1 PETER #16: GOD AND GOVERNMENT

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I am free, no matter what kind of government exists in the country I live in. I am a servant of Christ, no matter how free I am politically. I am a follower of Jesus, who endured injustice, and instigated a kingdom that is not of this world. These things have profound impacts on how I relate to the governments of this world.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen. 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 16

1 PETER #16. 1 PETER 2:13-17

I will take this next section piece by piece, but we should keep in mind the whole section from verses 13 through 25, because we need to keep the context clear to understand it properly. Please read all of those verses (13-25) before continuing.

The ESV says “be subject to…” Other translations might say “submit to.” The thing we are told to submit to is “every human institution.” Just to clarify, Peter names the types of things he means: emperors and governors. In other words: “be subject to the government.” Right away, I would expect most Americans to bristle at this idea. I know I do, and I was not even raised in America. I don’t want to “be subject” to anyone. I want to be free. It gets worse when I find that it is the government to which I should submit.

Let’s start out with the qualifiers, exceptions, and objections – there are legitimate ones. Peter himself, on several different occasions, refused to obey governing authorities. If you want to find a couple of those, please read Acts 4:18-21, and Acts 5:27-29. In those cases, Peter and the other apostles were doing what Jesus told them to do: preaching repentance, forgiveness and salvation, in the name of Jesus. The authorities told them not to do it. Peter responded, in Acts 4:19: “”You yourselves judge which is right in God’s sight—to obey you or to obey God.”

This gives us a clear understanding of certain situations. If obeying the governing authorities would lead us to disobey God, we calmly choose to obey God. In addition, we accept the consequences of disobeying the government. Peter and the other apostles were in and out of prison, and sometimes beaten or whipped, for their continual civil disobedience in this way. They never said: “You don’t have the right to imprison us!” They never reacted violently. However, they continued to obey God when there was a conflict between following Jesus and submitting to the governing authorities. You might say this principle in short is: “Obey God, and accept the consequences.”

I want to make sure this is clear, however. This civil disobedience came about only from a direct conflict between following Jesus and obeying the authorities. In other words, they didn’t disobey the government simply because they perceived it to be unfair, or unjust, or even criminal. The only cause for disobedience was when obedience to the government meant disobedience toward God. In other words they disobeyed only if the authorities were telling them to stop doing something that they must do as followers of Jesus, or to do something that God says is wrong (that is, sinful). So, if the government tells you your taxes are going up, or that you aren’t allowed to raise chickens in your neighborhood, or that you can’t park wherever you feel like, you have no Biblical case to disobey.

On the other hand, if the government tells you to stop reading your Bible, or to stop participating in church, or stop telling others about Jesus, you can disobey with a clear conscience – although you should also be ready to accept the consequences of your civil disobedience. In the second category, if the government tells you to do something wrong, like murdering someone, or lying, it is appropriate to disobey the government. Again, however, don’t be surprised if you end up in trouble for it. Peter’s point is that following Jesus is worth the trouble. We do need to understand that following Jesus won’t necessarily keep us out of trouble with the government, or our bosses at work.

There’s another caveat to add. The apostles and early Christians apparently saw nothing wrong with doing what they could to avoid conflict, and even to avoid unjust punishment from the government. When a great persecution broke out in Jerusalem, many Christians fled from there to other areas, and that, in fact, helped the gospel to spread. In plain terms, they ran away before they could be caught and thrown into prison (Acts 8:1-3). The Bible does not condemn them for that, and in fact, seems to see it positively.

Shortly after Paul became a Christian, he began to preach in the city of Damascus. The authorities came after him, and Paul’s friends helped him escape one night by lowering him over the city wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25). So, again, this is an example of someone running away from the governing authorities, and he is not condemned for it.

One of the times Peter was imprisoned is recorded in Acts 12:1-19. The apostle James was executed. The authorities were going to kill Peter, also, but, as the church prayed for him, an angel released him from prison. I want to point out that the church did not lead an insurrection that led to Peter’s release. No, they prayed for him, and trusted God with the result. After going to the house-church and telling them he was safe, Peter hid from the authorities. The Bible never suggests that it was wrong of Peter to hide for a while after escaping from prison.

Also, whenever possible, Christians used the mechanisms of the government to get relief from persecution. Several times Paul used his Roman citizenship to force the authorities to treat him better (Acts 16:37) and give him a fair trial (Acts 21:22-29). So it isn’t wrong to dispute with the government through proper legal mechanisms.

It is important to understand these types of exceptions and qualifications. But the fact remains that, in general, we are supposed to be subject to the governing authorities. Paul too, affirmed that this is normal Christian practice (Romans 13:1-7) In teaching this, Peter and Paul were only passing on the teaching of Jesus himself.  When Jesus was questioned about paying taxes, he said, in no uncertain terms, that people should pay them. These taxes were manifestly unfair to start with, and were collected by corrupt people who charged extra in order to line their own pockets. But Jesus told his followers to pay them anyway, and focus instead on the kingdom of God:

13 Then they sent some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to Jesus to trap him in his words. 14 When they came, they said to him, “Teacher, we know you are truthful and don’t care what anyone thinks, nor do you show partiality but teach the way of God truthfully. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we? ”
15 But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius to look at.” 16 They brought a coin. “Whose image and inscription is this? ” he asked them.
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
17 Jesus told them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

(Mark 12:13-17, CSB)

In a way, Jesus was saying, “The government is irrelevant. The corruption is irrelevant. None of that can stop the kingdom of God. None of that matters as much as your citizenship in heaven.”

So, the whole point behind the Christian attitude toward government is that we are, first and foremost, citizens of the Kingdom of God. We need to live like that, and that means that the actions of any particular government are not as important to us as our callings in God’s Kingdom.

The government when Peter wrote these verses was made up of layers of dictatorships upon dictatorships, and corruption upon corruption. The common people had very little freedom or opportunity. In other words, they put up with a lot of – [insert your own adjective] – stuff from the government, and Peter says, “obey the government anyway.”

If it is any comfort, you don’t have to like it. But the truth is, as much as I like to complain, I am still better off under the American government today than I am under any other government in the world at this time. In fact, I am better off under the American government today than I would have been in any other place in the world, at any other time in history, except possibly the American government of forty to fifty-seven years ago. (If you go back to earlier than 1964, you will find that the U.S. government legally allowed the oppression of minorities and women). So, compared to Peter, and compared to most of the population of the world throughout history, and even today, we don’t have much to complain about.

The point is though, even when we do have legitimate complaints about earthly government, our focus as followers of Jesus should be on our citizenship in heaven. Peter writes: “Live as free people, but don’t use your freedom to cover up evil. Live as servants of God.” So we are free, no matter what the government does to us. And yet, even if we live in a wonderfully free society, we are bound to the Lord, and are His servants. Peter gives us the key: “Be subject, for the Lord’s sake, to every human institution…” We don’t submit to the government because it’s a good government. We do it for the sake of the Lord. After all, we are followers of Jesus. We should expect to live life as he did. This is the way Jesus lived with regard to the authorities:

21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

(1 Peter 2:21-23)

It is not that we expect the government to always be good and just. It is rather that we entrust ourselves to God. And even when injustice occurs (as it certainly did, in the crucifixion of Jesus) God will bring goodness, glory and grace out of it, sooner or later.

Peter also uses as an example the instance of a Roman slave who is treated unjustly. He says, to such a person, “There is something bigger here than your experience of injustice. God will deal with the injustice, and it will be sorted out in the end. In the meantime, when you suffer unjustly, it is a credit to you, and there is grace for you in following in the way of Jesus.”

We often want to make our submission conditional upon whether or not the authority we submit to is good. We’re willing  to submit when we can see why it’s a good idea, or if we can see the position of the government is just. But if we think it is wrong, or unfair, we are inclined to think, “I don’t have to obey, because it isn’t just or fair.”

However, if you only submit to those authorities that you judge are good, you are left with a huge problem. Who, aside from Jesus, is truly good? You could find fault with any authority whatsoever, because all human beings are corrupted by sin. Not only that, but we are human beings, so we could not even claim that individuals should have authority over themselves, because we ourselves are also corrupted by sin, and if we are “in charge of ourselves,” so to speak, that means that we are under a corrupt authority. No, there is no legitimacy in obeying only when we think it’s fair. Again, we submit not because we approve of the government, but because of the Lord.

I say all this with a great deal of trepidation. It seems to me that the rules are rapidly changing, and the American government and institutions are rapidly pursuing a course that will result in a great deal more legal injustice, even though they claim it is in the name of justice. I think it is a very real possibility that before long I will be confronted with whether or not I can follow my own teaching in this matter. Of course, I hope it isn’t my teaching, but that of the Bible. My point is, we live in a generation where this teaching will be severely tested.

Probably within eighteen months of when Peter wrote this, Emperor Nero began a horrific persecution of Christians in Rome, the city where Peter wrote this letter. During the worst part of it, Nero had Christians tied to stakes, and then burned alive, in order to light up the palace gardens at night. This was the emperor at the time when Peter wrote: “obey the governing authorities.”

Legend has it that Peter decided to flee Rome, along with thousands of other Christians. While he was on the way, he was met by a vision of Jesus. Jesus said, “Where are you going, Peter?” Peter took that as Jesus telling him to remain in Rome, and accept the consequences. Whether or not Peter had that vision, he certainly did stay in Rome, and he was killed by the Emperor that he told his readers to obey. He absolutely put his own words into practice.

So, too, we must be prepared to accept the consequences which come, which might involve the loss of a job, or even a career. In some instances, it might involve being fined, taxed unfairly, and possibly even imprisoned. Our own property might be taken from us. We Christians have a history  of peaceful resistance that spans millennia, and even today, Christians in various parts of the world are imprisoned, lose their own rightful property, and sometimes are killed, as they follow Jesus, and refuse to return violence for violence.

Again, there are clearly instances where we will have to disobey governing authorities. And again, I say that according to the Bible, this must be a peaceful disobedience, one that accepts the consequences without returning violence for violence

I have occasionally heard American Christians say things like: “If they come to take my guns, they can have them by the end that shoots the bullets.” Or, “They better bring an army when they come for my house.” Believe me, I understand the sentiments. I truly do. I feel those same feelings. It feels like there could be a time when our very freedom is at stake. But Jesus has made us different than that, better than that. Because we belong to Jesus, we are free, no matter what kind of government we live under. We can allow our property to be confiscated because we have “property” in the New Creation that can never be taken from us. Everything we have in this life is only borrowed, anyway.

Certainly, if such a thing happens to me, I will fight it by every legal and peaceful means I can employ. But in the end, the way to achieve freedom is to follow in the way of Jesus Christ. If we taught more and more people in our country to follow Jesus, political freedom would  not be an issue. Even secular writer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the freedom experienced by Americans was directly connected to the fact that so many Americans were Christians at that time. If you want to “fight for freedom,” live like a follower of Jesus, and encourage others to do the same. If enough people follow Jesus, government won’t be an issue. However, according to Jesus, government isn’t an issue in any case.

In the meantime the point is, I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom before and after I am a citizen of any country on earth. Obeying the government whenever I can, and peacefully disobeying when there is a conflict with following God, becomes a way to follow in the path of Jesus, and to proclaim to the world that we have found something far better than anything this world has to offer.

1 PETER #15: A DIFFERENT KIND OF WAR

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The desires of the flesh wage war on our souls, leaving us hollow-shelled and hopeless. We learn to abstain from them not because it’s a law, but because God has already made us his people. When we connect to his love, we find strength to abstain from the flesh, and that brings glory to God, which is the best thing for us, and for the whole world.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: For some people, especially if you are using your phone, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen. 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 15

As always, we need to keep in mind the context of our verses. This time, context is especially important, otherwise we might get the wrong idea. Remember, Peter has been writing about what God has done for us. We are God’s specially selected people; a holy nation; a royal priesthood; a people obtained by, and for, God. Once we were not God’s people, but now we are; once we had not received his mercy, but now we have. God’s purpose in making us his own includes showing the universe that he is a good, holy and loving God.

Therefore – with God’s grace showered on us, with new identities as God’s people –

11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

(1 Peter 2:11-12, ESV)

So we can see right away that we abstain from sinful desires not in order to become God’s people, but rather, because he has already made us his people. Avoiding sin is about living according to our true nature as God’s children.

I have used the marriage analogy many times in the past, and, of course, the Bible itself portrays our relationship with Jesus as a marriage. I live like a married man because I am a married man. I don’t avoid adultery in order to become married to Kari, or in order to get Kari to love me. Instead, I abstain from adultery because I love Kari, because I know Kari loves me, and because we are (already) married.

If I want to be married, is it necessary to avoid adultery? I would say so. Does that mean Kari loves me only for the things I do, or don’t do: i.e., she loves me primarily because I have avoided adultery? No. Simply abstaining from adultery is not the main basis for a marriage, but it is the natural result of a loving relationship between husband and wife. It’s about love, not law, but love affects behavior.

So, should we abstain from sin if we belong to Jesus? I would say so. Does Jesus only love and save us if we don’t sin? Is abstaining from sin the main basis for our relationship with Jesus? No – it is the natural result of first, connecting with how much God loves us, and second, our own awakening love for God. I’ll say it again, because it is so important: It’s about love, not law, but love affects behavior.

