COLOSSIANS #18: THE KEY TO NEW LIFE

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Colossians #18.  Colossians 2:11-12

This passage talks about circumcision, so we might as well have a quick refresher course in what that is about. (Warning for parents: I will be using [just once] the name of a uniquely male body part. You may get questions from young kids.) The physical act of circumcision is when a small piece of skin on the penis (called the foreskin) is cut away. Usually, Jews did this to their infant males when they were exactly eight days old. If you were a grown man who wanted to convert to Judaism, you have to have this done to you when you decided to become a full Jew. In Biblical times, this was done without the benefit of anesthetics or pain killers.

There was a spiritual significance to circumcision. When God made his covenant (solemn agreement) with Abraham, he commanded that Abraham and all his male family members be circumcised. Every male descendant of Abraham was also supposed be circumcised. At that time, and for many centuries after, no one but the Jews practiced circumcision. The idea was this: you belonged to God, entirely. The sign that you belonged to him was right there on your body. It was deeply personal. You gave up a part of your very person as a sign of your belonging to him. The point of this was that it was a reminder of God’s grace. He chose the people of Israel, and it was not of their own doing. No one circumcises himself – it is done to you, for you. So, circumcision was a reminder that they were chosen by God. It was supposed to remind them of the covenant that God had made with them.

Though this was supposed to be a positive thing, reminding people of God’s grace in choosing them, eventually, the Jews began to use it as a sign of being better than everyone else. If you were circumcised, you were “in.” That is, you were in the covenant, you were one of God’s people. If you weren’t circumcised, you were out. That wasn’t how God intended them to take it, but it is how the Jews themselves eventually began to think. If you read some of the historical books of the Bible (Judges, 1-2 Samuel, etc.), you will realized that as far back as 1200 BC, or maybe even earlier, the Hebrews would insult their enemies by calling them “uncircumcised fellows.”

When Paul and others went around planting churches, they started out by talking to Jewish people in the local synagogues. Though a few Jews came to Jesus, most did not. Many of the first believers were non-Jews who were seeking God by hanging around the synagogues. They were interested in the Jewish religion, but hadn’t decided yet, and when they heard the good news about Jesus, they realized it was the truth they had been looking for.

However, once Christian churches had been established, some people began to dispute about how much of the Jewish religion was necessary for following Jesus. Those who had been full Jews were used to thinking of circumcision as the sign of the covenant, the sign that they were God’s chosen people. Even many of the non-Jews (called Gentiles), had spent a lot of time in Jewish synagogues, and they were confused by the Jewish arguments. They started to wonder if they needed to be circumcised – which probably also meant becoming fully Jews – in order to follow Jesus.

Paul was very clear: the answer is no. We already have all of God given to us in Jesus Christ, who lives within us by his Spirit. Paul says that in Christ we have a true spiritual circumcision. In the Greek, one way of translating part of verse 11 is, “You were circumcised with a circumcision, not an artificial one.” Paul is saying that in Jesus, we don’t just have a little piece of skin cut off – the whole body of sinful flesh has been removed from us. That is the real circumcision, circumcision of the heart – allowing the Lord to cut off your sin, and make you holy to himself.

As far back as the time of Moses, the Bible teaches us that the outward circumcision was, at best, just a sign of something that the Lord was doing in the hearts of his people:

16 Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16, NKJV)

6 And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6, ESV)

Paul also makes it very clear in Romans:

29 But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter of the law. (Romans 2:29, ESV)

So actual outward circumcision was never any more than just a sign of God’s work in the hearts of his people. But now, says Paul, there is a new sign of the covenant, and it is even more than just a sign. Through this new piece of the new covenant, God actually does for our hearts what circumcision was supposed to represent. He says we were buried with Christ in baptism, and also raised with him. This is all through faith in the powerful work of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

He says something similar in Romans:

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4, ESV)

In baptism, God killed our old sinful flesh with Christ on the cross. In baptism, we are raised with Christ to new spiritual life. Now, let’s be clear: baptism alone does not accomplish this. It says it right here in Colossians: it is baptism, combined with faith. Let’s hear it again:

“You were buried together with Him through baptism, and also raised to life together with him through faith by the mighty working of God which raised Christ from the dead.”

I want to make sure we get the picture. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death. Imagine you committed a terrible murder. You really did it. You get caught, and then you are sentenced to life in prison without parole. The only way you are getting out of that prison is to die. You could be free, if you died, but of course, you would also be dead. God, through Jesus, made a way for us to die so that we could be free of sin, and yet also become alive again so that we can enjoy that freedom. That is what it means that we were buried together with Christ, through baptism, and also raised to life again. Our life sentence has been served. Justice has been done. Now we can live in freedom from sin.

Like circumcision, baptism is something that is done to us, and for us. No one baptizes herself. In baptism, unlike circumcision, God actually does things in us and for us: here it shows that our sinful flesh was killed and buried, and we were raised to new life. In Acts 2:38-39, it says that baptism initiates the forgiveness of sins, and gives us the Holy Spirit.  However, it is clear here, and elsewhere, that baptism alone does not do these things: it is baptism combined with faith.

By the way, all indications in scripture show that people are generally baptized just once. If you were baptized as a baby, don’t be concerned about whether or not you had faith in that moment. If we go down that road, we might end up being baptized again and again, because we weren’t quite sure if we truly believed it enough last time. No. If you have been baptized, you receive by faith all that is given in that baptism, no matter when it happened. To get baptized again because you weren’t sure you believed is to say that what matters is how well you believe. This is not true. What really matters is God’s grace. A tiny bit of faith – faith the size of a mustard seed – is all it takes to receive that grace. We don’t have faith in our own ability to have faith. We have faith in God’s grace given to us through Jesus, and baptism in one way in which he gives us that grace.

This is a lot like communion. What makes communion truly the Lord’s Supper is that when we receive it, we believe that we are receiving what Jesus promised: his new covenant, his forgiveness through his body and blood. If we don’t believe it, we are merely eating bread and drinking wine (or juice).

Let’s be sure we understand something else here. In the Greek, all of these verbs are past tense. We have been spiritually circumcised. If we trust in Jesus, this has already happened. We have already been brought into the New Covenant. We already belong. It’s a done deal. Through faith in Jesus, through baptism, our flesh has been killed and buried with Jesus. It’s a done deal.  Through faith in Jesus, the resurrection of the spirit has already happened, and the future resurrection of our new bodies is a certainty. These things have been done to us and for us in baptism, through faith. They are not still in process. They are done.

I really want to make sure we get this straight. About halfway through chapter 3, Paul starts telling us how Christians behave. I don’t want us to get the wrong idea. We don’t behave like this in order to go to heaven. We behave like followers of Jesus because Jesus has already saved us, done away with the sinful flesh, forgiven us, and given us his Spirit.

One of my daughters recently married her teenage sweetheart. I had the honor of performing the ceremony. Once we were done with the ceremony, in God’s eyes, they were married. I announced them to the audience as “Mr. & Mrs.” However, as far as the State of Tennessee goes, there was more to be done. I had to get one of the witnesses to sign the marriage license form. Then I had to fill it out myself, and sign a couple forms for them. Then I had to mail it to Davidson county, and then someone at Davidson county had to open the envelope, send to the right department, and then notarize it, and then file it, and then make copies.

When my daughter gets back from the honeymoon, she’ll have to go to the county clerk’s office, and get a copy of the marriage license. Then she’ll have to take that to the DMV, and get her driver’s license changed. Then she’ll have to file a name change with the social security administration and possibly a few other places.

Even so, as soon as we were done with the wedding ceremony, we counted them as married. They drove away later in the day, and began living together as a married couple. It was a done deal. It wasn’t quite done, as far as the government goes. It still isn’t, because she hasn’t gone yet to do all the name change stuff. But they can begin living like it is done, even now. And when the paperwork is finally done, it will show that they were married on the I put on the form. The marriage begins not when the state says it does, but when God says it.

So it is with Jesus. The wedding vows have been spoken. Our old sinful flesh has been killed. We have already started our new life. There are still some things going on behind the scenes that will finalize everything, but when we get to the New Creation and stand before Jesus, I am sure that we will discover we began our new lives him now, even before the paperwork is finalized. So, even now, we can begin to live like it is all done. The way to do so is to believe it, and act like we believe it.

REVELATION #46: FAITH-WORTHY & REALITY-DEFINING

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

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Revelation #46.  Revelation 22:6-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, the angel continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVING OBEDIENCE…OBEDIENT LOVE. JOHN 15:9-12

Loving Obedience

In the Bible, the opposite of rules is not “no rules.” It is loving relationship. It is a completely different paradigm.

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Single Sermons. Loving Obedience. John 15:9-12

 9“As the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you. Remain in My love. 10If you keep My commands you will remain in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commands and remain in His love. 11“I have spoken these things to you so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. 12This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:9-12, HCSB)

This is a stunning passage of scripture. We could spend weeks finding new and wonderful things in these few verses alone. I don’t have weeks, so let’s see if we can break off a digestible portion of this wonderful part of God’s word.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. It’s easy to drift over this quickly, but just stop for a minute and listen. How does the Father love Jesus? In the first place, he is the heavenly Father. His love has no limit. His love has no flaws. The Father has loved Jesus eternally. Here on earth, our love is hampered by our limited capacities. It is corrupted by our sinful flesh. Sometimes, loving others is a lot of work. At times, we lose patience with those we love; we get irritated with them; we become frustrated, or just plain weary. None of those things are a factor in the way the Father loves Jesus. Therefore, none of those things are a factor in the way Jesus loves us.

In fact, Jesus offers us the same experience of love that He has as a member of the Holy Trinity.

God is a Trinity – that is, He is one God, and yet he exist in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is something here that is beyond the grasp of human imagination (incidentally, the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the best arguments that Christianity is not made up by people – human beings would have come up with something more understandable). Between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit there is a constant flow of love and joy. Jesus tells us “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” He is, amazingly, offering us the kind of daily experience of love and joy and grace that He himself has. His own experience of the Father’s love is deep and abiding. It is not something that goes away, and it is something that sustained Him and influenced Him every weary day of His time on earth. I’m reminded of what Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-19, ESV2011)

We need the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, strengthening us, in order to even begin to understand the love that Jesus Christ has for us. It is beyond our ability to know completely, it is abundantly far more than all that we could ask or think. The unfathomable, unlimited love of Jesus for us is the bedrock for everything else in our lives. Particularly, it is the foundation upon which the rest of this text is built. We’re going to talk about what it means to keep the commandments of Jesus. But we cannot begin to understand what this means without the foundation of his all-surpassing love for us.

Abide in my love. “Abide” is not a word that we use very often anymore. Some good synonyms might include: remain, dwell, rest-upon, stay, be, exist-in. We are to dwell in the love of Jesus. We are to rest upon it, to exist continually in it.

Everything in our entire lives ought to be built on one foundational fact: that God loves us. If we get that fact wrong, there will be a host of other things in our lives which we will get wrong, and many things will not make sense. This is not to say that when we truly grasp by faith that God loves us, everything makes sense, and nothing ever goes wrong. But if we build our lives on any other basis than the love God has for us, sooner or later the uselessness and hopelessness of it all will come crashing in.

