ, we really did die.

I killed a snake one time. I blew it in half with a shotgun. The snake was dead, there was absolutely no question about that. There was a the head, with a little piece of neck, and there was the body, completely separate. But the mouth kept opening and closing like it was trying to bite something. The body twisted and coiled and uncoiled for ten or fifteen minutes afterward.

All that twisting and coiling and movement looked like life – but it wasn’t life. It was merely the death throes. If I was a really dumb veterinarian, I could have wasted time and energy treating the dead snake that acted like it was alive. But there was no life there.

Our old person can sometimes act as if it is still alive. We still get the impulses and signals that seem to show that our old self is alive and well. But this is nothing but death throes. There is no life there. If we work to try and kill it again, or try and reform it, we are wasting time and energy in a futile exercise.

Paul says, “don’t gratify the flesh.” Our old body is rotting in the prison graveyard. We don’t have to follow the prison rules any more. We don’t have to try and make up for the laws we broke before. Satan is the one who comes to you and says: “see all the twisting and turning and activity? You have a sinful nature and it is alive and well.” But the Bible never says anywhere that our old self got un-crucified. It never says that it is possible to be only partly-crucified with Christ. It never suggests that the old nature got resurrected. It is a lie of the devil. He’s trying to get you to live as if you are still alive, back in the prison of your sinful self.

Here’s the thing: he can’t put you back in prison. But if you don’t believe what God says – if you don’t put God’s word after the but – the devil and your flesh can trick you into living as if you were still in prison.

Now, I will talk next week more about this struggle with the devil and the flesh, and how it all fits together. But for this week I am calling you to faith. I am asking you to believe that what God says is really true:

In Christ, you have already died. In Christ you are not sinful. You are not divided into good and evil. You are holy and blameless and without reproach.

Yes sin in your flesh is still writhing around in its death throes. But it is already dead. Pay it no mind. Instead fix your eyes on Jesus, put your focus on the unseen and eternal truth – your old self is dead and your true self is alive in perfection with Jesus.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #4: HEAVENLY BUTS

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We tend to say things like: “Today was OK, but I think tomorrow is going to be really hard.” What we really think of as most important, or most powerful, we but after that ‘but.’ Leah was a saint who had a very difficult life. People considered her ugly. Her husband didn’t love her, and it didn’t seem like that would ever change. But (!) she learned to put God’s love after the but. We too, can find incredible life and grace by learning to put eternal truth after the ‘buts’ in our life.

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 Living Crucified Part 4

LIVING CRUCIFIED #4

Genesis 29:16-35

In order to really grab hold of the riches that we have in Jesus Christ, we need to start talking about your buts. We all have buts in life. (All right, insert whatever joke you like here, and then move on). What I mean is, we all say things like this:

Things are going well now, but who knows what will happen in the future?

I know God promises to take care of me, but things aren’t going well right now.

Generally, I have a good marriage, but sometimes he drives me crazy.

I would love to read my bible more, but I just don’t have the time.

I know God has forgiven me, but I still sin, and I don’t always feel forgiven.

There is something I have noticed – we give the most power, the most credibility, to what we put after the but. What we say after the but is what we think is the dominant thing about our reality. The first thing may be some kind of factor, but what we put after the but is more or less the final word on the subject.

What we need to learn, is to put what God says after the but.  You might say, we need “heavenly buts.” [Sorry if that term brought you’re here on an different kind of internet search, but since you’re here, why not keep reading?] Putting God’s word after the but is an act of will, but before that even, it is an act of faith. Much of what we are talking about in this sermon series will not make sense until you agree, as an act of faith, to put God’s Word after the but.

I want us to look at the life of someone in the Bible who learned to do this. She is one of the least known, least talked-about heroines of faith in the Bible. Her name is Leah. Leah was the  daughter of a man named Laban. Her story picks up in Genesis chapter 29. One day their cousin Jacob, whom they had never met, came from a far country. Jacob ended up working for his uncle Laban (Leah’s father). Laban asked Jacob how he should be paid for his work. At this point, the scripture says something about the two young women:

17 Leah's eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. (Genesis 29:17, ESV)

We don’t know exactly what it means when it says Leah had “weak eyes.” It seems to be a somewhat unique expression. It might even mean she was hard to look at, sort of the opposite of “she’s easy on the eyes.” In any case, we are given a comparison so that the point is very clear: Leah had weak eyes, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. Whatever Leah was, it was not beautiful. Did you notice the “but” there? What a powerful but! “My sister has a beautiful face and figure, but I have weak eyes.” It was probably one of the dominant “buts” in Leah’s life.

This isn’t a fairy tale, or a animated show about ogres. Jacob fell in love with the beautiful one, not the ugly one. That’s generally the way the world works. So, he told his uncle he would work for seven years as a dowry in order to marry Rachel, (the beautiful sister) and Laban agreed. 

Only, when the time came, Laban tricked Jacob.  Brides in those days were heavily veiled, and the wedding took place at night – and there was no electricity. And (let’s be honest) there was drinking.  So Laban gave his older daughter, Leah, in marriage to Jacob, and Jacob didn’t find out until the light of the next morning. Jacob was understandably angry and disappointed. Laban, the father of the women, made some excuse about how there was a custom that the older daughter had to be married first, before a younger sister could get married. Then he said:

27 “But wait until the bridal week is over; then we’ll give you Rachel, too—provided you promise to work another seven years for me.”
28 So Jacob agreed to work seven more years. A week after Jacob had married Leah, Laban gave him Rachel, too. (Genesis 29:26-28, NLT)

Now, think about this. Suppose Laban was not lying about the custom. What did this imply? That no one else had wanted to marry Leah. She was so unattractive that her father had to trick someone into marrying her. Obviously, her father did not expect that anyone ever would ask to marry her. Leah almost certainly knew all of this. It says she was ugly, not stupid. So she had to live with that knowledge. Not only that, but she got to be the bride for only one week before her husband married her beautiful sister, the one he had always wanted in the first place.

Naturally, Jacob favored Rachel. He loved her, not Leah. Leah’s only consolation was that she had children fairly easily, while Rachel went for a long time with none. When Leah’s first son (Reuben) was born, she said, “The Lord has seen my affliction; surely my husband will love me now (Genesis 29:32).” Notice that her focus was on her unhappy situation, and she hopes the fact that she bore him the first child will change it. Applying this to the concepts we have been talking about, Leah was focused on things “below the line,” in the seen, temporary realm.

When her second son (Simeon) came along she said, “The Lord heard I was unloved, and gave me this son also (Genesis 29:33).” Still, her dominant reality is that Jacob doesn’t love her. After her third son was born, she was still focused on her struggles, saying, “at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons (Genesis 29:34).”

Now we know that it takes nine months to make a baby. There was no birth control in those days, but in general, when a woman is breastfeeding, that sometimes helps prevent pregnancy. Back in those days, children were probably breastfed pretty consistently for at least a year. So it is reasonable to assume at least two years between each child. When you throw in the fact that Jacob had another wife, and everything that was involved in the family dynamics, it may have been more like three years, or even more between children. So Leah went at least six years, and maybe as long as ten or twelve, while the dominant fact in her life was that her husband did not love her.

But (notice the but) by the time her fourth son arrives, something has changed.  There is no evidence that Jacob ever changed his attitude very much toward her.  Reasonably, at least eight years might have passed by this point, perhaps as many as twelve or even more.  Say, a decade; ten long years of realizing her marriage will never be what she dreamed it might be.  But listen to what she says when this fourth son, Judah, is born: “This time, I will praise the Lord (29:35).”

Leah is no longer fixated on what she lacks in her life.  She isn’t trying to get Jacob to change anymore.  She isn’t focused on the seen, temporary world, the “below the line” reality. Instead, her focus is on the Lord, and his love and favor for her.  Her struggle had been with God and with her husband.  But when she gave birth to Judah, she has given up the fight – in a positive way.  Her troubles have led her to a place where she looks to God to meet her needs, and can receive his love and mercy with joy and thankfulness.  I’m sure that Leah still struggled.  I think it is only reasonable to assume that emotionally, her situation never changed much. Certainly, the Bible never records that Jacob changed his attitude toward her. But she came to the point where the dominant thing in her life was not her struggle, or her unfilled needs, but rather, God’s awesome love for her.

