COLOSSIANS #19: BAD NEWS, AND GOOD NEWS

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The gospel is made up of two parts: Bad news, and good news. The bad news is that there is something fundamentally wrong in every human heart. If you don’t believe this, just read or watch the news. The stuff that makes the world a scary and bad place is also inside of you and me. If we don’t believe this, we don’t believe the gospel.

The good news is that Jesus Christ has made a way to take care of that deep and universal human problem. His actions, his death and resurrection, are the only way to bring evil to justice, and, at the same time, save those who want to be saved. If we don’t believe this, we don’t believe the gospel.

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Colossians #19. Colossians 2:13-15

 Colossians 2:13-15 provides a clearly laid out message. There are two pieces to it: 1. Our situation. 2. What God did about it. You could picture it like this:

US GOD
Dead Made us Alive with Christ
In trespasses (sins) Having forgiven our trespasses
In the uncircumcision of our flesh Canceled the written code with its requirements
Nailed our sins and the written code to the cross
Disarmed spiritual forces of evil
Put the evil spiritual forces to shame
Triumphed over evil through Jesus

This is the gospel in a nutshell. We need to trust the truth of both sides of the equation. We believe that we are dead apart from Christ, that we are sinners who have no way to make good with God. If you looked up the record of good and bad in our hearts (not just in our outward behavior) we would stand officially condemned. If everyone could see into our hearts, no one would call us truly good. If you still think that somehow you can please God yourself, then you don’t believe the gospel. If you think “I’m no worse than most people, so I’m probably OK,” you don’t believe the gospel. The power that makes some people serial killers and rapists lives inside of each human heart. We might control it better than criminals, but it is in there.

After WWII, the Allies held trials in order to bring to justice the Nazi’s who had done such horrific things to Jews and others. At one such trial they brought in a Jewish man named Yehiel Dinur to testify. He saw the Nazi Adolf Eichman sitting in the defendant’s chair, and broke down into uncontrollable sobs. Everyone thought that seeing the Nazi had brought back the terrible memories and losses suffered by Dinur. But Dinur explained. He said when saw Eichman sitting there, looking so ordinary, he realized that the same horrific evil that lived inside of Eichman lived also inside himself. He realized that all humans, given the right circumstances, were capable of such atrocity. In believing this, Dinur was right in line with both the Jewish and Christian faiths. The Old Testament teaches us that human evil is universal:

5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5, ESV)

 9 Who can say, “I have made my heart pure;
I am clean from my sin”? (Proverbs 20:9, ESV)

9 The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV)

The New Testament affirms it as well. Romans 3:10-18, quoting several Psalms, says this:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18, ESV)

Also from the same chapter of Romans:

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23, ESV)

John puts it plainly several times in his first letter:

8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8, ESV)

10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:10, ESV)

So, if we believe that we are basically OK, we don’t believe the gospel. In this day and age, a lot of people like to focus on the aspects of the gospel that lead us to help others. That’s good, and we should look for ways to serve other people. But if we think that is all it’s about – just being kind, and helping out where we can – then we don’t believe the Bible and we don’t understand the gospel. The evil of sin lives inside of every human heart, and we are powerless to remove it for ourselves, though we often dress it up, and hide it well. If you don’t believe me, just go find any normal news site, and you will see how pervasive and universal and damaging and disgusting is human sinfulness.

In some ways, sin is like a virus. Take for example Coronavirus-19. Some people get it, and have very few symptoms. Others have it, and die from it. Even if you have few or no symptoms, you are a carrier of the disease, and you might pass it on to someone else, and that person will die from it. Though it may not affect you as much as someone else, it is the same disease. Sin is like that, but it is worse, because it might lie dormant within you for years, and then, if you relax your vigilance, suddenly rise up within you and lead you to ruin your life and those of others around you.

I’ve lived a pretty good life, outwardly. But I know that inside me are lust, and rage, and self-centeredness, and pride. I can hide them, but I can’t eliminate them by myself, and I know I am capable of doing some awful things, and capable of hurting those I love. If I gave myself permission to give in to my impulses, it wouldn’t be long before others could see more of the dirty muck of sin that lives inside of my flesh.

If you don’t believe that sin is real, and that it is a terrible problem for you personally, and for the world generally, than the good news about Jesus will not be particularly good news. Jesus came to save us. If we don’t believe we need to be saved, we might think it’s a nice gesture, but it really doesn’t mean that much to us. So we must understand and accept this first part of the gospel. We must recognize that we need to be saved from the sin that lives within us, and we must want to be saved from it. In addition, we need to recognize that we cannot save ourselves. Many people, both believers and unbelievers alike, have the mistaken impression that Christianity is all about behaving well so God loves us. That is absolutely false. True Christians know that they are sinful, and utterly lost without Jesus. True Christians know that they aren’t better than anyone else. They know that even if they are no worse than anyone else, that is not good enough. The sin and selfishness that live inside of us separate us from God and true goodness.

There is a second half to the gospel. Just as we don’t believe the true gospel unless we accept that sin is a huge problem that we cannot overcome, so we must also accept and trust the second part: Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has paid the price for our sins, and through that, has obtained eternal life for us. Jesus, and what he did for us, are the only way we can be made right with God and receive eternal life.

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

10 All who believe in the Son of God know in their hearts that this testimony is true. Those who don’t believe this are actually calling God a liar because they don’t believe what God has testified about his Son.
11 And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life. (NTL, 1 John 5:10-12)

Some people say, “Why can’t God just sort of wave his hand, and say, “forget about it?” If no one is really capable of measuring up, why not just change the standard? Let’s start with this thought: Imagine someone raped you (guys can be raped, as well as women). Or maybe someone did that to a person that you love. Why can’t you just wave your hand, and say “forget about it?” Not so easy, is it? Instinctively, deeply, something inside of us cries out for consequences to evil, for justice.

Let me give you an analogy. Suppose your house is somewhat close to the street. One night a woman gets drunk, and rams her truck right into the middle of your living room. Your outside and inside walls are in shambles. You have three broken windows. Some of your furniture is trashed, and a piece of artwork is ruined. One of your pets was killed. And the drunk woman was driving without insurance. Now, you aren’t going to leave your house this way. It has to be fixed in order for you to live there. So somebody has to pay for the damage. You can wave your hand and say “forget about it,” but that doesn’t change the fact that the damage has to be repaired, and it costs a fair amount. That cost has to be covered by someone. If you were to truly forgive the woman for her drunken accident, it would mean you pay. Forgiveness says: “I will pay the cost for something that is your fault.”