For many of us, there have been times, perhaps brief periods, when we have truly understood how much God loves us, and those times stand out as high points in our walks of faith. But much of the time, though we know it with our minds, we find it hard to believe that God truly delights in us. On Monday morning at 8:30 when the boss is upset and you’re still smarting from the fight with your spouse, it seems difficult to feel God’s love, and almost impossible that His love should make a difference in your situation.

In John 15, Jesus is inviting us into an abiding experience of His love. He appears to be offering a life wherein most of the time, we will be conscious of God’s love for us, and that love will make a real difference in our daily experiences. Jesus did not simply come down from heaven, hand us a one way ticket redeemable upon our death, and say, “See ya when you get there.” No in His invitation to abide, He is offering a life that is different in quality, right here and now. And the central fact affecting the quality of our lives is meant to be His affection for us.

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. Now we hit the difficulty. Many times when we read this phrase after the other two we think, “Aha! I knew it was too good to be true. Now the other shoe has dropped. Sure, God loves us: but only if we obey his commands, only if we can be good enough to earn his love.”

As we look at these verses, it is important for us to understand the concept of “paradigm.” A paradigm is a way of looking at the world. Paradigms tells us how to interpret our experiences. We all have paradigms, and use them every day. Think about it. The color green does not actually mean “go” and red does not mean “stop.” But in the driving paradigm, we interpret those colors to indicate those things.

When it comes to obeying God, and keeping his commands, it is common to find two different and extreme views,. The first view says, “Jesus died to forgive us [this is true]. His death took away the power of the law to condemn us [also true]. Therefore, once I’ve prayed the sinner’s prayer and ‘gotten saved’ I can go off and live my life however I please [this is not true].”

The second view goes like this: “Even the New Testament – after Jesus’ death and resurrection – tells us we need to obey God [true]. It says we should be holy and righteous people [true, but we need to understand this in the proper way]. Therefore not only should we try to live sinless lives, we actually can do so [not true]. Therefore, if we sin, we may not be true Christians [really not true].”

The underlying problem with both of these approaches is the paradigm. They both view our faith as set of rules. One way thinks we have to follow them; the other way thinks we are free from them. But the paradigm in both cases is about following rules. Both ways of understanding the scripture are legalistic, because they view obedience to Jesus as something to do with the law.

However, in the Bible, the opposite of rules is not “no rules.” It is relationship. It is a completely different paradigm.

In the book of John, Jesus relentlessly pushes the idea that real life only found in a daily faith relationship with Him. In fact, that is the central message of the entire New Testament. What Jesus says here in John 15:10 about keeping his commands can be properly understood only in the context of relationship with him. And in fact, that is true of any verse about obedience in the entire Bible. The paradigm is not rules and laws, but rather, relationship.

Marriage (the way God intends it to be) is supposed to be the strongest and most enduring voluntary relationship we have with another person. That is why the Bible often uses marriage as an illustration of our relationship with the Lord (Ephesians 5:25; Isaiah 54:5, 62:4-5; Jeremiah 3:15, 31:32; Hosea 1:2, 2:19-20; Revelation 19:7-9). That’s also why I often use it as a sermon illustration. It is applicable once again here.

What brings a husband and wife together? Does the man sign up to follow rules laid down by the woman, then, if he follows those rules correctly, they get married? Of course not. They are brought together by love. But what about after the marriage? Do they say, “I know love brought us together, but we are married now, and from here on our marriage will based on fulfilling the rules we have for each other.” Ridiculous.

So, if marriage is not based on rules, does that mean that I am free to go have an affair if I want? Also ridiculous. Why? Because there are certain things that destroy love, and destroy relationships, and having an affair is one of those things.

I think one of the biggest problems we have in marriage is that we fail to see how our actions affect the love between us. We don’t realize (or we pretend not to) how our actions have the potential to either help or harm the relationship. So when a wife wants her husband to quit going out to bars with his buddies, it isn’t that she’s trying to base their relationship on rules. What she’s really trying to say is “when you do that, it injures the love we have between us. It hurts me and it hurts our relationship.” When the husband says, “I’m looking for more from you in our physical relationship,” he isn’t trying to say that he only loves her because of what happens in the bedroom. He’s saying, “This helps to build my love for you, and therefore it helps our relationship.” These aren’t rules. They are relationship builders (or relationship busters). Because I am married, my behavior conforms to certain standards. These are not rules I follow – I live this way because I love my wife.

It will put tremendous pressure on a marriage if one or both spouses start looking at behavior toward each other as rules, instead of actions that affect the quality of love.

Jesus is telling us today, it’s the same with him. He uses the language of “commands” and “obedience” because there is supposed to be submission on our part to the Lord. But what it is all about is relationship. Listen clearly: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love….You are my friends if you do what I command you.” He’s saying, “this is all about our relationship. If you love me, your behavior will reflect that. If you know that I love you, your behavior will show that also.” John writes about this more in his letters:

For this is what love for God is: to keep his commands. Now His commands are not a burden, because whatever has born of God conquers the world. This is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith. (1 John 5:3-4)

And this is love: that we walk according to his commands. This is the command as you have heard it from the beginning: you must walk in love. (2 John 6).

In other words, “keeping his commands” is all about that faith-relationship of love we have with Jesus. You should be able to tell I love Kari, not only because of the ring around my finger, but also because of how I behave with regard to her. You should be able to tell I love Jesus, not just because of a cross around my neck, but because of the way I behave with regard to Jesus.

Let me suggest one more thing. I don’t always feel like listening when Kari wants to talk. I don’t always feel like being kind or encouraging. I don’t always feel like helping her with things or doing her favors. But sometimes I do those things even if don’t feel like it, because the more I do, the closer we become; and the closer we become the more I actually want to do those things. Also, of course, the closer we are, the more I enjoy and treasure our relationship.

What I’m saying is, I choose to behave in such a way that I become closer to my wife. In the same way, obedience is a pathway to intimacy with God. The more we live as he asks us to, the easier it is to continue to make choices that increase our closeness to him. The more we obey, the more we learn to love Him, and our satisfaction and fulfillment – and our joy – grows.

When we remember that Jesus said this about keeping his commands in the context of abiding in Him it is impossible to doubt that he is talking about how we are behave in relationship with him. Basically, he is saying, “this is how to grow in my love and stay living in me. This is how you and I get closer.”

So what are the commands that Jesus wants us to keep? What are these things that help us grow closer to Jesus? In John chapter 6, some came to Jesus, wondering about this.

“What can we do to perform the works of God?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “this is the work of God: that you believe in the One he has sent” (John 6:29)

Another time, some experts on Jewish law came along and asked, “What’s the most important commandment to obey?” Jesus summed it all up when he said:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

In other words, to obey is to act in love. This exactly what we have been learning. Love for God and neighbor is obedience, and obedience to these commands (which really sum up all of the commandments) demonstrates love for God and neighbor. If I love my neighbor, I will not steal from Him. If I love God, I will listen to Him and His will for my life. If I love God I won’t sin, because that hurts him. If I love my neighbor, I won’t sin, because that hurts her.

Now, in reality, I don’t always love perfectly in action. From the way I talked about marriage, you might think I’m the perfect husband. Not even close. Sometimes, not only do I not feel loving, but I don’t act in a loving way either. That’s true in my relationship with the Lord, and with others also.

But we need to realize this: through dying on the cross, rising again and sending the Holy Spirit, Jesus has made it possible for anyone to keep his commands. There are people who believe we can attain perfect behavior in this life. They are mistaken, and they take a very poor approach to understanding the Bible. But the power of Jesus’ death on the cross is such that when we fail, forgiveness is available to us, and we can continue as if we never failed to obey Him. While we don’t reach perfect behavior, through Jesus, our Spirits are counted as perfect by God. Because we are in relationship, not under law, we repent, receive the love and grace and forgiveness God has made available to us, and so continue on in obedience. Through Jesus’ work, it possible for us to be in, and to stay in, right relationship with Him.

When I hurt Kari, or vice versa, it doesn’t mean divorce. Instead, we come to each other honestly, talk it over, ask for, give and receive forgiveness, and then move on. Remember, marriage is supposed to be a reflection of God’s relationship with us, and that is exactly how it works with the Lord.

Spend a few minutes now, reflecting on what the Lord is saying to you.

RESURRECTION: DON’T LOSE HOPE, DON’T GIVE IN TO DISAPPOINTMENT

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In our everyday life experience, we may feel far removed from the resurrection of Jesus. We may feel like it has nothing to do with us, like from now on we just have to get on with life as best we can. But Jesus is walking right next to us. Feeling or no feeling, whether we can perceive it somehow or not, the Resurrection of Jesus was real, and the resurrection life that he offers us is just as real. Don’t settle for anything less than Him, and his Resurrection Life.

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EASTER SUNDAY, 2018.

Luke 24:13-35; John 14:1-7; John 16:33

It’s always a challenge for me to preach about the Resurrection of Jesus. It is the central truth of our faith. Jesus physically rose from death; you either believe it or you don’t. In the past I have offered many facts and logical arguments that tell us it is reasonable to believe it. But this year I want to look at the difference it makes in our lives. It makes a huge difference in eternity, of course – the difference between heaven and hell. But it starts to make a difference right now, in the choices we make, and in how we deal with disappoint and grief here in this life.

Please read Luke 14:13-35. This is not the usual story you hear on Easter, but it is one of the Resurrection appearances that Jesus made the very same day he rose. I want you to hear the confusion of these disciples: Cleopas, and his unnamed friend. Things didn’t turn out the way they thought. They were processing, but it sounds like they were about to give up hope.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Cast Away starring Tom Hanks. Hanks’ character, named “Chuck,” is on the verge of proposing to his girlfriend Kelly, the love of his life. But he has to take a business trip first. Over the Pacific Ocean, his plane goes down. He survives the next four years completely alone on a deserted island. Finally, he is rescued. But four years with no word is a long time. When he returns, he finds that everyone had given up on him, and considered him dead. Even his true love Kelly, had mourned him, and then moved on. She is now married, with a toddler.

Naturally, when Chuck returns – from the dead, so to speak – it is traumatic to both of them. Chuck drives to see Kelly at her house in the middle of the night, as the rain pours down. They both say goodbye in a heartbreaking scene, where much is left unsaid. Then, as Chuck pulls down the driveway, Kelly comes running out in the rain, calling his name. They stand in the rain, hugging and kissing. Then Kelly says:

“I always knew you were alive, I knew it. But everybody said I had to stop saying that, that I had to let you go.” Kelly pauses while they stare at each other. “I love you. You’re the love of my life.”

After another long pause while they look at each other, Chuck says, “I love you too Kelly, more than you’ll ever know.”

They get into Chuck’s car and sit in silence. But they both know that Kelly has to go back home, that it is too late for them to ever be together like that again. And so he drives her back up the driveway, and leaves her there.

There is a lot of tragedy in this scene that is simply the result of circumstances that neither one of them could control. But there is also the tragedy that Kelly gave up on Chuck, even when deep in her heart, she knew that she shouldn’t stop hoping. So she settled for life as best as she could get it. She quit working on her dream to be a professor. She married a decent man (not her true love) and had a child. And so when Chuck came back – the true love of her life – it was too late. She had already made another life for herself, and there was no place for Chuck in it anymore.

