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!

Colossians Part 3: The fountain of Love and Hope.

waterfall-three-stage

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

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

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 Colossians Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pray and meditate on these these things now.

REVELATION #35: THE CULTURE CLASH

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We have now come to the point when Western Culture is, in fact, incompatible with  Biblical Christianity. By using the image of the prostitute, John tells us that there is a certain kind of attraction toward ungodly culture. We are prone to be drawn into it. To remain Christian, and to pass on the Christian faith to future generations, we are going to have to live lives that are radically different in the eyes of our culture. We are going to have to be the church, no matter what it costs. John saw this inevitable clash of cultures in his time, and explains, for all time, the reasons behind it. 

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Revelation #35. Revelation #17.

We have come to another one of those places in the book of Revelation that is just plain weird. However, I believe that we can make at least some kind of sense of this. In the first place, remember that we can use the chiastic structure of Revelation to help us. At the end of the third major section of Revelation (the trumpets), there was an interlude. The interlude at the end of section 3 was about the struggle for God’s Word to go forth. You might say it was from the perspective of the good guys, who had to suffer and even die; although, ultimately, they were vindicated.

We are now at the end of section 5 of Revelation (the bowls of wrath). This section is related to section 3 (the trumpets), and so, here too, we have an interlude. This interlude (chapters 17-18), coming after section 5, is from the perspective of the bad guys. Evil, corruption, and depravity appear to be winning. And yet, ultimately, they will be thoroughly judged and defeated.

The thought in the first interlude was that the witnesses to God’s truth would complete their mission. However, we did not see the final result back there in chapter eleven. The thought here, in the second interlude, completes the first: the judging of the evil powers of this world. God is wrapping things up, leaving nothing unfinished in his task of putting everything right.

There are many specifics in chapters 17 and 18. Whenever we feel that we are getting bogged down in the details of those things, we should return to the big picture; the ideas I have just expressed here.

Chapter 17 introduces us to the woman and the beast, and then “explains” them (if you can really call it an explanation). Like the first interlude, it is one of the more confusing passages in the most confusing book of the Bible. Let’s take this piece by piece:

1 Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and spoke with me: “Come, I will show you the judgment of the notorious prostitute who sits on many waters. 2 The kings of the earth committed sexual immorality with her, and those who live on the earth became drunk on the wine of her sexual immorality.” 3 So he carried me away in the Spirit to a desert. I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and 10 horns. 4 The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, adorned with gold, precious stones, and pearls. She had a gold cup in her hand filled with everything vile and with the impurities of her prostitution. 5 On her forehead a cryptic name was written: BABYLON THE GREAT THE MOTHER OF PROSTITUTES AND OF THE VILE THINGS OF THE EARTH. 6 Then I saw that the woman was drunk on the blood of the saints and on the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. When I saw her, I was greatly astonished. (Revelation 17:1-6 HCSB)

This prostitute is not a literal person. She is a representation of all world empires, governments, and powers that seduce people away from God, and that persecute God’s people. Throughout the Bible, the practice of idolatry is often called a kind of spiritual adultery, or prostitution. So it is here. I believe she represents both the ongoing ungodly world powers, and also a particular empire or civilization that will be present at the very end of world history. The description of her shows that the civilizations she represents are wealthy and corrupt. She is named “Babylon” but again, I believe that is a “code word” for any civilization or empire that leads people away from the worship of the one true God, and which persecutes God’s people. The reason it is in a kind of “code” is because, unquestionably, at the time of John, it meant the Roman Empire: verse 18 says:

And the woman you saw is the great city that has an empire over the kings of the earth.

Also, by using a symbolic name, the Holy Spirit allows this to be applicable throughout world history, although, as I said, I think there will also be a particularly, “ultimate” version of Babylon during the last days before Jesus returns.

