1 PETER #25: THE MEANING OF BAPTISM.

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Using this text as our starting point, we are going to take a deep dive into the meaning and practice of baptism. Before we do, I want to make sure some things are very clear. For several centuries now, good and true Christians have disagreed about baptism – what exactly it is and what it means. It is not necessary, therefore, at New Joy Fellowship, or the Life Together Churches network, that everyone hold the same view about baptism.  What is necessary with regard to this issue, is that we treat each other with respect, and allow the same differences of opinion that the Lord has allowed in his church for the past five centuries. Since so many great Christians of the past have disagreed about this issue, it would be a tragic mistake to let differences of opinion on baptism divide New Joy Fellowship.

However, let us also not let different opinions keep us from seeking what the Bible says about it. If we end up disagreeing, that’s OK. It won’t divide us. But we can still seek the best understanding possible about baptism. I think we can all agree that the goal is to search the scriptures with an open mind, and a desire to know what it really teaches.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen. To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 24

1 PETER #24. 1 PETER 3:18-22

Our focus this time is on verses 21-22. In verse 20, Peter uses the people who disobeyed during the time of Noah as an example of the types of people to whom Jesus proclaimed the gospel in hell. I think Peter uses Noah’s time particularly, because he wants to introduce the next thought, which is about baptism. In Noah’s time, the flood killed almost everyone by drowning. But the water also washed the earth clean of wickedness and filth, and it lifted up the ark and carried it, causing the people within it to be saved. Peter says “this corresponds to baptism.” Or, in other words, “it gives us a picture of baptism.” The water brought a special kind of cleansing. Before, Noah and his family lived in a horribly depraved, sinful world. Then, through water, and a special vehicle (the ark), they were brought into a world that had been renewed by God. How does this paint a picture of baptism? We live in a horribly depraved, sinful world. Through water, combined with a special vehicle (the promise of God) baptism cleanses us, lifts us from the dying, sinful world, into the Kingdom of God.

Using this text as our starting point, we are going to take a deep dive into the meaning and practice of baptism. Before we do, I want to make sure some things are very clear. For several centuries now, good and true Christians have disagreed about baptism – what exactly it is and what it means. Since it has not been necessary for about 500 years that Christians agree about this, it is not necessary, at New Joy Fellowship, or the Life Together Churches network, that everyone hold the same view about baptism.  What is necessary with regard to this issue, is that we treat each other with respect, and allow the same differences of opinion that the Lord has allowed in his church for the past five centuries. Since so many great Christians of the past have disagreed about this issue, it would be a tragic mistake to let differences of opinion on baptism divide New Joy Fellowship.

Having said that, I will present my understanding of the Bible, and of history, with the same force and rigor that I try to use with every sermon. In my own mind, the most important things about baptism are quite clear from the scripture. Please understand, however, that if you disagree with me about baptism, it is not a problem. I have my opinions, but I recognize many of the great Christians of the past five hundred years have had different ones about this topic. Though I think I’m right, and I might come on strong, I’m telling you right now that I realize I could be wrong. So, let’s give each other grace here.

In the meantime, I want to teach clearly what I really think the Bible says about baptism, because it seems to me that these days, many things about baptism often get confused, and distorted. Sometimes, some of the most powerful scriptures about baptism are not even part of the conversation.

When it comes to baptism, I think there are three main issues: 1. What, exactly is baptism? What kind of meaning does the Bible attach to it? 2. Who should be baptized (for instance what about infants in believing families?) 3. How should we go about baptizing people?

The truth is, there is quite a bit of Biblical material about the first question. The biblical information about the second two questions is much more thin, and harder to process. Therefore, today, we’ll try to consider the first. What is baptism? What does the Bible say about it? I want to point out that today, what we cover should not be particularly controversial. We’ll simply be looking at the things the bible clearly teaches about the nature of baptism.