This is exactly what God did for us in Jesus. The damage caused by the sin that lives in every one of us is death and hell. That is what it costs. By the way, that is one reason the world so often looks like it is going to hell – because it is. But Jesus stepped in and said “I will pay.” He suffered death, and he suffered the torment of hell, so that we don’t have to. He gave us life when our future was death. He paid the price that we were obligated to pay. In doing so, he triumphed over the forces of evil which encourage us in our sins and evil behavior.

If Jesus did all this for us, then why doesn’t the world look better than it is? There is a “catch,” if you want to call it that. We can’t hold on to our sins; we can’t keep living for ourselves, and also, at the same time, receive what God offers. One cancels out the other. So we need to turn away from living for our desires and pleasures, turn away from the sin that lives inside of us, and also the individual sins that we commit, and turn toward God. That is called “repenting.” By the way, this is a lifelong process, and no one does it perfectly. We fall down as go forward, but at least we are now moving forward toward God, not away from him.

Next, we receive what Jesus did for us – that is we trust that it is true, and we act like it is true. People generally act according to what they truly believe: that is why faith is so important. There are many ways our faith can be strengthened: First, by thanking God for what he has done for us. Next, reading the Bible, praying, listening to Bible teachers, “doing life” with other believers, listening to music that uplifts us, maybe even using ancient prayers and ceremonies written by other believers. I guarantee one thing: if we don’t take steps to maintain and strengthen our faith, it will most likely get weaker, because the world around us is mostly influenced by those who don’t believe.

One reason the world remains a crazy place is because many, many people reject the forgiveness and grace offered by Jesus. They would prefer to be the Lord of their own lives. When we do that, human beings generally make a mess of things, and so, things are a mess. If you want to go back to “the car-crash in the living room” analogy, imagine a very kind, very rich person stepped in and said: “I’ll pay to have this fixed. But I want you trust me. I made my first million as an architect, and if you let me pay for this, I’ll rebuild it better than it has ever been.” But many people are too proud to admit their need for help, or they don’t want someone else involved in designing their life, so instead, they live with a gaping hole in their living room, with broken glass and ruined furniture, because at least that way they remain in control. Though, of course, they aren’t really in control – that’s an illusion. There is an unimaginable number of things that we cannot control. As Jesus put it:

27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (Matthew 6:27, ESV)

The whole paragraph of what Jesus says there is useful to our discussion:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25-33, ESV)

The key is at the very end: seek first the kingdom of God. In other words, don’t first seek what you want, or what you believe you need; instead, start with seeking God and his kingdom. When our priorities are straight in that way, everything else false into place.

We start that seeking journey with the process I have just described: repenting of our sins, and trusting in the incredible love and grace of God. We can know that God is loving and gracious toward us because of what Jesus did for us. If we learn to treasure Jesus above all else, no matter what life throws at us, we can be secure.

Revelation #16 THE GOSPEL CONQUERS!

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The seals begin with a picture of the gospel going out and “conquering.” Before the end, the gospel will be proclaimed to every tribe, language and nation. We Christians are destined to be a part of that.

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evelation #16. Revelation 6:1-2

So far, most of what we have studied in the book of Revelation is reasonably clear. Going forward, we enter the parts of the book that are less clear. There are many different possible interpretations for some parts of Revelation, and it isn’t always obvious which is the best. I want to stress that compared to the rest of the Bible, this is unusual. Most of the Bible is not too difficult to understand. We may find layers of meaning, or various nuances in some passage, but the basic message of most of the Bible is not in doubt, and it is not up for debate. This is one reason that many preachers do not use the book of Revelation – it is unusually obscure. In my introduction, I have already shared the various approaches to interpreting Revelation. As we go on, I will try to briefly share the most reasonable perspectives, and then focus on the interpretation that I find most helpful. Occasionally I will also share poor interpretations that are very popular, in order to warn you against them. In fact, I will do that today.

With chapter five, we have finished with the second vision of heaven’s perspective, and we now move on to the second major section of the book of Revelation. In chapter five, John introduced the Lamb (Jesus), and the scroll sealed with seven seals. Now, the Lamb (Jesus) breaks each seal. The first four seals result in a horseman appearing, and going out into the world.

We should keep in mind that these verses, as with much of Revelation, are symbolic “word-pictures,” not literal. John did not mean us to think that an actual horse will come out of heaven, with an actual riders. The horses and riders stand for something else.

There is debate about whether the seven seals are in fact a description of the end of all things, or if they are just preliminaries: the opening battle in a long war, so to speak. I tend toward the idea that the seven seals represent, for the most part, “the beginning of the end.” In other words, I suspect that these are things that take place before the real “end times.” One reason I think this way is because of how I interpret the first seal.

The first seal reveals a white horse. Its rider has a bow, a crown and is sent forth to conquer. The horse that is next after the white one is red, and it is the horse of war. It takes peace from the earth. This gives us a bit of a problem. You would think that the first horse, “conquest” would take peace from the earth, and create war. So these first two horses appear to be almost the same thing. The distinction between conquest and war is very, very small. So what are we supposed to learn from this?

Let me begin by offering you an interpretation with which I disagree, though I think it is quite reasonable: The horse and rider represents a time of conquest. The horses that follow represent widespread war, famine and death, resulting from the ambitions of those who seek to conquer. This could very well be the right understanding of the first seal; in fact, if my preferred idea is wrong, this would be my second choice.

There is another popular interpretation that I don’t care. In this other view, the white horseman represents a single person who will seek to conquer the entire world. Some with this view take it even farther, and suggest that this person is also the antichrist. Revelation was written in Roman times, and in those days, the great threats to the Roman empire were in the east. The Parthians in the east were renowned bowmen. Therefore, the people with this interpretation believe that this conqueror/antichrist will come from Iran or Romania, or from somewhere else in the territories once controlled by the Parthians. I think that this is unlikely to be the correct interpretation. I share this with you, however, because it is very popular idea, and I want to warn you against it. This interpretation relies on many assumptions that go far beyond the actual text. Clearly, none of the other three horsemen are meant to represent actual individual people, so why should this one? There is no mention of the antichrist in the text, so why make that assumption? There is no suggestion as to where the horseman comes from, other than that it is sent by God, so why decide it should come from the ancient realms of the Parthians? The bow is flimsy evidence, at best.