I want to point out something else that I believe is important. God’s people were represented by the picture of a woman, a mother, in chapter 12. Here, we have the devil’s counterpart: an adulterous, evil woman, a prostitute. The devil can only imitate and corrupt God’s creation. He has nothing new of his own. In God’s Kingdom, we have the bride of Christ, the mother of the Messiah. The devil’s imitation is a prostitute, a woman full of wickedness and evil.

The same is true of the beast. Jesus is “the one who is, who was and is to come.” In verse 8, the beast attempts to imitate Jesus, but fails. He is the one: “who was, is not, and will come again, only to be destroyed forever.”

Verses 7-17 attempt to explain the “secret meaning” of the woman and the beast. If you are like me, the explanation is worse the puzzle. Verses 9-14 speak of 18 different kings. Or maybe, it is only 12 kings, or possibly 11. Or, perhaps, it is speaking not of kings, but of kingdoms and empires. John says five kings have “fallen,” another one is, and another is yet to come. Many, many people get bogged down trying to figure out which rulers or empires John is prophesying about. Some say these are Roman emperors. Others connect them to various world powers from ancient Egypt all the way to the present. The problem is, neither one of those theories fits the actual facts of world history. I caution you not to get sucked into that sort of thinking. As I have said before, that sort of thinking creates a situation where the book of Revelation is only relevant to a few specific people at a few particular points in time. Instead of letting the text speak into our lives about how we live right now, we spend time trying to “solve the riddle,” as if the Bible is just an interesting puzzle.

So, if we aren’t meant to figure out who or what these rulers represent in history, what are we supposed to do with this text? I think we are meant to understand, in general, that throughout history there is a connection between evil, ungodly world empires (the Great Prostitute), and the underlying work of the devil (the heads and horns of the beast). That doesn’t seem like such a stretch when you think about the reigns of people like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, and Pol-Pot, along with ancients like Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.

When it appears as if evil and ungodliness is running unchecked throughout the world, this text tells us that God knew these things would happen. He has a plan to deal with it. He isn’t shocked, surprised and wringing his hands. He will make everything right.

I think we are also meant to understand that the end of human history will be characterized by a particularly corrupt, wealthy, idolatrous empire.

Finally, we are to be encouraged by the fact that evil devours itself. Ultimately, the dark spiritual power of the beast will turn upon the corrupt, idolatrous world empire. Evil itself will be made to serve God’s purposes:

16 The 10 horns you saw, and the beast, will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, devour her flesh, and burn her up with fire. 17 For God has put it into their hearts to carry out His plan by having one purpose and to give their kingdom to the beast until God’s words are accomplished.

Once more, the question is, where does this leave us? I believe that in the past 15 years, our culture has become far more anti-Christian than we realize. I am not talking about persecution. But the worldview that now dominates Western Culture is not only not Christian, but it is in true opposition to the Christian world view. I saw a TV episode the other night, in which the main plot had to do with sexual identity. I realized that it wasn’t just disagreeing with some of the particulars of  the Bible – it was an entirely different way of looking at what it means to be a human being, a way that flatly contradicts the Christian vision of humanity. I think that TV episode (which was 6 years old) is a reflection of what most of our culture already believes. According to it (and, I believe, our culture at large), your very identity is defined by whom you desire sexually. The greatest evil possible is to deny someone the opportunity to behave however they see fit, especially when it comes to sex. Self-denial, in the current world view, is not just difficult, it is tragically wrong; there is no place for it, not even as a way of loving another person self-sacrificially (that was one of the plot points of the episode). There is no greater authority than the desire of each individual to be whomever they want to be. That means, that no one, not even God, has the right to tell someone that anything they want is morally wrong, or even unhealthy. But Jesus calls us to surrender to his authority, and to deny ourselves, so that we can find true life:

24 Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).

37 The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. 39 Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matthew 10:37-39)

Suddenly, John’s picture of a great prostitute manipulating cultures seems uncomfortably close to home. John is saying that our culture is under the influence of evil, depraved spiritual power; he is using very lurid, picturesque imagery to do so. The cultures of the world are not neutral. They are influenced by the beast, which is to say, they are influenced by the devil and his demonic forces. The cultures of the world are captive to spiritual prostitution.

