LIVING CRUCIFIED #9: THE GLORY OF GOD

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

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

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Living Crucified Part 9

Living Crucified #9. God’s Glory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Really, Lord?”

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

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

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

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

Quite literally, this is what we were made for.

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

Revelation #31. Hell, and the Love of God

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If God is infinitely good, infinitely glorious, then to sin against him is infinitely evil. And to say that a loving God would never send anyone to eternal punishment is to say that God himself is not eternally valuable. But even more than that, the Christian doctrine of hell shows us the extravagant extent of God’s love for us: Jesus suffered unimaginably in hell, for our sake.

 Hell itself cannot help but show the preciousness of God and depths of his love.

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Revelation #31.  Revelation 14:6-13

I strongly encourage you to listen to the audio version of this sermon. It is a bit long – 40 minutes, so please plan accordingly. This is an important message, and I believe it is well worth your time.

Please read Revelation 14:6-13

We are in the fourth major section of Revelation. We had the seven letters, the seven seals and the seven trumpets. This section is what I call “the seven significant signs.” These “signs” or visions, tell us that there is a spiritual reality that underlies and surrounds our physical existence. The signs explain what is happening in our lives, and what will happen in the future, from the perspective of this spiritual realm. So the sign of the Woman and the Child tell the story of the church and of the Messiah. Then, enters the Dragon, and we learn that there is a spiritual war going on between the Dragon and the Church. The two beasts show us how the Dragon attacks – through physical persecution and oppression; and also, through deception, lies and cultural pressure. The sign of the 144,000 and the Lamb shows us that not only does God have victory over the Dragon, but those who trust Jesus will also partake of that victory. And so we come to our text today, the sixth sign, which is the three angel messengers.

The three angel messengers go together – they are all part of one “sign,” one aspect of the spiritual reality that surrounds our physical existence. The previous sign showed that those who die are victorious, and are already with the Lamb in glorious light, joy and worship. But the three angel messengers are sent to those who are still on earth. There is a definite progression in the spiritual realm for those who are still alive:

  1. The Gospel is proclaimed. God comes first in peace to all the inhabitants of the earth, inviting everyone into his grace. Notice that the gospel contains both an invitation: “fear God, and give him glory;” and also a warning: “because the hour of his judgment has come.” As we have seen elsewhere in Revelation, God goes to great extremes to allow people to repent and be saved before the end. Once more, he delays judgment, giving yet one more chance.
  2. The judgment upon the empires of the beasts is announced. Babylon was the great enemy of God’s people at one time in Israel’s history. Here in Revelation, “Babylon” represents human society that is organized culturally, economically, and politically against God’s people. It is human culture manipulated by the two beasts. It will come up again soon in Revelation.
  3. The pronouncement of eternal punishment on those who finally refuse to repent and receive God’s grace offered in Jesus Christ. I want to spend the remainder of our time on this subject, since it is controversial in this day and age.

Please bear with me here, because we are going to go into deep and thoughtful territory. One of the great advantages of Christianity – in fact one of the reasons that the nations which were formerly Christian developed faster than many other areas of the world – is that Christianity is deeply thoughtful and intellectual. True Christian faith helps people think well.  Thinking well takes work, but it is important work. I want to entreat you to think on what I say carefully, and thoughtfully. Give some attention to it.

Hell, and the modern world.

The traditional, orthodox Christian view of hell is that it is a place of eternal torment, reserved for those who reject the offer of grace through faith in Jesus Christ. There were a few Christians with different opinions at various times, but the main Christian view was basically settled for all of Christian history. However, that view has come into dispute during the past fifty years or so.

According to Pew Research, only 70% of those who call themselves Christians believe in hell. That means 30% don’t. Fewer women believe in hell than men. 36% of the “Baby Boomer” generation does not believe in hell. Those Baby Boomers include several people who have influence on Christianity in America.

Among those who do believe in hell, there are other areas of dispute. Some Christians, including many influential thinkers, believe that hell is not eternal. Instead, they believe in “annihilation.” That is, they think that those who reject God, after the judgment day, are simply destroyed entirely, ceasing to exist. They reject the idea of eternal suffering.