My own interpretation of this text is one that some respected commentators agree with; at the same time, some respected commentators have different ideas. Obviously, I think I’m correct, and I’ll explain my reasoning, but I certainly could be wrong. If I am, I think the first idea I shared above is probably the next best (the idea that ambitions for conquest will lead to warfare, famine and death in the time just before the end times).

I did a little digging into the Greek word for “conquest” (nikao). John uses this word (in various forms) 23 times, throughout his writings. It is found in The Gospel of John, 1 John, and Revelation. Two times this word is used to convey that the power of evil was given a limited amount of time to conquer the people of God. In those instances, that is spelled out clearly. However, every other time John uses it – 20 times – it refers to the people of God overcoming the world, or the powers of evil. In the letters to the seven churches (Revelation chapters 2-3) every single church is given a promise in connection with “conquering.” For example, he says to the church at Ephesus:

7“Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. I will give the victor the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in God’s paradise. (Rev 2:7, HCSB)

“The victor” is a version of this same Greek word, nikao. In other words, it might be better translated: “the one who conquers.” Each of the other seven churches gets a similar promise, using this same Greek word. John also uses this word in connection with the Lamb himself:

And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Rev 5:5, ESV2011)

Outside of Revelation, John uses this word exclusively in connection with Jesus, or his followers, conquering the world:

33I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33, HCSB)

 4You are from God, little children, and you have conquered them, because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1John 4:4, HCSB)

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

In addition, the first horse is white in color. The colors in Revelation are not random. They have significance. The color “white” is mentioned in Revelation 14 times, in addition to this passage. Every single other time, white is associated either with God, or with God’s people. It is the color of Jesus’ hair (1:14); it is the color of the stone promised to the faithful believers in Pergamum; it is the color of the clothing promised to the faithful in Sardis and Laodicea; it is the color of the clothing worn by: the 24 elders (4:4), the faithful martyrs (6:11) and the great multitude of the saved from every nation (7:9). Jesus rides a white horse (19:11) as do the armies of heaven, who also wear white linen (19:14). You get the idea: White symbolizes the purity and holiness of God and his people.

Therefore, I believe “the white horseman who conquers” represents the spiritual victory of God’s people over worldly values and lust, over our own sinful flesh, and over the devil. It represents God’s Word, carried by Christians, going out into very part of the world. It means that before the “end times” begin, Christians will take the gospel to every tribe, language and nation. Jesus, when he spoke with his disciples about end of the world, said this:

9“Then they will hand you over for persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of My name. 10Then many will take offense, betray one another and hate one another. 11Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. 12Because lawlessness will multiply, the love of many will grow cold. 13But the one who endures to the end will be delivered. 14This good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed in all the world as a testimony to all nations. And then the end will come. (Matt 24:9-14, HCSB)

I think the white horseman represents verses 13 & 14 above. It represents the fact that Christians will endure, and be saved, and that the gospel will be proclaimed in all nations. The very beginning of the end is marked by the perseverance of Christians in taking the gospel to the entire world. Later on, Revelation will show us a multitude of Christians from every nation, tribe, people and language. That means that the gospel must be brought to every nation, tribe, people and language before the end can come. This also fits in with the fifth seal. I will talk about it more later, but when the fifth seal is opened, those who have been killed for being faithful to God’s word are told to rest a little longer, until everyone who is going to be martyred has, in fact, been martyred. This implies some sort of work of carrying the gospel into the world, of proclaiming it in places where it is rejected.

So, if this is the case, what is the message for us, today? First, I think it should comfort us. Nothing is going to destroy our faith. We will win the spiritual victory over the world, our own flesh, and the devil. The church will succeed in its mission to take the gospel to all peoples in the world.

Second, I think this should also wake us up to the need for every Christian to get involved in the mission of taking the gospel to every tribe, tongue and nation. Jesus more-or-less said that He will not return to put things right and take us into the New Heavens and New Earth until the gospel is proclaimed to all peoples (Matthew 24:14, above). We trust that God will accomplish his purposes on earth, but we also recognize that he wants to use us to do so. We are supposed to be part of the first seal!

So, does this mean we must all go overseas and become cross-cultural missionaries? Certainly, some people are called to that. But just as certainly, some are called to different ways of spreading the gospel.

One thing that every Christian can do is pray for the gospel to reach every tribe, tongue and nation. Jesus, considering the size of this task, said to his disciples:

37Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is abundant, but the workers are few. 38Therefore, pray to the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.” (Matt 9:37-38, HCSB)

So we can pray for others to be sent. When they are sent, we should continue to uphold them in prayer. We can pray for specific countries and specific groups of people. I think one of the best ways to be involved in Christian missions is for every church (or, if it is a big church, every small group) to help sponsor a missionary. This means praying, giving financially, and reading the missionary’s letters, in order to better support them. Your group may not be able to fully support a missionary, but you could at least provide some resources.

Another way to help the mission of Jesus is to create resources that can be used by others. These sermons of mine that you read have been used to help start churches in the USA, England, Finland, Brazil, Mongolia, Vietnam, India and East Africa. And those are only the places that I know about.

I’ve alluded to this already, but an additional way to help the cause of Jesus is to give financially to missionaries and leaders who are helping to spread the gospel. I think prayer should always be connected to giving, so if you give financially, be sure that you also pray for those to whom you give.

One of the most effective ways of spreading the gospel is to train Christian leaders from among the people who need to be reached. An Indian pastor, ministering in India, will usually be more effective at reaching other Indians than an American pastor. So we can pray for, and support efforts to train such leaders.