By using the image of the prostitute, John tells us that there is a certain kind of attraction toward ungodly culture. We are prone to be drawn into it.

John, in his vision, was shocked and astonished by this (v 7). I think most of us are, also. I believe the time has come for Christians to pay attention, and to see that our culture is neither good, nor morally neutral, but completely opposite to a Christian vision of humanity and God. Again, I do not meant that we are being persecuted. But I do mean that the world view of Western culture is antithetical to the Christian world view, and seeks to replace it. Practically speaking, we may have to change how we live in order to avoid getting sucked in. Author Rod Dreher, in The Benedict Option urges us to consider carefully how we live:

The time was coming… when men and women of virtue would understand that continued full participation in mainstream society was not possible for those who wanted to live a life of traditional virtue.

We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.

He points out not only cultural developments, but also legal decisions that have changed how the laws views Christian beliefs. Speaking of the Obergefell decision of the Supreme Court, he says:

Post-Obergefell, Christians who hold to the biblical teaching about sex and marriage have the same status in culture, and increasingly in law, as racists.

He continues:

We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.

I agree, wholeheartedly. From now on, it is going to cost us to be Christian. I think we need to carefully examine the TV shows, movies and music that we consume. If we continue to absorb this anti-Christian worldview without thinking critically about what we watch and listen to, our beliefs will eventually conform to the culture, and be truly anti-Christian. We may have to limit the kind of things we watch, and the media we consume.

Some careers may no longer be appropriate for Christians. A year or two ago, a county clerk in Kentucky was jailed for not issuing a marriage license to a gay couple. In the eyes of the law, she was wrong. I think she was wrong to continue to be a county clerk with the beliefs that she holds, though I completely understand her position. I’m very sad that our culture has come to this, but I believe it has. I think that many Christians in various positions in government may need to consider resigning in order to remain true to their faith. Christians also may not be able to have other certain careers, because to do so would cause us to violate Christian ethics. The list of careers that violate our ethics is likely to grow in the coming years.

If we are to remain Christian, we are going to look radical to a culture that has radically changed in the past twenty years. John tells us that there is a spiritual reason for this, and also that God will eventually take steps to hold accountable the powers that are responsible.

Let the Spirit speak to you today.

SHARE THE BURDEN, LIGHTEN THE LOAD

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No one in the church needs to face their struggles alone. Is your marriage difficult? Let your brothers and sisters and Christ know. Give them the chance to pray for you and encourage you. Maybe your burden is a wayward child, or a dead-end job or a troubled friendship. Allow your fellow believers to fulfill the law of love, by sharing your burden.

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Galatians #23 . Chapter 6:1-5

Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted. Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1-2, HCSB)

With these verses, Paul gives some practical applications of what it means to walk by the Spirit. He mentions the case of someone caught in wrongdoing. “Caught” could mean that a person’s wrongdoing is discovered, or it could mean that the person was entrapped by sin; as in caught in a trap. I think the Greek favors the second meaning. I think common sense favors it as well. Otherwise, it sounds like, as long as you aren’t caught by other people, it’s OK to sin.

Paul says “you who are spiritual” should restore such a person. He’s just been talking about walking by the Spirit. I think he means, “You who are walking by the Spirit, help someone who is trapped in the ways of the flesh.”

By the way, I want to make this very clear. Our business in this case is with Christians who are in our own circle of friends, family and church. There’s no point in trying to get a stranger to shape up to your standards. And there is no point trying to get someone who is not a believer to stop sinning. Of course, in appropriate ways and moments, we should tell the truth about God and sin, but no one is going to shape up their behavior to conform to something they do not believe in the first place. With non-believers, we may need to talk about sin as we preach the gospel, but the message of the gospel is not “shape up.” It is: “You can’t shape up. You need Jesus for forgiveness and for transformation.”