With that understanding, let’s talk about what Peter means when he tells us we should “abstain from the passions of the flesh.” First the word “abstaining,” is, in Greek, the opposite of “complete fullness.” In other words, the point is, we abstain completely. We don’t just limit ourselves to a “little bit” of the passions of the flesh. The goal is to have nothing to do with them whatsoever. Certainly, less indulgence of the flesh is better than more, but the goal is none.

That naturally raises the question: what are these “passions of the flesh?” Flesh is a term used by Paul and Peter to describe the source of sinful desires in someone who belongs to Jesus. Maybe one way to say it is this: My flesh = my body, corrupted by sin. Our sinful desires don’t originate in the spirit, or even the soul. They come from the flesh. Paul explains to the Galatians that the desires of the flesh lead to the works (actions) of the flesh:

17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.

(Galatians 5:17-21, ESV)

The list above is not exhaustive, unfortunately, but I’m sure you get the idea. If we keep in mind what I’ve been saying about love, we won’t need an exhaustive list. Instead, what we need is to cultivate our receiving of God’s love, and cultivate our own love for him.

There are three reasons to abstain from the desires of the flesh: First, because God has made us his people. That’s mostly what we’ve been talking about so far – it means our behavior arises out of God’s love for us, and our loving response to him. There’s another piece, also, about being God’s people. Peter comments that being the people of God means we are strangers and temporary residents in this sinful world. This world is not our home. We are not citizens here, and so we live differently. In fact, we are to live on this earth as though we are already citizens of heaven – because, in fact, that is what we are!

Though your present body will have to die, your spirit, and your soul, will not. In some mysterious way, your spirit-life is already with Christ in heaven.

1 Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 2 Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. 3 For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God.

(Colossians 3:1-3, NLT)

So, your spirit is alive with Christ. Your body is corrupted by sin, and is dying slowly. Your soul is the interface between spirit and body. It can be influenced by the spirit, or by the sin-corrupted body – that is, the flesh. The Lord wants us to remember that we belong in heaven, and in fact, one part of us is already “there” in some way (our spirit). The fact that we belong to God makes us strangers and non-citizens of the world. So we live like God’s people, not worldly people.

Peter writes that the passions of the flesh “wage war against your soul.” This is the second reason to abstain from them. The term translated “wage war” is an interesting one, in Greek. Another way to say it is that the passions of the flesh are waging a long and strategic campaign against your soul.

The Lord wants to influence your soul through the spirit. The devil wants to influence your soul through your sin-corrupted body – that is, your flesh. The soul is the battle ground. We need to remember that we are in a spiritual war.

The flesh will offer you immediate gratification, but somehow, the gratification part doesn’t last very long. As David Wilcox wrote: “You can get what’s second best…but it’s hard to get enough.” Your soul is built for God and his New Creation, but the passions of the flesh dull our spiritual senses. They take away our taste for God. They encourage us to not be thankful, always reminding us instead, of what we don’t have. When we indulge the passions of the flesh, it begins to steal our hope. We live for whatever shallow pleasure we can get, so we never get the chance to experience deep joy, which often only comes after a kind of emptiness. The flesh is insistent, and demanding, and ultimately it wears us out, and leaves us with a few tarnished cheap thrills, and nothing of lasting value. It brings us into strife with others, and even strife within our own hearts. If we let it, the flesh will leave us bored, angry, dull, frustrated, friendless, hopeless, heartless and hapless. It will blast the architecture of your soul into rubble.

God is not trying to spoil our fun. He wants us to recognize our enemies, and not be seduced by them. He wants our souls to thrive, and so, through Peter, the Holy Spirit warns us that the passions of the flesh will seek to destroy us.

The third reason to abstain from the passions of the flesh is because it brings glory to God, and whenever God is glorified, the best things in the universe happen. This is when the architecture of your soul gets built, and rebuilt. When you have one of those sublime moments of joy that somehow fill you and lift you up and make you long for even more, it is a result of the glory of God. When God is glorified, all is well within us also.

I wish it wasn’t true sometimes, but our behavior is one way that God is glorified. When we don’t meet hurt with hurt, when we say “no,” to mindless indulgence, when we live in love, others notice.

I mentioned this a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating. In Allahabad in northwest India, Hindu and Buddhist people have been present for millennia. Many of them have been powerful, wise and intelligent. A few hundred years ago, the area was conquered by Muslim rulers. They ruled the region for centuries, and they too were often powerful, wise and intelligent. No Hindu rulers, and no commoner, taught the people to read their own language. No Muslim or Buddhist did, either. Neither Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus started schools, or provided widespread medical care to common people. But when Christians came to the area, they built hospitals, and brought medical care to even the most poor. They developed a written form of the languages spoken by the common people, and taught them to read and write. Then they built schools and universities. Christians living in the love of God do things that other people don’t normally do. It’s noticeable.

Make sure you understand here. I’m not saying that no one who calls themselves a Christian will do terrible things. I’m not saying that only Christians do good things, or that, for instance, Buddhists cannot be wonderful, loving, selfless people. I’m saying that the overwhelming testimony of history is that Christians who follow Jesus faithfully have had a noticeable impact on the world, in a way that is historically different from the impact of other world views.

Now, that’s a wide snapshot of history in a certain place of the world. I’m not suggesting that all of you reading this need to go overseas and teach literacy, or build schools or hospitals. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t either – listen to the Holy Spirit on that. But I am saying, based on this text, that we Christians are called to live like citizens of someplace that cannot yet be found on earth. When we do so, it protects our very souls, and it brings glory to God and blessing to this world.

When I hear something like that, I’m tempted to feel bad. I haven’t started a school for the poorest of the poor. I haven’t given up my house, and lived with the downtrodden. In other words, I start evaluating my performance. In fact, I bet I could find some Buddhists who have been better, more loving people than I have been. But I think that’s the wrong approach, especially if we actually want to live lives that glorify God.

I believe the right approach is to immerse ourselves in the love of God. That might seem selfish, but I promise you, it is not. God himself is not selfish. If we really connect deeply to his love, we will find ourselves naturally abstaining from the flesh, and living according to the spirit. When we fully receive God’s love for us, when we truly understand that we are his people, citizens of heaven, we will want to do the things that glorify him, because, after all, that’s what he made us for.

One thing I suggest is to ask God to let you receive more of his love. Just pray for it with a simple prayer. Ask him to help you love him, and to live through you, the life he wants you to live. After you ask, start paying attention. It’s not complicated. The hard part is surrendering to his love when he takes you (or one of your loved ones) in a direction that you aren’t sure about. So then, ask him to give you the trust in Him that you need for that, too.

1 PETER #14: AN ETHNICITY OF HOLINESS

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Jesus is the way of salvation, the only way. Every other path is doomed to keep a person separated from the goodness of God. If you reject Jesus, there are severe natural consequences – even more severe than rejecting gravity at the top of a cliff.

But rejecting Jesus is not the only possibility. Even those who once rejected him have the opportunity to turn back (that is, repent) and receive him, as long as they are still drawing breath. For those who do receive him, the consequences are wonderful: we are specially selected children, we are inducted into the priest-order of King Jesus, we are an ethnicity of holiness, and God’s specially-obtained people.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, click below to either download, or play from a new page:

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 15

1 PETER #14. 1 PETER 2:9-10

There are many advantages to going verse by verse through books of the Bible. There are also a few disadvantages. One potential drawback is that we might forget the larger context of a passage. It’s all there, if we go back and look at it, and it’s all there within the overall sermon series – but sometimes individual sermons are focused on very small portions of the text, as we are today.

Therefore, let me remind you of our context. The verses just before this were about the contrast between those who receive Jesus, the cornerstone, the foundation of everything, and those who reject him. We focused last time on those who reject Jesus. Truth is sometimes hard. Only one person actually wins a race. That’s tough on everyone else who competes. Two plus two equals four; not three, not five, and six is right out. If you choose to “reject gravity,” and jump off a cliff you will fall downwards, and your body will suffer severe consequences, and this will happen to every single person who tries it. Not a single person will get to fall upwards, just by chance. So, Jesus is the way of salvation, the only way. Every other path is doomed to keep a person separated from the goodness of God. If you reject Jesus, there are severe consequences – even more severe than rejecting gravity at the top of a cliff.

But rejecting Jesus is not the only possibility. For those who receive him, the consequences are wonderful. And even those who once rejected him have the opportunity to turn back (that is, repent) and receive him, as long as they are still drawing breath. Also, the larger context is talking about how we who trust Jesus are God’s people, people that God is blessing, and using to show the world his glory. It is in this context, and after speaking about the consequences of rejecting Jesus, that Peter writes these verses:

9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

(1 Peter 2:9-10, CSB)

In some ways, the key to these words is in verse 10, so I’ll go backwards. Peter is writing to primarily Gentile (that is, non-Jewish) Christians – this is obvious from verse 10:

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

God made many promises to the physical descendants of Abraham. He chose them out of all the people of the world to be his own special people, to show His glory, grace and goodness to the world. They were special, in a way that no other people were special. It was widely believed by the Jews that no one else could be called “God’s special people.”

Now, says Peter, all of those promises made to the physical descendants of Abraham are applied to those who receive Jesus – whether or not they are physical descendants of Abraham. Belonging to God is not about ethnicity, or ancestry, but about your standing with Jesus Christ.

So, when we read verse nine, we need to understand that Peter is talking about promises that were once thought to apply only to the people of Israel, and now, he is describing how they apply to everyone who receives Jesus Christ.

When we receive Jesus, a number of consequences cascade into place. First, we are a chosen race. In my amateur, Greek-hacker way, I might put the Greek like this: “specially-selected descendants.” Through Jesus, God has specially selected us to be his children. We find that all along, God wanted us. It is not a matter of an indifferent God waiting around to see if we would choose him. No, He was the one who chose us the whole time. I’m sure Peter had in mind some of the verses of the Old Testament:

Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.

(Deut 10:15, ESV)

And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”

(Exodus 19:6, ESV)

We are chosen in Jesus. Because we have entrusted ourselves to Jesus, we have become the specially selected children of God. The promises above are for us.

Second, we are a kingly priesthood. In the Old Testament, there was an ancestral separation between those who could become priests, and those who could become kings. Priests had to be from the tribe of Levi, and from the clan of Aaron. In ancient Israel, no one else could be a legitimate priest. Kings, on the other hand were supposed to be from the tribe of Judah, descended from David. No priest could be a king, and vice versa. But in Jesus, the two came together. He is the rightful king because he is a descendant of David. He is the rightful High Priest because his sacrifice once and for all established the forgiveness of sins. So now God has chosen new “descendants of Jesus” who can be both royal, and priestly at the same time. Isaiah spoke prophetically about this:

but you shall be called the priests of the LORD;
they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;

(Isaiah 61:6, ESV)

John mentions it in Revelation – not prophetically, but rather as one of the things established by the work of Jesus:

To him who loves us and has set us free from our sins by his blood, 6 and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father ​— ​to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

(Revelation 1:5-6, CSB)

We talked about what it means to be priests in #12 of this series on 1 Peter. The short version is that it means: 1. We have direct access to God, 2. We have an indispensable place in the church, which is called “the body of Christ,” 3. We are all God’s representatives in the world and, 4. We offer spiritual sacrifices to God: through praising him, submitting to God’s will, and giving him our very selves.

Peter adds here that our priesthood is “royal.” This is added first and foremost to show that we are not priests like the Old Testaments Levites, nor even the descendants of Aaron. We are priests in the line of Jesus. He is the only royal priest, and so, we too, are royal, because we are in Jesus.

The next result of being in Jesus is that we are a holy people. The more-or-less literal Greek reads: “an ethnicity of holiness.” To be Christian has nothing to do with physical ethnicity. Christianity, from the very beginning, has been a religion of every nation, ethnicity and language, and our vision of heaven is firmly multi-ethnic. Part of the reason for this is that our physical/genetic ethnicity is now not as important as our spiritual ethnicity. Our spiritual ethnicity is the ethnicity of holiness. Another way of saying this is that our “true ethnicity” is based not upon physical birth, but upon spiritual birth; that is, upon the fact that Jesus Christ has made us holy.

We can praise God for our physical ancestry. We can see how God worked in our ancestors to bring glory to Himself, and grace to us. It’s good to celebrate it. It is also good to celebrate our positive or neutral cultural differences as part of the multi-faceted glory of God. So, for instance, be proud of being African-American. Be in awe of the glory of God that preserved your ancestors through slavery to bring you to this point in time. Enjoy your cultural traditions. Invite friends of different ethnic groups.

Or, be proud of your scrappy Irish ancestors, who overcame all sorts of obstacles in the past to bring you to where you are today. Celebrate St. Patrick’s day (as a Christian). Or, if you are a Scandinavian, celebrate your heritage with lutefisk festivals. You Germans, and German-descended, celebrate Bach, polka, and sauerkraut. Again, everyone invite your friends of different cultural backgrounds to celebrate together with you (except you Scandinavians: lutefisk could start a war).

However, all of us should recognize that there is something much greater and more glorious, and far more important than our physical ancestry: our spiritual ethnicity. If we are Christians, our spiritual heritage, our ethnicity as God’s people, trumps everything else. Peter is saying that all of us can claim the spiritual heritage of the Old Testament (and, of course, the new). The promises made to God’s people are made to us. Our identity as the specially selected people of God is more important, and should be more dominant, than any other possible identity.