This is heartbreaking, but it is, after all, just a movie. Even so, I think this part of the movie taps into a spiritual truth. It reveals the struggle of faith that we have sometimes as Christians. Our Lover – Jesus – has  been gone for a long time now. All around us, voices tell us to give up, to move on, to settle for life as best as we can get it. But if we do that, we find, like Kelly, that when Jesus returns, we have no room for him in our lives anymore.

Jesus’ very first disciples struggled with this. They traveled with Jesus, watched his miracles and heard him preach. They came to believe that he was God’s chosen Messiah – true God in the flesh, their only true hope for salvation and real life. And then he was killed. Now they didn’t know what to do with all their hopes and dreams. It was all over. So, on the third day after his death, Cleopas and his friend went on a short journey. A stranger joined them as they walked and asked them why they seemed so sad. They told the stranger about Jesus and all he had done and said, and then they told him how Jesus had been handed over and killed. They end with a brief and poignant expression of their loss and confusion:

“But we were hoping that he was the one who was about to redeem Israel.”

You can almost hear the pain in their words. Things didn’t turn out the way they planned. They were sure they were following God. They were sure they had it right, and that their future was bright with their savior. They were hurt and lost. They had put their hope in Jesus, and now Jesus wasn’t there anymore.

Only he was.

He was right next to them. He was the very stranger that they were talking to. This is extremely important. In our everyday life experience, we may feel far removed from the resurrection of Jesus. We may feel like it has nothing to do with us, like from now on we just have to get on with life as best we can. But Jesus is walking right next to us. Feeling or no feeling, whether we can perceive it somehow or not, the Resurrection of Jesus was real, and the resurrection life that he offers us is just as real.

The disciples’ lack of faith is surprising. Jesus told them exactly what was going to happen. He said several times that he would be taken captive by the authorities and executed, and then that he would rise from death on the third day. They didn’t want to believe the part about him dying, until they had no choice. They wouldn’t accept what he was saying. Peter told him not to have such a negative outlook. The others heard too, but it bounced off their skulls like water off a duck. They simply didn’t get it. And then when he did die, they still didn’t believe the part where he told them he would rise again physically. So the death of Jesus destroyed them mentally and emotionally. They were completely lost.

Sometimes, we are like those disciples. Jesus told us exactly what is going to happen. He said we would have trouble in this world (John 16:33), but he also told us not to let our hearts be troubled (John 14:1). Living in a world of sin, we will experience sorrow and grief. But living in faith in Jesus Christ, those sorrows and griefs are not the final word. They are not as real as the great reality that is coming for those who trust Jesus. The pain and severe disappointment experienced by those disciples walking along the road was real. But the man walking beside them was real too, and he had already overcome their grief, even before they were aware of it. The reality of his resurrection was greater than the reality of their sorrow, whether they knew it or not.

I think the danger we face as believers in the risen Messiah is that, like those other disciples, we forget the promises of Jesus, or we think he is not close, not next to us. And so, in the meantime, we try to just go on and get some kind of life and hope for ourselves.

There is another poignant scene in the film Cast Away. For four years alone on the island, Chuck had no companion. So he began to talk to a volleyball that had a face-shaped bloodstain on it. He called it Wilson. In a strange way, he grew to care for the volleyball and became deeply attached to it. When he is sailing to try and find help, the volleyball comes loose from where it is tied. Chuck tries to swim after it but he is held back by a rope that attaches him to the raft. He finally needs to make a choice whether to hold on to raft, which is his only chance at living and seeing Kelly again – or swimming after the volleyball, and drowning with it in his arms.

He reluctantly chooses life, but he cries his heart out at the loss of Wilson. It may be just a stupid volleyball, but it is all he has had for four long years. It is hard to blame Chuck for being so broken up after he lets Wilson go. We can understand it and even feel some of his pain. In the context of the whole movie, it is actually a very moving scene. And yet even though it is perfectly understandable, we know (and even the character Chuck knows) that ultimately, it is just a volleyball. It isn’t a real person. It isn’t worth giving your life for.

Sometimes I think we spend half our lives like Chuck in that scene, tugging on the end of the rope, not quite sure whether we are going to give up the raft, or give up the volleyball. Chuck’s problem was that after four years alone, part of him actually believed that Wilson was a real person. He wasn’t sure of the truth. He may not have been fully convinced that the raft would really bring him back to civilization and real people. Because of his experience, Wilson seemed more real, more important than the raft.

We are like that sometimes. This life sometimes seems so much more real than the Resurrection Life that Jesus told us about. The things we can have here tempt us to believe the lie that they are more real and more important than our eternal future. This is understandable. It is understandable also to have a hard time giving them up, just like Chuck had difficulty letting go of Wilson. But even though we understand, and it is hard, the choice is perfectly and completely clear. There is nothing in this life that is worth holding on to if it keeps us from the real Life that Jesus offers us.

Will we hold onto something that is ultimately worthless, or will we give it up for real life? To give it up requires faith. It requires us to trust that there is a real resurrection, that real life is still waiting for us. We can see and touch the fake things, like Chuck could touch and see the volleyball Wilson. But those things are not as real and true as what awaits us when we trust in Jesus. Jesus said:

1 “Your heart must not be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in Me. 2 In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not, I would have told you. I am going away to prepare a place for you. 3 If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you to Myself, so that where I am you may be also. 4 You know the way to where I am going.”

5 “Lord,” Thomas said, “we don’t know where You’re going. How can we know the way? ” 6 Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. 7 “If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.” (John 14:1-7)

The fact of the resurrection tells us that there is real life waiting for us. There is still true love possible. Our dreams have not been shattered and lost. We just need to recognize that the time is not yet. We are in the dress rehearsal, the practice before the real game begins. We are living in a deserted island in a cave, not in our real home. We are practicing to love, practicing to be great.

One of the things that helped Chuck through, was his hope of the life that existed away from his island. So I want us to dwell for a little bit on the resurrection life that waits for us, away from this little island that we mistakenly call life.

I think a lot Christians have the feeling that the resurrection life will be a never ending worship service. Let me be honest with you. I am a pastor, and that thought does not excite me. Don’t get me wrong, I love to worship the Lord with other believers. But I also love to fish, to hike and come around the corner of ridge to a new vista I’ve never seen before. I love to just hang out and laugh with my family and close friends. I like to write, and read and experience moving stories. I believe amazing worship will be part of our experience of resurrection life. But I think there will also be so much more.

John Eldredge writes that you cannot hope for something you do not desire. The overwhelmingly good news is that resurrection life is where our deepest, strongest, purest desires are fulfilled. The desire for intimacy that sometimes we get confused with a desire for only sex – that intimacy will be fulfilled in resurrection life. The desire to be deeply connected to beauty – the thing that causes us to ache when see a beautiful person, or an awe-inspiring view, or hear uplifting music – that will be fulfilled. The desire to be significant, to be recognized for who you are and for the God-given gifts you have – that will be fulfilled in resurrection life. That thing in you that loves to rise to the occasion and meet challenges – that will find its ultimate expression in resurrection life.

We won’t be ghosts or angels, floating around somewhere. Jesus was not resurrected as a spirit – he had a physical body. On several occasions after he was raised, he sat down and ate with the disciples. He promises us resurrection bodies also (1 Corinthians 15). He promises us a new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21 & 22) where will live and love and do the things we love to do, and be connected to God and to each other without the destruction and cruelty of sin and sorrow.

I will never get the love I am seeking from human beings. I may never be recognized for who I am I this life. My talents might go unappreciated. I might have to toil and spend a lot of time doing things I don’t really want to do. If this life is all there is, that would be tragic. But if all that is fulfilled in the next life, in my resurrection, which Jesus made possible – then what I face here and now is bearable. It isn’t the final word. I’m not getting too old – I’m actually getting closer to the fulfillment of all I want as I age.

I’ve heard an expression: “Some people are so heavenly-minded, they are no earthly good.” I detest that expression. It is entirely false. I have never met anyone who is too heavenly-minded. And the most resurrection-oriented people I know are the ones who have done the most for the Lord and for their fellow human beings here and now. It is only when we lost sight of resurrection that we become focused on making ourselves happy here and now, whatever the cost.

Think back to Kelly, from Cast Away. Deep in her heart, she knew Chuck was alive. But she lost faith. She gave up that hope and settled for what she could get at the moment. Because of that, she missed out forever on the life she might have had with Chuck if she had only held on.

Think about the disciples. Jesus was right at their shoulder during the moment they were ready to give up on him. He is right at your shoulder too. They didn’t sense him, but that didn’t have anything to do with the actual facts of the matter. He was there the whole time. He is here the whole time. Don’t give up. Don’t settle for less than Him, and His resurrection life.

We who are Christians know that Jesus is alive. We know it through faith. We know there is more life, better life waiting for us with him. We know it. But everyone keeps saying we have to move on. Everyone tells us we shouldn’t spend so much time thinking about it. Sometimes it feels like God hasn’t come through. But we know better. Don’t let go of that knowledge. Don’t give up that hope. Don’t fill your life with other things, don’t make yourself a life apart from the one who truly loves you and is coming back for you, no matter how long it seems.

He is Risen!

THE MOST IMPORTANT MOMENT IN HISTORY

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It is very important for us to understand that death of Jesus fundamentally changed forever the way human beings relate to God. We live after that world-changing event, after his death has broken every barrier between us and God.

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Matthew #98.  Matthew 27:51-61

Christianity is a faith deeply grounded in, and connected to history. The Bible is not a book of fairy tales. Scholars have confirmed, countless times, that the people in the Bible were real people, the places were real places and the events that are recorded actually happened.

According to our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus were the pivotal moments in all history. Something happened at that time in Jerusalem that is unique in all of human existence. You might expect that a moment so special might look or feel different than other moments. All four gospel writers confirm that it did indeed.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record a three hour darkness, leading up to the death of Jesus, from the sixth, to the ninth hour. (Matt 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44). This was not an eclipse: eclipses do not last that long. It may have been simply heavy cloud cover, but that’s not exactly what they say. Also, cloud cover that is that dark usually turns into a storm quickly, and passes quickly, but everyone agrees that this darkness lasted three hours. At the very least, we could say that it wasn’t coincidence that the clouds were so heavy that day that it felt like darkness.

At the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain in the temple was torn into two (more on that in a moment) and there was an earthquake that split open rocks. Earthquakes are not unknown in Jerusalem, but it is interesting, to say the least, that one occurred the very moment of Jesus’ death. Also, in order to split rocks, it would have to be a very violent earthquake indeed. Matthew also says many dead people came alive from their tombs, but he also mentions that they showed up after the resurrection, not immediately after Jesus’ death.

He also writes this:

54When the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they were terrified and said, “This man really was God’s Son! ” (Matt 27:54, HCSB)

Luke and Mark also tell us about this centurion. A centurion in the Roman legions was something like a Master Sergeant in the Marines today. He had the primary responsibility for one-hundred, hard-bitten, violent, unruly legionnaires. It was up to him to make sure that his “century” (100 men) obeyed the orders of officers, kept their equipment maintained, marched in formation, and maintained discipline. He had to force these mean, angry, violent men to do what he told them to. He had probably seen men die, and certainly, he had seen men beaten and whipped. He’d probably been in some brawls and seen and done some nasty things. In other words, a centurion had to be one tough, no-nonsense son-of-gun.