Telling non-Christians to shape up and stop sinning is like telling people with the flu to stop having a fever. It is pointless, until the root problem has been addressed. Moreover, I am sure that most of them feel it is pointless also. Since they don’t share our core beliefs, it is unreasonable to expect them to live by our morality. With non-Christians, the first thing to talk about is who Jesus is. Lifestyle changes only come after they trust Jesus.

Paul, however, is talking about people that we personally know, and whom have put their trust in Jesus, and yet, fall back into sin. They haven’t abandoned their faith. There is war in their souls between the Spirit and the Flesh. Paul says we should help each other in this situation.

I hesitate to get more detailed, but I want us to have a defined idea of the kinds of situations Paul is talking about. First, I think Paul is implying that the Galatian leaders who were trying to lead the church astray were trapped in wrongdoing. Paul is saying, “restore them to the right faith.” So, some people are trapped by false teaching. Usually, some sort of straightforward conversation or intervention is needed to address the false teaching.

Second, I think Paul means this generally when someone in our church-family is trapped in sin. There are certain kinds of things I think of when I hear “trapped in sin.” Addictions and regular “binging” trap us. We keep on doing these things, and can’t seem to quit. I think this passage is applicable when Christians are caught by addictions and binging. Again, that is a situation where intervention is warranted. Another common sin-trap for Christians is an adulterous affair. That’s the kind of situation that often benefits from intervention by other mature Christians.

An additional kind of situation where we should get involved is when there is some kind of ongoing, major hypocrisy. Suppose you have a an elder or deacon, or some other sort of leader in the church. He professes faith in Jesus. He talks a great talk about Christianity and the Christian life. But then, you discover that he is dishonest in his business dealings, treats his employees poorly and shows no real evidence of his faith when he is not at church or around other members of the church. This is a big problem, because it means he is deceiving himself and others about his own standing with God, and what it means to follow Jesus.

These probably aren’t the only situations, but I won’t go on. The main thing, is that Paul is talking about serious situations, situations where either a Christian is following an ongoing pattern of the flesh, or a single failure that creates serious consequences (like adultery). I think especially if there is deception behind it (as there is in false teaching, addiction, adultery and major hypocrisy) it may be a situation that requires restoration.

Paul says that the Spirit-walking Christians should restore the person who was caught in sin; they should do it gently and they should do with humility, being aware that they are also susceptible to failing. I want to touch on each of these things.

The Greek word used for “restore” is the same word used of setting a broken bone, or putting a dislocated joint back in place. This is important, because it means our call is not just to tell people when they are wrong. It is to help them get rightly related to Jesus again. Paul does not have in mind that Christians should go around telling other Christians, “You’re sinning!” That may be required, if someone who claims to be a Christian doesn’t acknowledge their sin. But there is so much more to it than that. Paul says, there should be restoration.

Some churches do this with pastors who are caught in a serious sin. There might be a process that they go through. The sinning person needs to be repentant, to start with. He needs to submit to accountability. In other words, he needs to be willing for his life to be an open book, with no secrets. Those who are restoring him should have access to the details of his life, so they can know if he has truly turned away from the sin that caught him before. Part of the restoration, I think, should involve points along the way, where the person has opportunity to really feel and express that he has turned a corner. As the person proves trustworthy, there should be points along the way where greater trust is restored to him.

Paul says we should be gentle with each other as we do this. We aren’t meant to be watching over each other, so we can jump from around a corner and shout “Aha! Gotcha!” every time someone screws up. But when someone gets trapped in a sin or has been deceptive, we have their best interests at heart. We initiate restoration out of love and hope, not anger, frustration or the desire to put someone down. Matthew Henry wrote about these verse:

“[Jesus] bears with us under our weaknesses and follies, he is touched with a fellow-feeling of our infirmities; and therefore there is good reason why we should maintain the same temper towards one another.”