The English word baptism comes directly from the Greek word in the Bible. We don’t really have a good single English word for all the Biblical meanings. In general, it means “a ceremonial, or religious washing with water.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says this:

The Greek words from which our English “baptism” has been formed are used by Greek writers, in classical antiquity, in the LXX and in the NT, with a great latitude of meaning. It is not possible to exhaust their meaning by any single English term. The action which the Greek words express may be performed by plunging, drenching, staining, dipping, sprinkling.

(International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, article on Baptism)

“The LXX” means: “the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament.” So, even before the time of Jesus, Greek-speaking Jews used the words baptize/baptism to mean a wide variety of things, but the common idea was some kind of ceremonial, or ritual, washing with water. The Easton’s Bible Dictionary agrees, saying:

Baptists say that it means “to dip,” and nothing else. That is an incorrect view of the meaning of the word. It means both (1) to dip a thing into an element or liquid, and (2) to put an element or liquid over or on it. Nothing therefore as to the mode of baptism can be concluded from the mere word used. The word has a wide latitude of meaning, not only in the New Testament, but also in the LXX Version of the Old Testament, where it is used of the ablutions and baptisms required by the Mosaic law. These were effected by immersion, and by affusion and sprinkling; and the same word, “washings” (Heb. 9:10, 13, 19, 21) or “baptisms,” designates them all.

(Easton’s Bible Dictionary, article on Baptism)

So, we don’t get a ton of help from the word itself. As the two quotes above point out, in the Greek version of the Old Testament (which was probably used by most of the early Christians) the word generally used for rituals involving cleansing with water was “baptism.” Again, it can mean immersion, dipping, pouring or sprinkling.

John the Baptist used baptism in his ministry. For those who received it, it meant that they were repenting of their old way of life, receiving forgiveness of sins, and entering into a new mode of living. Baptism was a kind of “initiation” into that  new way of life.

4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

(Mark 1:4-8, ESV)

This concept of initiation into a new way of life seems to be a key factor with regard to baptism. Also, put a little mental note on the part where John says that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Mark records these words of Jesus:

28 I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he is!”
29 When they heard this, all the people—even the tax collectors—agreed that God’s way was right, for they had been baptized by John. 30 But the Pharisees and experts in religious law rejected God’s plan for them, for they had refused John’s baptism.

(Luke 7:28-30, NLT)

The people, by being baptized, had aligned themselves with John, they were, in a sense, one with him. By refusing baptism, the religious leaders made it clear that they were not aligned with him. They did not want to be part of him or his movement. So baptism initiates you into something, aligns you with it. Christian baptism means you have been joined with Jesus Christ, and with his people. Galatians makes the same sort of argument about Christian baptism. We weren’t just “baptized” in some vague, general way. We were baptized into Christ.

26 It is through faith that all of you are God’s children in union with Christ Jesus. 27 You were baptized into union with Christ, and now you are clothed, so to speak, with the life of Christ himself. 28 So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are the descendants of Abraham and will receive what God has promised.

(Galatians 3:26-29, GNT)

So, being baptized into Christ means that you become “part of Christ,” in some way – you were baptized into union with Christ. You are initiated into him. Paul uses this same concept of being brought into union with someone or something in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5. He affirms this again in 1 Corinthians chapter 12:

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

(1 Corinthians 12:12-13, ESV)

We were all baptized into something. We are brought into union with Christ, and brought into the body of Christ (that is, true spiritual fellowship with everyone who trusts Jesus). In Romans, Paul says that part of the meaning of baptism is that we were united with Christ specifically in his death and resurrection.

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)

He says something similar in Colossians:

11 In him you were also circumcised. It was not a circumcision performed by human hands. But it was a removal of the corrupt nature in the circumcision performed by Christ. 12 This happened when you were placed in the tomb with Christ through baptism. In baptism you were also brought back to life with Christ through faith in the power of God, who brought him back to life.

(Colossians 2:11-12, God’s Word version, bold formatting added by me)

So baptism unites us with Christ in a general way. It also, in a special way, applies his crucifixion and resurrection to us, or unites us with them. God does something in us when we are baptized. This leads to another thought. No one baptizes themselves. Baptism is something that is done to us, and for us.