On the negative side, I might put it like this: If you feel like race or culture separates you from a fellow-Christian, you have not fully embraced God’s promises.

On the positive side, we need to recognize that we have more in common (for instance) with a Christian from thousands of miles away, who is from a different country, and speaks a different language, than we do with a non-Christian neighbor who looks and sounds just like us. This isn’t to say that we should be uncaring toward our non-Christian neighbor. But our “primary group” so to speak, the group we call “our people,” is not defined by physical ethnicity, culture or language. It is defined by Jesus Christ.

The phrase is “ethnicity of holiness.” We’ve just talked about the “ethnicity” part of that. Let’s consider the “holiness” part. I think a lot of Christians, upon hearing that word, might say, “well, that’s not me then, because I am not holy.” My dear fellow holy-people, we really need to get over ourselves. The holiness of God’s people is not our own. I am not considered holy because I have been a particularly good person. I am holy for one reason only: because I belong to Jesus, and he has imparted his own holiness to me. For a Christian, being holy does not start with our behavior – it starts with the behavior of Jesus Christ.

Consider the following analogy: I am an indifferent gardener. Sometimes, I might leave a garden hose, with a sprayer nozzle attached to it, lying in the dirt for months at a time. When I finally decide to water something, I attach the hose to the tap, and then turn it on. It takes several seconds for the water to come through. When the water starts to come out of the sprayer, it comes in fits and starts, because the other end of the hose has dirt in it. Also, parts of the sprayer are clogged with dirt. Sometimes the hose is kinked, and I have to straighten it out to get more than a few drips. The water isn’t coming through steadily, and what does come through is actually kind of dirty. Now, does this mean the water coming out of the tap is dirty, or that the pressure is bad? Of course not. It is the hose that is kinked and dirty, and also the sprayer, and the dirt and kinks impair the flow of the water, and makes it look dirty. But the water itself is pure and clean at the source. Over time, I find the kinks and straighten them, and the water washes the dirt out of the hose, and out of the sprayer, and eventually, I have clean water coming through a fully functioning sprayer.

The hose is not the source of the water – it is merely a vehicle for the water. The same is true of the sprayer-attachment.

The water is the holiness of Christ. We are the hose and the sprayer. We don’t generate holiness – it comes through us. At first, that holiness doesn’t look very “holy,” because we have plenty of dirt in us. At first, it only comes through in dirty-looking drips and drabs. Over time, the holiness of Christ begins to unkink us, and clean us up from the inside out. Unfortunately, it takes a lifetime – the dirt is caked on thick and tough, and the kinks are hardened in. But over time, the holiness does begin to flow better, and look cleaner. Again, however, that is not because we are generating holiness ourselves – it is the holiness of Christ working its way through us.

I don’t think it is very helpful to ask how close we are to having pure water. The more helpful thing to do is to surrender ourselves more and more fully to Jesus, and let him take care of the unkinking, let him worry about how quickly, or slowly, the dirt is removed, so that the water flows freely.

The third thing is that we are a people for his possession. Another way to express the Greek is that we were “specially-obtained” by and for God. He went to great lengths to get us, to make us his own.

All that brings us to the final thing. There is a purpose for God making us his specially selected children, a royal priesthood, an ethnicity of holiness, specially obtained by and for God. To paraphrase the end of verse nine, the purpose is so that God can use us to show the world how wonderful He is.

Sometimes, I end with practical suggestions for applying scripture to our lives. Today my practical suggestion is this: Believe the word of God. Trust that it is true. God has specially selected you to be part of his people. Trust it! Lean into it! God has inducted you into a holy priesthood in the order of King Jesus. Believe it, then act like you believe it. The Father has made you an ethnicity of holiness. Trust it is true, and act as you believe. Receive your fellow Christians as family, no matter what they look like or sound like. The Father has gone to great lengths to make us his people. Believe it! Receive his special attention and love. Finally, let him work through you to show the world how wonderful he is. If we believe and trust all that these verses say, then we will naturally be letting God show his glory to the world.

1 PETER #13: THE ROCK-HARD TRUTH

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Many people, both past and present, recognize that Christianity has been a greater force for good in this world than any other religion or worldview. But some people want to have the benefits of Christianity without the difficult, almost embarrassing, business of actually entrusting their lives to Jesus Christ. That is, they want to stop short of having faith. However, Jesus’ chief apostle, Peter, presents us with something we in the modern world seem to hate: a binary choice. Jesus is the cornerstone, the foundation upon which everything depends. Those who trust in him will not be put to shame. Those who reject him will find themselves destroyed by that rejection. To be a Christian is to trust Jesus. Without that, there is no Christianity.

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 13

1 PETER 13: 1 PETER 2:6-8

Every year, during the week leading up to Easter, there are always a number of articles about Christianity written by public intellectuals. (According to Kari, I am not a public intellectual, but I am a private intellectual. I’m still not sure what to make of that…)

This past week I read an article by Tim DeRoche, a writer who is wrestling with Christianity. He recognizes that many intelligent people, even today, acknowledge the power for good that is found in Christianity, and how faith in Jesus Christ: “over the last 2,000 years has largely been correlated with decreasing levels of slavery, war, crime, poverty, and general suffering.” He is not the first person to recognize this, and it is not a matter of opinion, but rather, established historical fact.

At the same time, this writer seems to want the benefits of Christianity without insisting that we actually have to have faith in Jesus. DeRoche considers the modern philosophers who are also wrestling with the fact that Christianity has been such a tremendous force for good in the world. He writes:

Instead of arguing that Christianity is factually accurate or literally true, they show us how and why Christianity works—for the individual and for the common good. 

So where do I stand now? Am I a “believer” or a “nonbeliever”? I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters all that much.

(https://bariweiss.substack.com/p/the-secular-case-for-christianity?s=r)

At a different point, he tries to argue that the Christian and secular worldviews have been “falsely” separated by – if you can imagine – “belief.” I appreciate DeRoche’s interest and honesty, but unfortunately, he is utterly confused. He is not remotely the first person to want to have the good parts of Christianity without the difficult, self-denying leap of faith. But our verses today clearly point out that faith in Jesus Christ is something that irrevocably separates Christians from non-Christians. Jesus is the cornerstone. Those who trust him will not be put to shame, and those who do not will be undone by Him.

To help us understand this Bible concept, below is a picture showing a “cornerstone.”

The illustration shows the cornerstone as the largest stone in the middle of the picture. As you can see, the cornerstone is generally quite large compared to the other stones, and it supports the entire wall along both sides. In fact, in ancient building techniques, all four walls ultimately depend upon the cornerstone. If you were to remove the cornerstone, all the other walls would collapse, at least to some extent. So, the structural integrity of the entire building rests upon the cornerstone. It is, for all intents and purposes, the foundation of the building.

There are three important implications of this picture of Jesus as the cornerstone.

First, it means that everything depends upon Jesus. He is the foundation. Without him, there is no Christian faith. When I read the article by Tim DeRoche, (quoted above) I appreciated his interest in Christianity, and his openness and honesty. But it seemed like he has no understanding of what Christianity actually is. It is faith in Jesus Christ. Without that, there is no foundation, Everything falls apart.

Imagine I said: “I can see the benefits of technology. Electricity, running water, medical devices, computers and the internet have benefitted millions. I can agree with that. But I don’t like this business of science. I want to have the technology without all that troublesome science.” That is silly, of course. Without the science, the technology would never have happened.

That is what it sounds like when someone says they want the benefits of Christianity without having to have faith in Jesus. It simply doesn’t work that way. Without the faith, there would be no benefits. The Christianity that changed the world, the religion that has led to greater freedom for billions, more economic security, the end of slavery, the reduction of crime and suffering, is faith in Jesus Christ. Without people who actually trusted Jesus Christ, none of the benefits of Christianity would ever have come to be. You cannot be a Christian without having actual faith in Jesus Christ.

Second, when we trust him, when we build our lives upon him, we are ultimately secure. We can rely upon him. We won’t be put to shame. This doesn’t mean we will never suffer, or that life will always go well for us. But when we trust Jesus, ultimately we will be vindicated for doing so. Certainly if not before, our trust will be vindicated at the final judgment, which is where it matters most. Peter’s readers were a tiny religious minority in a culture that at times ignored them, and other times mocked them, or even persecuted them. Peter is telling them: don’t worry about that. Your trust in Jesus will turn out to be the most important thing in eternity. When life is over, the only thing that will matter is whether or not you trusted him. At that point everyone will see and be unable to deny that trusting Jesus was more important than any lost opportunity, any insult, any harm suffered for his sake.

The trajectory of our lives is bound to that of Jesus Christ:

who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2:6-11, ESV)

There may be a time where we are humbled by our faith in Jesus, when we may have to suffer, when it may look like the enemies of Christ are winning. But eventually, all humanity will have to acknowledge the victory of Christ. Eventually, just as we may be included in the path of his suffering, those of us who trust in him will also be included in the victory he has achieved.

This leads us to the third thing: the person of Jesus Christ is unmoving and unyielding. All who oppose him will ultimately be destroyed. Imagine trying to fight a rock with nothing more than your body. If a giant rock and your body collide, it is your body that will be destroyed, not the rock. So, Peter writes this:

7 So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”8 and  “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

(1 Peter 2:7-8, ESV)

I’m sure Peter was thinking of Jesus’ own words when he wrote this. Here’s how Jesus himself put it:

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is what the Lord has done
and it is wonderful in our eyes?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruit. 44 Whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will shatter him.”

(Matthew 21:42-44, CSB)

Those who reject Jesus will eventually be broken by him. Right now, we live in a time of grace. As long as you are still alive, you have the chance to repent, and to trust Jesus. But when Jesus returns, or, when you die (either of which could happen at any time), if you have rejected Jesus, you will be broken to pieces and shattered by the cornerstone.

We don’t have the option of saying, “I’ll take Christianity, except without all the business about whether or not I actually believe.” Christianity is trusting Jesus. Jesus himself, in the passage I just quoted, made it clear that if we do not trust him, we will be destroyed. If you simply read the gospels, this is all quite clear. Jesus himself was the one who claimed that he was the only way to be saved. He consistently taught, time and time again, that our eternal future depends upon how we respond to him. That is the essential core of Christianity.

This business of being destroyed is not a threat. Christian theology has never allowed us to try and convert anyone by fear or by force. (History records Christians occasionally trying to convert people by force or coercion. But those who did so were defying the teachings of the Bible).

The situation is like this: you are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and your ship has sunk. There is nothing around you but empty ocean for three-thousand miles in every direction. There is only one lifeboat. If  you want to be saved, that lifeboat is your only option, and there is plenty of room on it. Anyone who is willing to get on it will be helped to do so. If you don’t like the idea of being in that particular boat, or you don’t like the people on it, you don’t have to get in it. But it is the only option if you want to live. If the words of Jesus are correct, he is the only lifeboat in the entire ocean. If you reject him, you have refused your only chance of living. The result will be predictable.

That might sound arrogant – to say that Jesus is the only way to be saved. But that is the claim of Jesus himself, given in his own words, and also in the words of those who knew him personally, and knew what he taught about himself:

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

1 This Jesus is the stone rejected by you builders, which has become the cornerstone.
12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:11-12, CSB. This was said by Peter, who wrote the letter we are studying)

11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 The one who has the Son has life. The one who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:11-13, CSB)

There are many other places in which Jesus clearly taught that the only important thing was how people responded to him. The heart of the teaching of Jesus is that we must trust him to be saved. There is no Christianity without that.

Some people might be troubled by Peter’s words in verse eight. It makes it sound as if some people were born to go to hell. I  find the words of Matthew Henry to be helpful here:

God himself hath appointed everlasting destruction to all those who stumble at the word, being disobedient. All those who go on resolutely in their infidelity and contempt of the gospel are appointed to eternal destruction; and God from eternity knows who they are.

1 Peter 2:4 – Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible

As Matthew Henry points out, God knows who will receive Jesus, and who will reject him. So, in that sense certain people were always going to end up in hell. But even so, they go there by their own choice. What God foreordains is not who goes, but rather where they go. Those who reject Jesus are destined to be lost, because they have refused the only way of salvation.

So where are we today? Perhaps this idea of Jesus as the cornerstone is new to you. Perhaps you didn’t realize that Jesus calls each person to have allegiance to Himself above all others. Maybe you didn’t realize that Christianity without faith in Jesus is no longer Christianity. Maybe you need to hear his call today. He is either who he claimed to be, or he is a liar, or a crazy person. He doesn’t sound like a liar or crazy person, though.

The movement Jesus founded has unquestionably brought immense good into the world. It sounds bigoted to say this next thing, but it is indisputably true: Christianity has brought more good into the world, and has resulted in more human flourishing, than any other religion or worldview. Though Hinduism and Islam were dominant in the country of India for many centuries before Christianity, it was Christians who built the first hospitals and universities in India. It was Christians who turned Hindi and Urdu into written languages and taught Indians to read. It was a Christian woman (Mother Theresa) – not a Hindu mystic – who founded the first and most famous organization to bless the poorest of the poor in India. The same kinds of stories can be repeated about almost every country in the world. It is hard to believe that a liar or crazy person would have such an incredibly positive influence on the world. Maybe it’s time you came to grips with the real Person, Jesus Christ.