Genesis 29:31 says that when the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb. In other words, the Lord was the one who gave Leah these children; and even more, he gave them to her because he saw that her husband did not love her. Now, at first, her response was basically this: “Good! This child will change my situation. This child will make my husband love me.” But think about it. God gave the children to Leah, not as tools to coerce Jacob’s love – the Lord gave Leah children because the Lord loved her. He was showing her that regardless of what Jacob thought of her, He loved her. She was not unloved. At first she missed the point. She was still putting Jacob’s lack of love after the but. Finally however, she got it. When Judah was born, she praised the Lord. She finally saw that these children would not make her loved – they showed her that she was already loved.

Sometimes when we pray, God changes our situation, and makes it better.  Sometimes, he leaves us in the same circumstances. When he does that, his desire is that our lives can be so filled with him, that the negative aspects of our situation pale in comparison.  When Kari and I first started dating, I was in a job situation that I didn’t like, living in a city I didn’t care for, with few real friends nearby.  I remember sitting in a meeting at work, filled with joy.  I wasn’t joyful because I was in the meeting. I wasn’t joyful because I liked where I was living, or because I was making much money, or that I liked my work. None of those things were true. But I was joyful because I knew that wherever I was, whatever I was doing, Kari loved me.

Now, I don’t mean to be negative, but the kind of joy that came when I first knew that Kari loved me, does not sustain me in the same way thirty years later. We still love each other. It is still an enormous thing in my life that Kari loves me. But no human being has the power to fill you with joy consistently for a long period of time. Only God’s love is that strong. His love can change everything without changing one bit of our circumstances.

I think that was the kind of place Leah finally reached. Jacob still didn’t love her. He probably never would. But God did, and the fact that God loved her was more important than the fact that her husband did not.

This is the key to “Living after the But.” Remember, whatever you put after “but” is the dominant reality to you.  For many years, Leah probably said something like this: “I know God loves me, but my husband does not. I’m just a third wheel.”  Finally, after the birth of Judah, she started thinking this way: “I know Jacob never wanted to marry me.  He may never love me the way I want him to. But God loves me and cares for me.”  The only thing that really changed for Leah is which thing she put after the “But.”  However, I think it transformed everything for her.

Now, I want to make sure you do hear this correctly. I’m not trying to create a rule for you to follow. “I must always put the correct thing after the but.” Instead this is an invitation for you to dive into God’s grace. There is an everlasting well of the water of life, a cool, clear, beautiful spring of love, joy, beauty and strength. One very helpful way to access that deep well of grace is to put the promises of God after the but. Again, not a rule, but an invitation, a door by which we can access what God is offering us.

Now, I want the Holy Spirit to make this practical for you. What have you been putting after the but? Has your dominant reality been what God says? Or have you given more power and credence to your circumstances, or how you feel, or what your mind tells you logically? Take a moment to think about it. Let the Lord bring to mind what you have reversed right now.

I am not saying that your struggles aren’t real. I am not saying that you aren’t dealing with things that are truly bad, or difficult or wrong. But I am saying that God’s Word is more true, more powerful. It is an act of faith to believe it.

Your dominant reality might be very negative, and very powerful. Leah spent her whole life thinking, “but I’m ugly.” Long years of marriage only added, “and I’m unwanted, and I’ll never get the chance to be with someone who does want me.” That’s powerful stuff.  And it was all true. She never was loved by her husband or anyone else in that way.

 But…BUT – there was another thing that was true. It was true that she was made in the image of God. It was true that God loved her. It was true that God wanted her. She let God’s love become her dominant reality. She let his word be the final word.

So pause for a moment. Think about your own life. What are your struggles? What is bothering you? What is stealing your peace, joy, or love? Now, put the promises of God after the but:

“I’m so upset that my child has gone this direction….but______”

“I feel so anxious and lonely, but _____”

“I want to follow God, and yet I constantly fail, but ______”

“I am so upset about something, but ____”

You get the idea. We need to learn to believe that what God says is more real than what we think or feel. And so, we need to learn what God says. Try reading some of the verses below. Believe that these promises are for you, that God himself loves you!

Zephaniah 3:16-18; Isaiah 43:1-5; Matthew 11:28-30; Matthew 6:31-34; Romans 8:1-39; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; 2 Corinthians 5:1-21; Ephesians 1:1-14; Ephesians 2:1-10; Philippians 4:6-8.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #2: WE LIVE IN TWO WORLDS

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The Christian life can be disheartening and frustrating sometimes. We seem to keep making the same mistakes, and going through the same cycle over and over again. The promises of the bible don’t seem to apply to us all the time. Sometimes, the problem might be that we don’t recognize the way in which the promises of God apply to us. The Bible teaches things about reality and human nature that are very important to understand, if we want to grasp the promises within it.

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 Living Crucified Part 2

I’m pulling an audible. For reasons which shall eventually be clear, I am renaming this series: Living Crucified.

PLEASE BOOKMARK THIS POST SO THAT YOU CAN REFER BACK TO THE DIAGRAMS LATER.

Last time we talked about the very beginning of following Jesus: turning away from self, and from sin, along with turning toward God in faith. We recognize that we are cut off from God, and God is the source of all truth, beauty, joy, goodness and life. We admit that we often – maybe even usually – turn away from God, when given the chance. We are committed to satisfying ourselves. All of this is leading us toward self-destruction, loneliness, hatred and isolation – that is separation from God and all that we truly need. When we try to do better, it doesn’t last. We continually fail. We can’t be good enough to remain anywhere near the Holiness of God’s presence. His holiness is so powerful, we would be destroyed by it. Even if we could come into holiness without changing, we would spoil it.

Into this mess steps Jesus. He calls all people to repent. Repenting means we turn away from sin and self, and turn toward God. We give our hearts over to God. We recognize that there is no hope within ourselves, and we place our trust in Jesus alone to make us worthy to be in the presence of God. We trust in him alone to cleanse us from sin, and connect us to the truth, beauty, joy, goodness and life that we need and crave.

So far, so good. Usually, when we first become Christians, there is a period of time when everything is wonderful and good. We feel free, and light. We are overwhelmed with gratitude toward God, and that overflows into how we treat other people. We think “this is it!”

But sooner or later, we seem to lose our way again. We find that the old person we used to be is still hanging around, just waiting for a chance to  take over once more. We start slipping a little, sinning again, living for ourselves. We feel bad, and promise to get it together again, but it keeps happening. We get frustrated with ourselves. But we know that what we believe is the truth. We know that God is real, and good, and we believe that everything we truly desire is to be found in Him, and Him alone. Although we often forget even that when we see something else we think we want.

And so, as time goes on, we think. “Wow. It’s really hard to be Christian. I’m not very good at it.” We cling to our hope that it is Jesus, not our own efforts, who makes us able to be in God’s good presence. But we sort of settle for the idea that we aren’t ever going to get much closer to God until we die. We kind of make peace with the fact that we sin all the time, and we live with a low grade of guilt and shame.

Now, if you read the New Testament, it doesn’t seem like the Christian life is supposed to be so…underwhelming.  Whole shelves of books have been dedicated to help people like us pull it together. Some of them are quite helpful. Somehow though, we can’t seem to make the improvements permanent or consistent. Then, we come across a bible verse like this one:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV)

It’s tempting to sort of throw up our hands and say, “Whatever.” It certainly doesn’t seem like we are new creations. It certainly doesn’t seem like the old is really gone.

I sometimes think we get hung up because we don’t understand the way the New Testament views reality in general, or human nature in particular. This next part may seem dry to you, but it is really important. I truly believe understanding the following ideas can be of tremendous practical help in living life the way God intends for us. So please consider giving this a bit of concentration and effort. THIS IS FOUNDATINAL, IMPORTANT STUFF.

Let’s start with reality in general. The Bible assumes that there are two parts to reality: The Eternal Reality, and the Temporary Reality.

18 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 4:18, HCSB)

I have italicized four words above. First, there is a reality that is seen. What Paul means by that is that we can interact with that kind of reality by seeing, feeling, tasting, touching and so on. This is what most of us think about when we think about “reality,” or the “real world,” or perhaps: “the physical world.”