Something about the way Jesus died touched this hard-bitten, cynical, violent man to the core. He makes what is in the New Testament, a basic declaration of faith: “Surely this man (Jesus) was really God’s Son!” We don’t know what all went into this man’s faith. I tend to believe it was a combination of the way Jesus handled himself on the cross, along with the physical signs of darkness and violent earthquake.

We don’t know a lot more about this centurion, but I have some speculations. John records one moment when he and Jesus’ mother were close enough to the cross to hear Jesus speak. Mathew, Mark and Luke tell us that most of the time, the women were all standing off, watching at a distance. So, how do the gospel-writers know what Jesus said and did on the cross? How do they know what he said and did at Pontius Pilate’s trial? I suspect that this centurion ended up as a member of the early church. He was certainly there, right at the foot of the cross. He was probably there at Roman headquarters, when Pilate questioned Jesus. He may be the source of some of that information. Of course, Jesus himself could also be the source of that information, after his resurrection. In any case, I think it is testimony to the uniqueness of Jesus’ death that a Roman centurion came to faith because he witnessed it.

Another one of the unique events was that the curtain in the temple sanctuary was torn in two (Luke 23:45; Matt 27:51; Mark 15:38). This is actually a tremendously significant event, but we need to understand more about the temple to know why.

The temple at the time of Jesus was actually a complex of buildings. There were two large courtyards which contained various covered porticos, and other rooms and smaller courts around the edges, but within the walls of the larger courtyards. One courtyard was generally for women and Gentiles, with a sub-court for lepers. A second, more exclusive courtyard was for only Israelite men. Within this inner courtyard was the “sanctuary” which we might think of as the “main building” of the temple. The sanctuary was also called ‘the holy place” (actually, the English word “sanctuary” comes directly from the Latin for “holy place.”) Only priests could enter the sanctuary, where they would change out bread on the altar of bread, and offer incense on the altar designated for that, and light candles. The priests were divided into divisions for these duties, and then chosen by lot. To enter the sanctuary was probably a once-in-a-lifetime event, even for priests. The sanctuary was a large rectangular room. One end of the sanctuary was curtained off, from wall to wall, and floor to ceiling. Behind that curtain was the “most holy place,” or “holy of holies” (sanctum santorum, in Latin – a phrase some people still use in different contexts). It was believed by the Israelites that the very presence of God dwelt in the most holy place of the temple. Only the high priest could enter the most holy place, and only once each year, to offer atonement for the sins of the people.

The message of all this was that the presence God was separated from the vast majority of the people at all times. Women, gentiles and lepers could not even enter the courtyard that surrounded the sanctuary. Israelite men couldn’t enter the sanctuary. Even priests almost never got to go into the sanctuary, and inside the sanctuary, the curtain kept them from the most holy place.

It is very important for us to understand that death of Jesus fundamentally changed forever the way human beings relate to God. We live after that world-changing event, so we can’t really conceive of what it was like before. But the Old Testament gives us glimpses of it. Before the death of Jesus, some tribes of people were so beyond redemption that they had to be entirely wiped out (Deuteronomy 7:1-6). Before Jesus’ crucifixion, God’s holiness could kill you if you simply worshipped at the wrong time, or in the wrong way (Leviticus 10:1-3). Before Jesus, God’s holiness could kill if you simply reached out to prevent a holy artifact from falling off a cart (2 Samuel 6:1-7). Before the death of Jesus, more than half of those who wanted to worship could not even enter the courtyard where the sanctuary was built. Almost all of the remaining half could not enter the sanctuary itself. The message was this: “We need God, but his holiness destroys us, because of our sin. We have to stay separated from him in order to be safe.”

But Jesus, by his death, ripped down the barrier between us and God. The physical tearing of the curtain in the sanctuary was a manifestation of the spiritual reality that Jesus accomplished by his death. He has definitely destroyed the barriers between us and God.

Now, let’s make this real in our own lives. What are the barriers that you feel between you and God? What keeps you distant from him? I want you to pause and think about this. Let the Holy Spirit bring things to mind.

After you have thought about that for a moment, ask yourself this question: “Did the death of Jesus remove this barrier?” (Hint: the answer is “yes.”)

The next question is this: if the death of Jesus removed the barriers between me and God, how do I “take hold” of that? What I mean is, it’s fine to say the barrier was removed, but what if I feel like it is still there? How do I live in the truth that it is gone?

The centurion shows us the way: repentance and faith. If you hold on to your sin – that is, you do not repent, and turn away (however imperfectly), then  you yourself are holding the barrier in place. Repentance drops that barrier. Faith – as the centurion shows us – is simply trusting it is true. Yes, Jesus is the son of God. Yes, his death did remove the barrier between me and God. I am going to act and feel as if this was really true. The more you do so as an act of will, the more real it becomes in your life.

The death of Jesus changed history. It changed everything. Will you let it change you?

THE GOOD NEWS INVOLVES REPENTANCE

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To hear many churches, the message of the gospel is this: “Jesus loves you. Now you are free to do whatever you want, as long as admit that you are a sinner, counting on Jesus to forgive you.” Brothers and sisters, that is not the message of the Gospel of Grace. That is not what Jesus preached, and it not what the apostles preached. Jesus and the apostles preached repentance and faith.

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Matthew #76  Matthew 21:28-45

I want to remind all of you that we most certainly depend upon your prayers for us, in very real and practical ways. Right now we could use prayers for guidance, encouragement and for the Lord to continue to use these messages as he wants. We would also appreciate it if you would pray for financial provision for us as we move into the summer months, which are always harder, financially. If you would like to partner with us financially, please click the “donate” tab, above to learn how. Thank you for your prayers!

I want us to remember that the verses today are continuation of Jesus’ conversation with the religious leaders about John the Baptist, and whether or not he (and Jesus) preached with the authority of God.

Jesus continues that discussion by laying out an allegory; sometimes we call it the parable of the two sons. He makes it clear how that parable applies to the religious leaders. Next, he tells another parable. There are two important themes running throughout all of Jesus’ words today: Repentance and Faith.

In the story about the two sons, the key thing about the first son is that he changed his mind (verse 29). Jesus then reminds the people that when John came along, preaching repentance, the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. They repented and they believed. But the religious leaders did not believe John, and they did not change their minds.

I want us to be clear on this. A number of people are fatally confused about the attitude of Jesus towards sinners on the one hand, and Pharisees and religious leaders on the other. The sinners to whom Jesus refers here are not entering the kingdom of God because they are sinners. They are entering because they repented and believed. The religious leaders are not excluded because they are religious. They are excluded because they will not repent and trust Jesus.

Too often, people take this attitude: “Well, Jesus really didn’t like religious people, but he liked sinners. I’m a sinner, so I’m probably better off than all those church goers.” But that misses the point. No one is better off without repentance and faith. Being religious does not help you. Being a sinner does not help you. Your only hope is repentance and faith.

The vineyard story is also all about repentance, and the lack thereof. The vineyard Owner sends two groups of servants. Each time the tenants of the vineyard, who owe a debt to the owner, mistreat and reject them. Finally, the Owner sends his son. Not only do they reject him, but they kill him.

The Owner was very kind and patient. He gave the tenants many opportunities to repent – but they reject every single change they were given. As a result, the Owner destroys them, and seeks new tenants.

We in the Western world have become confused about Jesus and his teaching. To hear many churches, the message of the gospel is this: Jesus loves you. Now you are free to do whatever you want, as long as admit that you are a sinner, counting on Jesus to forgive you.

Brothers and sisters, that is not the message of the Gospel of Grace. That is not what Jesus preached, and it not what the apostles preached. Jesus and the apostles preached repentance and faith. They call us to turn away from our sins and from living for ourselves, and to put all of our hope and trust in Jesus Christ alone, and to live for Him. That is the message Jesus is giving to the religious leaders here. He is pointing out how they have failed to repent, and how they have failed to trust Him. In case this passage alone does not convince you, let me remind you of a few others. Jesus himself consistently calls people to repentance:

31 Jesus replied to them, “The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. 32I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:31-32, HCSB)

 20 Then He proceeded to denounce the towns where most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent (Matt 11:20, HCSB)

17 From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near! ” (Matt 4:17, HCSB)

At that time, some people came and reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2And He responded to them, “Do you think that these Galileans were more sinful than all Galileans because they suffered these things? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well! 4Or those 18 that the tower in Siloam fell on and killed — do you think they were more sinful than all the people who live in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well! (Luke 13:1-5, HCSB)

Jesus also taught his disciples to teach others to repent. He did this both before and after his resurrection:

 12 So they went out and preached that people should repent. (Mark 6:12, HCSB)

44 Then He told them, “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. 46He also said to them, “This is what is written: The Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, 47and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:44-48, HCSB)

Repentance was a key part of the message that the apostles consistently taught after the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit:

38Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” 40And with many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, “Be saved from this corrupt generation! ” (Acts 2:38-40, HCSB)

19 Therefore repent and turn back, so that your sins may be wiped out, that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19, HCSB)

30 “Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because He has set a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31, HCSB)

20 Instead, I preached to those in Damascus first, and to those in Jerusalem and in all the region of Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works worthy of repentance. (Acts 26:20, HCSB)

Repentance is not a work we do to earn our way into heaven. It the humbling of ourselves, giving up both our pride and efforts to be self-righteous, and also giving up our sins. To repent means to turn back, to go a completely different way. If you can read these words, it is not too late for you to repent. Jesus can handle whatever horrible thing you’ve done, whatever you’ve left undone, and even whatever terrible thing was done to you. But you need to drop it, to turn away from it, and turn to Him. To repent is to fully own the fact that you have been wrong, with no excuses, and then to turn away from it, for all intents, forever.

Now, our turning away forever almost never happens perfectly. But it does mean that you are going a different direction now. You may fall down sometimes as you walk in the new direction. You probably won’t walk it perfectly. But after you repent, your direction is different than it was before. Once in a while, perhaps, you fall back into the same actions as before. But your overall direction is new, oriented toward God, not away from him.

Let me give you an example. Suppose there is a Christian man who wants more of Jesus in his marriage. He is not happy with his marriage. He is unhappy with his wife. Now, the Holy Spirit, working in this man, shows him that he often makes cutting remarks to and about his wife. The Holy Spirit is calling him to repent. Repentance is not saying “Yeah, I know that’s wrong. It’s just hard because she never does what I want. Sorry.” It is isn’t even saying “I admit that I do that, and I admit that it’s wrong.” I repeat: To repent is to fully own the fact that you have been wrong, with no excuses, and then to turn away from it, for all intents, forever.

Again this doesn’t happen perfectly at first. In the case of the man with the unhappy marriage, he commits to turning away from cutting down his wife. Suppose normally he makes an average of six cutting remarks each day. When he first repents, he is so sincere that for a week, he makes none. But after a while, he loses some of his focus, and he goes back to making some cutting remarks, but maybe now only three each day. The Holy Spirit reminds him again, and he renews his repentance and consciously relies on the Holy Spirit to help him, and he gets it down to two cutting remarks each day. He realizes he needs help, and so he asks a Christian friend to pray for him about this, and to hold him accountable by asking him about it regularly. Now, the man usually does not make any cutting remarks to or about his wife at all. As time goes on, prompted by the life of Jesus inside him, he begins to actually compliment and encourage his wife. From time to time, he still slips and makes a nasty comment, but it is no longer a habit, and for the most part, he has become kind and encouraging to his wife. Within a year or two, his attitude is transformed, and he and his wife are closer than they have been for years.