Mostly the reason Christians  these days reject what the Bible says about hell is because it seems entirely out of step with modern culture. We have come to emphasize the love of God so much that we have lost sight of the holiness and righteousness of God. In fact many people write and speak as if God’s love far outweighs his holiness, purity and righteousness. That is not true. God’s love, and his holiness are in perfect, eternal balance. If they are not, then Jesus had no reason to die for our sins, and God’s forgiveness is no big deal. In fact, without the proper Biblical doctrine of hell, God would be far less loving, not more. You see, you don’t know how much Jesus loves you until you know how much he suffered. If God’s forgiveness is equivalent to paying for a speeding a ticket, that’s nice, and we should be grateful, but in the end, it’s not really a big deal.  But if the debt that he paid for you was eternal suffering, it is a stunning, overwhelming, unbelievable kind of love.

Hell and the Bible.

The Bible’s teaching on hell is really quite straightforward. Much of Revelation is figurative, not literal, and I think we can take it for granted that some elements of verses 9-11 are describing spiritual realities in a picturesque  way (that is, not exactly literal). For instance, the idea of the smoke going up “in the sight of the  holy angels and the lamb.” I don’t know if this is to be taken literally, but the ideas behind it are justice and vindication. Here on earth, the Lamb is blasphemed, and his followers persecuted while people either approve, or do nothing. In Revelation 14:9-11, that situation is reversed. The point of it is to show us that at the end, the name of Jesus will be vindicated, and his followers will  be proven right.

However, we need to know that what these verses say in general about hell are perfectly consistent with what the rest of the Bible clearly teaches about hell. So, what does the Bible say about hell?

It is interesting to note that there is one person in the Bible who talks about hell more than all of the other Biblical writers put together. That person is Jesus Christ. Jesus spent a surprisingly large amount of time talking about hell. Here’s a summary of what he (and the rest of the Bible) says:

  1. Hell is a place of real torment. The most common metaphors for the suffering of hell are those of fire, weeping, gnashing of teeth, and darkness:

43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (ESV) Mark 9:43-48

41The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather from His kingdom everything that causes sin and those guilty of lawlessness. 42They will throw them into the blazing furnace where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 13:41-42, HCSB)

10Hearing this, Jesus was amazed and said to those following Him, “I assure you: I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith! 11I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 8:10-12, HCSB)

The fire and darkness and gnashing of teeth may or may not be literal. But the point is clear: Hell is a place of torment. There are dozens and dozens of other verses that describe hell as a place of torment, including our passage for today.

  1. Hell is forever.

41Then He will also say to those on the left, ‘Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels! (Matt 25:41, HCSB)

43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ (ESV) Mark 9:43-48

These are the ones who are like dangerous reefs at your love feasts. They feast with you, nurturing only themselves without fear. They are waterless clouds carried along by winds; trees in late autumn — fruitless, twice dead, pulled out by the roots; wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shameful deeds; wandering stars for whom the blackness of darkness is reserved forever!  (Jude 1:12-13, HCSB)

Once again, this is just a small sample of verses that describe hell as eternal. In addition to the explicit verses, we have logic. We believe that God and Heaven exist outside of time. When we leave this life, we will step outside of time, and be “in eternity” so to speak. It isn’t just a long, long time. It is a whole different plane of existence. Hell also appears to exist outside of time. It is logical that it belongs to the same kind of eternity. Hold on to that thought, because the implication is mind blowing in regard to what Jesus Christ suffered on our behalf.

Some people object to hell in this way: “How,” they say, “can even lifetime of sinning – 70-80 years – merit an eternity of punishment?”  This is a very helpful question, and it helps us to understand exactly why hell is what it is. To get a handle on it, let’s think about crimes in the physical realm. A murder using a gun takes only one second to commit. Should the person who does so only go to jail for a second? Of course not. What about kidnapping? Suppose a kidnapper takes someone for just two days. Should he only serve two days in prison? Of course not.

We recognize that the time it takes to commit a crime is not a measure of its evil. But what is the measure of a crime? On what basis do we decide how to punish criminals? Let’s answer that with a though experiment. Suppose there was a society which said, “A murderer need not stay in prison so long. One or two days is enough.” What would we think? What conclusions could we draw about that culture? The obvious conclusion is that a culture which says that murder does not deserve severe punishment is a culture that does not value human life.