There is another reality that is unseen. We don’t interact with this reality through our eyes, or sense of smell, or anything like that. We can’t measure it, or deal with it scientifically. But it is there. It is part of reality. We might call this spiritual reality, or eternal reality. Almost all of the human race, for almost all of history, has accepted the existence of spiritual reality. Most people have experienced things that they know are more than just physical.

Our verse above tells us that the seen realm (you might call it “the physical world”) is temporary. In other words, it has a beginning and an end.  On the other hand, the unseen realm is eternal. It lasts forever.

Both the seen and unseen are important. We live in both types of reality as the same time. However, Paul tells us the we Christians should focus on the unseen realm, because it is eternal, and therefore greater.

I want to offer two analogies to help us think about these things. First, imagine a line. Above the line is the unseen, eternal reality, or realm.  Because this realm is eternal, it is more powerful. It is, you might say, “ultimate reality.” In the unseen realm things are what they are. Appearance and reality are exactly the same In the unseen realm, God exists in all the fullness of his power and glory. This is one reason God reveals himself to Moses as “I AM.” He is exactly what he is. Nothing can affect him or change him. He continually is.

Below the line is the seen realm, what we might think of as the physical world, or the temporary world. Here, things are changing. Things are not always as they seem to be. We have needs and struggles. Some days are terrific. Some days are awful. Most are somewhere in between.

Now here’s an amazing fact. We know that we live below the line, obviously. But even now, if you trust Jesus, a part of you already lives above the line.

Now all of this is just an illustration. The truth is, the eternal, unseen reality is all around us at every moment. There is no line in the sky, or anywhere else. But it is helpful to understand that there are two different aspects to reality, and the line helps us understand their relationship.

Here’s the other analogy. Imagine a book: a fiction novel; that is, a story. The story has a beginning, middle and end. Inside the book, the characters move from the beginning through the middle, toward the end. But the entire book – the story, with all its characters and events – is contained within the covers of the book. There is also a reality “outside the book.” Someone outside the book could go back to the beginning to re-read a part of it. Or, they could go to the end to see how it turns out.

A character inside the book may live through a storm. That’s part of the story they are in. The storm is terrifying and dangerous. Yet, outside the book, the events within the book have no power. A storm inside the story may threaten the lives of the characters, but it does not physically affect a reader who is outside the book.

The book (everything within the two covers) is the seen realm, the temporary realm. But outside the book is an entirely different, and much greater, reality. This is the unseen, the eternal realm. We human beings are inside the book, moving forward through the story. We can travel in only one direction – forward. We experience all that is going on in this story. And yet, in some amazing and wonderful way, we also have a connection to existence “outside the book.” A part of us is outside, in that eternal realm.

How could it be that we are in “both places at the same time,” so to speak? It is because of the way God made human beings. According to the Bible, There are three essential parts to a human being: body, soul and spirit. Here are a few verses that talk about them all at the same time:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Heb 4:12, ESV. “Joints and marrow” refer to a physical body)

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through.  May your whole spirit soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of your Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.  (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

There are many more verses that talk about spirit without mentioning body, or soul without talking about spirit, and so on. But it is clear that the New Testament views humans as having those three parts: Body, Soul, & Spirit.

We all know what a body is. It has arms and legs and so on. In our bodies we do and say things. When we behave in any way, it is our body that is living out that behavior. Our bodies live entirely “below the line,” or “inside the book.” It is also very important to know the biblical word “flesh.” Flesh means: “your body, under the influence of sin.”

We also have a soul. The Greek word in the New Testament for “soul” is “psuche” from which we get our English word: “psyche.” Your soul is your personality, your emotions, your thoughts and decisions. The soul is, in a sense, the part of you that feels like you.

The third part of a human being is the Spirit. The New Testament word for Spirit is a lot like the word for breath. The spirit is the part of the human that interacts directly with the unseen, eternal realm.

Now, what has all that this got to do with us living in both the seen, temporary, world, and the unseen, eternal reality? Here’s another diagram that might help:

Our bodies live entirely in the seen, temporary reality. Our body cannot see or understand the eternal, unseen, spiritual realm. On the other hand, our Spirit lives entirely in that unseen, eternal reality. Our soul is in the middle: partly in the physical temporary reality, partly in the spiritual, eternal reality. The soul connects the body to the spirit. You might say it is the go-between. Your soul (“the essential you”) is connected to your body. It is also connected to your spirit. It is the “interface” between the seen and unseen, the temporary and the eternal, the purely physical and the purely spiritual.

Now, let’s return to the first problematic verse I shared:

7 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17, ESV)

Knowing what we know now, let’s think about this. Could I accurately say, at this moment, that the entire me – body, soul and spirit – is a new creation? Could I say truthfully, that the whole of the old me – body, soul and spirit – has passed away?

I think not. In the first place, my body is obviously not a new creation. In fact, it gets older every day. So this promise cannot be for my body – at least, not yet. But Paul talks like this is a done deal. Let’s keep going. What about my soul? Is my soul an entirely new creation? Has the old soul with its sinful desires and passions entirely passed away? I’m sorry to say that I don’t think so. But maybe sometimes it seems partly true of my soul.

Now we can see the truth: this promise is made today for my spirit. I do believe that one day – when I step into the new creation with body, soul and spirit, then all of me will be entirely new. My soul will be cleansed and purged from all the sinful influence of my flesh (flesh= my body influenced by sin). My flesh will be destroyed, and I will be given a new body with no sin in it at all. But right now, even before all that, I am already a new creation in my spirit.

Let’s look at the whole of the passage in which our verse is found:

14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

That’s what we’re after. We’ve received forgiveness through the death and resurrection of Jesus. We want to live in a new way, not for ourselves anymore. But how? Paul goes on:

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2 Corinthians 5:14-17, ESV)

How do we start? By regarding no one according to the flesh. Remember, “the flesh” is our body under the influence of sin. We don’t regard our salvation as a salvation of that flesh. We don’t regard our new creation as happening in that flesh. We look at it a new way. How? By looking at the spirit! Our spirits live “above the line,” in eternity. In that eternal reality, in ultimate reality, our spirits are already new creations. A part of us is already perfect, whole, entirely holy and able to receive all the goodness, joy, love, beauty and truth of God’s presence.

So we don’t keep trying to find life here in our flesh. We don’t keep looking for life in the world that we see around us, the physical world. Instead, we look to ultimate reality, spiritual reality, for newness of life.

OK. So far so good. The promise is true and right. We really are new creations. The old really has passed away. But how to we begin to get that spirit-life into the life we live every day in the world that we see?

I’m so glad you asked. We will begin to answer that question next time.

PLEASE BOOKMARK OR PRINT THIS POST SO THAT YOU CAN REFER BACK TO THE DIAGRAMS.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #1: THE PATH TO JOY BEGINS WITH BAD NEWS.

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The beginning of the Christian life is turning away from sin and toward God (this is called “repentance”). Sometimes we fail to receive the wonder and joy of God’s grace because we have not actually repented. We are called to despair of our own efforts to make ourselves (or the world) better, and turn to God alone for hope and salvation. Only then can we be changed. When we do that, and only then, we can begin to receive the stunning riches of God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ. This is the gate, through which we all must walk, the lifeboat that is our only hope of being saved from drowning.

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 Living Crucified Part 1

During the past year or so, I have noticed that many people in our house-churches seem to be struggling with a deep tension in the life of following Jesus. We are told that everything is by God’s grace. And yet we are told that we shouldn’t sin. We are told that we are new creatures, created in Christ Jesus – and yet we still act like the old creatures, frequently sinning and failing.

The tension that this creates is actually very important. We need to pay attention to it, because it will lead us to some wonderful, amazing truths that will affect every area of our lives.

Our new sermon series is about all that.

As we revisit the riches of the gospel, you may (or may not) recognize some ideas, stories and concepts that I introduced more than ten years ago now, in the sermon series: Living Life in Reverse. Those truths are powerful and practical. I think it is worth revisiting them. So, in a way, this is an updated and expanded version of the original “Living Life in Reverse.” If you want a series title, we could try: “Living Life in Reverse – Again.”