Perhaps you have already trusted Jesus with your life. But maybe you need to hear again today that those – like you – who trust in him, will not be put to shame. Life can be hard and cruel sometimes. It’s easy to feel abandoned by God. But we have a promise that we will be ultimately vindicated. Our trust in him is not misplaced. We may sometimes walk in the valley of the shadow of death, but we do not need to fear any evil there. Jesus too, walked through that valley, and he does so still – alongside his people who are suffering. We have eternal promises that can never be broken by this world. Our hope is in the right place, and will be rewarded with more than we could ask or imagine.

Finally, perhaps some of you need to hear that the choice is binary, because Jesus himself makes it binary. To choose against Jesus is to choose ultimate suffering, and blackest darkness, forever. This doesn’t sound like much of a choice, but that doesn’t really matter if it is a reflection of reality. If you decide you don’t like the binary confines of gravity, and you jump off a cliff, you will die, whether that seems fair to you, or not. Truth matters, and sometimes truth is hard. The incredible grace of God is that, in the person of Jesus Christ, he reconciled the truth of our rebellion against him with the truth of his immeasurable love for us. His tortuous death shows us just how serious our rebellion against God is. It also shows us how much God loves us – how much he went through to save us. The cross, and the resurrection, offer us a gateway to new life, to a new kind of life. Perhaps today is the day you will decide to receive it.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today!

LENT #6: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF WAITING FOR GOD

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The devil knows scripture, but he cannot understand it. To understand the Bible, we have to receive it with a heart of faith. Satan’s temptation to Jesus was to force God to prove himself. We too, are tempted at times to insist that God prove that he loves us. However, He has already proved his love for us, through the cross.

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 Lent Part 6

Let’s start with the facts. The “pinnacle of the temple,” could refer to a couple different places. One is the east wall. Ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (who was born only a few decades after Jesus) describes the drop along the east wall as being six-hundred feet. Another possibility is the southeast corner, which was at the edge of the Kidron valley. From that part of the temple, the drop to the floor of the valley was at least three hundred feet. Even in our age of modern medicine  and emergency services, 90% of people die after a fall of 84 feet. So, without miraculous intervention, there was no way Jesus would survive jumping off the temple with that kind of height.

Jesus has been repudiating the devil by quoting scripture. Now, the devil shows just how nasty and how devious he can be. He makes his suggestion that Jesus throw himself down, and then the devil himself quotes scripture as a justification for the sin.

If this shocks you, it shouldn’t. People have been committing sins in the name of God all throughout history. Some of them even use the Bible to justify their sins. They do so because the devil has misled them. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you, reading this, were tempted to throw up your hands and say, “Forget it! If the devil can use the Bible against, me I’m a goner. If he knows the Bible, I’ll never be able to know it well enough to fight him.”

If you have a reaction like this, I want to say, with fatherly kindness (but also with fatherly firmness): “Please don’t be childish and immature.”

First consider this: Yes, the devil knows the Bible. But he doesn’t understand it. To understand the Bible, you have to receive it in faith as a follower of Jesus Christ. The devil rejected Jesus long before any part of the Bible was formed. So, the brand new follower of Jesus who only knows a few Bible verses understands what those verses mean better than does the devil.

Second, I have spent a lot of time recently encouraging you to read the Bible regularly. This is just one more reason why you ought to do so. It’s not that difficult, especially with modern translations. Seriously, thousands of people have died, and thousands more risked their lives, so that we could have the Bible in our own language; so we could read it and understand it. It is childish to claim to follow Jesus, and yet not be bothered to read the Bible. It’s like saying you are really into soccer, but in reality, you only kick the ball around with friends once in a while, and you don’t even know the rules. This is basic Christianity. It’s part of the deal. It is as important as being part of a church, as important as praying. If you have questions, you know I will help you. You know your house church will help you. Come on, people: Figure – This – Out.

If you are tired of me repeating this sort of thing about the Bible, I want you to know that I will continue to do so until I am convinced that most of you do, in fact, read it regularly. By “regularly,” I mean at least several times a week, week in, week out, year in, year out. Until I am sure of that, you will hear more of this sort of thing. Put a reminder on your phone. Ask a friend to bug you about it. Tell everyone you are going to read the Bible, so you are motivated to read in order to not be a hypocrite. One thought might be to agree with a group of friends that you will pick a book of the Bible together – say, Luke – and you all read the same chapter, or half a chapter, each day. You could encourage each other, share your favorite part of your reading, and things like that. Whatever it takes – come on, please, do this!

The better you know what the Bible says, and the better you understand it, the more easily you will be able to defeat the devil when he tries to misuse scripture. It is not remotely an impossible task, because again, you will have a better understanding than the devil of every verse you read.

While we are on this subject, I want to give us some basic tools that will help us to avoid the traps of the devil concerning the Bible. Satan quotes Psalm 91 (one of my favorite psalms, by the way) to try to convince Jesus to do his bidding. How can we know that Psalm 91 should not be used this way?

The truth is, it isn’t that difficult. If you read Psalm 91, it is obviously not an invitation to try suicide in order to prove God’s faithfulness. All you have to do is read it, and you can see that the devil has no case. Instead, Psalm 91 is clearly an invitation to trust in God’s faithful love and care for those who belong to him. Again, all this is obvious if you read the psalm with the eyes of faith, using ordinary common sense.

What the devil wants Jesus to do is the opposite of trust, the opposite of the message of the psalm. He wants Jesus to try to force God into keeping the promises of the psalm. Instead of trusting, the devil wants Jesus to make the Father prove his faithfulness. So the devil is trying to use psalm 91 in a way that twists its clear message.

The devil is still doing this kind of thing with scripture, inspiring people who do not have genuine faith to suggest meanings for Bible passages that are twisted and wrong. To keep people from doing that, early Christians developed a few simple rules for interpreting the Bible. Theologians call these rules hermeneutics. At their heart, Christian hermeneutics are not complicated. I want to share these rules with you, in case you wonder how to interpret certain Bible passages.

1. Read the Bible in context. In other words, don’t take one little verse out of a Bible passage and use it to say something that the passage does not mean. So, for instance, Romans 8:1 says there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. We could take that out of context and say that Christians should never be found guilty in court. More realistically, someone might take that verse to mean that we are now free to indulge every sinful desire we have, since we are not condemned. But if you simply read for several verses before and after, the passage very clearly says that we should set our minds on the things of the spirit, not the things of the flesh (sinful things). You can’t misunderstand it if you just read the previous few verses, and the following ones. This is one reason I fervently recommend reading whole books of the Bible. You learn to see what a verse means in the context of the whole book.

2. The Bible is explained by the Bible. The majority of the Bible is quite clear, as long as you read it in context (see above). But there are a few parts that are more difficult. When you encounter part of the Bible that seems obscure, or hard to understand, use the more clear parts to help you understand. If that doesn’t help you, and you still can’t understand, then leave it for now, and trust the scripture that you do understand.

3. The Bible does not contradict itself in any important matter. Last time we looked at an example of a “contradiction,” in the Bible: Matthew wrote the temptation about worshipping Satan in third place, and Luke records it as second. But there is no contradiction concerning what the temptation was, nor when it happened, nor how Jesus responded. Most of the so-called contradictions are things like this, that have no bearing on the meaning of the Bible. There are other places where the Bible seems to contradict itself in terms of meaning. However, in those places, we find that we have a choice. We could interpret certain passages in a way that causes a contradiction. Or, we could interpret them in a way that brings no contradiction. When we are faced with such choices, common sense says that we should use the meaning that causes no contradiction. We normally do this, without even thinking about it, with every other book we read. It is plain common sense.

4. Pay attention to the genre of what you read. In this case, genre just means the “type,” or “style,” of writing. So the genre of 1 Peter is instruction. It is a letter written to encourage and teach others. Therefore, we don’t treat it like a poem, or an allegory, or a song. It’s a straightforward presentation of ideas and thoughts. The book of Psalms, however, is a collection of worship songs and poems. Because they are songs and poems for use in worship, we don’t treat them like a straightforward book of instruction. We can learn things from them, but we should keep in mind that there are word-pictures in the psalms that are not meant to be taken at face value. Some books, like 2 Samuel, are historical narrative. They record what happened. Again, we can learn things from reading about what happened, and how God interacted with human beings in various circumstances. However, historical narrative is not the same as instruction. So, when 2 Samuel 11 records that David committed adultery with Bathsheba, that is not teaching us that adultery is acceptable. It is recording what actually happened, not necessarily what should have happened.

All this can be summed up in the idea of reading the Bible literally. What I mean by that is, we read it objectively and inductively in order to find out what it says. We don’t read it with a plan to make it say what we want it to, or what we think it should say. We let the Bible speak on its own terms.

Imagine you want to find out about penguins. You get a book from the library that is all about these fascinating creatures. You don’t pick isolated sentences out of the book here and there – you read it chapter by chapter, the way the author presents it. You assume the author won’t contradict herself. You read the book in a straightforward way, to find out what it says,

Again, I want to emphasize that most of this is just plain common sense. This is how we read almost any book. If you keep these things in mind, and above all, retain your common sense, you will be able to spot it when the devil is tricking someone into misusing the bible.

By the way, the response of Jesus used all four of these simple rules. The context (first rule) of Psalm 91 has nothing to do with suicide, or forcing God to keep his promises. Jesus employed the second rule when he quoted scripture back to the devil. He uses a very clear passage to demolish the devil’s rather strained and murky interpretation: “You shall not put the LORD your God to the test, (Deuteronomy 6:16, ESV).” This is a clear instruction, that can be used to interpret things that might be less clear. Third, he paid attention to genre. Psalm 91, quoted by Satan, is poetic. It was probably originally a song. It is not an instruction. It uses word pictures that should not be taken exactly straightforwardly. Jesus quotes from a passage of instruction to clarify things.

I want to revisit the central temptation here. What Satan was trying to do was to get Jesus to quit living in faith, and instead, to demand proof from God. I think this sort of temptation entices all of us from time to time. It might even sound reasonable on the face of it: “God, you say you love me, so prove it by healing my husband of cancer.” Or, “God, you say you care for every detail of my life. I’ll believe it, if you will only give me money to meet my bills this month.”

I have known a number of people who have given up their faith because God did not act the way they expected him to. They thought he should do a certain thing, or prevent something, and enticed by the devil, they made their faith in him conditional upon his acting according to their expectations.

One man I know claimed he was an atheist. He said, “I believe in science.” I said: “So do I. That doesn’t stop me believing in God.” As we conversed further, I found out that at some point in his life, God had disappointed him. He wanted God to do something for him, and God didn’t come through in a way that the man could accept. So he abandoned God. It had nothing to do with science. It was because he believed the lie that God has something to prove to us.

God has no obligation to do anything for us whatsoever. Yet, he shows us his love for us in a multitude of ways every day. Every good thing we ever experience is proof of God’s love and goodness. As Ben Franklin whimsically quipped: “Beer is proof that God loves us, and wants us to enjoy life.” By the way, that’s not an excuse to abuse alcohol, but rather a reason for gratitude. We can and should apply it to every good thing in our lives.

In addition to all the good God showers on us, and in spite of the fact that he does not owe us any kind of proof, he did prove his love for us through Jesus Christ. He proved his love even before anyone had turned to him:

6 For while we were still helpless, at the appointed moment, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For rarely will someone die for a just person — though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. 8 But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!

(Romans 5:6-8, HCSB)

At the cross, Jesus proved God’s heart toward us. Christ did prove God’s love and care for us – but not in the way the devil wanted him to. Like Psalm 91 obviously says, like Jesus shows us, we are called to trust God’s love. We are called to ask God to intervene, yes, but also to wait on him to show his love in his own  way and in his own time. God grant us the ability, by the Holy Spirit, to wait on him in trust!

LENT #4: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF TEMPTATION

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Whatever our temptations, and whatever our failures to pass the test, remember that Jesus faced the same temptations, and for our sake, he did pass every test. He accomplished what we could not, and he did it on our behalf. Because we cannot live perfect lives, Jesus lived a perfect life in our place. Now, we are released from having to meet that standard of perfection on our own. Instead, through faith, by God’s grace, we are judged not on our own performance, but the performance of Jesus.

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 Lent Part 4

LENT #4. LUKE 4:1-14

We have been using our passage as a jumping off point for various topics that are associated with the season of Lent: Suffering, Fasting, and Solitude. Now, we will return to the text and consider the encounter Jesus had with the devil. Most translations make it seem like Jesus spent forty days in solitude and fasting, and then, when he was just about done, the devil came and tempted him. That is a possible interpretation – there is room in the Greek for that. However, in Greek, it looks much more like the devil was bothering him the whole time. Apparently, when he came back, he told his apostles about three particular kinds of temptations that he faced. The NET captures this fairly well:

1 Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he endured temptations from the devil. (Luke 4:1-2, NET)

I want to say a few words about temptation. In the first place, the Greek word normally used for temptation has a wider range of meaning than we typically give to our English word. It seems to me that we think of “temptation” as being enticed into doing something we should not do. We’re tempted to eat ice cream when we are on a keto diet. We are tempted to lust, or to have an affair. We are tempted to cheat or lie when it seems clear we could get away with it. In English, temptation is all about an alluring opportunity to do the wrong thing. Temptation attracts us toward the wrong thing, the sinful thing.