Also, you don’t have to be sent as a missionary to tell people of other cultures about Jesus. In every major metropolitan area in the United States you can find people from dozens and dozens of other countries: people of every tribe, tongue and nation. Never has it been so convenient to spread the gospel to all nations. Even in our rural town of thirty-thousand I met a Muslim man from the little country of Guyana (in the Northern part of South America). We were friends for about two years, until he had to return home. While he was here, we talked about Jesus quite a bit. That’s something you may not realize: it’s usually quite easy to talk about Jesus with people from other countries. In fact it’s usually much easier to talk about Jesus with International folks than it is with Americans. Muslims, in particular, are very open to talk about religion. If a person turned to Jesus while living in the United States, they might return home, and begin to spread the gospel in their country of origin. I think Jesus needs people in America who are simply willing to befriend people from other places, and share their lives – and their faith – with them. For those of you in the LTC network, we can provide some training, if you like, but it’s not rocket science. It simply involves befriending people.

Listen to what the Spirit is saying to you today!

THE PROBLEM OF GOD’S LOVE

god's love

If God loves his people so much, what is the problem? Why can’t he just accept them as they are: sins and all, and just love them? If he cares so much, can’t he just overlook our sins? 

You cannot repeatedly ignore and hurt someone, and at the same time have a healthy, loving relationship with them. You cannot have self-respect, and also have a good relationship with someone who consistently treats you poorly. Therefore God’s love, far from making sin OK, is exactly what makes it a huge obstacle in our relationship with him. It is because he loves us that our sin and rebellion hurts him. When we also consider God’s righteous self-respect, we see that he cannot simply say: “It doesn’t matter if you are unfaithful to me. It doesn’t matter if you sin.”

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Download Matthew Part 83

Matthew #83  Matthew 23:37-39

 37“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing! 38See, your house is left to you desolate. 39For I tell you, you will never see Me again until you say, ‘He who comes in the name of the Lord is the blessed One’! ” (Matt 23:36-39, HCSB)

I believe that God inspired the entire Bible, and, aside from a few small copying errors, everything in the Bible was intended by Him, for our benefit. In other words, it is all God’s Word. Even so, there are some parts of the Bible that capture essential truths more clearly and succinctly than others. I believe our text for this time is one place where, in just a few lines, we have the heart of God’s relationship with humankind.

These words of Jesus provide an all-important context to what he has just said, and what he is about to say. He has just spoken very harshly to the religious leaders, in a last-ditch effort to bring them to repentance. After this, he will give them a glimpse of what is coming because of their lack of repentance. But he pauses here, and shows us his heart of love, and tenderness, and also shows us that repentance is not optional.

Jesus sounds like a number of Old Testament prophets at this point. He should, since he is God, and God inspired the prophets to speak. Listen to the appeal that the Holy Spirit makes to his people through the prophets. Hear his love and compassion, and also his unyielding will to make his people holy.

God said through Ezekiel:

11Tell them: As I live” — the declaration of the Lord GOD — “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked person should turn from his way and live. Repent, repent of your evil ways! Why will you die, house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)

Isaiah prophesied:

9  For they are a rebellious people, lying children,

children unwilling to hear the instruction of the LORD;
 10  who say to the seers, “Do not see,” and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right;

speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, 11 leave the way, turn aside from the path,

let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.”
 12 Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel,

“Because you despise this word

and trust in oppression and perverseness and rely on them,
 13 therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach in a high wall, bulging out, and about to collapse,

whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant;
 14 and its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel

that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a shard is found with which to take fire from the hearth, or to dip up water out of the cistern.”

 15 For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel,

“In returning and rest you shall be saved;

in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”

But you were unwilling, 16 and you said,

“No! We will flee upon horses” (Isaiah 30:9-16)

The prophet Hosea said it this way:

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
 2  The more they were called, the more they went away;

they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols.

 3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms,

but they did not know that I healed them.
 4  I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love,

and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,

and I bent down to them and fed them.

 5 They shall not return to the land of Egypt, but Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.
 6  The sword shall rage against their cities, consume the bars of their gates, and devour them because of their own counsels.
 7 My people are bent on turning away from me,

and though they call out to the Most High,

he shall not raise them up at all.

8 How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?

How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim?

My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. (Hosea 11:1-8)

These days, many people are confused about the message of these verses. If God loves his people so much, what is the problem? Why can’t he just accept them as they are: sins and all, and just love them? If he cares so much, can’t he just overlook our sins?

In another place in Ezekiel, (chapter 16) the Lord speaks through the prophet in the form of an allegorical story. God comes along and finds Israel: rejected, abandoned, alone, and left to die. He saves her, and cares for her, and gives her his love and tenderness; he becomes a husband to her. Under his care, she grows beautiful. He clothes her in rich garments, and gives her wonderful shoes, earrings and jewelry. But now, healthy and beautiful, she ignores him, and instead seeks after other lovers. In fact, she has so many other lovers that she might as well be a prostitute, except that she demands no payment for her favors.

Let me ask you this: Do you think the wife has the right to say: “What’s the problem, Honey? You said you loved me, no matter what. Why can’t you just let it go, let me do what I feel like?” Do you think a husband in this situation should “just forgive?”

This woman owes everything she has and is to her husband. He loved her when no one else wanted her. He saved her, and he still loves her. Do you think the fact that he loves her should mean that her faithless behavior is no problem? Should he just overlook her sins, accept her as she is and “let love conquer?” For him, that would mean sitting at home every night, knowing his wife was out having sex with other men. Does that sound like love is “conquering?”

You know that isn’t how love works. It is the very fact that he does love her that makes her behavior a problem. If he didn’t love her, if he wasn’t her husband, it wouldn’t matter to him what she did. But because he does love her, and because she is his wife, her behavior is incredibly hurtful, and it is a huge problem in their relationship. They cannot have a healthy, loving relationship while she behaves in this manner.

You cannot repeatedly ignore and hurt someone, and at the same time have a good relationship with them. But that is what people seem to want to do with God. Some people say things like: “God is love. He loves us all, no matter what we do; therefore, it really doesn’t matter what I do. He’s still going to love me anyway.” In all these verses I shared from the prophets, God’s love is evident. He doesn’t stop loving his people when they sin.

But that does not mean that it is okay to sin. It does not mean that there are no consequences to your sin. It is like saying: “My wife loves me. Therefore, it is not a problem if I commit adultery. She’ll still love me.” In many cases, that is true. A wife does not stop loving her husband the moment she finds out that he has committed adultery. Even so, if he does not repent, change his ways, and try to be a good husband, her love will not be enough to fix the relationship. In spite of her love, if he persists in committing adultery, it will destroy the relationship. Therefore we find that in most of these verses, God’s judgment is also evident.