I think that is a realistic picture of what the fruit of repentance looks like. Sometimes Jesus transforms us dramatically in a single moment. But a lot of the time, what is actually happening is that  he starts the process all, in one moment, and then for a period of time we are “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12).

A lot of people admit their sins, but do not really repent of them. Many people feel, in the heat of a moment, that they want to do better next time, and even resolve to do so, but they do not fundamentally commit to going a different way forever. If you are a Christian, and have struggled with the same thing over and over again, and you don’t seem to make any progress, ask the Lord to show you if you have truly repented in that area of your life. If the Bible says you need to repent, or if the Holy Spirit shows that you need to repent, then make a decision to turn back from that (action, habit, attitude) forever. Don’t worry about whether you will fail again at times: make the commitment to turn away from it forever, and invite the Holy Spirit to give you the strength to keep that commitment.

Let me add one more thing. What Jesus and the apostles preached was repentance accompanied by faith. Truly repenting of our sins is impossible without the help of the Holy Spirit. We repent away from sin, and toward Jesus. This is why Jesus quoted Psalm 118 to the religious leaders. Here’s the quote, in context:

19 Open the gates of righteousness for me;

I will enter through them

and give thanks to the LORD.

 20 This is the gate of the LORD;

the righteous will enter through it.

 21 I will give thanks to You

because You have answered me

and have become my salvation.

 22 The stone that the builders rejected

has become the cornerstone.

 23 This came from the LORD;

it is wonderful in our eyes. (Psalm 118:19-23, HCSB)

Jesus quotes this to show them quite clearly that he is the gate through which everyone enters. He is salvation. He is the cornerstone, which, though rejected by many, is the object of true faith and salvation. Matthew records that the religious leaders understood what he was saying, and hated him for it (Matt 21:45-46).

But the fact remains that we are called not only to repentance, but also to faith. The Greek New Testament generally uses the same word for belief, trust and faith. Theologically speaking, when we are talking about Jesus, I think the most appropriate word is trust. When we trust someone, we are giving them power over our lives.

For example, if we trust a bank with our money, that means that the bank, not us, keeps our money on our behalf. When we trust a friend to drive us someplace, that means the friend has control of the car, and where it goes. When we trust someone to run and errand for us, we have given that person the power to take care of whatever that errand is.

So Jesus invites us to turn away from our sins, and turn toward him in trust. Paul describes his experience of doing this as follows:

I have been crucified with Christ 20 and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:19-20, HCSB)

Paul is “crucified with Christ” – that is repentance, a complete turning away from his old life where he was in charge. Now he lives by faith – trust – in the Son of God. Jesus has control of his life.

You may wonder, “how can I get that for myself?” The Holy Spirit grants us both repentance and faith. If you want them, ask for them! I promise you, that is a prayer he will answer.

THROWING MOUNTAINS AROUND


Many people interpret this to mean that we can do whatever we want to through faith. I think a much more accurate way to look at it is that the Father can do through us whatever he wants to, if we live in the total dependence of trust in him. So we see, this is not a blank check for us to do whatever we want to do in prayer as long as we drum up enough faith to accomplish it. It isn’t about manufacturing faith, or a feeling of faith. It isn’t about believing really hard. It is about living in total dependence upon the Father.

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Download Matthew Part 74

 

Matthew #74. Matthew 21:18-22

18Early in the morning, as He was returning to the city, He was hungry. 19Seeing a lone fig tree by the road, He went up to it and found nothing on it except leaves. And He said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again! ” At once the fig tree withered.

20When the disciples saw it, they were amazed and said, “How did the fig tree wither so quickly? “

21Jesus answered them, “I assure you: If you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you tell this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22And if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matt 21:18-22, HCSB)

For me, this has always been one of the most troubling incidents in the life of Jesus. In the first place, it seems so arbitrary – almost like Jesus is throwing a fit because he didn’t get the fruit he wanted. In the second place, what Jesus says afterwards about faith and prayer seems so contrary to my own experience.

Let’s begin with the first issue. What was wrong with the fig tree? Why would Jesus be angry at it? We should know something about fig trees, before we proceed. In that area of the world, the fruit of the fig tree appears at just about the same time as the leaves. So, if one saw a fig tree in which the leaves were fully mature, one would expect to find figs on it. Matthew records, as does Mark, that this tree had leaves on it. If the tree was showing leaves, it ought also to have had fruit – at least the first, young fruit. However, this tree had leaves but no fruit at all. You might say, in a way, that the tree was deceptive. It wasn’t fulfilling the purpose for which it had been created, though in a sense, it was pretending to, by showing leaves.

The Bible tells us that not only did God create the earth, but he continues to actively sustain and uphold the cosmos. As Augustine said, “God is not a workman who, when he has completed his work, leaves it to itself and goes his way.” Jesus, as God-the-Son, is intimately involved with this ongoing sustaining of everything in the universe.

16For everything was created by Him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together. (Col 1:16-17, HCSB)

28And why do you worry about clothes? Learn how the wildflowers of the field grow: they don’t labor or spin thread. 29Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these!
30
If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t He do much more for you — you of little faith? (Matt 6:28-30, HCSB)

1Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. 2In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son. God has appointed Him heir of all things and made the universe through Him. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature, sustaining all things by His powerful word.
(Heb 1:1-3, HCSB)

So, you might say that one of the “jobs” of Jesus included even the little detail of checking on whether or not this fig tree bore fruit, as it was intended to. Jesus finds that here is a tree that is not maturing according to its created nature. For whatever reason, it is not fulfilling its purpose. And so Jesus, as sustainer of all creation, puts an end to it.

Now of course, the tree was not doing this consciously. So, is Jesus throwing a fit, like a spoiled child? I don’t think so. I think Jesus took this opportunity to create an object-lesson. He used the fig tree to demonstrate at least two things.

Remember the context of our passage. Just before this, Jesus was in the temple. He was very upset at how the temple no longer demonstrated the holiness of God. It was no longer serving the purpose for which it was originally intended. God’s people, Israel, were treating the temple like a marketplace. Last time, we looked at the verses which Jesus quoted from Jeremiah, and saw that one of the things upsetting him was the profound hypocrisy of the religious leaders. They thought they could live however they wanted, and then come to the temple and say “we are delivered!” God set aside the people of Israel to show his grace, holiness, and redemption to the world. But they were no longer serving that purpose. In some ways, perhaps they looked like they were still doing that, but they were not bearing any useful fruit. They were not serving the purpose for which Israel was created.

I believe that Jesus was thinking about the people of Israel, and the temple, when he withered the fig tree. Like the fig tree, they had leaves, but no fruit. They had the appearance of holiness, the appearance of following God’s will, but nothing truly useful or meaningful resulted from their activity. They were not fulfilling the mandate for which the people of Israel were created, when God spoke to Abram and said:

2I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, I will curse those who treat you with contempt, and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you. (Gen 12:2-3, HCSB)

At the time of Jesus, the people of Israel were not particularly interested in being a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. They were more interested in securing their own blessing. Jesus uses the fig tree as a warning. In fact, Luke records that at some point, Jesus even told a parable about a fig tree, and how it was doomed to destruction unless it bore fruit. In that parable, the fig tree is unquestionably the people of Israel. So here, Jesus acts out the parable. In fact, I think Jesus had in mind a prophecy from the prophet Micah:

1How sad for me! For I am like one who — when the summer fruit has been gathered after the gleaning of the grape harvest — finds no grape cluster to eat,

no early fig, which I crave.

2Godly people have vanished from the land;

there is no one upright among the people.

All of them wait in ambush to shed blood; they hunt each other with a net.

3Both hands are good at accomplishing evil: the official and the judge demand a bribe; when the powerful man communicates his evil desire, they plot it together.

4The best of them is like a brier; the most upright is worse than a hedge of thorns.

The day of your watchmen, the day of your punishment, is coming; at this time their panic is here. (Mic 7:1-4, HCSB)

Micah records that God was looking for good fruit from the people of Israel and found none. Instead of godly people, he found immorality, and he warns that punishment and destruction is coming as a result of their failure to bear the fruit which they were created to bear.

I believe all this matches up very well with the message of Matthew 21:12-17, which we considered last time. It is in fact, a continuation of the same theme. So the first reason Jesus withers the fig tree, is because it is an object lesson for the people of God. Lest we Christians start to feel smug, let’s remember that we are now the called people of God, and we are in this world to bring God’s blessing to all humankind. Like Israel, like the fig tree, God is hoping for fruit from us. Before you get too scared, however, remember that even bearing fruit is the result of God’s work in us. Jesus has already met the standard of perfection, and so we do not have to be perfect. What Jesus tells us, is that in order to bear fruit, we must remain connected to him:

4Remain in Me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me. 5“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me. (John 15:4-5, HCSB)

If we remain in Jesus, if we stay connected to him through reading the Bible, prayer, and fellowship with other believers, he will use us to bear fruit. I know that many Christians get discouraged about how little fruit they think are bearing, or what quality that fruit is. I don’t believe that we are called to judge our own fruit. We are called to remain connected to Jesus, and by doing that, to allow him to bear the fruit from us.

From time to time, I have had the wonderful experience of hearing from people about how God has used me to bless their lives. I am always deeply humbled and filled with joy, but above all, surprised, to hear these sorts of stories. God often works through us when we do not realize he is doing so. If we remain in Jesus, we will bear the fruit that he wants us to bear.

Now it seems to me that as usual, the disciples missed the main point of what Jesus was doing. I don’t think they connected the fig tree to the temple, or to Israel, or bearing spiritual fruit, until later on. What really got their attention at the time was the power of the miracle. So Jesus uses that to teach them something else, something about prayer and faith.

Now, I’ll be honest with you: these words of Jesus about prayer and faith trouble me, because they don’t necessarily reflect my experience. Not only that, but I see these words abused. Sometimes, I feel full of faith, and yet what I pray for does not come to pass. At other times I offer up a halfhearted, faithless prayer, and it is answered resoundingly exactly as I ask.

But I think that Jesus is talking about something much deeper here. He is talking about the kind of total dependence upon, and connection with, the Father that he has. Jesus didn’t curse the fig tree whimsically, it didn’t just occur to him to do. Every action of Jesus on earth proceeded from dependence and trust on the Father, not on his own divinity or idea:

5Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus, 6who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. 7Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave, taking on the likeness of men. And when He had come as a man in His external form, 8He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross. (Phil 2:5-8, HCSB)

Jesus was truly God. Even so, while he was on earth, none of his miracles were accomplished by his own power, or on his own initiative. He chose to live like Adam, who was created without sin. Only, unlike Adam, Jesus never did sin. And so while he was on earth, he was in continual, ongoing, complete dependence upon the Father. The miracles that he did were accomplished by the Father working through him, while Jesus trusted in him. You might say that Jesus came and lived and fulfilled his mission with both hands tied behind his back; specifically the “hands” of his own divine nature.