When I did the series the first time, there were a few things which I left out. So, I want to start with very beginning of the Christian life, which is, repentance and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin.

It has been on my mind lately that Christians, in the 21st century Western world, have a very different way of reaching people for Jesus than the Christians of the New Testament. We typically reach out to non-believers with the following basic message:

“God loves you, so much. He really wants you to experience his grace and joy. He is the missing piece of your life. He heals your brokenness and forgives your failures. Come and experience his love.”

Now, that message is good, but it is only half the message that was preached by most Christians throughout history. Here’s the way Jesus himself preached. He taught his disciples to do the same.

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17, ESV)

14 Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15, ESV)

45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:45-47, ESV)

30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. (Acts 5:30-31, ESV)

20 I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:20-21, ESV)

In the verses above, I have italicized the word repentance so you see my point more quickly. You do see it, right? Repentance is an essential part of the gospel. It is the beginning, and it is necessary if we are to receive the gospel.

You see, I believe many people think the gospel is essentially just: “God loves you.” And they hear this, and look up, and think, “Oh, that’s cool. How sweet of him.” And then they go back to whatever they were doing.

Maybe some churches put it a little more forcefully. “God loves you. But if you want to benefit from this love, you need to walk down in front here, say a prayer, and then get baptized.” This is a bit more inconvenient, so not as many people respond positively. And yet, after all, it’s just something you need to do, like going to the DMV, or paying taxes. So, a lot of people take the time out of their lives to go to church for a while, take the deep breath, and then do the God-transaction. Then, they can get back to their lives. Maybe they think it’s like joining a political party. They are now “registered Christians.”

Think about it for a moment. “God loves you,” is not that big of a deal until and unless you feel in need of that love. Scripture tells us that we are desperately in need of his love and mercy. Without the love and grace of God you are utterly lost. You are already dead, spiritually. You are in the process of dying physically; every second brings you closer to the moment of your death. And your soul (where “you” are) is slowly withering, utterly committed to self above all. Even when you do “unselfish” things, it is to benefit your own sense of self-esteem. At the same time, we find ways to justify so many of our selfish desires and actions. (By the way, if I just made you mad with all that, think about why). Yes, your soul, too, is on a long slow decline to eternal frustration and self-hatred.

This is the beginning of the gospel: you are dead in your sins, slave to self, and the things that tempt you, manipulated by spiritual forces of evil, though you don’t realize it. You are infected with a deadly disease that is gradually destroying every part of you. The Bible calls that disease “sin,” and it really means “all that is in conflict with the character of God.”

The human race, in all recorded history, has improved technologically, but not much morally. Thousands of years ago, human beings were greedy, cheating each other, lying, hurting one another, oppressing the weak, and engaging in bloody wars and violence. Isn’t it good that we’re so much better now? Oh, wait. Never mind. Just read a few news sites, and you’ll be convinced that there is something deeply flawed and wrong with humanity in general. The same thing that is wrong with humanity is also wrong with you and me.

Now, a lot of people look at themselves, and think “Gee, I don’t think I’m that bad. I’ve never stolen anything, for instance.” The bible asks: But have you ever been greedy? Ever wanted something that wasn’t yours to want? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

We might say, “Well, I’ve never committed adultery.” But have you ever imagined it? Have you ever wanted to? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

“I’ve never lied.” But have you ever gossiped? Ever said hurtful words, or malicious things? Ever been hurtfully sarcastic? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

If you have the courage to be honest with yourself, you know that within you is a deep well of awful muck, of self-centeredness and arrogance and the desire to have what you want, no matter the consequences.

The beauty, truth and goodness we experience in this world are echoes of the profound presence of God

Now, let’s put this together. Everything that is good, awe-inspiring, encouraging, beautiful, glorious, true and loving originates with God. Some things may come directly from God, like a sense of his love, or the words of scripture. Other things may be several generations “removed” from their origin in God, like, for instance, beautiful music, or a lovely painting, or awe-inspiring landscape, but it all begins with him. The beauty, truth and goodness we experience in this world are echoes of the profound presence of God. Even people who do not know him are affected by him nonetheless, and anyone at all might be used, even unknowingly, to reflect a small piece of God to the world.

But God is so profoundly good, so holy, and so completely powerful, that his very presence destroys anything that is not perfectly good. Bring the tiniest bit of sin into the presence of God, and it is destroyed.

When you combine pure sodium with water, the result is a spectacularly violent reaction. Google it sometime, and watch the video results. There is a similar reaction when sin comes into the presence of God. Sin cannot exist in God’s presence. It is violently destroyed.

18 Then Moses said, “Please, let me see Your glory.”
19 He said, “I will cause all My goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim the name Yahweh before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” 20 But He answered, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live.” 21 The LORD said, “Here is a place near Me. You are to stand on the rock, 22 and when My glory passes by, I will put you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take My hand away, and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.” (Exodus 33:18-23, HCSB)

God was pleased with Moses, and very gracious to him. But he could not allow Moses to “see his face,” which means, in that culture, to be fully in his presence. Later on, when Moses was reminding the people of their first encounter with God on Mount Sinai, he said this:

4 And you said, ‘Behold, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the LORD our God will say, and speak to us all that the LORD our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’
28 “And the LORD heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. (Deuteronomy 5:24-28, ESV)

The people did not see God’s face, but they were close enough to him to be terrified that his holiness would destroy them. And God said, “That’s right. No one can come too close.”

Now, if God is the source of all goodness, truth and beauty, and if the presence of God destroys all that is not perfectly aligned with God’s character, and we are infected with sin (the antithesis of God’s character) we have a problem. If we come into God’s presence we will be annihilated. If we don’t come to him, eventually, we will be further and further separated from all truth, beauty, joy and goodness. We will end up gnawing away at our own souls, bitter, withered, pathetic, hating ourselves, but utterly alone. Complete separation from God is sometimes called “hell,” and that is where we are all headed, and there is nothing we can do about it. Our efforts to stop the slide into self-destruction are pathetic, and in fact, they end up being nothing more than additional manifestations of our twisted and flawed natures.

This is the starting point. Until we face this reality, we have not begun. Until we recognize this reality, there is no hope for us.

You might say, “But Tom, I thought you just said there was no hope anyway. You said an essential thing to recognize is we cannot do anything about it.”

I did, and it is. There is no hope from within humanity in general, or from your friends and family. There is no hope from within your own corrupted body or soul. No hope from your dead spirit.

That is why Jesus entered the world. When he came, he said two things. First: Repent! That means recognizing the truth I just told about our own sin and the pointlessness of our own efforts. To repent means to earnestly desire to turn away from sin, and toward God. It means also that we genuinely give up on the idea that we can help ourselves. We have no hope within ourselves, but we turn toward God in our need, recognizing our own helplessness and hopelessness. In a way, we cannot even do this on our own. The Spirit of God has to empower us to repent. That’s why I’m giving this message: to allow you to hear the Word, and through the Holy Spirit, believe it and repent.

The second part of what Jesus said was: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” In some ways, he was being a little bit coy, since he hadn’t yet completed his mission. But after he had died and risen, he gave his apostles the full message. Peter put it like this:

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” (Acts 2:38-40, ESV)

Being baptized does mean the physical act, but the literal meaning of the word is immersed. We are to be immersed in Christ. Baptism also means you are leaving one realm, and entering a new one. You are leaving behind the world, the devil and your sinful flesh, and entering the kingdom of God. Paul described it in terms of repentance toward God (that is, turning away from sin, and self, and toward God) and faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 20:20-21, quoted earlier).