Do you see now? The punishment for a crime is a measure of how precious the thing was that was violated by the crime. This is true even when the crime was only attempted. If someone attempts to commit a crime of graffiti, but fails, there is no punishment. But what if someone attempts murder, but fails? They still go to prison for many years. Even attempted murder is striking at the heart of something precious: human life.

Now what if there was something even more precious than human life, something infinitely valuable, infinitely precious and good? If someone commits a crime against this infinite good, the most precious thing in all the universe – shouldn’t the punishment show how precious this good thing is? Shouldn’t  a crime against infinite good be punished with infinite punishment? If your answer is “no,” then you do not really believe in something that is infinitely good.

Let’s consider the nature of God. God is the ultimate good, the ultimate beauty, the ultimate wonder, joy and perfection in the universe. When God makes a judgment, or decision, there is nothing higher than Himself to which he can appeal. He is the Law. He is the ultimate authority. We say God is good, that he is righteous. What that means is that he is unwaveringly committed to uphold the value of what is infinitely valuable. What is infinitely valuable? His own glory. There is nothing better than him, nothing more valuable than him. As popular author John Piper puts it:

“God has no constitution or legal code outside himself by which to measure what is right and good in his own thinking and feeling and doing. It must be measured by himself. What then is righteousness in God? God’s righteousness is his devotion to, his allegiance to, his absolute unwavering commitment to stand for, and uphold, and vindicate, that which is infinitely valuable: Himself. If he for one millisecond diverted from his passionate, infinitely zealous cause of holding up his glory, he would be unrighteous, and unworthy of our worship.”

–John Piper The Echo and The Insufficiency of Hell (July 13, 2017).

So, if something strikes against the heart of God – who is infinitely good, infinitely precious – shouldn’t the punishment reflect the crime? That is exactly what is happening with hell. The crime is against the infinite good that is God himself. God’s character is infinitely precious. By our sins, we are attacking his character, violating the heart of this precious thing, as if to destroy it (if we could).

If God is infinitely good, infinitely glorious, then to sin against him is infinitely evil. And to say that a loving God would never send anyone to eternal punishment is to say that God himself is not eternally valuable.

We do not stop there. Now we come to stunning, unimaginable love of God. At the moment of Jesus Christ’s death, the whole land was cast into darkness, and he cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

These things reveal what was happening to Jesus on the cross. Throughout his whole ordeal, Jesus never cried out about being whipped, or being deserted by his friends. This cry was not about physical or psychological pain. This is about hell. When Jesus took upon himself the punishment for our sins, he was “cast out into outer darkness.” He spent not 36 hours in hell, but an eternity. Hell isn’t bound by time, so when Jesus “went to hell” he experienced the eternal rejection of God the Father. He experienced an eternity of suffering. If that is what our sins deserve, and Jesus paid for our sins, then that was the price he paid. Not only that, but Jesus experienced an eternity of suffering for each person who ever lived!  There is more here than we can fully understand, but this is one reason it had to be Jesus who paid for our sins. Since he is eternal and infinite himself, he was able to suffer more than any created creature possibly can.

You see what I mean now, that hell shows us how shockingly extravagant is God’s love for us?

So, if you deny the Biblical doctrine of hell, not only do you say that God is not infinitely precious, you also say that Jesus is not infinitely loving.

Without hell, Jesus suffered 33 years of human burdens that he didn’t need to have. Then he suffered about 18 hours of intense physical pain, followed by 36 hours “just dead.” Sure, that’s pretty amazing too, but it is hardly infinitely loving.

So, our text today is not only describing what happens to those who reject the infinite preciousness of God, it also shows the magnificent extremes of his love for us. Not only that, but no one must go to hell – that was the point of Jesus’ incredible and ultimate suffering. So, when someone rejects this extravagant love, it is a spiteful evil of unbelievable proportion. The punishment of hell for someone who  rejects such precious love is one that fits the crime.

Hell itself cannot help but show the preciousness of God and depths of his love.

I want to add one final thought. In all that I have shared, what I want you to focus on is not the horror of eternal suffering, but rather, the infinite preciousness of God, and the magnificent extravagance of his love for you. Hell might scare you away from the wrong direction, but it cannot lead you to heaven. For that, you need the love of God. I hope this message has given you a deeper appreciation for it. Spend some time meditating on it right now.

LOVE CHANGES THE BELOVED.