19Then Jesus replied, “I assure you: The Son is not able to do anything on His own, but only what He sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son also does these things in the same way. (John 5:19, HCSB)

36“But I have a greater testimony than John’s because of the works that the Father has given Me to accomplish. These very works I am doing testify about Me that the Father has sent Me. (John 5:36, HCSB)

27They did not know He was speaking to them about the Father. 28So Jesus said to them, “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He, and that I do nothing on My own. But just as the Father taught Me, I say these things. (John 8:27-28, HCSB)

I speak what I have seen in the presence of the Father
(John 8:38, HCSB)

32Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. Which of these works are you stoning Me for? “ (John 10:32, HCSB)

And so, when the disciples are amazed at the withering of the fig tree, Jesus is reminding them that it was accomplished by his trust and dependence upon the Father. It was not accomplished by Jesus’ divine nature, but by trust. Jesus chose not to use any power except that which is also available to any human being who trusts the Father.

This idea of close connection and total dependence upon the Father helps me as I seek to understand this passage. Jesus spoke to the fig tree, not because he was irritated with it, not because he felt like it, but because the Father wanted to wither it as an object lesson. In accomplishing this miracle, he was doing the will of the Father.

Many people interpret this to mean that we can do whatever we want to through faith. I think a much more accurate way to look at it is that the Father can do through us whatever he wants to, if we live in the total dependence of trust in him. So we see, this is not a blank check for us to do whatever we want to do in prayer as long as we drum up enough faith to accomplish it. It isn’t about manufacturing faith, or a feeling of faith. It isn’t about believing really hard. It is about living in total dependence upon the Father.

In other words, it isn’t about God answering our prayers to accomplish what we want, it is about us being used by God, to accomplish what he wants. In fact, we have here the same lesson as the one on fruit-bearing: that we must remain deeply connected to the Lord.

All right, let’s start thinking about this in our own lives. As a result of what you have received from God’s Word today, what do you think He is giving you to believe or do in the coming week?

Is he speaking to you about bearing fruit? Have you been holding out on him? Have you been thinking you can live your own life, claiming him as Savior, claiming your salvation from him, without submitting to him as your Lord? Have you been so disconnected from Jesus that he has not had the opportunity to use you to bear fruit? If so, hear him call you to repentance from his word today.

Perhaps the Lord is reminding you that he is the Lord of all creation, and that nothing, not even a little fig tree, escapes his care and notice. If so, hear him call you to trust him with all the details of your life today.

Maybe, like the disciples, you are interested in the power that Jesus exerted in this miracle. Maybe you are moved by the idea that your prayers could be answered as thoroughly and dramatically as those of Jesus. If so, hear him call you to a deeper connection with himself.

In fact, if there is one theme that runs through all of this, it is that we must remain deeply connected to Jesus. The word of God invites us to believe that today, to repent of the times we turned away from that, and to receive his power to renew and maintain that connection.

Step-Dad to God’s Son

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The Christmas Story in the Bible has a lot of heroes, and few villains, but one of the most overlooked heroes is the Step-Father of God’s son – Joseph. The fact is, Joseph is man of profound faith and steadfastness. His example is one that could help us.

 

 

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Christmas Eve 2015

 

Matthew 1:18-25; 2:13-15; 2:19-23

The Christmas Story in the Bible has a lot of heroes, and few villains, but one of the most overlooked heroes is the Step-Father of God’s son – Joseph. The fact is, Joseph is man of profound faith and steadfastness. His example is one that could help us.

Let’s consider his situation. Back in those days, engagement was a big deal – in fact it was almost as big of a deal as marriage. So when it says Joseph was engaged to Mary, this was no casual thing. Engagement involved what we might consider marriage vows, and engagements were not usually broken off except for some very serious causes, like the discovery that one partner was unfaithful. An engaged couple still hadn’t had the ceremony and begun to live together, but in general, they were considered to be as committed to each other as a married couple. Unwed pregnancy was also a very big deal in those days. Jewish law actually provided that a woman who was unfaithful to her husband could be stoned to death. By the time of the New Testament, that didn’t happen very often any more, partly because the Romans put a stop to it, but it was still there in the Jewish law. Even without that, it was a major scandal for an unmarried woman to have a child.

So here is Joseph, engaged, and he finds out his fiancée is pregnant – and of course, it wasn’t his baby. Even in this day and age, that would be enough for most men to call off a relationship.

A few years ago, I shared what the wedding day would have meant to Mary – it would have been the biggest, best day of her life. But this was also true of Joseph. On that day – and most likely, only on that day, in his entire life – he would feel like a king, and eat like a king. Your wedding was the highlight of life in a place where the poverty was soul-crushing. I’m sure Joseph was looking forward to that day.

Everything we read about Joseph tells us he was a good, decent man. He still cares enough for Mary that he doesn’t want her to suffer public disgrace, so he plans to break of the engagement quietly and discreetly. Even so, think of the hurt and humiliation he must feel! Even before they are properly married, this woman has cheated on him. All his happy dreams for the future are shattered around him by this humiliating betrayal.

So, after making his plans, he goes to bed. He has a dream in which an angel of the Lord tells him what’s really going on with Mary. Now, I want you to consider something. They knew just as much about the birds and bees back then as we do now. It’s not like they thought, “Oh sure, every so often you’re gonna have a virgin get pregnant, even though she’s never been with a man.” And in Hebrew culture, the idea of God impregnating someone was borderline blasphemy. The ancient Greeks worshiped Gods who were sort of like really big and powerful human beings. Their gods, from time to time, would get enamored with some beautiful human woman and come down and have an affair. But this is not at all the type of God that the Jews (or we) believe in. To a Jewish man, this is a strange and almost blasphemous idea.

So here’s Joseph. In his mind, he’s already been made a fool and rejected. Now some sort of angelic being comes in a dream, and says, “don’t worry, she’s still a virgin, she hasn’t been unfaithful. God put the baby in there through his Holy Spirit.”

I think my response might have been, “Yeah, right. Whatever.” But here is Joseph, being played for an even bigger fool than before, and what is his response?

“When Joseph got up from sleeping, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her, but did not know her intimately until she gave birth to a son. And he named him Jesus. (Matt 1:24-25)

Joseph was confronted with a crisis of faith. He had a choice. He could follow proper social convention and save face for himself and protect his injured pride. Or he could step out into the wild abyss of faith, risking ridicule and humiliation. He chose faith. And though we don’t often make a big deal of it, he is truly one of the heroes of faith in the Bible.

There’s another thing, too. Okay, he accepts in faith that God is in this. But now, think of it: Joseph was going to be God’s step-dad. Seriously! There’s a song by Michael Card that I love. The picture is of Joseph standing there, holding Jesus as a baby, rocking him to sleep. And he’s thinking, “How can I do this? How can I be a father to the son of God?” Again, he faced the choice. He could have said, “This is ridiculous. I can’t do this!” He could have made all kinds of objections: “I can’t provide him with the education he will need. I can’t even be sure I’ll be able to feed and clothe this child. How do I raise him? How do I discipline him? Will I need to discipline him?”

But, as before, he responded in faith. The first few chapters of Matthew show us a man who relied on God, was sensitive to him, and responded quickly and obediently to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. He marries Mary, just as the angel told him, though it is almost certain that the ceremony was nothing like the celebration involved in a normal Jewish wedding.

Mary has the baby, and they stay in Bethlehem for about two years. Then, after a visit from the Magi, the Lord tells Jospeh to move the whole family down to Egypt. This is a major journey. And of course, Egypt is a whole other country. But Joseph doesn’t hesitate. The same thing happens a few years later: the Holy Spirit tells him to go back, and even which town to settle in. Joseph does it.

I think that it is no accident that Joseph was the kind of man who heard from God. God picked not only Mary, but Mary and Joseph together. Joseph was ready to hear from God. He was probably the sort of man who wanted to be closer to God, wanted to hear from him. He remained sensitive to him and willing to make the hard choices of faith over feelings, faith over conventional wisdom, faith over fear. He made the choice of faith time after time.

Joseph is great example to us. Christmas can give us sweet, warm fuzzy feelings. But when we really think about it, that little child is confronting us with a choice. Will we believe and accept that the Creator of the universe willingly joined himself to a human egg, laid aside the privileges of divinity, and became this little baby? We really believe that here, in this frail, impoverished child, with the young, inexperienced mother and the plain, ordinary step-father, is the salvation of the world? Are we willing to take action on that choice of faith?

I hope Joseph’s example will encourage us to say, “yes.” If Joseph can look that stupid, so can we. If he can marry a pregnant woman, be step-father to God’s son, move all around the world because he heard something in a dream, we can certainly give up our pride, and trust this little child Jesus with our lives now, and our eternal future.

WHY DON’T GOOD PEOPLE GO TO HEAVEN?

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The Old Testament commands concerning relationship with God are all fulfilled in trusting and obeying Jesus. What the rich young ruler lacks is not outward behavior, but an internal commitment to the Lord as his one and only true God. Even so, in Jesus, we don’t have to be perfect – we trust that he meets that standard for us. This isn’t license to sin, rather, it is a comfort to sinners who want to do right, but fail sometimes. It is reassurance that our only “goodness” comes from the only One who is good.

 

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 Matthew Part 67

 

Matthew #67 Matthew 19:13-22

Verses 13 through 15 record an incident with little children. This is similar to what came previously, in chapter 18, and we spoke about it then. Again, Jesus states that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like children. In addition, we can see that Jesus does indeed value and love actual little children.

After this, Matthew records an incident that is also covered by Mark and Luke. I want to point out that we have here one of the “contradictions” that skeptics are always talking about. Matthew remembers that the young man asks “Teacher, what good must I do to inherit eternal life?” One the other hand, Mark and Luke record the shocking difference that the young man says: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” You talk about a contradiction. Wow. People often say “the bible is full of contradictions.” They usually can’t give many specific examples (that is, they really don’t know what they are talking about), but this is one them. As you can see, the contradiction makes no difference. In fact, Matthew does not claim that the young man never called Jesus “good teacher,” so actually there is no necessary contradiction.

I believe that this is an incredibly relevant passage of Scripture, precisely because the discussion is about “goodness.” Goodness is at the heart of the point of this passage, and is also at the heart of the divide between Christianity and all other religions. It isn’t so much that we disagree about what goodness is (although there is a certain amount of disagreement there), but Christianity has a fundamentally different understanding of how to achieve goodness, and the role that goodness plays in our relationship to God.

I want to pause for a moment, and thank those of you who are praying for the ministry of Clear Bible and supporting us financially also. It’s easy to skip the piece I usually put in at the end about prayer and support, but we really do need your prayers, and we really do appreciate them. It’s not that we are in crisis, but we are in spiritual work, and spiritual work needs spiritual support – that is prayers. I am being honest when I say that we also need material support – that is, financial support. But I believe that if you join us in praying for that, as well as for the ministry in general, the Lord will provide what we need. If he leads you to be a part of that provision, you can use the donate button here on the blog, or you can send a check to New Joy Fellowship; 917 Canyon Creek Drive; Lebanon, TN 37087. Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

All right, let’s get back to the text. Virtually every other religion on earth besides Christianity has this basic proposition: “Your behavior will determine your eternal destiny. Behave well, and you will reach the goal you are seeking; behave badly, and you will fail.” What many people don’t notice about this, is that it means you are in control. If you just do certain things, you win the prize. Religion is humans trying, through their own efforts to become good, and then immortal (though in the case of Buddhism, humans are trying to become immortally nothing). It is about human effort and human goodness.