You might wonder, “But if I am a sinner, and God’s presence destroys sin, how does this help?” That’s a great question. In some ways, the answer takes a lifetime to unpack, but here’s the short version:

God’s intention is to destroy all sin. In doing that, it will be necessary to destroy all sinners, also. So he chose to find a way to make sinners into “not sinners.” He sent Jesus into the world to combine his God-nature with human-nature. Jesus was perfect, because of his God-nature. Because of his human-nature, he became an appropriate vessel to do the job. All sin was placed upon Jesus (which could be done, because of his human nature), and destroyed by his suffering on earth, death on the cross, and descent into hell. Only Jesus, with his eternal God-nature, could survive this. So now, all sin – even the sins of those who lived before Jesus, and sins yet to be committed – has now been punished, and paid for:

1 But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. 22 We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.
23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. 25 For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, 26 for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.
27 Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. 28 So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. (Romans 3:21-28, NLT)

The way to take hold of this forgiveness, this cleansing of sin, is through faith in Jesus Christ. We trust him, and what he has done. And we entrust our entire lives into his care. We immerse ourselves in Jesus, and in his kingdom. Those who reject this are, in essence, saying, “No, we want to continue to sin.” Or, if not: “We believe we can get our salvation some other way.” Those who reject Jesus, who do not trust in him, have rejected the only lifeboat in the ocean. They would be welcome on board, but if they want to wait for some other boat they like better, they will drown.

 But faith turns away from sin, receives what God has done, and entrusts all of life into the hands of God through Jesus Christ. When we do that, God makes our spirit, which was dead to him because of sin, come alive. Through the spirit, he pours grace, love, truth, beauty, goodness and joy into our souls.

This is the starting gate. Everyone must enter through this gate, or remain separated from God forever. Jesus put it like this:

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

If you have never done so, I invite you to believe God’s Word. Repent of your sins, turning away from them, and to God. Entrust your entire life to Jesus. Come alive to God in the spiritual realm.

Now, I am sure that many of you who follow this blog have already entered through this gate. But if you have, you understand how important it is that everyone recognizes these truths, repents, and enters through Jesus.

I myself am using this message to renew my repentance from sins. It can become easy, once we have trusted Jesus and received the grace of God, to forget the deadly and awful nature of sin. Let this message remind you to never make peace with sin. Let it also remind you of the incredible truth, love, joy, beauty and goodness of God, and remind you that all of that is available to us through Jesus Christ.

Let the Spirit keep speaking to you now!

Jonah #6: THE BIBLICAL GOD IS FOR ALL PEOPLE

God called Jonah to recognize that God is for all human beings, not just Israelites. So, he calls us, too, to recognize that many of our brothers and sisters in Christ will not look like us, or even speak the same language. Not everyone is willing to repent and receive God’s forgiveness, but God wants to give the opportunity to ALL people, and he wants us to be on board with that.

The motivation is that God was gracious to us, and saved us when we didn’t deserve it. Not only that, but almost all Christians today are saved because, at some point, people from other cultures and ethnicities reached out to people like us.

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 Jonah Part 6

Please read the whole of Jonah 4:1-11.

For the first part of this message, I owe a lot to Roger, a member of New Joy Fellowship. He observed that Jonah, with all the complexities of his character, with his history, with his temperament, was exactly the right person for the job of converting the people of Nineveh. Because Jonah was an Israeli patriot, he ran away when God first called him, and because of that, he experienced separation from God, his need for God, and then God’s grace. Because he was kind of hardheaded in the first place, because he hated Israel’s enemies, he delivered the message to Nineveh and clear, bold terms. He relished declaring their sin, and he probably enjoyed pronouncing God’s judgment upon them for their sinful ways. And so, without meaning to, he delivered the message in exactly the terms that they needed to hear it.

And of course this is one of the major themes of the book of Jonah: that God is entirely control of all things. God was in charge of allowing the events of Jonah’s earlier life. He allowed Jonah to run. He sent the storm after Jonah was at sea, he sent the fish to swallow Jonah when Jonah was almost drowned, and he stilled the storm, leading the sailors to worship him. He caused the fish to spit Jonah up onto dry land, and he allowed the forces that shaped Jonah into who he was so that the message was delivered to the Ninevites exactly the way it was supposed to be delivered. Jonah made his own choices, of his own free will, and those resulted in God’s will being accomplished exactly as God planned. We don’t always understand this, or how God works it, but that is the biblical truth: we are free to make our own choices, and, at the same time, God is completely in control.

We ended last time on something of a high note: Jonah’s mission has been successful; that is to say, the people of Nineveh have heard the message, and responded with repentance and faith. But the story is not over. We still have Jonah himself to reckon with.

Remember, Nineveh was one of the great cities of Assyria (also called “the Assyrian Empire”). And Assyria was one of the bitter historical enemies of Israel, Jonah’s home. The Assyrians were cruel, brutal and arrogant, and before Jonah’s time they had slowly eaten away at the northeastern parts of the larger Kingdom of Israel that was built by David and Solomon. Israel had been defeated and humiliated many times by Assyria. However, during Jonah’s lifetime, for the first time in centuries, Israel began to defeat the Assyrians, and take back some of their ancient lands. So, finally, Israel was starting to get the upper hand, and then God sent Jonah on his mission, which Jonah feared would actually help Assyria.

Remember, I said, Jonah, after his experience of nearly drowning, understands God’s salvation. He is indeed saved by God’s grace. But that doesn’t mean he has been made perfect in all his ways. He still has some sinful thoughts and attitudes. And this is one of them: God’s grace should be for me, and my people, but not for anyone I consider dangerous, or an enemy. God is not pleased with this attitude. There can be no doubt that it is wrong and sinful.

I’m afraid that with the next part of this message, the Lord is okay with making virtually everyone angry. I just want to say, I am only the messenger. If what I write here makes you angry, please take it up with the Lord, because to the best of my ability am simply passing on the things I believe he wants me to say.

All right, with a big gulp, I’m simply going to plunge in. In order to help us understand the position that Jonah is in I want us to compare it to where we ourselves are often at in our relationships with other people. So, for you President Biden-supporting-people, imagine God calls you to minister to die-hard Trump supporters. Even though you really don’t want to minister to those people, you do so, and the result is that President Trump is elected again in 2024.

Or, those of you who are convinced that the right thing to do in this Covid-19 situation has been absolutely to wear masks and avoid contact with others. Suppose God calls you to minister to people who think masks are silly, and who refused to wear them, and who continued to gather in person? The end result is that those people are encouraged and lifted up.

Let’s put the shoe on the other foot. Imagine you are a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. God calls you to minister to the Black Lives Matter organization, and to people who wholeheartedly support Critical Race Theory. Reluctantly, you will obey, and the result is that their position in society is strengthened.

What if you think illegal immigrants are destroying this country, and God calls you to minister to illegal immigrants in such a way that they are blessed and their position is strengthened?

Maybe you are an NPR-listening, intellectual cultural elite, and God calls you to ultimately bless talk-radio-listening, country, redneck types, people you might secretly think of as deplorables.

Imagine an American patriot called to bring God’s word (and, potentially forgiveness) to the Taliban in the Middle East? Or an American patriot called to bring God’s word to China, so that God won’t destroy the Chinese government?

Before you get angry, make sure you understand my main point. I am not saying everything I named above is morally equal. For example, I think there is no comparison between the horrific crimes of Communist China and people who dispute the wearing of masks in the covid-19 era. I’m not comparing morality or value in the groups I named. I’m only trying to help everyone feel a little bit of what Jonah felt. There is a lot of anger in our culture at the moment, and it is easy to be angry against “those people.” My point is simply that God loves “those people” and he may want you to bring not only his truth, but also his grace to them.

Also, let me make sure we don’t lose an important piece of all this: the people of Nineveh repented of their sins. They heard God’s word, and the first thing they heard from Him was that they were sinners, cut off from God, and there was nothing they could do to save themselves. They believed that this was true, and they repented, crying out to God alone for mercy and salvation.

So, the Bible does not say that all people are saved, no matter what. The book of Jonah is not teaching us that all lifestyles and all philosophies are equally acceptable to God. There is nothing here to suggest other religions are equally valid with worship of the Lord. Not everyone is included in the kingdom of God.

However, Jonah is teaching us that God desires all people to be included in his kingdom. God wants Israelites to repent and be saved. He also wants Assyrians to repent and be saved. He does not want the Assyrians any less than he wants the Israelites.