This is part of the meaning of the Greek word. But in Greek, the main emphasis is not about desire, or enticement. Instead, in Greek, the idea of temptation is about testing something to prove what it is made of. Another good word might be trials. When engineers make some new kind of device to make cars more safe, they have to do safety trials in order to find out if their device works. When scientists develop a new drug, they have drug trials, to test it, to make sure it does indeed work. That idea of a trial – putting something through a test, to see how it does – is the essence of the New Testament word for temptation.

Now, of course, the test does consist of being enticed to do something that God says we should not do, but we should keep in mind that temptation is not all negative. When we pass the test, it glorifies God, and brings grace to us. Temptation has a positive outcome in mind. It isn’t just about avoiding evil – it is about proving what is good.

This brings up something very important: temptation is not the same as sin. Jesus was tempted in every way, but was without sin:

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:15-16, ESV

7 Therefore, He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. (Hebrews 2:17-18, HCSB)

And yes, the word the HCSB translates “tested” (above) is the same word many Bibles translate as “tempted.” So, if Jesus was tempted/tested in every way, but did not sin, that means that being tempted to do something is not, in and of itself, sinful.

I’m going to use a particular temptation that I am familiar with as an illustration. It is generally more true of men, but I think you women can still understand it, because the main points apply to both male and female. Over the years I have spoken with many men who struggle particularly with the sin of lust. I myself have had a significant battle with it at times. I think many men who struggle this way fall prey to a trick of the devil. It is normal male biology to notice attractive women – that’s part of the nature of male levels of testosterone. It is especially normal for men to notice women who are displaying a lot of skin, or emphasizing their various physical “assets” in some way. A lot of men look at such women more or less involuntarily. In some cases, it’s very hard to avoid looking twice.

Now, having seen a woman in such circumstances, the temptation comes along. The devil, or our own flesh (it doesn’t really matter which) raises up these kinds of thoughts: “Let’s think about what she would look like if she was wearing even less. Let’s think about what it would be like to be with her.” Most of the time, such things sound like our own thoughts.

Here’s the important part: so far, the man has not sinned. It is not a sin to be tempted. But I know many men who think they have already failed at this point, simply because they have looked, and were tempted by such thoughts. What often happens then, is the guy thinks, “I’ve already blown it. I might as well go ahead and enjoy the fantasy.” And then, of course, he does sin. But I want to reiterate: temptation is not sin. Jesus was tempted, but did not sin. So, the fact that such things interest or entice you does not mean you have failed.

Now, I got very specific there, but this applies to any temptation we might experience. Perhaps you struggle with gossip and slander – this could be equally true of men or women. You are tempted to use your words to cut other people down, to show the world that they are not so great after all. You hear something about someone you know, someone who is far too uppity. It’s a juicy bit of information, and you could use it to teach that person a little much-needed humility. In fact, you want to use the information, you want to say something. But you haven’t yet sinned. You have been convinced by the devil that you want to use your words in a hurtful way, but you haven’t done it yet. Don’t be discouraged: temptation is not sin. You haven’t sinned yet. The attraction you have to do the wrong thing is not the same as actually doing it.

We face temptations from three sources: The world, the flesh and the devil. They are all connected. Perhaps we internalize messages from our ungodly culture. Or maybe something in our sinful flesh draws us toward sin. It might also be the devil, or one of his servants – and they use our sinful flesh to whisper into our minds. Either way, scripture makes it clear that the primary battle takes place in our minds:

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

On the positive side, this is a test. By not doing the wrong thing, by doing what God wants instead, you are accomplishing good things spiritually. You are bringing glory to God. By using the resources of the Holy Spirit to battle the tests of the world, the flesh and the devil, we show the world the greatness of Jesus Christ. And of course, all sin is ultimately very bad for us, so we help ourselves when we pass the test.

Let’s look at the first test that Luke records for Jesus:

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.’” (Luke 4:1-4, ESV)

There is a lot of significance packed into these few words. Of course, Jesus was hungry, but the temptation was not really for Jesus to break his fast. Instead, there were two things the devil was trying to do here.

Remember, before Jesus went into the wilderness, he was baptized, and God spoke from the heavens, saying “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” After being in the wilderness with no food, the devil came at Jesus. He wanted to place doubt in Jesus’ mind about what God had said. If you are the son of God…prove it! Turn these stones to bread.

The devil was saying: At your baptism, it was one quick sentence. Did God really say that? Wasn’t it maybe just a rumble of thunder? If God is pleased with you, why are you out here all alone and hungry? Can you really believe what you heard?

This temptation to doubt God’s word is the very first way in which Satan assaulted human beings:

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1, ESV)

This temptation comes in many flavors, but underneath it is one of the most common attacks of the devil: casting doubt on what God has revealed through his Word.

  • How can God actually love you? You know you aren’t loveable, so what it says in the Bible about God loving you can’t really be true, can it?
  • Does God really forgive your sins? Isn’t that too easy? You can’t really trust what the Bible says about this, can you?
  • It’s not really a sin to get drunk is it – does the Bible really say that?
  • Did God really say you should save sex for marriage?

And so on. There is a place for honest questions. It is normal to want to understand where the Bible – God’s Word – comes from, and why we should trust it. If you have those honest questions, please contact me about a sermon series on that subject. Also, feel free to check out my book: Who Cares About the Bible?

However, this temptation of Satan is not about asking honest questions. At the heart of it is a desire to doubt, a desire to believe that the Bible is not trustworthy. There may be a lurking bitterness, almost an eagerness to say: “See! I told you that you couldn’t trust God to be good, told you that you couldn’t trust what God says!”

So the first part of the trial/test/temptation is to doubt God’s word. The second part is this: because you doubt God’s word, you really should take matters into your own hands. So, in the case of Jesus, first the devil casts doubt on what God clearly said to Jesus. Then, he says, “Since you can’t trust God, you better take care of yourself. Don’t wait for God to provide for you, don’t wait for God to show the world who you are – make your own bread. Prove to yourself and to the world that you are God’s son, and satisfy your hunger the same time.”

The devil offers a “solution” for both problems. First, if Jesus were to turn the stones into bread, it would prove that he is indeed God’s son. Second, it would provide what Jesus needs (food) since (according to the devil) God won’t provide it.

Again, remember that Jesus was voluntarily limiting himself to the resources of only his human nature. The devil was trying to get him to stop living in that human dependence on the Father, and instead tap into his own divine nature, his God-nature. If Jesus had done that, he could not have been the perfect sacrifice for human sin. It would have undone the whole reason he was here on earth.

If all of that sounds really tricky and nasty, you are getting the idea. The devil’s tempting can be deep and complex, and he doesn’t play fair.

Jesus’ reply to the devil destroys both lines of temptation. He says: “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.” Let’s unpack this. Remember, the devil is trying to get Jesus to doubt what God says. Jesus responds with “It is written.” In other words, he is reaffirming his trust in God’s Word. It’s almost like he is saying: “You want to talk about what God said? I can do that: What God said is written down.”

The second part of what Jesus said – that is, the scripture he quotes – is also a deadly response to the devil: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Actually, Luke gives us the shortened version. Matthew adds the next phrase. I think it is useful for us to see the specific passage from Deuteronomy that Jesus is quoting, because both Jesus and the devil knew it well:

3 He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then He gave you manna to eat, which you and your fathers had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:3, HCSB)

Jesus is reaffirming his dependence on God. As we saw in the message about fasting, this is the essence of fasting: to recognize our dependence on God, to recognize that we actually need God even more than we need food. More specifically, the scripture quoted by Jesus says that we need the Word of God even more than we need food. So, he is telling the devil: “Yes, God did say those things, and I believe him. In fact, I count the Word of God as more important than food. I am hungry because God is in control, and His Word says he wants me to wait patiently, learning that I can trust him not only for physical food, but for spiritual food, His Word.”

This is a massive reaffirmation of Jesus’ trust in the Father, and of his intention to live, like all human beings, in dependence on the Father.

Where are you tempted to doubt what God has said? Is it what the bible says about what is right or wrong? Or are you tempted to doubt God’s word about forgiveness and love?

In what ways are you tempted to satisfy your own needs apart from the provision of God? There are scripture passages that say everyone who is able should work and provide for their family, so it isn’t wrong to work to provide for your physical needs. But I think some people are tempted to trust in their own finances more than in God. Others are tempted to  satisfy their relational needs in ways that God says are sinful. Or, here’s one that I have struggled with: Like every human being, I have a legitimate physical need to eat. But I am often tempted to eat more than I need.

Whatever our temptations, and whatever our failures to pass the test, remember that Jesus faced the same temptations, and for our sake, he did pass every test. He accomplished what we could not, and he did it on our behalf. Because we cannot live perfect lives, Jesus did live a perfect life in our place. Now, we are released from having to meet that standard of perfection on our own. Instead, through faith, by God’s grace, we are judged not on our own performance, but the performance of Jesus.

1 Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21, GNT)

Let us remember that God has indeed told us these things, and let us cling to them, even when the devil tempts us to doubt what God has said. Let us remember, when we are tested, that God has already provided all we need. Once again, look at what God’s Word says:

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (Hebrews 4:15-16, NLT)

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you about all this, today.

LENT #3: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF BEING ALONE

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It is wise to stop and consider how you are living, and where your path is leading. It is God’s wisdom to take time apart from the rest of life, and allow Him to speak into your soul. Life is hardly worth living if we never even stop to think about who we are, what we are doing, what it means, and where it all leads. In today’s internet-driven world, the only way to “consider your way” is to get away. In fact, it is clear that Jesus thought that was true, even two-thousand years before the invention of the high-speed modem

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 Lent Part 3

LENT #3: SOLITUDE

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil.

(Luke 4:1-2, ESV)

I want to remind you that we are not doing our normal verse-by-verse exposition of this Bible passage. Instead, this is a topical series, centered around the season of Lent, and using Luke 4:1-13 as a kind of jumping off point to consider various spiritual disciplines that go along with Lent, and also certain temptations. So, for instance, this time we will talk about solitude. I don’t mean to imply that the spiritual discipline of solitude is one of the main concerns of Luke 4:1-13 – though obviously, Jesus was alone for forty days, that isn’t the main point Luke is making. However, also obviously, Jesus was alone, and there are other Bible verses about solitude, and so we’ll use the event of Jesus’ solitude here as a starting point for thinking about the spiritual discipline of solitude.

I promise you, we will get to verses 3-13 before Lent is over! I didn’t actually plan it this way (I wish I was that smart) but this is turning out to be a sermon series about finding grace in unexpected ways. We’ve talked about the unforeseen grace of suffering. Last time, we considered the unanticipated grace of being hungry – where we talked about fasting.  Today we will look at one more surprising way to encounter God’s grace – through solitude.

So, as mentioned, Jesus spent forty days alone at the beginning of his ministry. Just in case we might say “well, it doesn’t explicitly say there was no one else there,” Mark gives us these details:

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

(Mark 1:12-13, ESV)

Being with the wild animals did not mean that he had a pack of friendly wolves keeping him warm at night. Prior to the middle of the 20th century, most humans around the globe considered wild beasts to be a huge threat to human life and flourishing. To readers in the first century, the mention of wild animals meant deadly danger and terror. To be with the wild animals meant that he was utterly alone with all the perils that exist apart from the help of other human beings. Mark mentions the angels that ministered to him, but Luke and Matthew record that the angels came only after his temptation was finished. Even if the angels were with him the whole time, believing there are unseen spirits sent by God to help you is not the same as having another human being there with you, someone whom you can see and hear and speak with.

I’ve mentioned this before, and it bears repeating. Part of why Jesus was able to be the perfect substitute for human beings on the cross is because during his time on earth, he limited himself to the confines of his human nature. God-the-Son joined his divine nature with human nature in the person of Jesus. And prior to his resurrection, Jesus did not use his divine nature. Instead, he depended upon the Father and the Spirit for all things, just like all humans must do. He could have used his divine power to protect himself, or to find strength during those forty days. However, he set aside that divine nature, not using it, instead living as all humans must live, in faith in God the Father and God the Spirit. Philippians chapter 2 makes this clear:

6 Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to.7 Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form,8 he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

(Philippians 2:6-8, NLT)

So Jesus committed himself to using only human resources. Jesus, limiting himself to his human nature during his time on earth, could not sense the angels any better than you or I. And, limited to human resources, he spent forty days alone.

This is not the only time Jesus sought solitude, by the way. Many times, throughout the gospels, it records Jesus going off alone to pray by himself.

35 And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and those who were with him searched for him, 37 and they found him and said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” (Mark 1:35-37, ESV)

12 During those days he went out to the mountain to pray and spent all night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12, CSB)

5 But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. 16 But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray. (Luke 5:15-16, ESV)

18 And it happened, as He was alone praying, that His disciples joined Him, and He asked them, saying, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (Luke 9:18, NKJV)

13 When Jesus heard about it, He withdrew from there by boat to a remote place to be alone. (Matthew 14:13, HCSB. [The “it” that Jesus heard about was the death of John the Baptist])

23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone (Matthew 14:23, ESV)

All of these are separate events, by the way. Clearly, even though many people wanted his presence all the time, Jesus made it a priority to spend significant time alone. He was not the only person in the Bible who did this, by the way. Jacob was alone in the wilderness when he had his vision (which we sometimes call “Jacob’s Ladder”). Jacob was again alone when he wrestled with the angel of the Lord. Moses spent roughly a third of his life in a desolate wilderness. He was not alone all the time, but as a shepherd, he probably spent significant time by himself (Exodus 3:1).