This is the attitude of the young man who approaches Jesus. His question is “What [good] must I do to enter eternal life?” In other words, his underlying assumption is that he is able to control his eternal future, if he just does the right things. Jesus’ response is very interesting.

17“Why do you ask Me about what is good? ” He said to him. “There is only One who is good.

Right away, Jesus is confronting the man’s assumption. The implication of what he is saying is that the young man can’t be good, since there is only One who is good – and that would be God. In other words, Jesus is already hinting that it isn’t about doing good, but rather, knowing the One who is good and giving your allegiance to Him. But Jesus’ next words seem almost like a contradiction, not only to his first sentence, but also to what Christians have believed and taught for 2000 years:

If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

It sounds like what Jesus is saying here is that you have to obey the commandments in order to get eternal life. However, I think Jesus is answering the young man’s question on the young man’s terms. In other words, he is saying: “If you wanted to get into heaven by being good, you have to obey all the commandments.” I don’t think Jesus means that we really can achieve eternal life that way. Paul talks about this in the book of Galatians:

1Christ has liberated us to be free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.2Take note! I, Paul, tell you that if you get yourselves circumcised, Christ will not benefit you at all.3Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to keep the entire law.4You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace. (Gal 5:1-5, HCSB)

In other words, theoretically, you could reach eternal life by being perfect. However, if you are going to go the route of trying to earn your salvation through your own goodness, then you must keep the law perfectly. I think that is what Jesus is saying to this young man.

But, as Paul points out in numerous places, nobody can actually do it in practice. Here are two references:

9What then? Are we any better? Not at all! For we have previously charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin,10as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one.11There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.12All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. (Rom 3:9-12, HCSB)

 

15We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners”16know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. (Gal 2:15-16, HCSB)

So, it is clear that Jesus is engaging with this young man on a more or less theoretical level; but that is where the man starts the conversation, so Jesus meets him where he is. Next, the man asks a very interesting question: “which commandments do I have to follow?” This question is not as hypocritical as it might sound at first. By the time of Jesus, the Jews had developed a huge body of rules and regulations that they claimed needed to be followed. I’ve mentioned this in a number of sermons on the book of Matthew. So the Jewish religion was no longer simply based upon the Old Testament, but also on the collected teachings of various rabbis, and numerous traditions and regulations that have been handed down. Modern Jewish rabbis will readily admit that no one could possibly follow all of these things consistently. So the young man is probably thinking of many things besides simply the 10 Commandments. Jesus, as he always does in such situations, brings it back to God’s word as it was given in the Old Testament:

1 Jesus answered: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness;19honor your father and your mother; and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt 19:17-19, HCSB)

There is a fascinating subtext here. Do you notice anything missing? Jesus has left out every command that pertains to following, loving and obeying God. In the 10 Commandments, God told the people to have no other gods besides him; to neither create nor worship idols (things that represent God to us, but are not him); to honor, and not misuse the name of the Lord; and to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. These are the first four Commandments, and they all have to do with our relationship with God, and Jesus says nothing about them.

Why?

The commandments that Jesus told the young man to follow are quite similar to the basic moral code for Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, and of course, Jews. Apart from the second one that he named, almost anyone in Western culture today, Christian or not, would be happy to agree with Jesus’ response. Even atheists are generally against murder, stealing, and lying for gain; and they are generally for being good to your family and loving others. This is the type of thing that leads people to ask: “Aren’t all religions the same?”

But Jesus is about to burst the bubble of the rich young man, and along with it, the bubble of those who think all religions are the same. He was a brilliant teacher, and part of his brilliance was helping people to come to the right conclusion through their own thought process. You can see it happening in this young man right before our eyes:

“I have kept all these,” the young man told Him. “What do I still lack? ” (Matt 19:20, HCSB)

I don’t think we need to criticize the young man for saying that he is kept all the commandments the Jesus named – millions of people think they do this, at least, externally. But I want us to see what Jesus has done to him. This guy knows that there is another shoe that hasn’t dropped yet. If he was a good Jew, he certainly knew that Jesus had left out the first four Commandments. By leaving them out, Jesus has called his attention to the fact that he is missing something, and so he asks “What do I still lack? What am I still missing?”

21“If you want to be perfect,” Jesus said to him, “go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” (Matt 19:21, HCSB)

What is Jesus saying? First, he is saying that in order to have eternal life, the young man must be perfect. He is spelling out what I mentioned before: if you want to try to get eternal life in this way, you must be perfect. Second, Jesus is telling him to obey, in a practical way, those first four commands that he omitted to mention before. This young man was rich, and his money was both a God to him, and an idol. For this man to obey: “you shall not worship an idol,” he had to sell all of his possessions. For this man to have no other gods, he had to get rid of his wealth. For this man to honor the name of the Lord, to trust him above all, he had to become poor so that his wealth would not tempt him. For this man to worship, to honor the Sabbath and rest, he had to give to others, and free himself from the cares and worry that came from being rich. And above all, Jesus is claiming his ultimate allegiance: “Come and follow me.” This is yet one more place where Jesus claims to be the Lord, the God of the Old Testament. He is telling this young man that the command: “I am the Lord, you have no other gods before you,” is practically fulfilled in following Jesus. The Old Testament commands concerning relationship with God are all fulfilled in trusting and obeying Jesus. Jesus makes that clear here.

What the rich young ruler lacks is not outward behavior, but an internal commitment to the Lord as his one and only true God. He needs to get rid of everything that is standing between him and following Jesus, and then follow.

This is an answer for those who ask: “What about the good Buddhist, who lives a moral life? How will he be kept from heaven?” First of all, if someone is a good Buddhist, he doesn’t want to go to heaven. He wants to eternally cease to exist. Seriously, that’s the goal, and when people ask that question, they are only revealing their ignorance of religion. But there is a valid point there, so let’s replace “a good Buddhist, with “a good Muslim.” I know Islam has a lot of negatives, but I have met many Muslim men who basically want to live good, moral lives. The commands that Jesus lists here not so different for Muslims. So, Jesus could be talking to a good Muslim in this passage. The one thing such a person lacks is total commitment to Jesus as Lord. And Jesus makes clear that that is the one thing necessary for eternal life.

So, to be clear, there are two answers in this text to the question: “Why can’t a good, moral person who does not believe in Jesus go to heaven?” The first, is that Jesus says only God himself can be good enough. If you want to get into heaven by your good works, the standard is perfection. I don’t care who you are, no “good moral person” is perfect, and Jesus says here that in fact no one is even good, except God.

Second, Jesus also makes it clear that the only way to eternal life is to give all of your allegiance to him. We must get rid of what comes in between us and following Jesus, and then follow him. When we do that, we are not judged based on our perfection, but rather on our faith in, and allegiance to, Jesus. This is the message of the entire New Testament, and in fact the entire Bible. Re-read Galatians 2:15-16 above. Here’s another from 1 John 5:10-13

10Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son.11And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.12Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.13I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1John 5:10-13, ESV2011)

Though it isn’t spelled out in Matthew 19, the rest of the New Testament teaches true goodness is a gift from God that we receive when we trust Jesus Christ, and follow him. Trust in Jesus comes first, and what we call “morality,” or “doing good” comes about as a result of that faith. Doing good without faith will never be good enough, because, as Jesus said here “Only One is good.”

So, let’s makes this practical for us today. The rich young man was prepared to do good, but he was not prepared to give up his wealth in order to follow Jesus. He was not prepared to give his ultimate allegiance to Jesus. It isn’t a command for all Christians to be poor, rather, it is an example of how we might be called to give something up for Jesus. So, what is it in your life that keeps you from following Jesus? What are the things that tempt you not to give your ultimate allegiance to him?

For some, it may be a relationship. You are afraid you might lose your spouse, or your lover, or your group of friends if you really gave your whole life to Jesus. For others it might be a lifestyle choice. You’d have to give up whatever Jesus wanted you to give up, and there are some things that, frankly, you are not willing to let go of, even for the sake of Jesus Christ. It might be alcohol, or drugs, or sex outside of marriage. It might be that you want to remain master of you own destiny, and if you follow Jesus you are afraid your life might be boring, or you might not get to do what you want in terms of your career. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sin. Kristen Powers, an anchor for Fox News, had an intense struggle before becoming a Christian, in part because she, and everyone in her circles, despised Evangelicals. She had to be willing to give up her reputation to follow Jesus. Wealth, in and of itself, is not necessarily sinful, but that was what was keeping the young man in the text from following Jesus. Remember what Jesus said, at least twice already in the book of Matthew:

8If your hand or your foot causes your downfall, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire.9And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, rather than to have two eyes and be thrown into hellfire! (Matt 18:8-9, HCSB)

37The 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.38And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.39Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matt 10:37-39, HCSB)

In essence, he is making these word practical, specifically for the rich young man: “get rid of your wealth, because it is keeping you from following Me, keeping you from having no gods before Me.”

I want to make something clear here. When we do give our trust and ultimate allegiance to Jesus, he meets the standard of perfection on our behalf. I mentioned a number of things above that might keep us from following Jesus. Even after we trust him and start to follow, some of those things may still be a problem for us. But if we are following, after we fail and fall down, we get back up with the help of Jesus, and continue on following him. In Jesus, we don’t have to be perfect – we trust that he meets that standard for us. This isn’t license to sin, rather, it is a comfort to sinners who want to do right, but fail sometimes. It is reassurance that our only “goodness” comes from the only One who is good.

With that in mind, hear Jesus’ call to surrender everything to him, and follow him.

FAITH IN THE REAL WORLD

faith1

Faith isn’t a magic pill that gives us the power or right to accomplish whatever we want. But the faith of Jesus-followers is a wonderful means through which God wants to act in this world, and has acted in this world for two-thousand years. Having faith does not enable you to do whatever you want – it enables God to do whatever He wants, in and through you.

 

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 Matthew Part 59

 

There is a persistent, widespread belief that the New Testament was written, or edited, by people who had an agenda, people who wanted to use it to manipulate others. Therefore, before we dive in to the main text today, I want to mention verse 21, because it is the kind of thing that more or less takes all the air out of that silly notion. When we see the actual facts, we know that we can have confidence that the New Testament we have today really is what the apostles – those who actually knew Jesus – wrote.

The Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) puts brackets around verse 21, and makes a footnote about it, which reads: “other mss omit bracketed text.” The NIV has it only as a footnote. The English Standard Version (ESV) also has it as a footnote. Their footnotes read something like this: “some manuscripts insert verse 21: But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting.

This is what we in the exciting business of Bible Teaching call “a major textual variant.” I have mentioned before that there are almost six thousand ancient manuscripts and partial manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. Scholars have been comparing them to one another for many years now, and have found very few variations between them. What this means is that long before Christianity was legal in the Roman Empire, all Christians were using the same New Testament we use today. It wasn’t changed to suit the purposes of people in power. It wasn’t shaped by various faith communities to suit their particular agendas. All Christians have been working from the same text for almost two-thousand years, from a time hundreds of years before following the words of Jesus provided anyone any sort of prestige or power.

But there are some variations. This is an example of what is considered a major variation. The earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament does not have the words “But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting,” in the book of Matthew. A large number of later manuscripts do have those words in Matthew.