God wants your enemies, the people that make you want to pull your hair out, to repent and be saved. He loves them every bit as much as he loves you. He also wants you to repent and be saved, if you have not yet done so. The people who live in a different country, who have thoughts and attitudes and habits that you find repulsive, are just as important to God as your children are to you. Those who live far from you are just as important to God as those who live close by. The Bible is filled with verses that teach that God loves all people and wants all people to be saved:

1 First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. 3 This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4, HCSB, formatting added by me for emphasis)

Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” This is the declaration of the Lord GOD. “Instead, don’t I take pleasure when he turns from his ways and lives? (Ezekiel 18:23, HCSB)

31 Throw off all the transgressions you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. Why should you die, house of Israel? 32 For I take no pleasure in anyone’s death.” This is the declaration of the Lord GOD. “So repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:31-32, HCSB)

9 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20, HCSB, formatting added for emphasis)

John’s glimpse of the heavenly reality makes it clear that God desires all people to repent and come to him, and indeed, people from all over the world will do so:

9 After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! (Revelation 7:9-10, HCSB)

Our worst enemies are precious to God. The people we deplore are precious to God. God wants them in his kingdom, if they are willing to come.

We would do well to remember something else. If you are a Christian today, it is only because at some point, Christians from a different culture, with a different language in another part of the world, believed that God wants all people to be saved, and came to you or your ancestors and told them the good news about Jesus. Unless you are an ethnic Jewish Christian, you know Jesus today because people who are foreign to you brought God’s message to you or your ancestors. How then, could we refuse today to help bring the message to people who are not like us?

The idea that God would have mercy on his hated enemies, the Assyrians, was offensive to Jonah. So, God gave him an object lesson with the plant that he neither planted nor tended, but of which he grew very fond. Jonah deliberately makes himself seem childish and petty here, because his attitude about the Assyrians is childish and petty.

I’ll give you another object lesson example. At times, I have been a big fan of NFL football, particularly the Tennessee Titans. There were times when, if the Titans won, I was content and happy for most of the next twenty-four hours. If they lost, I was irritable and moody. Now, I suppose I’m a fan of the Titans because I’ve lived in Tennessee longer than I’ve lived any other place in my life. But, let’s get serious. I have no financial investment in the Titans (not even betting; I don’t gamble). I don’t actually know any of the players, coaches or staff. I don’t live that close to where they play, or even where they practice. In reality, I have no connection at all with the team. Yet, at times, I have deeply cared what happened with them. If I can develop this strange attachment to people and an organization that I’ve never met, why should we consider it strange that God deeply loves human beings, whom he created for himself? How can the Titans be important to me, but not all human beings who are precious to God?

Let’s consider again what Jonah said at the beginning:

“Please, LORD, isn’t this what I said while I was still in my own country? That’s why I fled toward Tarshish in the first place. I knew that You are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to become angry, rich in faithful love, and One who relents from sending disaster. (Jonah 4:2, HCSB)

Jonah was not on board with God’s attitude toward his enemies. But that did not change God’s attitude. God is not a god for our own little tribe. He is for all people. God wants his people on board with this. Yes, to be the people of God means something specific, and some people reject that chance to come to God. But God wants us involved with giving every kind of people, everywhere, a chance to repent and receive his salvation. We don’t get to say, “I don’t want God to use me to bless those people. They aren’t my type of people.” But they are God’s type of people. They may reject God’s message. But they may receive it. Let’s get on board with God’s desire to reach all people.

11 For the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on him will not be put to shame, 12 since there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord of all richly blesses all who call on him. 13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
14 How, then, can they call on him they have not believed in? And how can they believe without hearing about him? And how can they hear without a preacher? 15 And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news (Romans 10:11-15, CSB)

Let the Spirit speak to you today!

JONAH #5: THE GRACE OF HARD WORDS

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We all need to recognize some hard truths before we can truly know God’s grace. We truly need God more than anything else in the universe. We are truly morally corrupt, unable to be with God. We are separated from Him, yet, we will perish apart from Him. And there is nothing we can do about these things.

Once we accept these hard words, we can receive a flood of God’s forgiveness, mercy and grace.

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 Jonah Part 5

JONAH #5. JONAH 3:1-10

Let’s remember where we are in Jonah’s book. In case I haven’t said it before, I believe Jonah himself wrote this book. He almost goes out of his way to avoid making himself look good. He seems to be trying to take us, the readers, through the same lessons that he himself had to learn.

Remember that before this, Jonah was a national hero, a patriot, who, after helping his country become great again, was called to go and preach God’s word to the enemies of his country. Instead, he ran, trying to escape God. God sent a storm, which did not relent until Jonah was thrown overboard, and he began to drown. Before he died, however, God sent a fish, and the fish swallowed Jonah, saving him from drowning. Inside the fish, Jonah repented of his sins, and praised God. Three days later, God made the fish spit Jonah out onto dry land.

Next comes our passage for today. God spoke once more, saying the same thing that he said at first: “Arise. Go to Nineveh – a great city of the Assyrians, who were enemies of Israel – and preach to them.” This time, Jonah got up and went.

Now, it would be easy for us to chuckle at this and say, “Yeah, I just bet he went, after that experience.” We think, “If I was nearly killed by a storm, then nearly drowned, and then swallowed by a fish, and then ended up on the beach lying in fish-vomit, I’d do what God said, too.” In other words,  we think that Jonah went because God forced him to.

However, I think that is a massive misunderstanding of what actually happened with Jonah. When he was drowning, literally dying, Jonah cried to the Lord. He knew that he was in that hard place precisely because he had cut himself off from God, precisely because he was rebellious and sinful. And yet, when Jonah had done nothing but rebel, God saved him anyway. So Jonah says:

9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9, ESV)

He said that while he was still in the fish. He says he will worship God, ‘sacrifice’ to him, and ‘pay what he has vowed,’ because “salvation is from the Lord. (2:9).” That is, Jonah experienced God’s grace and forgiveness, and that changed him into someone who wanted to be on the same page with God, someone who wanted to do what God asked.

It is really important for us to recognize this; it is one the major themes not only of Jonah, but of the whole Bible. Jonah knew he could not save himself, or redeem himself. He knew that salvation comes from God alone; he said as much.

In the sea, and in the fish, Jonah recognized three things:

1. His separation from God (“Then I said, ‘O LORD, you have driven me from your presence,” 2:4).

2. His need of God (“As my life was slipping away, I remembered the LORD,” 2:7, and many other sentences like that).

3. His utter inability to help himself (“I sank down to the very roots of the mountains. I was imprisoned in the earth, whose gates lock shut forever.” 2:6, among other verses).

He cried out for help and mercy, and God answered him. It is because God saved him that he gets up and does what God asks. Jonah wants to do God’s will after this. Later on we will deal with the fact that although he is saved, and he wants to obey God, he still holds sinful thoughts and attitudes. For now, understand that Jonah is not motivated by law and fear, but rather, by grace and by love.

Now, let’s go to Nineveh with Jonah. I’m going to give you “Tom’s Literal-Ish” Translation (TLIT?): “Now Nineveh was a city great to God, of three days’ travel.”

The second half of verse three has been used by some skeptics to show that the bible is inaccurate. They point out that (as far as we know from archaeology) the city of Nineveh was not three days’ journey across at that point in history (three days walking would be about sixty miles). I bring this up in case you ever encounter arguments like these. There are several reasonable answers to this objection. First of all, though there is a lack of evidence showing a walled city that large at that time, a lack of evidence cannot actually prove anything. The evidence could be yet to be discovered. Or, it may have once existed, but now be lost for all time.

Second, in a crowded city, a person is extremely unlikely to average twenty miles a day walking. In ancient cities, the streets were narrow, crooked, and choked with traffic of all sorts: donkeys, donkey-carts, camels, caravans, cattle, street-vendors, beggars and business-people of all sorts. If you have ever been in a third-world city in modern times you realize that most of the residents spend their time outside, in the streets. It would be even more so in ancient times. So you would be lucky to go even ten miles a day through a populous city, which would shrink the size of Nineveh by at least half. In my opinion, it would be impossible to go even ten miles in a day, so that makes it even smaller.