Paul also says that we should watch ourselves, so that we don’t caught in the same way. In other words, we maintain a healthy dose of humility. We don’t need to live in fear and self-doubt, but we should realize that no one is immune to temptation. We can look at the person whom needs restoration, and say, “There, but for the grace of God, am I.”

Paul adds this beautiful and significant thought:

Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:2, HCSB)

In other words, no one in the church needs to face their struggles alone. Without a doubt Paul sees the struggle against sin, and the process of restoration as part of carrying each other’s burdens. I think it also goes beyond that. Is your marriage difficult? Let your brothers and sisters and Christ know. Give them the chance to pray for you and encourage you. Are you having financial troubles? Let your church family come alongside you with encouragement and prayer. Give them a chance to ask the Lord if they should give toward your need. Maybe your burden is a wayward child, or a dead-end job or a troubled friendship. Are you sick? James tells the sick person directly to ask for prayer.

Others cannot help you bear your burdens if you will not be honest and open about them. This too, requires humility and vulnerability. But think of it this way. Paul says right here that bearing each other’s burdens fulfills the law of Christ. It is the practical application of what Jesus meant when he said:

“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, HCSB)

If we refuse to be humble and honest with each other about our struggles, we are denying each other the chance to practice love. Jesus’ call to love each other can’t be fulfilled without honesty and vulnerability.

For those of us in the Life Together Churches network, this is a tremendous affirmation of house churches and house church networks. It’s difficult to bear each other’s burdens if we only see our fellow-believers as we sit, facing the front on Sunday morning, and for ten minutes of coffee after the service. It can happen, but only really accidentally. If we bear one another’s burdens as a result of being in a choir, it is only accidental. The same is true of Sunday school, committee meetings and almost any program you care to name.

We need some context where we can get to know each other and be safe as we are humble and vulnerable. That is one reason that in our house churches we don’t share, outside the group, what other people say in the group, unless we have permission from them.

I’m not saying that house-church or cell-church is the only way to do things. I know many of you who read this are not part of a house church or cell church. But a committed, regular small group is a tremendously effective context for sharing our burdens with each other. Before I move on, I want to offer a quick reminder. When someone shares a burden in church (small group), it is easy to become a therapy group. But our groups are not for therapy. They are for Jesus. The thing to do when someone shares a burden is to turn to Jesus with them. That may mean sharing a scripture that comes to your mind, or a thought or picture that the Lord seemed to put in your head. It definitely means going to the Lord together in prayer, maybe laying hands on the person as you pray, to be Jesus’ hands, touching them. We don’t have the answers. Jesus does, and he is revealed in the bible and manifested in the work of the Holy Spirit.

Paul goes on:

For if anyone considers himself to be something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But each person should examine his own work, and then he will have a reason for boasting in himself alone, and not in respect to someone else. For each person will have to carry his own load. (Galatians 6:3-5)

Once again, Paul is encouraging the Galatians (and us) to be humble. This reminds me of a verse from Romans:

For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one. Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another. According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts. (Rom 12:3-6, HCSB)

Paul doesn’t want the business of restoration, and bearing each other’s burdens to become an opportunity for people to judge each other, or to boast. If someone has an affair and goes through restoration, it might be easy for a person who never failed in that way to feel superior. Paul says, it is not. You aren’t judged based on how someone else struggles. That means there is no place to feel that you are better than someone else. As it says elsewhere:

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom 14:4, ESV2011)

We are called to share our struggles and bear each other’s burdens. At the same time, each person has his or her own relationship with Jesus. Our burdens can be shared. We must also take responsibility for ourselves. We can’t take spiritual responsibility for someone else, and others cannot do that for us. The sharing of burdens is not an excuse to give up responsibility, nor an opportunity to look down on others for how they struggle.

This passage gives us some tremendous helpful insight into how we interact in Christian community. Ask the Lord to make it real to you right now. Listen to what he has to say to you.