We would probably say that someone who unconditionally accepts an adulterous spouse has very little self-esteem, and certainly no self-respect. You cannot have self-respect, and also have a good relationship with someone who consistently treats you poorly. If you value yourself, you cannot allow another person to treat you like that. No one is more worthy of respect and esteem than God himself. You might say, in a way, that no one in the universe has more self-respect and self-esteem than God; and that is exactly as it should be, for One who is truly God.

Do you see now why sin is such a major problem? Can you understand that God’s love, far from making sin OK, is exactly what makes it a huge obstacle in our relationship with him? When we also consider God’s righteous self-respect, we see that it is impossible for him to simply say: “It doesn’t matter if you are unfaithful to me. It doesn’t matter if you sin.”

And so, through the prophets, and through Jesus here in this text today, the Lord says this: “I love you. I deeply desire to have a wonderful relationship with you. But you were not willing. Therefore, because you would not repent, you will be forever separated from me.”

That was the message of the prophets to the people Israel. That was the message of Jesus to the religious leaders of his day. “God loves you, but to receive any benefit from that love you must repent; you must stop hurting and rejecting him.”

That is in fact the essence of the gospel. God does love us. His love is unconditional. But because of his love, and because of his Godly self-respect, our sins separate us from him. Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made a way for our sins to be nullified. If we turn from our sins, trusting Jesus, God is delighted to welcome us back into relationship with himself. John put it this way:

5Now this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him. 6If we say, “We have fellowship with Him,” yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth. 7But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1John 1:5-9, HCSB)

I have spoken about repentance many times. Repentance is not perfection. Through Jesus we can be forgiven again and again. But repentance does mean that the direction of our lives is now toward Jesus. It means that we do not usually ignore him, and that we care about pleasing him, because our relationship with him is more important to us than anything else.

Have you experienced this kind of repentance? If you have not, and you want to, let me suggest that you pray for God to give you the gift of repentance. The alternative is not simply a life without God, lived on your own terms. According to Jesus and the prophets, the alternative is that ultimately you will be separated from God, and destroyed by his holiness. I know that people these days don’t like fire and brimstone sermons. But I can’t help believing that it would be extremely unloving of me, if I believe you might spend eternity in hell, to keep silent about it and affirm you as you are. So I say: Repentance is not optional. It is the very love of God that means he cannot simply ignore our sin.

Many of us have repented and received forgiveness through Jesus. But we may get afraid when we fail and fall, and we start to question whether or not we have truly repented. If that sounds like you, my counsel is that you ask God about it. Ask him to show you where you really stand. And then, read the Bible to see what he says about it. For my part, I know that though I fail, I am, however weakly and imperfectly, moving towards God, and not away from him. I know that I’m not holding back some part of myself from him. In short, I know that I am His. And I believe anyone who wants to can also have that same assurance. You don’t have to live in fear, always questioning whether or not you have truly repented. [If you cannot seem to get that assurance, please feel free to email or message me; I’d be happy to help.] As Isaiah said:

15 For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel,

“In returning and rest you shall be saved;

in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)

Let’s allow all of this to sink in now. Let the Holy Spirit continue to speak to you

HOW DO YOU LIVE BY FAITH?

live by faith

Living by faith means we depend upon God; particularly we depend upon his mercy, forgiveness and underserved kindness to us in every situation and on into eternity. It means we depend on him when things are good, and when they are not good. It means we trust even when we don’t understand.

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Download Galatians Part 7
Galatians #7 . Chapter 2:19-21

For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. (Gal 2:19-21, ESV2011)

Last week in our small-group, someone raised this question about trust: How do we do it? It’s a good question. Paul said in the verses we studied last time, that we are justified by faith. We looked at what that means. Now, in these verses, he says that we “live by faith in the Son of God.” So how do we “do” trust? How do we live by faith?

Paul says here that living in faith/trust starts with dying. He says he died to the law. He was crucified with Christ. I think being crucified with Christ means several things. First, that is how God accomplished our justification. When we trust Jesus, we were punished by Christ’s crucifixion. We deserved to die because we cannot meet the holiness standard* (*see last week’s message). So we did die – through Jesus.

Laws only apply to live people. You can’t serve a prison term if you are dead. You can’t obey traffic laws if you are dead. There is no relationship between the law and dead people. So, because we died in Jesus, we are dead to the law. According to the law, we were punished and killed and buried with Christ. So living in faith means we are done with the law. We are done with thinking we can make ourselves holy. We are done with thinking we can earn something from God.

Therefore, part of living in faith, means recognizing that we can’t do anything. We always want God to do things for us. But dying to the law and living in faith means that we can’t get him to do anything for us. Our own resources are useless. There’s no plan, and no back-up plan. We have to abandon ourselves to Him.

I have met people who seem to turn “live by faith” back into a law. They suggest that the reason you don’t have enough money is because you aren’t claiming it by faith. Others might say that if you are sick, it is because you have not claimed your healing by faith. Their idea is this: you must “speak the word of faith” and believe it with all your might; also, you must avoid speaking or thinking words of doubt.

These people frequently says things like this: “I am not accepting this diagnosis of appendicitis. I am speaking against it in the name of Jesus. I claim his healing, and I am believing on Jesus for it.” Then, if they are healed, they chalk it up to their exertion of faith. If they are not healed, and have to have surgery, they think they somehow failed to have enough faith, or maybe they didn’t speak the right promise.

It sounds exhausting to me. In fact, it sounds a lot like living by law. If this is how to “live by faith” then it is still all up to you. If have the right kind of faith and speak the right words and avoid saying things that express doubt about an outcome, then God has to respond by making everything right for you. But if you fail to do these things, then the bad outcome is your own fault. Brothers and sisters, this is just another version of the law. The good news is, it isn’t up to us. But the scary thing is, it isn’t up to us. We can’t control God either by obeying the law or by “speaking in faith.” Living by faith means we allow him to be in control.

We have to depend on his choice of mercy and grace, even when we don’t understand why he makes certain choices. We have to trust that he truly does love us with an unimaginably great love, that he always has our best in mind. We have to trust those things to be true, even when we don’t understand what we are going through in life. Living by faith means we depend upon God; particularly we depend upon his mercy, forgiveness and underserved kindness to us in every situation and on into eternity. It means we depend on him when things are good, and when they are not good. It means we trust even when we don’t understand.