Love Changes

Imagine that my sister is a drug addict. Precisely because I love my sister, I will move heaven and earth to try and help her change. Because I love her, I am not content to “accept her as she is.” Love desires the best for the beloved. That is why God is not content for us to live our own lives on our own terms; that is not the best thing for us, not even close. Because of God’s love for us, our best good has become fully intertwined with God’s best good.

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EPHESIANS 2:1-10

If I could use only one chapter of the Bible to summarize Christianity, it would be Ephesians chapter 2. Everything is here. It is Christianity 101. But one of the challenges of that is that it’s so “big.” I grew up in the country of Papua New Guinea. It’s an amazing place, and pretty much unlike anywhere else in the world. When I was younger, and people found this out, they would say, “What was that like?” I understand the kind spirit behind the question, but frankly, it was unanswerable. Growing up in New Guinea was my entire life, it formed who I am today. There were many things about my childhood that affected me profoundly; I had many remarkable experiences, and traveled more in my first 18 years than many people travel in a lifetime. If I hadn’t grown up there, I would be a very different person than I am now.

So, usually I answered the question by saying, “It was nice.”

But this Ephesians passage is like that. It is everything. The truth that is here has a deep, and profound effect on those who believe it. It forms who we are today. There is no way that I can do it justice. In the short time I have here. But I approach this passage, as always listening for what the Holy Spirit might want to draw out at this moment in time.

About 500 years ago, this verse, and a few others like it, shook Western civilization to its foundations. One of the men who was involved in that process was Martin Luther. Luther used to talk about the tensions in the Christian faith as if it were like riding a horse. It takes a certain physical grace to keep your balance on a horse. Some people fall off the right side, and others the left. (I myself, when I was young, managed somehow to fall off the back of a horse, but that story is irrelevant to my point here).

The left side of the horse is where we essentially take God’s love for granted. Of course God loves everyone – that’s part of what it means for him to be God, right? “Because God loves me,” (say the left-siders), “it doesn’t matter at all how I behave. I have a free ticket to heaven, so I can live however I want to, here on earth. God’s love is so great, that he doesn’t really care. He just wants to affirm me as I am.”

In our culture today, if there is one thing that most people believe, it is that every person should be the best version of themselves that they can be. To make it personal, I should try and best me that I can be. God made me, and so he wants me to be me. Since he made me, and loves me, everyone should just accept me how I am, and not try to change me, or put rules or restrictions on my behavior. But if this is how you think, I believe you haven’t yet understood what love is all about. Real love does not accept the beloved with no desire for change. Real love desires the best for everyone, and that usually means change.

Let me give you an example. Suppose a friend of my cousin is a drug addict. As a drug addict, my cousin’s friend is harming his body. He is destroying his relationships. He is ruining his financial future. He is inexorably deteriorating physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. If I find out about this concerning someone I don’t know – like my cousin’s friend – I may say, “Gee, that’s too bad.” But honestly, I’m not particularly motivated to make sure that that person changes. Do I except my cousin’s friend as he is, because I love him? No, in fact it’s almost the opposite. It is because I don’t care about him that I’m content to let him be “who he is.”

Now, imagine that the drug addict is not my cousin’s friend, but my own sister. Precisely because I love my sister, I will move heaven and earth to try and help her change. Because I love her, I am not content to “accept her as she is.” Love desires the best for the beloved. That is why God is not content for us to live our own lives on our own terms; that is not the best thing for us, not even close.

Listen to how Paul describes our situation apart from Christ:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins 2 in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient. 3 We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. (HCSB Free. Ephesians 2:1-3)

I want to make sure that we don’t skim over verse two. The “ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient,” means demonic forces, possibly the devil himself. Apart from Christ we are pawns of the devil. Either we belong to the kingdom of God, or we are in deep trouble. We are most certainly not okay as we are.

Sometimes Christians get the sense that once they are saved, they have a ticket for heaven and now they can live however they want to live until it’s time for them to go to heaven. That too, is the attitude from the left side of the horse. That too, is wrong. The deeper we get into this, the more you’ll see that, but I will just say that the end of this passage is in contrast with the beginning. In the beginning, apart from Christ we were “walking” in sin and trespasses. By walk, or walking, Paul simply means our way of life. But at the end, once we are redeemed in Christ, saved entirely by his grace, there is more. Still continuing on by grace (not by works). God has prepared good works for us to “walk in” (verse 10). So we are to go from living in a way that is contrary to God’s loving desire for us to a way of life that God has prepared for us, a way of life that brings honor and glory to himself.