I want to pause and point out a few things. Some people view baptism as a kind of testimony – something we do for God to show that we do indeed have faith. That could be a part of it. But clearly, in the New Testament, baptism is also much more than our testimony of faith and obedience. In fact, it is portrayed mainly as something that God does for us.

Baptism brings you into union with Christ. It identifies you with the death and resurrection of Christ. It initiates you into the body of Christ. All that should be plain from a straightforward reading of the texts above.

But wait! There’s more! In the New Testament, baptism is often also connected to forgiveness of sins:

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

(Acts 2:37-39, ESV)

16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’

(Acts 22:16, ESV)

The early church took this very seriously. Sometimes too seriously, in fact, or at least, too literally. The only arguments critical of infant baptism during the first 1,500 years of the church were about this. Some few people thought that since baptism washes away sins, it was a waste to baptize infants, since they were certainly going to sin again as they got older. Instead, these folks argued, baptism should be delayed as long as possible, so that the baptized person had a chance of dying before they sinned again.

Finally, there are many promises connecting the Holy Spirit to baptism. Acts 2:37-39, already quoted above, seems to say that the Holy Spirit is connected in some way to baptism. Mark 1:4-8 (return to the mental note I told you to make) supports this. Jesus himself had a special encounter with the Spirit at his baptism, and he involves the Holy Spirit in his command to baptize:

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

(Matthew 28:19-20, ESV)

Paul found some people who were baptized with John the Baptist’s baptism. He demonstrated that they needed to be baptized into Jesus, after which they received the Holy Spirit:

1 And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.

(Acts 19:1-6, ESV)

The apostle Peter preached to some Gentiles. The people heard and believed, and it became clear to Peter that they had been given the Holy Spirit, so he ordered them to be baptized. Later, he explained this to the Jewish church:

15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”

(Acts 11:15-17, ESV)

To reiterate what we’ve learned so far. Baptism is an initiation into Jesus. It unites us with his death, his resurrection, and his life. It unites us to other Christians. It is connected in some way to the forgiveness of sins, and to the Holy Spirit.

I also want to make it clear that these verses, along with many others, show that baptism is a part of the salvation process. If you are a follower of Jesus, you should be baptized. It’s part of the deal. Jesus commanded us to baptize as part of the process of making disciples (Matthew 28:1-20, quoted above).

Also, much like with salvation in general, we cannot receive any of the gifts given to us by baptism unless we repent of our sins and put our trust in Jesus Christ. Jesus died for all people, whether or not they repent and trust him. If someone does not repent, and does not trust, she will not receive any benefit from the death of Jesus. The benefit is there. But without faith, it is not applied to a person. The person cannot “take hold of” salvation, except through faith. So, in a similar way, when we are baptized, all of the benefits of baptism are made available to us. But they do us no good unless we receive them in repentance and faith.

We’ll talk more about infant baptism next time, but there is an important point here. Those who support infant baptism do so with the understanding that the baby will be brought up to, and taught, a life of repentance and faith, so that the child can take hold of the wonderful promises given to him at his baptism. No real Christians believe that baptism works like magic. Those who baptize infants simply believe that faith can begin very early.

In brief then, we can see that baptism is a ritual that involves water connected to the promises of God. Water, combined with the Ark was, in a sense, a gateway from the old world to the new for Noah’s family. In the same way, water, combined with the promises of God (that is, baptism) is a kind of gateway from our old life, a life that was oriented on our sinful flesh into our new life – into the life of Jesus himself, who lives in and through us. Peter is saying that, combined with faith, this baptism is part of the process God uses to save us, through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

One useful way to think about baptism is to compare it to a passport given to a child that was born outside of his home country. As a citizen of his own country, but living elsewhere, that child needs a passport. He doesn’t earn it for himself – it is given to him as part of his citizenship. It allows him to go back to his country of citizenship when the time comes. The passport means he belongs to his home country. The passport enables him to live where he is, but it gives him all the rights and privileges of his home country.