Now, I realize that some people may read this and say, “but you still aren’t telling me how to do it. What do I do?” I am very cautious about giving specifics, because we could easily turn them back to into laws that we think we have to obey to get right with God. If I give you seven steps to living in faith, will you really live by faith, or will you live by those seven steps?

It’s a little bit like gardening. How do you make flowers or vegetables grow? You don’t. You can prepare the soil. You can water the plants. You can plant seeds in places that get the right amounts of sunlight and soil drainage. But you can’t make them grow. Nobody grows anything. We tend to things that grow. But the growth itself is beyond us. All we can do is try to maximize conditions for growth to take place.

Living by faith is exactly like that. You can take advantage of certain things so that you are in a position to live by faith. But the life – according to Paul – is lived by Jesus, not by you. Jesus has to do it. All we can do is maximize conditions for him to live our lives. This is what he means when he writes: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

A friend of mine, and one of my mentors in ministry, wrote this on Facebook this week. It is a specific example of what I am talking about:

“I am experimenting asking Jesus if He wants me to give to those standing at stop signs on street corners. I do not meant to sound spiritual with this. I am seriously asking Jesus what He wants me to do. Sometimes I hear yes, sometimes I hear, you decide, sometimes I hear nothing. The question is not, “What would Jesus do WWJD??” but what does Jesus want me to do? I am learning how to live my life in the kingdom with Jesus as Jesus would live my life if He were who I am.” – Pastor Joe Johnson (emphasis added)

It is no longer Joe who lives, but Jesus who lives in Joe. What Pastor Joe wants, is to let Jesus have the freedom to express himself through Joe’s life. That is what it means to live by faith. It has nothing to do with pleasing God. It has nothing to do with controlling life, or using God to make life work out better. It is about depending on the Lord, so that he can do in you and through what he wants.

So please don’t turn what follows into rules that please God. You can’t please God. Jesus did that for you. You can’t live like Christ. Instead, Jesus Christ uses your life to express his own will and intentions in the world. All we can do is let him – or not.

With all that in mind, here are some things we can do that help us to allow him to live his life more fully through us.

Read the Bible. The bible reveals Jesus to us. If we want to live in dependence on him, it is helpful to know him. Reading the bible doesn’t make you a better person. But it does help you get to know Jesus, and the better you know him, the easier it is to trust him. It isn’t a law or a rule. But it’s hard to trust a stranger. So as you read the bible, Jesus becomes more real, more familiar and trust is easier. The Bible is one of the primary ways, and is certainly the most reliable and important way, that God speaks to you. If you never hear someone talk, it will be hard to get to know him. Reading the bible is like listening to the Lord. Sometimes he says things that we don’t understand, or that seem irrelevant. That is just because we are very young spiritual children. As we grow, we will gradually understand more and more. So regular contact with the bible is for us, what sunshine is for plants. It will cause us to grow. Here are two tips: ask God to reveal himself whenever you read the bible. If you aren’t a big reader, just read a chapter or less at one sitting. Or, get the bible on CD or MP3 and listen to it while you drive. It’s not a law. But it will really help you to live by faith.

Pray conversationally. I have had one long ongoing conversation with God going back to at least 1979. A lot of it is pretty stupid, and from one angle, embarrassing. I remember asking him for things that I am now glad he didn’t give me. I think once I asked him to help me win at marbles. I was playing a kid whose parents were Hindu. I didn’t ask for the kid or his family to become Christians. I just wanted to win his marbles. A lot of my prayers over the years have been like that: childish, selfish and ignorant. A lot of them probably still are. Most of them missed the point. But they had one redeeming quality that overrides all the problems: they were the expression of a life of faith. What I mean is, I was always relating to the Lord. He was always with me. He was there, so I talked to him. I didn’t know Him as well as I do now. I understood Him even less. But I treated him as if he were real and he was with me, and indeed, he was and is. I didn’t have to get it all right. The important thing was, I was constantly living in trust. I wasn’t always living in understanding. I wasn’t always living in external righteousness. But I was living in faith. That’s all he wants. If we live in faith, he can take care of the other stuff. So talk to him. He’s there. Talk to him just like you would any other friend. You can’t get this wrong.

Engage in real relationships with other Christians. Jesus designed the church – the community of those who follow him. He says he is committed to building it. The church is body of Christ, and the Bride of Christ. Jesus says he is with us in a special way when we gather together in his name. So, if you truly want to let Jesus live his life through you, we need to recognize that he really enjoys hanging out with people who are gathered to together to worship him and listen to him. No church is perfect, because we keep getting in the way of Jesus living his life through our lives. But as we truly commit to each other to love each other, in spite of our annoying habits and serious flaws; as we commit to supporting each other as we struggle with life in general and faith in particular, Jesus is with us in a special way. We can learn from each other. Even the flaws and failings of other Christians can be used by Jesus help us to grow. When we stumble the other Jesus-followers around us can help us back to our feet.

By the way, the best place I know of for real, authentic Christian relationships is in small groups of other Christians – fifteen or fewer people gathered together to hang out with Jesus and help each other along.

Music. The first three things to help us live in faith are for everyone. There is no one on earth who would not benefit from all three of those, in terms of getting closer to Jesus. Music isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t do anything for some people. But for a large majority of people, music can help us connect with the life of Jesus in a special way. It doesn’t have to be particularly Christian music either. I know that there is music out there that glorifies violence, or that glorifies and encourages immoral sexuality. Obviously, that kind of thing probably won’t help you to depend upon Jesus in faith. But there are many other songs and musical pieces that can encourage your faith, even if they aren’t explicitly Christian. If you find it helps you feel close to Jesus, make use of it. I suggest that you invite Jesus into your ears as you listen. Say to him, “hey, I love this song. What do you think of it?”