There are other possible answers to this objection. Although Nineveh “proper” (say, the walled portion) may not have been three days journey across, there were three other cities (as well as a few smaller towns) close by, and these were sometimes included when people spoke of Nineveh. If you include these, and outlying “suburbs,” you have a “Greater Nineveh Area” that certainly would take three days to travel through. (See Genesis 10:11-12, if this topic interests you)

But I think these solutions, while possible, are unnecessary. First, as you see from my TLIT, the Hebrew leaves things open to interpretation. It could mean Nineveh was so large it took three days to journey from one side to the other – but that’s not exactly what it says. It might also mean that it took three days to see all the important parts of Nineveh. However, if we simply pay attention to the context, it is clear what the author is getting at. The NLT puts it most clearly.

4 On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” 5 The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow. (Jonah 3:4-5, NLT, italic formatting added for emphasis)

Nineveh was a big city, and it was going to take Jonah three days to complete his work of preaching, in order to make sure everyone had a chance to hear. Even so, on the very first day, the people responded to God’s word. The point is this: the people listened to God immediately, even before Jonah had completed his assignment. That is the point of the three-day comment. It is about Jonah’s mission, and it is there to show us that the people repented even before Jonah was halfway done.

It may surprise some people to read that every single person in the city responded with fasting. Some cultural information is helpful here. In those days, the community was much more important than the individual. In matters of religion the people decided together which gods they would worship, and how they would do so. In these decisions, the community leaders had the most important voices. Therefore, I think verse 5 describes the outcome (everyone gets on board with fasting), while verses 6-9 are an explanation, showing exactly how this came about. Basically, the king and his nobles led the entire community into repentance for their sins.

I want to take a moment and think about what provoked this immediate and drastic response. We are not told exactly what Jonah said in his preaching, other than this: ““Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” (NLT). It is safe to assume that Jonah said more than that, and that this is just a kind of summary. I think we can read between the lines here, and, with a knowledge of the rest of the Bible, get a sense for Jonah’s main message.

Remember Jonah’s background. He was a hero to his own people, an Israeli patriot. Now, God has called him to go preach to Israel’s enemies. Although Jonah has experienced God’s grace and forgiveness, it has not yet filtered down to change all of his thinking and attitudes. So, he doesn’t like the people of Nineveh. He doesn’t understand why God is concerned about them. He doesn’t care that they experience God’s grace and forgiveness and salvation. In fact, he doesn’t want them to. Therefore, he states God word as unappealingly as possible. Basically I think he said this:

  • You all are full of sin and evil. Your actions, and your very lives, are offensive to the one, true, living God. (Jonah might also have preached about the specific kinds of sins that they were committing.)
  • Because your sins have separated you from that one true God, you will be destroyed in forty days’ time.

Jonah did not expect this sort of preaching to be effective. I don’t think he wanted it to be. But two things were going on of which Jonah was unaware. In the first place, before anyone can truly experience God’s grace, they must come face to face with their own sin and evil, and their own helplessness to be better. This is exactly what happened to Jonah in the ocean and fish, but he still didn’t realize that God loves all people, not just Israelites.

If you think you can make yourself into a better person, you cannot experience the grace of God. If you think you aren’t so bad, or that God compares you to other, more sinful people and says, “She’s not so bad, compared to _____,” you cannot be saved. In order to be saved, we must both admit that we are hopelessly sinful, and that we deserve nothing good from God, and that we cannot do anything about this predicament. Jonah helped the people of Nineveh by bringing them face to face with their own depravity. They heard his preaching, and thought, “We need God’s forgiveness, but we have separated ourselves from Him! We cannot do anything to fix it!”

So the fact that Jonah was so harsh and clear about their doom was actually very good and helpful. (Again, however, I don’t think he actually wanted them to repent).

The second thing Jonah didn’t think about was this: God is loving, gracious and forgiving. And so, even though Jonah was trying to simply condemn his enemies, the Ninevites, even though he thought maybe he had succeeded in doing it, God will make his grace known to anyone who is willing to listen. Think about it for a moment. How in the world did God’s grace come through Jonah’s harsh preaching? Hint: in the New Living Translation it is four words. In the ESV, it is three words.

Here are the words of grace, from the NLT: “Forty days from now.”

These words may not sound that amazing to you, but imagine the people of Nineveh. They heard God’s word, and they believed it. They believed that their souls were riddled through with sin. They accepted that they were evil, and deserved to be destroyed. Most importantly, they accepted that there was nothing they could do about it. Put yourself in that position and then ask: “Why forty days from now? Why not destroy us immediately?”

There’s only one logical answer: “Because God doesn’t want to destroy us.”

So they responded with earnest and true repentance.

6 When word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he issued a decree in Nineveh:
“By order of the king and his nobles: No man or beast, herd or flock, is to taste anything at all. They must not eat or drink water. 8 Furthermore, both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth, and everyone must call out earnestly to God. Each must turn from his evil ways and from the violence he is doing. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent; He may turn from His burning anger so that we will not perish.” ( Jonah 3:6-9, HCSB)

Sackcloth was basically the cheapest, ugliest, most humiliating and uncomfortable thing you could wear. It was usually very roughly made out of goat-hair. Goat hair clothing is smelly and itchy, and they deliberately made it utterly unstylish. People wore it in order to show that they were full of extreme grief, remorse and repentance. Ashes were dumped on the head for the same purpose. To wear sackcloth and sit in ashes was to humiliate yourself, to show extreme sorrow and shame and regret.

When they heard that God was going to give them forty days, they believed that meant he might forgive them after all. Since his forgiveness was their only hope, they turned to him. In short, they turned away from the path of sin, and they put all of their hope in God alone. Once more, we find the gospel – the good news – even in the Old Testament, even from a prophet who didn’t want to preach it.

Let’s begin to apply this to our lives right now.

First, think again about why Jonah now obeyed God. It would be easy to think that God forced him to go. Certainly, there was still work to be done in Jonah’s heart, but I think the evidence we have is that he went as a response to God’s grace. I wonder if sometimes we almost have an attitude toward God that is like this: “If you want me to do this (or stop doing that) so bad, why don’t you just make me?” When we think this way, it shows that we don’t understand God’s grace. We may not truly believe that we would be cut off and without hope if it wasn’t for His love and forgiveness. Maybe we think we’re not such bad people, and God’s love is only a small favor that he does for us. If you are having trouble with your behavior, try meditating on God’s incredible love and grace.

Second, let’s not miss the big message. In our natural state, we, like all other humans, have sin wrapped up in our bodies and minds. It cuts us off from God, and there is nothing – nothing – we can do to fix this problem. Yet God says this:

Let the wicked one abandon his way
and the sinful one his thoughts;
let him return to the LORD,
so He may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for He will freely forgive. (Isaiah 55:7, HCSB)

Listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit today!

JONAH #4: THE FAITHFUL LOVE THAT SAVES US

Jonah, influenced by the world around him, unwilling to listen to God, found himself banished from God’s presence, dying. He turned back to the Lord in his distress, the and Lord saved him. This is the gospel in a nutshell, and we find it today in the Old Testament. We are separated from God by our own sin, and yet God’s faithful, covenant-love saves us when we cry out to him, when we trust him to do what we cannot do.

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 Jonah Part 4

I just said something briefly last time about the miraculous nature of Jonah being in the fish. For Christians today, I think it might be worth spending some more time on the relationship of faith, miracles, and science. A miracle, by definition, is when the normal laws of physics, biology, etc. are set aside by God. Because of this, science cannot either prove or disprove the existence of miracles. Science can’t study them. Many people who pride themselves for being rational thinkers, say that this makes miracles bogus. If they can’t be studied scientifically, why should we believe they are real at all?

Behind that sort of attitude is an assumption that science is the only true way of knowing things. The idea is that if something can’t be studied by science, it isn’t real, or true. Or, to put it another way: everything that exists can be discovered and studied and known by science.

Even though many people think like this, it is utterly ridiculous to believe that science is the only way of knowing anything, or even that it can (eventually) know everything. In the first place, science itself cannot prove that it is the only way of knowing anything. That is a completely non-scientific proposition. It is an example of what we call “a circular argument,” that is, an argument that depends upon itself in order to be true. To simplify, it is like saying, “science is the only way of knowing anything, and the reason we know that is because science is the only way of knowing anything.”