But we don’t get there on our own. Remember the horse? We’ve been talking about the left side. The right side of the horse is to put too much emphasis on what you do for God. In Martin Luther’s time, everyone was falling off the right side. Almost everyone believed that they would be saved by being good people and doing good things. That might sound OK, at one level, right? I mean, it means people will try to behave well, and that’s good thing. But people who are trying to justify themselves are ultimately people who will hurt others in order to help themselves. They are under tremendous pressure to perform right, and to judge how well they are doing. Very few people can avoid also judging how everyone else is doing. People start making up rules so that they can know that they are “safe,” and they quickly become harsh and unloving.

Luther’s great task in life was to show those people that they were wrong, that God’s grace, as this passage teaches, has nothing to do with our efforts. Not only do our good works accomplish nothing, but apart from Christ, our good works are energized by the devil. That’s a scary thought. Sometimes, in our pluralistic society, we can sort of think that people who don’t trust Jesus are kind of in neutral territory. I hope that we Christians often meet people who think and believe differently than we do, and I hope we can be respectful and kind and loving to them. But we need to be very clear about what the Bible says here: there is no neutral ground. Now, let me be clear: we should never imagine that other people are the enemy. But they do live under the influence of the enemy. Either we belong to the kingdom of God, or we walk “according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient (2:2). Apart from God, we have no hope of actually being morally good, because there is no moral good apart from God.

This is offensive to those who fall off the right side of the horse, but it is what the Bible says. The text says, “you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” A corpse can’t “try hard.” A dead person can’t “do the best he can.” No, if you are dead, your actions are taken completely out of the picture, because a dead person can’t do anything. There is nothing we could possibly do for ourselves, spiritually. We don’t “do our best and God does the rest.” God does it all. We can’t do our best. Our ‘best’ is sin and gratifying the desires of our corrupt nature. Our ‘best’ results in us being used as pawns of the devil. “Doing our best” is ridiculous, because a dead person can’t do anything, and we were spiritually dead. Now, bearing that in mind, look at what Paul says next:

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, 5 made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! 6 Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, 7 so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Now, I want to make sure we understand God’s grace fully. Let me start by taking human beings down a peg or two. (I am going to say “you,” but please understand, I include myself in this.) Life is not about you. Once again, this is in contrast to our culture, which is all about people being the “best authentic selves” that they can be. Self-fulfillment is a by-product of trusting God, but it should never be our goal. God does not exist to help you become a fulfilled person. He does not exist to fix the people around you, or to make your circumstances better. If God is, in fact, God, than the Supreme Good in the Universe is Himself. If He is the best and most wonderful thing in existence, than it is only right that he should seek to please Himself, to glorify Himself. There is nothing better than him, no greater good than His own pleasure. So, just as we should seek to honor and glorify God because he is the Highest Good, so he should seek to bring honor and glory to himself – for the same reason. That is God’s focus. That is His continual, ongoing activity. We are not necessary to God’s happiness, nor to his glory.

But here is the amazing part: he has chosen to bring glory to Himself by being gracious and kind to us in Jesus Christ. We are part of God’s plan to glorify Himself; we are part of God’s plan to please himself. In his love, he has made us part of the best thing in the Universe. We get to be a part of this highest, best good. That means, it becomes part of the best thing in the universe for us to be saved by Jesus. Our best good has become wrapped up in God’s best good.

Imagine a billionaire who wants the world to see him as a kind, generous man. So, he buys two square miles of slum in the worst part of the city. He tears down all the houses, and builds a resort-style complex, and then settles all the former slum dwellers into million-dollar homes there. The billionaire might be building this for selfish reasons, but there is no way that the result is actually selfish. He has chosen to make the well-being of poor people necessary to his own sense of self as a generous person. He does this not because the poor people have pleased him, but rather, because it pleases himself to do it, and to have others see it.

That is a little bit like God, except that, because he is God, it is good and right for him to please himself. But he didn’t have to include us in that plan – he just did, because he is so gracious, kind and loving.