Beauty/Joy. I find my trust in Jesus encouraged by experiences of beauty and joy. I can put myself in a position to experience these things, and thus increase my trust in Jesus. I can’t always have an experience like I want to, but I have discovered certain things that often lift my heart and increase my faith. More often than not, when I am alone at a place of beautiful scenery, I feel closer to Jesus. When I am in the wilderness, I feel it. When I connect with nature through the feel of a fish on the end of my line, I experience a kind of joy and often feel more thankful to Jesus. For some people, they feel it when they exercise. Others get it by building something, or by being with certain people, or by helping folks who need it. Some get it by creating works of art, and others by admiring those works of art. If you start paying attention, you’ll soon learn the kinds of things that are helpful for you.

Christian faith is not a method for getting God to do what you want him to do. It is a life of dependence on Jesus, and learning to let him do what he wants to do through you.

A MATTER OF OPINION?

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A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. – G.K. Chesterton

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Galatians #5. Chapter 2:6-14

This time around, I’d like to take these verse one piece at a time. The overall message from 1:6 to 2:14, is that there is one true gospel, and Paul received that gospel from Jesus Himself, and preaches it to all people, including the Galatians. But within that overall message and context, there are several “lesser” messages that contain a lot of wisdom for us. We need to keep the context in mind, so we don’t mistake what the Bible is actually saying; however, I would like to look at each of these smaller bits of wisdom also.

This whole section is one where it is easy to misunderstand Paul and his attitude. He says the apostles added nothing to his message. He says “what they are makes no difference to me.” He tells us that he refused to bow to pressure about circumcising Titus, and later, rebuked Peter in front of a whole church.

When we read this quickly, we tend toward two opposite extremes. Some people read it and say, “Whoa! Paul is an arrogant little twerp. He has no respect for anything or anyone except himself.” Other people read this and say, “I like this Paul guy. He doesn’t let anybody push him around. That affirms my own attitude. I don’t take crap from anyone, and I’m proud of it.”

But I think both of those views of Paul are misinformed. Let’s look at this carefully. In verse six Paul says:

 Now from those recognized as important (what they really were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism1 ) — they added nothing to me.

It sounds arrogant. But it has nothing to do with personal pride. Paul is actually referencing Deuteronomy 10:17 which says:

For the LORD your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty, and awesome God, showing no partiality and taking no bribe. (Deut 10:17, HCSB)

Paul’s point is this: The apostles hold important positions. But that does not make them, personally, more important to God than anyone else. What God does through the apostles is good and important. But it is God’s work that is important, not the people themselves. Martin Luther, interpreting and applying this verse in his own time said this:

I am not to fear the judge or love the judge; but my fear and my trust are to be in someone else beyond the judge, namely, in God, who is the real Judge. I ought to respect and honor the civil judge, who is the mask of God, for the sake of God. But my conscience dare not repose its trust in his justice; nor dare it be intimidated by his tyranny.

Paul is not advocating disrespect for authority, nor is he even acting disrespectful personally. His point is, people are people, either used by God, or not. The person we ought to fear and obey is the Lord himself. We listen to the apostles not because they are great people, or even because they are apostles, but because the Lord is speaking through them.

In the HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers, there is a junior officer who is reluctant to salute a senior officer whom he disrespects. The senior officer stops and says, “You salute the rank, not the man.” His point is, your respect should be for the military, for its authority. You don’t salute a person whom you have personal feelings about. You salute the ranks that are above you in authority. Paul’s point is actually quite similar. What he respects is the true gospel. The people who bring the gospel are instruments – what is most important is the true message.

More than a hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton said this:

A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.

Paul was not arrogant about himself. He was undoubting and unyielding concerning the truth of the gospel message. These days, we often say of things that we believe, “that’s just my opinion.” Well, of course it is your opinion. Whatever you believe is your opinion. But you are not the important factor here. The important question is this: is it the truth? If the gospel is just your opinion, you’re sunk. Paul says, “personal opinions don’t matter. It doesn’t matter what or who the apostles are, because the gospel is not just their opinion. It came from Jesus himself. What matters is the truth of the gospel.” If it’s true, it’s true, and it doesn’t matter who you are.

It is not arrogant to say “this is the truth.” But it is arrogant in the extreme to say, “this is just my opinion.” Your opinion? Twenty-five thousand ancient, verified manuscripts testify the same gospel message. This is not opinion. Thousands of archaeological discoveries confirm that it is trustworthy even in small details. That is not opinion. The gospel has been believed and taught by billions of people – billions – through two-thousand years of history. Men, women and children from every country on earth have come to see it as truth. From starving peasants in India to rich kings and queens in Europe, humans from every walk of life have put it to the test and believed it. Uncounted miracles have been reported in connection with this gospel. This gospel message has fundamentally transformed cultures. It led to the abolition of slavery in Europe and North America. It was the catalyst for modern democracy. Millions have suffered for holding fast to the gospel message, and hundreds of thousands of people have died for it. And you call it “your opinion?”

Saying “that’s my opinion,” is not humble, it is arrogant. It puts the focus on you, instead of the message. This passage is a call to us in our generation to get beyond ourselves, to stake a claim of unwavering faith on the truth of gospel message. Paul says elsewhere that he is not ashamed of the gospel. We should not be ashamed of it either. Who we are doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who holds to it – the power and reality are in the truth of gospel, not in any person’s opinion of it.

There is a second thing I want to highlight in this passage. Paul says that when he explained what he had been preaching, the other apostles “added nothing to it.” In other words, they agreed that Paul had the true gospel from Jesus. But they did something else. They affirmed Paul’s calling to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Now this was personal, because it was about the role that Jesus wanted to play specifically through Paul. They agreed that Paul had been called to preach this true gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been called to preach it to Jews. Jesus had already told Paul that, seventeen years before. But it was still good for other believers to affirm that they saw what Jesus was doing in Paul.

There are two important things that I draw from this. First, it means that not every Christian has the same calling. Paul was called to the Gentiles, while Peter was called to the Jews. I can’t tell you how many Christians I meet who think that everyone else ought to be doing what Jesus has called them, personally to do. The first Christians did not behave this way. When the church wanted the apostles to get deeply involved in food-distribution for the poor they said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. (Acts 6:2)” In other words, “that is not our calling, and we cannot abandon our calling in order to do it.” The other apostles recognized Paul’s calling. They didn’t say, “Aw shoot, I haven’t been going to the Gentiles, I’m a terrible Christian.” And Paul didn’t say, “You people need to be preaching to the Gentiles – just like I am.” Instead, they recognized that the Lord accomplishes different parts of his work through different people.