David spent a great deal of time alone in the wilderness, when he was a shepherd. In fact, anyone who was a shepherd in ancient times spent many days at a time apart from other human beings, so we have to add the prophet Amos to the list of people who often spent time alone. The prophet Elijah spent a long time alone, at least two different times. So did John the Baptist, prior to Jesus.

Jesus himself invited the disciples to spend time apart from others, with just him:

30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.

(Mark 6:30-32, ESV)

We know that very early on in the history of Christianity, many were practicing the spiritual discipline of solitude. Some people took it too far, and withdrew from all community, but that is not what Jesus modeled. It is clear from the Bible that all Christians need to be firmly rooted in Christian community. But there is also need for each of us to be connected to Jesus ourselves, on our own, not only through others.

Like many things in the Christian life, there is a balance here. I have preached before about the importance of Christian community. Let’s not forget there is also an importance to spending time alone with God, with no one else around.

I will freely admit that solitude is the easiest of the spiritual disciplines for me. I crave time alone, and I look forward to it. I have had to learn, and to discipline myself, to be deeply connected to Christian community, to be involved in the lives of others. So, in the same way, perhaps being connected to others is easy for you, but you might need to learn, and discipline yourself, to spend time in solitude with God. Jesus certainly showed us that is important, and, as with fasting, Christians throughout the past two thousand years have practiced the spiritual discipline of solitude.

Some of you may have engaged in this before, but I want to make sure to help everyone understands solitude, even if you are a “beginner,” so I’ll start with the basics.

If you are a real “people person,” or if you are a parent of young children, you may need to start with just a few hours alone – say, half a day. If you are struggling with depression, it may not be the best time to start practicing the discipline of solitude – although, there is a possibility it could help. Use caution and good judgment if you are depressed.

It is best if you can do it someplace other than your home, so you aren’t distracted by things you could be doing, but sometimes you may not have an option. If you have a greater tolerance for being alone, you should maybe consider camping remotely, or renting a cabin that is physically distant from your home, and spending a night, and then a whole day, alone with God. My typical times of solitude for the past twenty-five years have been three or four nights, and thus two or three entire days alone, though I have spent as much as eight days alone in a cabin two miles from the nearest (dirt) road. I try to get at least a couple days alone at least once a year, though I prefer twice.

The intention of solitude is to spend time together with God apart from time with anyone else, apart from things that distract you from the presence of God. There are some practical implications here. During your time of solitude you should plan to be out of touch with people and the world – no phone, no texting, no social media or internet. Don’t use the time to catch up on work – this is time for you and God.

What you actually do, or don’t do, during the time, depends in part on how much time you have, and on what helps you connect with the presence of God. If you are spending only a couple of hours, I would suggest maybe reading a chapter of the Bible, then doing a short devotional reading, and then spending time sitting in silence, in conscious recognition of God’s presence. After that, maybe you could walk, and pray out loud to God with no one else around.

When I take two or three days of solitude, I usually bring along one or more Christian books. Sometimes I have a particular thing I might want to hash over with God during the time, so I’ll bring a book specifically about that topic. I’ll read more slowly than usual, and often pause, and – this may sound weird – talk with God about what I’m reading. For a time of two or three days I usually also take along a couple fiction books. This is because when I have that much time, I spend it not only consciously doing “spiritual things,” but also relaxing in God’s presence through reading, hiking, and fishing. For me, reading is not a distraction, but an engagement with God. When Kari and I go away together, we don’t spend every second staring into one-another’s eyes. Sometimes we are both reading something in the same room. The fact that we are reading does not altar the fact that we are also together. So, when I have a good amount of solitude time (two days, or more) I do have periods that are less directly focused on God, and yet the entire time is imbued with an awareness that it is just God and me, together.

Sometimes in solitude, I have long periods of silence. But I also listen to music at times, because that often opens a spiritual window to God in my heart. The main idea is to have a block of time that is dedicated to spending with God. The way you spend that time might vary, but the  most important thing is to set aside anything that distracts you from God’s presence: phone, internet, other people, and so on.

You may sometimes get together with a good friend, or go away with your spouse. When you do that, you might turn off your phones, and use the time to focus on that relationship. That’s exactly what you are doing with times of intentional solitude.

The practice of solitude does require some adjustment, however. The first couple hours of being alone, you are very likely to feel like you are wasting time, and to think that what you are doing is silly and pointless. You’ll end up thinking about stuff you should do, and people you need to talk to. You won’t feel like it is spiritually productive at all. This is normal. It is part of the process of solitude. If you simply allow these feelings to happen, and continue to be alone with God, eventually, all the stuff going through your head will begin to quiet down. You will begin to settle in to a quiet refreshing place with the presence of God.

Many people feel lonely during times of solitude. This too, is normal, and actually can be very helpful for your spiritual life. We cram our lives so full of people, activities and things, that we seldom stop to simply recognize our own selves, and the presence of God. Intentional loneliness helps us to slow down, and see our need for God, our dependence upon him. It gives us perspective that is almost impossible to get otherwise in this insanely busy modern world.

When you are constantly in touch with everyone you know, constantly connected to news, and social events, and even to the random thoughts of acquaintances you haven’t seen for years, it wears out your soul. The human soul was made for connection with other humans. But it was also made for connection with God, and sometimes, in order to have that, we desperately need to be alone with God, without other distractions.

If you are never alone with just yourself and God, you will never really know the state of your own heart and soul. Socrates is famous for saying these words: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But even before he said that, Solomon, the wisest man in the world, said something very much like it:

8 The sensible person’s wisdom is to consider his way,
but the stupidity of fools deceives them.

(Proverbs 14:8, CSB)

In other words, it is wise to stop and consider how you are living, and where your path is leading. It is God’s wisdom to take time apart from the rest of life, and allow God to speak into your soul. Life is hardly worth living if we never even stop to think about who we are, what we are doing, what it means, and where it all leads. In today’s internet-driven world, the only way to “consider your way” is to get away. In fact, it is clear that Jesus thought that was true, even two-thousand years before the invention of the high-speed modem. David, Solomon’s father, wrote this:

23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my concerns.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me;
lead me in the everlasting way.

(Psalms 139:23-24, HCSB)

He understood the importance of time alone with God, time for God to use your own mind to dig into your soul and bring up things that need to be addressed. Elsewhere, he wrote this:

9 Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you.

(Psalms 32:9, ESV)

When we never separate from the world and take time alone with God, we are being like a mule. We are not letting God guide us, or address things in our lives that need addressing. As scary as it may be sometimes, we need to stop and find out what is in our souls. We don’t have to be afraid, because God is with us as we do that.

Jesus went into the loneliness of exile from Heaven on our behalf. For what felt to him on earth like an entire lifetime, he was apart from the light and joy and fellowship that was normally his in Heaven. His going apart, his separation from the fellowship of heaven, accomplished the most wonderful thing possible for us – our salvation.

God does not ask us to separate from himself. But at times, it may be vitally necessary for us to have time set apart to allow Him to draw us closer.

Please listen to this song, written and recorded by my wife, Kari. It might be another way of encouraging you to find value in time alone with God.

To listen to the song, click the play button:

LENT #2: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF HUNGER

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The essence of fasting is embracing our weakness, and our need of God. It leads us to a place where we are more deeply connected to our need for Him, where we are joyfully humbled by our utter dependence upon Him. It doesn’t hurt our prayer life, either.

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 Lent 2

LENT #2. FASTING. LUKE 4;1-2

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. (Luke 4:1-2, ESV)

Last time we talked about how God often leads those with whom he is pleased into difficult things. This is not because God is mean, or perverse, but rather, because he knows more than us, and sometimes suffering brings us tremendous blessings. Some of the blessings we receive through suffering may not be fully realized until we stand with Jesus in our new, resurrected bodies:

16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

(2 Corinthians 4:16-18, ESV)

This time I want to look at the spiritual discipline that we call “fasting.” As we see from our text in Luke, Jesus went without food during a period of forty days. I used the ESV translation above because it captures the Greek quite well: “And he ate nothing during those days.” This could mean that Jesus had nothing to eat, whatsoever, for forty entire days – in other words, for 960 hours. It could also mean that for forty days, Jesus had nothing to eat while it was daylight. The Greek would support either meaning. If you pushed me, I would say that I think Jesus ate one simple meal each day, after dark for forty days. Again, however, it could mean that he had no food whatsoever during all that time. I also want to point out that it says nothing about drinking, and since the human body cannot survive longer than about three days without liquid, I’m quite sure that Jesus at least had water to drink during this time.

This practice of deliberately going without food for a period of time is called fasting. The English word “breakfast” simply means to break (that is, end) the fast of the night-time hours. Protestant Christians are often both confused, and somewhat ignorant about fasting. One of the things most Christians do know is that fasting from food is not a necessary part of following Jesus. I quoted this same passage last time:

16 So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. 17 For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. 18 Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, 19 and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.
20 You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, 21 “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? 22 Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. 23 These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.

(Colossians 2:16-23, NLT)

Fasting certainly falls into the category of food and drink, and also practices of pious self-denial. Paul’s point  in the Colossians passage is not that you should never have a special holy day, or that you should never fast, but rather that you should not allow anyone to condemn you for what you do, or don’t do, with regard to such things. Fasting, merely for the sake of fasting, accomplishes nothing. Fasting will not make you more holy. If done with the wrong attitude, it will not help you fight temptation. Jesus himself condemned the way some people practiced fasting:

16 “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. 17 But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. 18 Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18, NLT.

When we use fasting as an opportunity to show off spiritually, we have made it almost useless. When we make fasting into a rule that we have to follow, we destroy its value.

However – and this is a big however – since at least the time of Moses (that is, for more than three thousand years) followers of God have engaged in fasting. You can find followers of God fasting in almost every Old Testament book. Jesus fasted, obviously, on more than one occasion. His disciples fasted, after Jesus was crucified and raised. In the two-thousand years since then, millions of Christians have engaged in this spiritual discipline, some quite regularly. In short, fasting, done the right way, can be very beneficial in our relationship with God.

I’m going to talk about my own fasting experience. Please understand something however: I am not trying to give you the impression that I fast twice a week for years on end, or anything remotely like that. I believe I have done it often enough to help me teach about fasting, but I’m quite sure I would benefit from fasting a lot more often than I actually do it. Perhaps this message is also for my own sake, to become more regular with it.

Usually, I plan ahead of time the sorts of things I want to bring up with God during a fast. Maybe I’m feeling burdened for a particular person or issue. Maybe I want to be closer to God. Perhaps I want God to address something in my life that I am having a difficult time dealing with. Sometimes I write down my “fasting concerns” in a notebook. Sometimes I don’t.

The normal Biblical model of fasting is going without food for a set period of time. As I mentioned before, sometimes that means not eating while the sun is up for one day, or many (and not “making up” for your missed meals by gorging in the evenings). Sometimes fasting might mean going without food for a set number of hours. I would say that to get any benefit from it, you ought to go without food long enough to develop hunger pangs for a period of time. When the hunger pangs come, you can use them in at least two ways.

First, every time you feel hungry, use that as a reminder that there is something special going on between you and God today. Let the hunger pangs remind you to pray. Briefly pause what you are doing, and pray for the concerns that you want to address in your fasting. You might then continue working, and continue praying as you work, if possible. As you pray, use the hunger. You might think or pray something like this: “Lord, I am hungry, but I want your intervention in these things even more than I want to eat.” Let your hunger become an appeal to God. Present your hunger to God as a prayer.

Second, when you feel hunger (and perhaps weakness along with the hunger) use that feeling to maximize your dependence on God in general. I might think something like this: “Oh wow, I feel weak and hungry right now. God, as much as I feel like I need food right now, I need you, even more. As much as I desire to eat, I have an even greater desire for you, and for your work in my life. I confess to you that I need you even more than I need to eat.” Embrace the weakness you feel. Embrace the desire for food (without satisfying it), and let God turn them into dependence upon Him, and desire for Him.

If you haven’t fasted before, some of what I’m describing might make more sense to you after you have tried it.

Many people have adapted “fasting” to include things like abstaining from only certain kinds of food (like not eating sugar, or red meat). Or, abstaining from watching television, or from watching sports, or playing video games. Some people might even say it like this:

“I’m giving up _________ for lent.”

Myself, every year, I give up football for lent (to my overseas listeners, this is a joke: there is no American football during that time of year).

These are admirable ideas, but to really engage the power of Biblical fasting, I think it needs to be something that provides constant reminders throughout the fast (like hunger pangs), and something that makes you aware of your weakness, and your absolute need for God. You need to abstain from something in such a way that the fasting continually leads you into dependence upon God, into prioritizing him above all else. To be honest, I’m not sure that abstaining from video games or sugar would do that. One thing I can think of that might be comparable to not eating is ceasing smoking. From what I understand, if you are a smoker, and you quit, you will have constant cravings, and you will be reminded of your weakness and need for God. Along those lines, the apostle Paul says it is OK for married couples to fast from sex for a short period of time, as long as they both agree to it (Note: he doesn’t command it!). He does command couples to not take that particular kind of fasting too far. My own struggle with pain has sometimes provided the same sort of experience as fasting: The pain becomes a reminder that is felt by only me. I feel a deep need for God, and I use the pain almost as a prayer.