In the same way, we are children born again as citizens of heaven. We don’t yet live in our real country, our true home. But baptism marks us as belonging to God through Jesus Christ. Baptism grants us the rights and privileges of the children of God, even while we live this mortal life.

A couple of possibilities for application: first, if you are a follower of Jesus and have not been baptized, I strongly encourage you to be baptized soon. Second, for those of us who have been baptized, let’s learn to appreciate and understand all that God has given us through baptism and faith. He has dealt with the problem of our sinful flesh, by crucifying it with Jesus in baptism. He lives his new life in us by the Holy Spirit, through baptism. We have been initiated into Christ – we belong in the kingdom of God. Baptism is our passport, our certificate of birth and citizenship. Take hold of these things by thanking God for them!

1 PETER #13: THE ROCK-HARD TRUTH

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

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 13

1 PETER 13: 1 PETER 2:6-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Philippians 2:6-11, ESV)

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

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

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

(1 Peter 2:7-8, ESV)

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

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

(Matthew 21:42-44, CSB)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today!

LIVING CRUCIFIED #5: YOU’RE DEAD!

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

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

LIVING CRUCIFIED #5: LIVING DEAD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COLOSSIANS #24: THE TRAP OF LAWLESSNESS AND THE SOLUTION OF LOVE

god's love

How can we avoid legalism, and trying to earn points with God, but also avoid lawlessness and sinning?

The answer is love. Love is at the heart of Christianity because love is at the heart of the Christian understanding of God, and what it means to have faith. Love not fear, nor selfishness, is what changes us and radically influences our behavior.

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Colossians #24. Colossians 3:5-7

 5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. Colossians 3:5-7

We are taking things in small bites, but it is very important to remember our overall context. Paul started this section by saying: “In the same way you received Christ, now walk in him.” He reminded us that all the fullness of God dwells in Christ; and the fullness of Christ dwells in us. Through faith, by God’s grace, we were buried with Jesus by baptism, and raised to new life. Our old life, the sinful flesh, has been put to death. Paul then began to discuss one potential problem in the Christian life: the issue of legalism. Legalists don’t fully believe in the work of Jesus. They think perhaps that they can add to what Jesus has done. They want to be in control of their own fate, and they often want to control the behavior of others. But Paul demolishes legalism by reminding the Colossians that in Christ we have nothing left to prove. We can’t be righteous enough to please God. We don’t follow God according to the ways of the world.

Last time we talked about the amazing truth that our real life, our true life, is found not in external things, but in Jesus Christ. It is already there, waiting for us. It will be fully revealed in all its glory at the same time that Christ is revealed in all of his glory. This is because part of the glory of Christ is what he has done for us. Real life comes from God, into our spirits, and from our spirits into our souls, and from our souls, it influences how we behave.

So, while some of this might be hard for us to hear, let us not forget the message of grace and life that the scripture has been hammering into us for many weeks now. Context is everything.

With all this in mind, Paul now begins to address a second potential problem in the Christian life: lawlessness. Remember the picture of following Jesus as a road? On one side of the road is a deep and dangerous ditch called legalism. Now, Paul begins to address the deep and dangerous ditch on the other side of the road: Lawlessness. In many ways, lawlessness looks like the opposite of legalism. Instead of following rules, like legalism, lawlessness rejects any kind of standard for behavior at all. A lawless person might think like this: “Well, the Bible tells us that Jesus did everything for us. There’s nothing for us to do. Therefore, I can live in whatever way pleases me best. I know I’m not married to this person that I’m attracted to, but I can’t earn points with God anyway, so I’m going to go ahead and have sex with her. And with anyone else I feel like.” Lawlessness says: “Paul just wrote that restraint and self-discipline don’t help us in our relationship with God, so I’m not going to restrain myself at all. If I want to do something, I’ll do it. If I can get something I want, I’ll get it. If I don’t feel like doing something, I won’t do it.”