Mark records the same incident in chapter nine of his gospel. Every text of Mark 9:29 has this:“This kind can come out by nothing but prayer.” Some variants of Mark 9:29 add “and fasting.”

So first, let’s look at the big picture. The use of prayer and fasting while performing exorcisms is not a major Christian doctrine. If we take this out altogether, we have not really changed Christianity in any significant way.

Second, it is clear that Jesus did actually say, “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer,” – it’s just that it is unlikely that Matthew recorded those words – probably only Mark did. So, actually, the only thing we aren’t sure Jesus said was “and fasting.”

Do you see what’s going on here? Nothing. This is considered a major textual variant and yet it doesn’t affect any significant Christian belief. The only real question we are left with is whether Matthew wrote it (we know Mark did) and whether Jesus says it is helpful, in addition to praying, to also fast while driving out demons.

All right, on to the main text today:

14 When they reached the crowd, a man approached and knelt down before Him. 15 “Lord,” he said, “have mercy on my son, because he has seizures and suffers severely. He often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 I brought him to Your disciples, but they couldn’t heal him.”

17 Jesus replied, “You unbelieving and rebellious generation! How long will I be with you? How long must I put up with you? Bring him here to Me.” 18 Then Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and from that moment the boy was healed.

19 Then the disciples approached Jesus privately and said, “Why couldn’t we drive it out? ”

20 “Because of your little faith,” He told them. “For I assure you: If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will tell this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.

Mark records that the failure of the disciples to drive out the demon led to a dispute between them and some of the religious leaders (Mark 9:14-16).

14 When they came to the disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and scribes disputing with them. 15 All of a sudden, when the whole crowd saw Him, they were amazed and ran to greet Him. 16 Then He asked them, “What are you arguing with them about? ”

Let’s use our imagination here, and I think we might find a familiar scenario. Imagine this: John Smith is a skeptic. He doesn’t know if he really believes in God, and is not sure at all that God will help when someone asks. John has a friend named Fred Jones, who gets very sick. John asks his Christian friends to pray for Fred, and then when Fred isn’t immediately healed in the way John wants, John gets mad at God for not doing anything. I’ve been involved in several scenarios like that, and I think there is a little bit of something I might call “perversity” in that. If you really don’t believe, why do you ask for, much less expect, any help? How can you seek help from a place of faithlessness, and then turn around and hold God responsible for not doing what you never trusted him to do in the first place? How can you blame him if you don’t believe in him?

I suspect that this is what was going on between the disciples and the religious leaders, and this is what Jesus ran into when he came down the mountain. I think it is this attitude that he called “unbelieving and rebellious.” The translation above (HCSB) translates the Greek word “rebellious,” while others use “perverse,” but the root word means “to distort.” That is exactly what is going on. The people were using the failure of the disciples as an occasion to distort the truth about Jesus.

I think the disciples provide an admirable example to us when they go to Jesus and humbly admit that they failed, and seek the reason why. The world is already generally inclined to reject Jesus and persecute his followers, but we don’t need to give them unnecessary reasons. A little humility, and some genuine honesty about our failures doesn’t hurt, and may help at least a few people to be more open to the message of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. At the very least, it is helpful to us spiritually both to admit that we have failed, and also to bring those failures to Jesus.

Jesus’ reply to them is one of the few places where I think the HCSB really misses the obvious meaning of the Greek. It says “Because of your little faith.” Little faith doesn’t capture it at all. This is not the same word Jesus used during the calming of the storm when he said “you of little faith, (Matt 8:26),” or when Peter started to sink after walking on water (Matt 14:31), or when the disciples were talking about the yeast of the Pharisees (Matt 16:8).

The Greek word for faith (or trust) is pistis. Here, Jesus uses a single word for the “little faith” of disciples: apistis. In Greek, an “a” in front of a word generally means “the opposite of” or “the absence of” or “the contradiction to.” In other words, Jesus is not saying the disciples had very little faith – he is saying they had none at all (at least in this situation). Everywhere else in the New Testament, the HCSB translates apistis as “unbelief.” I believe it should have been the same here, or maybe, “lack of faith.”

I think this puts things in a different light. It is not that the disciples had some faith, but not quite enough for the healing of the demon-possessed boy. In fact, they had no faith at all. That is why Jesus uses the analogy of the mustard seed. A mustard seed is about one-third the size of a grain of rice. Not much bigger, really, than a grain of sand. In those days before microscopes or magnifying glasses, the mustard seed would be one of the smallest visible objects in the world. Jesus doesn’t mean their faith was even smaller than that – he means they had none.

I don’t know about you, but telling them “it is because you have no faith,” seems a little harsh. Remember, they had left homes and careers to follow Jesus. They had seen some incredible miracles. None of the others objected when Peter said Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, and it seems likely that many, if not all, agreed with him. We know that Andrew (Peter’s brother) thought Jesus was the Messiah from the very first day (John 1:41). Also, Philip told Nathaniel that he believed Jesus was the one predicted by the Old Testament. So how can Jesus say they had no faith?

I think Jesus probably means something like this: “You may believe that I can do miracles when I am present. You may believe that I am the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. But you still do not have faith that this means anything real and practical for you right now, in the situations you face. When it comes to your real life and the problems you face, you have no faith that I am available to you, that I will make an actual difference for you.”

RT France writes about this text:

“It is a striking illustration of the fact that faith is, for Jesus, not a matter of intellectual assent, but of a practical reliance on a living God.”

The disciples were probably willing to give their intellectual assent to the idea that Jesus is the Messiah. But they had not yet learned to practically rely on the Lord in real life situations. Their doctrine is correct, but it doesn’t yet make a difference in how they live or deal with life.

So Jesus tells them, “if you have even a tiny amount of faith (any faith at all) you could move mountains.” By the way, the moving of a mountain is a proverbial saying. It’s like saying, “if I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times.” When you say that, you don’t mean that you have literally repeated yourself 1,000,000 times. It’s a common saying that uses exaggeration to make a point. In the same way, in those days in Israel there was a common saying, or proverb, about moving mountain, and that is what Jesus is using here. I do not believe it is meant to be taken at face value. I think the point Jesus is making is that any amount of faith allows us to access the unlimited power of God.

I want to make sure we understand what Jesus is communicating here. Some people take all this as if faith is a means to harness the power of God to do whatever we want done (as long as it isn’t overtly sinful). You hear people say things like “I’m just standing in faith that the Lord will provide a new car for you,” or “I will not receive this diagnosis of cancer.” You may even hear people say “You have to stand in faith. Don’t doubt! Don’t speak doubt. God will act if you just stand in faith.” God may indeed want to give someone a new car, or heal someone of cancer. However, I think these sorts of statements often represent a misunderstanding of faith. Having faith does not enable you to do whatever you want – it enables God to do whatever He wants, in and through you. Through faith, you give God permission (and therefore power) to act as He pleases. Faith begins with the understanding that it isn’t up to you, it’s up to God.

Perhaps you want to move a mountain. Faith doesn’t give you power do that. You will never have that sort of power. That power is God’s. Also, faith doesn’t give you the right to go around re-arranging the landscape. They aren’t your mountains – they are God’s. The mountain is only moved by God’s power, and only if it is God’s desire to move it. Faith is simply opening the door to him. Faith isn’t a means to control God or “harness” his power – it is simply asking him and trusting him to act as he pleases in and through us.

This is one of those things in the Christian life that calls for balance. We don’t control God. We don’t control our circumstances through faith. The Lord never promised us freedom from all trouble, hardship or sickness in this mortal life. And yet, he does want us to rely upon him in practical ways in this mortal life. Though we should not lose our eternal perspective, we should also realize he does often want to act in us and through us while we are alive on earth. He wants to heal people through us. He wants to deliver people from demonic oppression through us. He wants to communicate his grace and love to others through us. He wants to comfort others through us. He also sometimes want to do these same things for us. Sometimes, he wants even to provide for our physical needs. All of these things happen when by faith we open the door for him to act. Faith isn’t a magic pill that gives us the power or right to accomplish whatever we want. But the faith of Jesus-followers is a wonderful means through which God wants to act in this world, and has acted in this world for two-thousand years.

Our faith should make a difference in real life. Jesus wants us to learn to rely upon him practically in all things. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel alone in attempting to really rely upon Jesus. It seems like people either think faith is a way to personally control the power of God, or faith has no practical value here on earth. But there are people who take a balanced approach. Their hope and goal is heaven. And yet, here and now, they live in daily dependence upon the Lord. One group of people who live like this are the missionaries of the World Mission Prayer League. They have been relying on Jesus in practical and balanced ways for almost ninety years. Here are some excerpts from World Mission Prayer League Documents:

We want to communicate our dependence upon God, as well. We want our prayers and communications to demonstrate that we have no hope but heaven, no resource but God, and no guarantee but his faithful promises…

We choose to depend upon Jesus, for all things at all times. Jesus secures our redemption and has become our eternal hope. We may count on him to provide as well everything necessary for life and service (2 Peter 1:3)…

The dependable grace of Jesus frees us from the anxious need to supply ourselves from the limited store of our own abilities….

Dependence upon “the dependable grace of Jesus” is a choice. It is a practice and a lifestyle.

It is something that we learn… And it is, of course, a kind of mystery, too. It is the mystery of faith itself, in a way. It is one of the irreducibly untidy things that I love about the Prayer League…

Dependence on Christ as gracious Lord sustains us in our calling when other ties may fail. Christ makes us heirs of the kingdom of heaven! Now we may face hardship with joy, endure privation with contentment, and suffer loneliness and adversity with the courage of faith. Funds might run short and fail. The Mission may disappoint us, or even cease to exist. Yet the Lord will never fail us (Deuteronomy 31:8). We may put our trust in him above all…

This fundamental relationship of faith will challenge our attitudes and shape our behaviors at every turn.

World Mission Prayer League lives and does business by these principles every day, even now in 2015. To support their work around the world, they need about $70,000 per month. Over more than eight decades, the only person they have ever asked for money is God. If they need more missionaries, they pray. If they need money to support a new missionary, they pray. If they need a new computer system, they ask Jesus for it.

Now, I don’t share this because I think the people of the World Mission Prayer League are perfect. They are flawed human beings like everyone else. But they are human beings whom I know, who really do live their lives in the flesh by faith in Jesus Christ. People really do live in practical dependence upon Jesus. It can be done in a biblical, balanced way. By the grace of God, many people even today are living that way. By the grace of God YOU can live the life of faith well. As the Prayer League said, this approach to faith should challenge our attitudes and shape our behaviors at every turn.

Let the Holy Spirit Speak to you now.

~

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

I want to remind you again that we are a listener-supported ministry, and that means, first and foremost, that we are supported by your prayers. We need and value your prayers for us.

Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please also pray for our finances. Pray for us to receive what we need. Please pray for us in this way before you give anything. And then, as you pray, if the Lord leads you to give us a gift, please go ahead and do that. But if he doesn’t want you to give to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter. But do continue to pray for our finances.

If the Lord does lead you to give, just use the Paypal Donate button on the right hand side of the page. You don’t have to have a Paypal account – you can use a credit card, if you prefer. You can also set up a recurring donation through Paypal. We can make this tax-deductible if you just mention that it want it to be so in the “note” part of the transaction.

You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

917 Canyon Creek Drive

Lebanon, TN 37087

Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

Thank for your prayers, and your support!