In spite of these few exceptions, I wonder if it is significant that in scripture, the only kind of fasting it really talks about is fasting from food. One of my concerns about other types of things that are called “fasting” these days, is that they sort of emphasize our own will power and achievement, without emphasizing our weakness and dependence on God. If I “fast” from watching TV, I might be tempted to become proud of my self-discipline, proud of doing something that feels righteous. When I fast from food, I feel too weak, too needy, to become proud. Not only that, but if I fast from sugar, or TV, or video games, basically, I am just becoming a healthier person. I’m not casting myself in dependence upon God, I’m working to make myself a better person. That’s a good thing, but it is definitely not the main spirit or intent behind the discipline of fasting.

I will add two very important things. First, it might be wise to check with a doctor before you fast. Particularly if you are diabetic, or have some other kind of health condition, you ought to make sure it is safe before you try it.

Second is this: If the fast is becoming a hindrance, rather than a help, just stop, and eat something. This doesn’t mean that fasting won’t ever work for you. It means that this particular fast, at this point in time, isn’t helpful, so let it go. A few times, I have fasted, and all I could think about was how hungry I felt. I wasn’t feeling dependence on God, and I wasn’t really praying any more, I was just obsessing about my desire to eat. I talked to the Lord about it, and I felt clear permission to go ahead and eat. At a later time, I fasted again, and that later fasting was very spiritually helpful. So, even if the first time you try it, it doesn’t go well, don’t give up. If you have a time when it doesn’t seem helpful, don’t write it off for the rest of your life.

A few practical thoughts. If you are new to fasting, I would suggest going without food from one evening meal until your next evening meal. In other words, eat the evening meal, and skip snacks for the first evening, and then fast from breakfast and lunch (and any snacks) the next day. Break your fast with the evening meal twenty-four hours after your last meal. This is not too terribly challenging. You should be able to get in a few hours of hunger pangs that way.

While you fast, please be sure to drink plenty of non-caloric fluids – water, black coffee or tea (though be careful with too much caffeine on an empty stomach!), or plain carbonated water. I don’t recommend diet drinks, because they can sometimes fool your body into thinking you’ve had something sweet, which can mess with your blood sugar, and actually make the fast more difficult. If you are really struggling, but you also really want to finish the fast, a cup of broth or bullion sometimes helps you feel better, and contains only a handful of calories.

If you have already done some fasting, and/or if you want to challenge yourself a bit, you could fast from after the evening meal of day 1, throughout all of day two, and then break your fast the morning of day 3. That would make basically a thirty-six hour fast.

People who fast for multiple days in a row are usually only fasting during daylight hours (in other words, they have one meal per day, in the evening). One other approach for multiple-day fasting is to drink broths, and diluted fruit juices throughout the fast. Please do be careful about multi-day fasting without any food at all. Do some research and prepare well before embarking on a long fast.

I also want to reiterate the advice of Jesus. Fast during a “normal,” day, going about your normal routine (apart from food). Don’t advertise the fact that you are fasting – the point of the fast is what is happening in your own relationship with God, and it doesn’t have to concern anyone else. If someone asks you why you aren’t eating, you don’t have to be paranoid about it – you can admit you are fasting without feeling proud or bad. On the other hand, if you start as I suggested, most people won’t even notice you skipping breakfast and lunch – the evening meal is the one you are most likely to share with others, so no one has to know that you’ve been abstaining all day long. Again, you don’t have to be all mysterious – if someone happens to ask why you aren’t eating, you can mention it. But try not to use fasting to make yourself look good in the opinion of yourself, or of others. That’s what Jesus warned about.

Sometimes, in the bible, a group of people would agree to fast together. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with that, and nothing wrong with other people in the group knowing that you are fasting along with them. There is no basis for anyone in the group to become proud, since everyone is doing the same fast. I will say this however: we should be very careful to not coerce anyone into fasting with us. I was once part of a group where two people basically shamed the rest of us into fasting with them. There was no clear purpose or goal for our fasting. It was more that they wanted us all to show what hard core Christians we were. Needless to say, that fast didn’t go very well for me. Don’t let yourself be forced into it, and don’t try to force others to join you, but it isn’t wrong to invite, without pressure, others to join you.

It makes sense to me that Jesus began his ministry work with this long fast. As we will see later, the things gained in fasting tended to counteract the temptations the devil gave Jesus. Fasting leads us to depend on God, not on ourselves, or the resources we might have. So, when the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread, Jesus was already in a place of deep dependence on God.

Even though Jesus had a perfect union with the Father, he found it helpful to fast. Without making it a law, I would like to suggest that if even Jesus practiced fasting, we too, could find tremendous benefit in it. For now, at least let us remember that we need God more than anything, even food. Our need points us to God’s satisfaction of all needs: Jesus Christ. Rely on Him today!

LENT #1: THE UNEXPECTED GRACE OF SUFFERING

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God the Father made it quite clear that he was pleased with Jesus. It is certain that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit. And yet, the Father’s approval, and the Spirit’s leading brought Jesus into a wilderness where he had nothing to eat, and had to battle with the devil. Our circumstances are not a reliable guide to understanding how God feels about us. Often, God leads us into suffering, because he is treating us as his children; treating us, in fact, exactly how he treated Jesus.

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 Lent 1

Lent 2022 #1. Luke 4:1-4

On March 2, this year, we entered the church-season of Lent. The “church year” with its various seasons – like Lent, Advent, Pentecost, etc. – is not found in the Bible. It was developed over time, in conjunction with “church festivals.” Church festivals include days like Christmas, Pentecost, Resurrection (Easter), All Saints, and also days celebrating the lives of various famous Christians. The church year developed as church leaders found it useful to remember different important parts of the Bible, and to highlight certain Biblical themes and events. Eventually, by the middle ages, the lives of most people in Europe revolved around the church year, and the various festivals of the church. It was helpful, at that time, for people to have their lives rooted and grounded in the Church year. The rhythms of their lives, all year round, were deeply attached to themes and holidays that reminded them of God. The very word “holiday” actually comes from the phrase “holy day.”

There are negatives to the church year. The seasons and festivals of the church year are associated with various Bible readings. Eventually, the Church began to focus only on those particular Bible readings, which were chosen by human beings to create the church year. Most people did not have their own Bibles, so they only heard the Bible when it was read at church. Because of the way the church year is structured, no one ever heard a whole Biblical book read in order – that is, in context. Not only that, but the readings of the church year (called “the lectionary,” or “the pericope” [pronounced per-ik-uh-pee]) leave out well over half of the Bible. Many pastors only preach on the lectionary, which means, in such churches, there is over half the Bible that you will never hear taught or explained. When pastors preach on the lectionary, it is, by necessity, preaching out of context. I know some pastors who would argue that the lectionary, along with the church year, is the context, but those are man-made contexts, not the context given by the Bible itself.

All of this is good to know, and important to take into consideration. The church year is man-made, neither created by, nor demanded by the Bible. Paul writes this, in Colossians:

16 So don’t let anyone condemn you for what you eat or drink, or for not celebrating certain holy days or new moon ceremonies or Sabbaths. 17 For these rules are only shadows of the reality yet to come. And Christ himself is that reality. 18 Don’t let anyone condemn you by insisting on pious self-denial or the worship of angels, saying they have had visions about these things. Their sinful minds have made them proud, 19 and they are not connected to Christ, the head of the body. For he holds the whole body together with its joints and ligaments, and it grows as God nourishes it.

(Colossians 2:16-19, NLT)

It is easy to see how those verses apply to the church year. But there is another aspect also. We should not judge those who do find the church year helpful. In addition, the church year is the product of centuries of thoughtful consideration. Times have changed, of course, but I think sometimes we in the 21st century are perhaps too quick to dismiss ancient Christian practices that followers of Jesus found helpful in former times. Even today, millions of people find the church year helpful for following Jesus. I do think it has its deficiencies, but I also want us to be able to draw from what is good and helpful in Christian tradition.

All that is a very long way of saying that this year, I would like to at least experiment with following a church-season – in particular, the season of Lent. I do not intend to follow the church year always, but I do want to expose you to this ancient Christian tradition. As always, we will base it firmly in scripture. In fact, it is possible that we will spend all seven weeks of Lent in just one scripture passage, but we will see.

The season of Lent is arranged to last forty days, in remembrance of the forty days that Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness, and battling temptation, just before he began his world-changing ministry. It also echoes the forty years that the people of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness before they entered the promised land. The forty days of Lent begin with Ash Wednesday, and end with Easter. We will begin this Lenten season by looking at that experience Jesus had in the wilderness.

1 Then Jesus left the Jordan, full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.”
4 But Jesus answered him, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone.”

(Luke 4:1-4, CSB)

Let’s remember the context. Jesus has spent thirty-years living in obscurity, most of it in the town of Nazareth. Most sons in those days probably ended up doing whatever their fathers did for a living, so it is likely that Jesus was a builder, like Joseph. Now, at the age of thirty, led by the Spirit, he visits his cousin John, and is baptized by him. At his baptism, the Father made it known that He was pleased with Jesus. He affirmed Jesus in his Divine Sonship. And then, the first thing the Spirit leads Jesus to do is to go out into the wilderness, where he is to refrain from eating, and face the temptations of the devil.

There is an important point here. I think it is very significant for many of us. The Father was pleased with Jesus. The Spirit was with him, leading him. And he was brought into a desert wasteland where he had no food and had to fight with the devil.

You don’t have to go very far in America to hear a Christian who says something like this: “If you just follow God, he’ll take care of you. Your life will go better.” The Father was pleased with Jesus. The Spirit was leading him. However, his life did not get easier as a result of this, but harder. Following God is not a guarantee that everything will go well for you. That’s hard, but it’s the truth. When we follow God, he is often kind enough to lead us to the place where we understand that this life on earth is not the main focus. He usually uses suffering to help us absorb that message.

There is something else that many people may need to hear today: Our circumstances do not necessarily reflect how God feels about us. Jesus had nothing to eat. He was assailed by the devil, and living in a desert wasteland. And the Father was so pleased with him; the Spirit was with him. The Father had his reasons for allowing Jesus to go through that. But his reasons had nothing to do with  his delight in Jesus.

Sometimes, when I’m going through tough times, I think maybe God is angry at me, or perhaps I’ve done something that has caused him to teach me a lesson. Another thought I have sometimes is that I’m going through hard times because I’ve made the wrong choice, and not listened to the Holy Spirit. But that could not have been the case with Jesus. The Father was pleased with him. The Spirit was leading him. And he ended up in a wasteland with no food, fighting the devil.

I think this passage calls us to dare to look at our circumstances differently. Because we are in Jesus, the Father is pleased with us, too. What we are going through is not necessarily a sign of how God feels about us. It’s true that, unlike Jesus, we sin. Sometimes we go astray and hard circumstances are a result of our bad choices. But Jesus shows us that you can follow the Spirit and still end up in the desert with no food and the devil attacking you constantly. Just because you are in a hard time does not mean that God is displeased with you. Trust his love and grace to you – it comes to you through Jesus, which is to say, perfectly!

And here is one of the first lessons we can take from the season of Lent: there is a time and place in the Christian life for hardship and discipline. It is not because you’ve done something wrong. It’s not because God is displeased with you, or that you need to get your act together. It is because that is the best possible thing for you, at this time.

I’ve come to this place with my own intense physical suffering. I have prayed, and received prayer for my suffering, including many types of prayer, and from many different people. I’ve tried literally dozens of things, medically. Yet I am still in pain. I trust therefore, that if God continues to allow it, it is because this difficult thing is, in fact, the very best thing for me. The writer of Hebrews addresses this same topic, telling us to consider the suffering of Jesus. His temptation in the wilderness was part of his earthly suffering:

3 For consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you won’t grow weary and give up. 4 In struggling against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5 And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons:
My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly
or lose heart when you are reproved by him,
6 for the Lord disciplines the one he loves
and punishes every son he receives.
7 Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? 8 But if you are without discipline ​— ​which all receive ​— ​then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Furthermore, we had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but he does it for our benefit, so that we can share his holiness. 11 No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.

(Hebrews 12:3-11, CSB)

God disciplines us for our benefit, so that we can share in his holiness. Though it isn’t pleasant at the time, later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. It is not punishment, but training; training in holiness. Most importantly, God deals with us this way because he loves us, because he considers us his children, bearers of his own name.

So here is the first lesson for this year’s Lenten season: allow God to use whatever hardship is in your life to bless you, and train you to share in his holiness. If you can alleviate your suffering, go ahead and do it. But if you find yourself dealing with some kind of hardship that you have no control over, perhaps you could be open to the idea that God will use it to bless you. God is treating you as a beloved child, as a member of the family.

All suffering is difficult. But not all suffering needs to be evil.

Let me say this again, because many 21st century American Christians don’t really know this, or want to accept it: not all suffering is evil. In fact, when we are in Jesus, nothing that we suffer needs to be evil. Instead, the Father can use every bit of it to bless us, and to train us to share in His holiness.

We should not miss this fact, also: God didn’t just use the suffering that happened to come to Jesus as he went about life. There was plenty of hardship in the ordinary, everyday life of someone who lived in 1st Century Israel under the Roman empire. There was poverty the like of which most of us have never seen. There was injustice. There was hard work. There was no modern medicine, so even a headache was not easily solved. But God called Jesus deliberately into even more suffering.