Lawlessness is lazy, and, above all, self-centered. Like legalism, the heart of lawlessness is being in control. Lawless people might think that they are the opposite of “in control,” but behind the “anything goes” behavior is an attitude that says: “No one can tell me what to do, or not do.” Like legalism, lawlessness says, “No one is the boss of me. I’m in charge of my own life, so I can do what I want.”

Unfortunately, most public schools in America, along with most universities, indoctrinate young people with the ideas of lawlessness. They tell people that the most important thing is to be true to yourself. In other words: “Make sure that you do what you really feel like doing. Don’t do anything that you don’t feel like doing. Do not accept any standard for behavior except what feels right to you. Don’t let anyone else impose any kind of standard on you.”

Legalism had a tiny bit of truth behind it. So does lawlessness. It is true that Jesus, and Jesus alone makes us right with God. If we trust Jesus, we are thoroughly forgiven, and we can’t add anything to what Jesus has done for us. In Jesus, our sins are not counted against us, and the righteousness of Jesus is counted for us.

But we need to understand something: if we truly believe this, our behavior will change. If we truly love Jesus, the most significant part of us will not want to sin at all. If we belong to Jesus, we have accepted him as our Lord and King, and we have given up the right to live for ourselves.

I’ve used this illustration before, because the Bible uses it in many places. Picture a marriage. Two people love each other, and they agree to give up their lives as single people, and from their wedding day forward, they make a new life together. Part of marriage means you give up some of the independence you had as a single person. Now, you organize your life not only to please yourself, but to please the two of you together. When you were single, you might have gone out with your friends, and stayed out late. But when you are married, you decide together what you will do with your time. You don’t stay out all night unless you have talked it over and agreed with your spouse. You don’t spend your money as if it was all your own. You prioritize together how you as a couple will allocate your resources. You do things for each other and with each other because you love one another. Sometimes, you do things you would rather not do because you love your spouse. At other times, you might refrain from doing something you would like to do, because you love your spouse. You don’t behave in these ways because there are laws about marriage. You do it because you love your spouse. And you behave in ways that are loving sometimes even when you don’t feel all sorts of loving feelings, because you have made a commitment to honor and value your spouse.

Now, if you were a legalist, you might say: “I must sit here and listen to my spouse talk, because if I don’t, I must not really be married.”

There is no love there, only fear and obligation.

If you were a lawless person, you might say: “I don’t feel like sitting here and listening to my spouse talk, because I’m not getting anything out of it. I’m going to go watch TV because that’s what I really want to do right now. Besides, even if I don’t listen to her, we’re still married, right?”

There is no love here, either, just self-centeredness.

This is why I say the good, true road of Christianity is love. Love eliminates both legalism and lawlessness. Being a Christian is all about receiving the love of Jesus, and loving him back. And because of his love, also loving our neighbors. Love changes us. It reorients us, reorients our lives, toward the one we love. Love affects how we live, and the choices we make. If it doesn’t, it isn’t really love.

This has to be really clear: we don’t change our behavior in order to become acceptable to God. Jesus, and Jesus alone makes us right with God. But once we trust Jesus, once we believe what the bible says, our behavior will change, because we grow in the love that Jesus has for us, and the love we have for him. If our behavior does not change at all, not even a little, perhaps we don’t really believe what the Bible says about Jesus.

When Paul was speaking about legalism, he talked about some of the things that we died to: false humility, working to get God to accept us, and so on. Now, Paul is telling us about a whole different category of things to which we have died: the things of the flesh. He starts with five. These five are all about things that we might wrongly desire: sexual immorality; moral impurity; evil passion; lust; and covetousness.

The word for “sexual immorality” is the very broad Greek term porneia. Porneia means “any sexual activity apart from that between a man and woman who are married to each other.” To be specific, it includes: sex between people who are not married at all; sex between people who are not married to each other; homosexual sex; prostitution; sex between more than two people, rape, etc.