So, we need to fully understand what we do contributes nothing to our salvation and cannot earn God’s approval and grace. Those things have already been given freely to us and we receive them simply by believing and trusting that God has given them to us in and through Jesus Christ. That’s it – no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.”

With that firmly understood, let’s go back to the good works I mentioned earlier:

For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

Being a part of God’s plan to glorify himself means that he has prepared good works for us to walk in. These are not good because we do them, but rather because God has already set us up to do them.

Let me explain it like this. Consider a family that has adopted a baby. The child belongs to the family for one reason only – the family loves her, chose her and wants her. There is nothing that a tiny baby could possibly do to earn that love. It starts with the love of her parents, long before she can ever return that love. This is how it is with us and God. After all, we already saw in Ephesians 1:5 that,

“In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ in accordance with his pleasure and will…”

Now think about an adopted child again. As she grows older, she will start to behave in certain ways simply because she has already been adopted. She may hug and kiss her mommy and daddy. She’ll come running to them with her fears and problems. This adopted child will probably grow up speaking like others in her family. She’ll fight and forgive and love her brothers and sisters. Her parents will train her concerning the rules, and will have to discipline her at times, and at times she’ll have to adjust her behavior. She will do these things, not to try and get into the family, but rather, because she is already in it.

Can you imagine a little boy who cleans his room daily, is always kind to his brothers and sisters, mows the lawn and fixes supper twice a week? I can’t either. But just suppose there was. Suppose his parents asked him why he did these things, and his response was: “Well, I want to get into this family. I want you to love me, and I know if I don’t do these things you won’t love me and I can’t be part of the family.” That would break the heart of any parent. We don’t accept our children on the basis of what they do for us. We accept them and love them because they are ours.

Consider it from another angle. Imagine there was a boy from another family who came over to your house and washed the dishes, cleaned the rooms and spoke to you respectfully. Would you, simply because he behaves well, adopt him as your own child? Of course not. Good behavior is not enough to make someone part of your family. It would be ridiculous if it were.

So, we are God’s children. There are certain things that the Lord wants us to do. There are certain behaviors he would like us to either change or start doing. But we do these things because God has already adopted us. We do them because that’s part of what it means to be in this family. There is no way that we can get into the family in the first place by trying to act like family members. We are adopted by God’s choice. “Doing” is a result of our adoption, not the cause of it.

In fact, we are God’s creation (not our own) and he has created certain things for us to do. There is a stunning truth about our good works: they aren’t ours anyway. God has already prepared in advance the good things he wants you to do. You see, when God made you, he had already planned certain things he wanted you to do.

God has worked for years to bring you to the place in your life where you are now. He created you and at the same time he created the opportunities for you to do certain things that only you can do. The Bible says that God formed your inmost being and put you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-16). The Lord told the prophet Jeremiah this:

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart for my holy purpose.” (Jeremiah 1:5, God’s Word version).

Those words are not just for Jeremiah – they are for you too. You are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works that he has already set up for you to do. You are unique, and the good works that you are to do are also prepared by God uniquely for you.

Now, we can take this uniqueness a bit too far sometimes. It would be ridiculous to say – “well, I was not uniquely created to do the good work of obeying the commandment, ‘do not lie.’ Honesty is just not one of the good works I was created for.” No, because we are in the family, there are certain “good works” that are common to everyone. In other words, God created all of his children for the good work of honesty, and the other things in the ten commandments. Scripture is in fact very clear about the good works that are common to all believers in Jesus.

But there are good works uniquely prepared for you to do. Those things, also, are to show off God’s glory. We used to walk – to live our lives – in sins and transgressions, under the influence of the devil. Now, through God’s incredible grace, we are included his plan to glorify himself. You have a place. You have a purpose. You, as you trust in Jesus and walk in the good works he puts in front of you, are bringing glory to God. You, by God’s grace, are a part of God’s glory. I know you don’t always feel that that is true. But we are called to believe God’s Word (the Bible) even more than our own feelings. He says it is true. Rest in it. Do not sell yourself short, or undervalue your worth in Christ Jesus.

By the way, we do those good works not through striving, but through trusting. The more we believe what these verses say the more room the Lord has to work in and through us. Trust him, he will fulfill his plan to make you part of the best purpose in the universe. Thank him for his grace. And stay on that horse!