I don’t believe we ought to go looking for ways to suffer. But we don’t need to fear it either, and we need to recognize that sometimes, God’s gracious hand is in the thing that causes us suffering. It is a tremendous comfort for me to know that I suffer because it is God’s best will for me. It is a wonderful joy to know that there is purpose in my pain, and it is accomplishing something in God’s Kingdom, even when I don’t understand it. I am being treated as God’s beloved child. I know this not only because of the Hebrews passage above, but because this is exactly how God dealt with Jesus Himself.

Let the Lord speak to you today about the joy and discipline and love that He can impart to you through whatever suffering he calls you to.

Let me add one final thought. I have heard many Christians say that they believe revival is coming to America. Many of the people who say this are people that I know and respect. But even as they are convinced that revival will come to the American church, I am convinced about the way it will come to us: through suffering. I cannot see any way that American Christians can come to a profound, life changing place in their faith, and have a significant impact on our culture, without suffering. I am more and more convinced that a time of suffering is coming to the church at large. When it comes, let us not be surprised by it. Peter, who knew what suffering  is, wrote:

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you, as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may also rejoice with great joy when his glory is revealed.

1 Peter 4:12-13 (CSB)

Let us not be worried, or fearful, or dismayed. Jesus suffered, and part of following him, involves following him in suffering. It can be difficult, yes, but it is not bad, not evil. It might be the most wonderful thing God can do in us and through us.

The Spirit himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God’s children, and if children, also heirs — heirs of God and coheirs with Christ — if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.

(Romans 8:16-18, CSB)

Once again, we see the connection between being a child of God, and being called to suffer.

During this time of Lent, let us use the season to prepare ourselves, to train our minds and hearts to recognize that suffering does not need to be evil, and it can actually accomplish much good for the kingdom of God. Let us use the practices of Lent to train ourselves, so that we recognize we are indeed God’s children, and he will use us in his kingdom, and in this world.

1 PETER #12: ORDINARY PRIESTS, SPIRITUAL SACRIFICES

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In Christ, we do not need priests to help us connect to God. ALL of us have direct access to God through Jesus Christ. This means that in a sense, we are all priests. That priesthood extends to the fact that all Christians are called to represent and serve God wherever we live, work and relax.

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 12

1 Peter #12.  1 Peter 2:4-5

As you come to him, a living stone—rejected by people but chosen and honored by God—5 you yourselves, as living stones, a spiritual house, are being built to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 PETER 2:4-5

As in pretty much the entire letter, when Peter writes “you,” in Greek, it is plural. In English it should be “you all,” which is just one more argument for adopting “Y’all” as an actual, proper word. Anyway, Peter is saying that Christian communities are part of something that God is building. He begins the building with the foundation of Jesus – the living stone, rejected by humans – but he is building us Christians, through our local church communities, into living stones, and those living stones are making a spiritual house. Next, he explains that within the spiritual house of God, every single Christian is a priest.

I want to unpack this a little bit. We will deal with Jesus as a “living stone,” next time. Peter also calls his readers (that is, all Christians) “living stones.” He is providing an analogy about the church. If we needed any reminder that the church is not contained in physical buildings, here it is: we, the people who follow Jesus, are the building blocks, and we are being built into a spiritual house, not a physical one. Remember, there were no “church buildings,” until three hundred years after Peter wrote this letter. One of the main points Peter is making is that God lives within the community of his people (not within physical buildings). When we gather together to worship (even when it is on zoom), God inhabits our spiritual community in a special, and spiritual, way. Part of our purpose as Christians is to be a community in which God dwells.

Let’s spend the bulk of our time exploring the fact that Peter calls Christians “a holy priesthood.” In the first place, in ancient times, only a priest was allowed to “approach God” to make a sacrifice. For the Israelites, the priests had to be born into a particular bloodline. Most people were not priests, and as close as they ever could get to the presence of God was to stand outside of God’s temple, in the courtyard. The priests (lucky enough to be born into priestly families) were allotted into divisions, and the divisions were rotated in their service at the temple. The priests had to go through various cleansing rituals in order to be considered holy enough to complete their service of offering sacrifices on behalf of the people. No one but a priest ever got to go inside the temple, and even for a priest, it was probably a once in a lifetime chance, because you were chosen for the duty by random chance.

Most of Peter’s first readers were probably not Jews, so they might have been more familiar with the pagan religious rites of Greece and Rome.  Although perhaps the requirements were not so stringent, certainly, to engage in anything beyond a minor act of worship (like burning incense in front of an image in your own house), a priest or priestess had to be involved. If you really wanted to connect with a deity, or enlist its help, you needed someone in the class of priests. You couldn’t do it directly.

But Peter says: “Now, through Jesus, you are all priests!” This is one of the revolutionary aspects of Christianity: Because of Jesus Christ, by God’s grace, anyone can directly approach God through faith. You don’t need a priest to pray for you: you yourself can pray directly to God. And in fact, the prayers of a Christian priest/pastor are no better than those of any other Christian. Our prayers are heard because of Jesus Christ, not because the one who prays is somehow special. I have non-Christian friends who sometimes say something like this: “Put in a good word at the Pearly Gates for me.” I usually respond like this: “My word is no better than yours at the Pearly Gates. But I can introduce you to the guy I’m counting on to get me in.”

I am a called, trained, and ordained minister of God’s church. That does mean something. It means that I have a particular kind of calling to spend as much time as I can (ideally, all of my “working hours”) teaching people the Word of God, helping them to grow closer to Jesus, and training them to engage in the callings God has for their lives.. The calling to vocational ministry is relatively rare – maybe 1-5% of Christians are called to it. But my calling does not give me some special hotline to God that other people don’t get. It is about my role in the church, and about dedicating myself entirely to God’s service. It most certainly does not mean that people have to use me as an intermediary to talk to God. In fact, there is no point in trying to use a priest or pastor that way.

So that’s the first part of all Christians being the “priesthood of believers:” we all have direct access to God through Jesus Christ. No one is excluded. There is a second thing, also. While it is true that being called to full time vocational ministry is fairly rare, every single Christian is called to live in such a way that God is glorified, and the church is built up. Ephesians 4:11-16 explains:

11 Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. 12 Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. 13 This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ.
14 Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. 15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.

(Ephesians 4:11-16, NLT)

This passage lays it out plainly. There are callings and gifts for vocational (full-time) ministry: apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor, teacher. Some people say that all of these gifts are found in one person, and they call this “the five-fold ministry.” Others say that they are all supposed to be in separate people, so that every church should have at least five leaders (one with each of the gifts). My own inclination is to believe that all of these gifts are present, to some degree, in anyone who is called to full time ministry, but that they are not all found in equal measure.

So, for example, I have a friend who is also called to full time ministry. His strongest gift is that of pastor, and he has a clear gift of prophecy, also. He undoubtedly serves the broader church, like an apostle. He can also lead people to Jesus, as an evangelist (and has), and he can teach, but those are not his greatest strengths. Each of us who is called to vocational ministry has a unique combination of these five things. My friend is a bit older than me, and he has observed that over the many years of his ministry, at times he was called to be more of a prophet, and other times more of a pastor, and right now is doing more with his gifts of apostle (serving not just one congregation, but the church at large).

We see that one of the main aims in the work of those who are called to full time ministry is to equip everybody else in the church to also minister in some way. It is not the full time ministers who are supposed to do everything, but rather, we (the vocational ministers) are supposed to train others to use their talents and time to build up the church, and let love overflow to the world. In other words: every Christian is called to minister in some way. This is part of what it means to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices to God.

Pastors do have a particular and unique calling and gifting. But so does every other Christian! This is Christianity 101. Being a Christian means to follow Jesus, and that involves all of your life. It means your life is now to be used to lift up and glorify Jesus Christ. Paul describes it like this:

4 Now there are different gifts, but the same Spirit. 5 There are different ministries, but the same Lord. 6 And there are different activities, but the same God activates each gift in each person. 7 A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person to produce what is beneficial

(1 Corinthians 12:4-7, HCSB)

This does not necessarily mean that you should quit your job and just “live for Christ.” For most Christians, instead, it means, live for Christ where you are right now. If all the Christians who worked in a factory quit their jobs, who would be left to show the grace and truth of God to the others in the factory? If everyone became pastors, so many important things would be left undone.

12 For as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body — so also is Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free — and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 So the body is not one part but many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,” in spite of this it still belongs to the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I’m not an eye, I don’t belong to the body,” in spite of this it still belongs to the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But now God has placed each one of the parts in one body just as He wanted. 19 And if they were all the same part, where would the body be? 20 Now there are many parts, yet one body.

(1 Corinthians 12:12-20, HCSB)

No, for most people, it means that you are called to represent God where you are right now. And, according to the verses above, that role is indispensable. God desires Christians in factories, in offices, in homes raising children, in transportation, in technology, in government, in education, in law, in sales, in small business – the list is almost endless. We are called to be priests wherever we are – that is representatives, and servants, of God. We are called to glorify God, and to touch others with God’s truth and love. That doesn’t mean you can never change jobs, but it does mean that whatever you do, wherever you go, you do it as a priest of God.

The third thing about the holy priesthood is that now we are set apart, special to God, just as priests were considered specially set apart to God. This can offer us a helpful rule of thumb for everyday behavior. You might ask yourself: “Can I say what I am about to say as a priest of God?” In other words, do my actions and words reflect my calling as one of God’s priests where I am? If not, maybe we need to change what we do and say. We can’t make that change without the help of the Holy Spirit, but recognizing the need to change is the first step.

Another aspect of this is integrity. Being a priest of God where you are may get you fired sometimes. I don’t mean that we should be unnecessarily confrontational. We shouldn’t go out of our way to create conflict. But at times, we may find ourselves facing a choice between doing what is right – that is, doing God’s will – or doing what our boss tells us to do. In such cases, being God’s representative may cost us something in material or financial terms. God promises, however, that whatever we lose in this life is more than compensated for:

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us.

(Romans 8:18, HCSB)

In addition to being a priest in the workplace, and at home, you are a priest within the body of Christ, as well. That is, you can provide encouragement and support to other Christians in unique ways. You may have a call to lead a ministry to serve the poor, or to teach the Bible to children, or lead worship, or help maintain the physical resources of your church. You are probably called, at least from time to time, to say things to your fellow Christians that they need to hear. We are all called to pray together, and pray for one another. We are called to love one another, and the way we do that reflects the unique way God made each of us. God has designed you to encourage his people, and to help bring them to maturity, in a special way.

Peter says as God’s priests, we offer spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. There are several important things to understand about these “spiritual sacrifices.” The first thing is they are something different from the actual, physical animal sacrifices common to almost all religions at that time. In the ancient world, most major worship events involved sacrificing animals in the name of one god or another (or, in Israel, the sacrifice was for the God we worship today). Usually, after the sacrifice, the worshippers would eat together, consuming the meat of the sacrificed animal. In the case of non-Jewish worship, any leftover meat was sold in the public marketplace. So, people understood that one of the primary acts of worship was an actual, sacrifice: a physical animal. In some cases, instead of an animal, an amount of grain was used, or a drink was poured out in honor of the deity.

Peter says, now, through Jesus Christ, we are no longer killing animals or burning up food or wasting drink as part of worship. Instead, what we offer God is spiritual. How do we do that? What is a spiritual sacrifice? Paul tells us, in Romans:

So then, my friends, because of God’s great mercy to us I appeal to you: Offer yourselves as a living sacrifice to God, dedicated to his service and pleasing to him. This is the true worship that you should offer. 2 Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind. Then you will be able to know the will of God—what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect.

(Romans 12:1-2, GNT)

The spiritual sacrifice we offer is our very selves. We make ourselves available to God: body, soul and spirit. The verse above explains that part of that sacrifice involves allowing God to transform us inwardly in such a way that results in outward changes. . What God wants is our hearts. He wants us to willingly come to him in love, and trust him, even when we have doubts and don’t understand. The transformation begins through God’s Word as we learn it, and believe it.

In case that gets too esoteric and difficult to understand, let’s make it practical. It starts with reading the Bible and believing what we read. And it continues like this: When I believe that all the good in my life proceeds ultimately from God, and I thank him for it, I am offering  a spiritual sacrifice. When I am hurting, and struggling, but I choose to trust that God is good, and is working good in my life – even though I can’t see or understand it at the moment – and I thank him for that good, that is a spiritual sacrifice. The contemporary song Blessed Be Your Name captures both of these types of spiritual sacrifices beautifully.

Blessed be Your name // When the sun’s shining down on me // When the world’s all it should be:

Blessed be Your name.

And blessed be Your name // On the road marked with suffering // Though there’s pain in the offering: Blessed be Your name

There are other types of spiritual sacrifices that we can offer God. When I want to do certain things, but I learn that God does not want me to do that, and I obey him, rather than my own desires or preferences, that is a spiritual act of worship. When I give God my time and energy, to be used as he wishes, that is spiritual worship. When I choose to let God love others through me (though I might prefer not to) I am giving God my spiritual worship through Jesus Christ. Prayer is spiritual worship, as is music. Quieting my mind to listen to His Spirit is spiritual worship.

I hope you can see, that it all comes back to giving ourselves wholly to God in faith, through Jesus Christ. Why don’t you spend some time offering yourself to Him right now?