Moral impurity catches pretty much anything left after porneia. Just in case you have someone (for instance, like former President Clinton) who wants to argue about what exactly “sex” means, this Greek word covers basically any other kind of immoral thought or behavior. We might throw pornography of all types into this category also.

The next term is “passion.” The Greek word used does not always mean something negative, but in this context, it is safe to assume that Paul means any kind of ungodly passion, and probably passion with immoral sexual overtones.

Following that, Paul mentions evil desire. Sometimes, this might be translated “lust.” This is desire for something more than, or in addition to, what you actually need, and it includes a demand that the desire be satisfied, even if it is wrong. You can lust, or have evil desire, for all sort of things, including (but not limited to) food, power, money, sex, control, or material things.

I want to pause before we move on. The problem with all of these things is that they are corruptions of things that would otherwise be good. The Bible teaches us that sex between married couples is a good thing, and in fact, it says very clearly that married couples should not withhold sex from one another (1 Corinthians 7:1-5). But Jesus teaches us to avoid corrupting and debasing God’s good gift of sex. Passion is often a good thing. But when the passion is directed to an object or person that it should not be, it becomes a sin. Desire is good. It is the same word used when Jesus said he eagerly desired to eat the Passover with his disciples. But evil desire is for something that should not be desired.

The final sin in this set of five is “covetousness.” The idea behind it is that you want something that is not yours to properly want. That could be money, it could be a relationship, it could be a certain status or possession. The ten commandments give us some examples of the ways we might covet:

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (ESV, Exodus 20:17)

I’ve never coveted a donkey in my life, though I may have come close with a cow or a goat. But the idea of house or spouse is helpful. Your neighbor’s spouse is not available for you to want. Neither is her house, or car. You want something that should not belong to you anyway. You wish you could take it away from someone else, and have it for yourself. That is covetousness.

In verse six we are told that the wrath of God is coming because of such things. This is important. Sometimes, the attitude of lawlessness is that sins are not such a big deal anymore, because Jesus has forgiven us. But Paul is telling us that these things are deadly. Those who do not turn to Jesus will be under the wrath of God for such things. They aren’t something to play around with.

Each of these five sins refer primarily to strong desires for things that we should not desire. Let’s make sure we put in this context. Last time, Paul said that our real life was in Christ. Right now it is hidden, but it is no less real for that, and one day it will be fully manifested. We learned that we should seek life in Christ, not in external things, not in things that will wither and die anyway, things that will never satisfy us. So, now Paul is saying, put to death your habit of seeking life in the wrong places. These five sins: sexual immorality, impurity, evil passion, lust, and covetousness, are all ways in which we seek to find life. When we engage in such things, we are seeking life in the flesh, in things where there is no life. Paul says, “put those habits to death, where they belong. They are dead ends; worse, they are roads leading to even more death. Seek your life in Christ, and be done with seeking it in things like that.”

Paul also says: “This is how you used to be. You used to do these things, but now, in Jesus, all of that is changing.” I don’t want to gloss over verse Sometimes after people become Christians, they feel bad about what they did in the past. But that is over. The new reality is Christ. A few verses later Paul writes:

You have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (ESV, Colossians 3:9-10)

That reminds me of what Paul said to the Corinthians:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (ESV, 2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

Yes, I know we still sometimes fail and fall back into evil desires. But our real life is hidden with Christ in God. Our flesh (as it is right now) is destined for destruction – the part of us that wants to sin is as good as dead already. We need to remember that the part of us that wants to go on sinning is no longer who we really are. We are now holy and blameless in Christ. We are in a spiritual marriage with Jesus.

Meditate on these things right now. What does it mean to put to death the things of the flesh? One nuance of “put to death” in Greek is “deprive of strength or power.” I think this is a helpful thought. What gives these sorts of sins strength or power, and what takes power away from them? How will feed your desires for the things of God, and starve the desires of the flesh?

What does it mean to put off the old self, and put on the new? How will you do that in the coming days and weeks? How will you avoid both the trap of legalism, and the trap of lawlessness?

And finally, how will you help your brothers and sisters in Jesus to do the same?

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.