In fact, we can think of many things that normal people consider rational, but cannot be proven by science. We believe that some things are good, and others are evil – yet we cannot know that by the scientific method. Science uses math and logic, but it cannot prove the validity of either one – that would be another circular argument (I can’t use logic to show that logic is real).

We encounter things that are outside of the realm of science every single day. Take for instance, love. If someone were to study love scientifically, they would have to ask questions like these: “How much does love weigh? How long is it? How high? At what speed does love travel? Which molecules are used to build love-units? What does it look like under a microscope? How does it behave under laboratory conditions?” Obviously, these sorts of questions do not apply to love.

However, just as obviously, love exists. So do dozens more such things that profoundly affect our lives, but which science can know nothing about. Another example is freedom. What is the specific mass of freedom? What happens when you mix freedom with water? Again, silly questions. Science is excellent for studying the physical world. All Christians should rejoice at the way science has helped human beings. But obviously, there are more ways of knowing than science, and human beings couldn’t function if we knew nothing other than what science knows.

In fact, in order to do science, we must first accept, without evidence, that human thinking is rational, that our senses do not deceive us, and our thoughts correspond to reality, and that it is possible to discover what it true. In order to do science, all of those things have to be taken as “givens;” that is, we must simply believe that they are true, that is, we have faith that they are true. In other words: science could not exist without faith. Therefore, while science is a powerful way of knowing, faith is also a powerful way of knowing, and in some ways, faith is necessary for science to work.

I want to make sure that we Christians understand that there is no necessary conflict between faith and science. They are not at war. They are complementary ways of knowing things. It is true that some scientists try to use science to attack or undermine faith, but when they do that, they are being unscientific. When a scientist says something like: “this proves that there is no God,” or “this proves that miracles do not happen,” those are not scientific statements. Science cannot pass judgment on matters of faith without becoming unscientific.

All right, let’s look once more at the prayer, or psalm, that Jonah composed while he was (unscientifically) in the belly of the whale. It is important that we do so with the foundation of last week: In the belly of the sea creature, Jonah was saved, and yet, his salvation was not yet complete. So we too, have been saved, but our salvation won’t be complete until we stand with Jesus in the New Creation. Therefore, what Jonah says at this time is very relevant to us.

The Psalm starts with this: “I called out to the LORD, out of my distress, and he answered me.” This is the main point. Jonah says he cried for help from “Sheol,” which means “the place of the dead.” He doesn’t think he died, but he thinks he was knocking on death’s door. Jonah recognizes that he needed salvation because of his own sin and wrongdoing. He says, (as I pointed out last time) that it was the Lord who cast him into the sea, and he says he was banished from the sight of the Lord. In other words, his own sin and disobedience separated him from God. Jonah was almost beyond hope. He says he was near death, banished from the sight of God by his own sin. You can’t get any closer to lost than Jonah was. It reminds me of several different New Testament verses, including:

1 Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. 2 You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. 3 All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else.
4 But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, 5 that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!  (Ephesians 2:1-5, NLT)

Jonah, in his desperate situation, looked to the Lord alone for salvation. When we recognize our need and distress, when we know we have no hope apart from the Lord, and we call on him, he saves us. No one who trusts him will be put to shame. All who call on him will be saved. This is the basic message of the whole Bible.

This is the message of faith that we proclaim:9If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.10One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation.11Now the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on Him will not be put to shame,12for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, since the same Lord of all is rich to all who call on Him.13For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Rom 10:8-13, HCSB)

This is the gospel in a nutshell, and here it in the book of Jonah, in the Old Testament, seven hundred and fifty years before Jesus! 

I want us to pay special attention to verses 8 and 9. The best English translation of verse 8 is the HSCB: “Those who cling to worthless idols//forsake faithful love.” That’s really all it says in Hebrew. I think it is implied, however that the faithful love they forsake is the love of God. In the New Testament there is a Greek word that describes the unconditional, never-ending, sacrificial love of God: agape. In the Old Testament, there is a Hebrew word that is the equivalent of agape. That word is cHesed. (I add the small “c” for pronunciation. It’s like starting to softly clear your throat). It means: “faithful, never-ending love; covenant-love.” That is what Jonah says idol worshippers forsake. God offers us never ending, faithful love. He loves us so much that he sent Jesus to die in our place. But we can’t have both our idols, and also, at the same time, God’s love. If we choose to live for human relationships, or money, or achievement, or pleasure, or art, we forsake God’s love.

Now, all of the things I just named are good in their rightful places. Not even pleasure is evil in and of itself. But if we make any of these more important than God, or if we think of any of them as the “ultimate thing,” we forsake the love of God. If we must have something (other than God), or if we run to such things, rather than God, to bring us comfort and hope, we are in danger of idolatry. Jonah realizes what he almost gave up. Nothing is worth more than God’s cHesed , his covenant-love. But idol worshipers ignore what is eternally precious in the pursuit of things that only temporarily satisfy.

In verse 9, Jonah says he will sacrifice to the Lord, and do what he had vowed. God called Jonah to preach His word. Jonah accepted that call. But when God sent him to Nineveh, he balked. Now, he says, “I will do what I was supposed to do.” Notice that this comes after God has saved him. He is not trying to pay for his salvation. He knows he can’t earn it. But because God showed Jonah his power, and because God saved him, Jonah will live in obedience. It is a response to God’s grace, not a way to earn something from God. He has remembered (with God’s obvious help) that he is in a covenant with God, a cHesed covenant. That means, among other things, that he will go where God tells him, and do what God asks. He does this, not in order to get saved, but because God has already saved him, and given him covenant-love.

Jonah’s ending statement basically reiterates this main point. However, the words he uses makes it truly stunning.

Salvation is from the lord!” (Jonah 2:9, HSCB)

OK, maybe it doesn’t seem that stunning to you. This will take a bit of concentration to understand, but it is worth it, so listen closely. In the book of Exodus, God revealed himself personally to Moses as “I am that I am.” The Israelites took that to mean that God’s name was literally, “I am that I am,” or, as they pronounced it: “Yahweh.” They believed that God’s personal name was Yahweh. God commanded them not to take his name in vain. As time went on, the Jews took this command very seriously, and so, when the Old Testament text said “Yahweh,” they felt it was too holy to pronounce. Instead they said “The Lord.”

Most English Bible translations use this same practice. So, in most English translations, when you read “The Lord,” the Hebrew actually says, “Yahweh.”

Fast forward to New Testament times. For the first Christians, the basic confession of faith was this: “Jesus is Lord.” Those who said that did not mean: “Jesus is an important person (a lord).” They were saying: Jesus is THE LORD, the one true God who revealed himself to the people of Israel in ancient times. In other words: Jesus is Yahweh.

Now, one other thing. Jesus is our English way of saying his name. In Hebrew, “Jesus” is pronounced “Yeshua” and it means, “(the Lord’s) salvation.” Almost certainly, when his disciples said his name, they would have said, “Yeshua.”

Now let’s return to Jonah 2:9. There are only two Hebrew words in this verse. It is translated, “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” But let me give it to you straight from the Hebrew: “Yeshua Yahweh.”

In other words: Jesus is Yahweh.

I don’t want to create any misunderstanding. Jonah had no idea that one day God was going to come into the world as a man named Yeshua. But that doesn’t change the fact that the Lord inspired Jonah to use those exact words. To me, it is sort of like finding an Easter egg hidden by God, or maybe like having God wink at us. He’s saying, “Here I am! In case you were wondering if it’s all really true, look, I’m everywhere.” Seven hundred years before he came into the world, the Lord dropped that little breadcrumb there for us!

Thoughts for application:

  • Though some scientists are antagonistic to Christianity, there is no necessary conflict. What are ways that you can praise God for the wisdom he has given the world through science? What are concerns that you might want to turn over to the Lord?
  • How has your own sin and disobedience separated you from the Lord? What about the world, or temptations? Have you called on the name the name of the Lord? Hear the word of the Lord through Jonah that all who call upon him (which means, also trusting him) will be saved!
  • Consider meditating on God’s covenant love for you, his commitment to love you, even to his own death. Receive his love by thanking him for it (and possibly singing, or responding in some other creative way)
  • What is the Lord saying to you today through his word?