But there is a second thing here. The apostles didn’t just say, “OK, well the Gentiles are your thing. See ya in heaven.” Although it wasn’t their personal call, they recognized that it was the call of Jesus on Paul’s life. Therefore, they gave Paul encouragement and affirmation. They supported was he was doing, and agreed that it was from God.

Though people have different callings, we are supposed to support and affirm one another in our callings. No one should be a lone ranger. If you think the Lord has called you to a particular ministry, it is very good and wise to seek affirmation of that call from other believers. And as fellow members of God’s family, we should encourage and support each other in our different callings.

Finally, I want to deal with verses 11-14, where Paul records his rebuke of Peter. Paul has just explained how he went to Jerusalem, and was recognized as an apostle to the Gentiles. Afterward, Peter came and spent some time with Paul and the church at Antioch. He joined Paul in eating with the Gentile Christians, which was against Jewish ceremonial law. Although Peter had preached to non-Jews (Acts 10), he wasn’t used to Gentile ministry. He was used to living as a Jew among Jews. So when some hard-line Jewish people came from the church in Jerusalem, Peter grew nervous about not following the Jewish law, and he stopped eating with the Gentile Christians, and started overtly observing the law.

Paul saw this as threat – not to him, but to the true gospel. It could send the wrong idea to the new Gentile believers. It gave the impression that it was somehow necessary, or at least important, to observe Jewish ceremonial law.

Paul has already been affirmed as someone called to be an apostle to the Gentiles. His deepest concern is the true gospel. So he asserts his authority as an apostle to the Gentiles. This is his own sphere of influence, so to speak, not Peter’s. But more importantly, he asserts the truth of gospel, that doing good works and following laws will not help any person become saved by Jesus.

This context is important, because Paul’s willingness to take on Peter was all about the truth of the gospel. It was not about personal preference or personality clashes. It was about preserving the gospel. Paul was not arrogant. And we can’t use him as justification for acting like a jerk. The bible never says, “don’t take crap from anyone,” and that wasn’t Paul’s attitude. He wasn’t unyielding in his personality or his personal preferences. He was unyielding in holding to the true gospel.

We don’t need to proud or arrogant. We don’t have to refuse to budge on personal issues. Instead, let’s be unwavering in our trust in Jesus.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you through these verses.

NOW THAT’S GOOD NEWS!

good-news

There is no gap for you to make up. There is no fruitless striving for you to do. There are no blessings that you could ever deserve or earn. The good news is, there is nothing we can do, and so Jesus has already done it all for us.

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Download Galatians Part 2
 

GALATIANS #2; GALATIANS 1:3-11

This is as good a time as any to talk about the word “gospel.” When Paul writes “gospel,” he is not really talking about the books written by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John (John’s gospel was probably written after Paul died). The Greek meaning is basically, “message of good news.” As we see it used in the New Testament, it is not just any good news about anything, but rather a specific, established, consistent message: that is, the message about Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has done.

Jews in the time of Paul used to talk about “the Law.” “The Law” was a specific, established message given by God through Moses, who wrote and spoke under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Technically, what Jews call “the Law” (the Torah) is made up of the first five books of the bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). We will talk more later about different ways that the word “law” is used, but for now, it’s helpful to know this.

All of the other books of the Old Testament – those that come after the first five – are called by Jews “the Prophets.” First and Second Samuel, which we have just finished studying, are part of “the prophets.” They too represent a specific, established message given by God through people who wrote and spoke by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

By the time of Jesus, no one would think of changing the Law or the Prophets. The message was already established. Paul sees “The Gospel” as the third and final piece of God’s special revelation to human beings. It is the fulfillment of “the Law,” and “the Prophets.” It is the specific, established message given by God through people who wrote and spoke under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In the case of the gospel, the message completes the law and prophets, and is very good news for human beings.

The point is, in the eyes of the New Testament writers, you cannot change the Gospel. It is as established as the Law and the Prophets. It goes with the Law and the Prophets. If a Jew would be shocked if someone changed the message of Moses, so a Christian should be equally shocked at someone trying to change the message of Jesus Christ.

Paul gives the Galatians the gospel message in a nutshell in his greeting:

3 Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord2 Jesus Christ, 4 who gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.

That’s it: grace and peace are available to us only in Jesus, because he gave himself as a sacrifice for our sins, attaining forgiveness for us, and a restored relationship with God, rescuing us from the devil. We have some additional clues to the kinds of things that Paul preached to the Galatian Christians. In Pisidian Antioch, he said this:

Therefore, let it be known to you, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is being proclaimed to you, and everyone who believes in Him is justified from everything that you could not be justified from through the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38-39, HCSB)

In Iconium, this is what happened:

So they stayed there for some time and spoke boldly in reliance on the Lord, who testified to the message of His grace by granting that signs and wonders be performed through them. (Acts 14:2-3, HCSB)

The gospel is a message of grace. It is good news. Jesus has done for us what we cannot do. Jesus lived a perfect life on our behalf; and Jesus accepted the punishment for sin, on our behalf. Whatever was required from us has been provided by Jesus.

In Lystra the Lord did a miracle through Paul, and healed a lame man. The crowds wanted to make sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas, thinking they were pagan gods. Paul said this:

“Men! Why are you doing these things? We are men also, with the same nature as you, and we are proclaiming good news to you, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and everything in them. In past generations He allowed all the nations to go their own way, although He did not leave Himself without a witness, since He did what is good by giving you rain from heaven and fruitful seasons and satisfying your hearts with food and happiness.” (Acts 14:15-17, HCSB)

His message: turn from these worthless things to the living God. What worthless things? Certainly, their pagan gods. But also this: the idea of offering sacrifices, as if you could actually please God. Paul is saying, “turn from trying to do what has already been done for you. Turn away from the worthless activity of trying to earn something from God. Jesus has already earned everything for you.”

Paul goes on to explain that God gives good things – even to pagans – to show them that he was both real and full of love and grace. You don’t get good things by being good. Instead, you get good things when God chooses to be gracious to you. You cannot earn grace. If you could, it would not be grace. It is God’s free gift, given by His choice, not in response to something you do or don’t do.

So, when Paul writes to these Christians, he is deeply distressed, because he is heard that they are already turning away from this message of grace. Apparently, certain Jewish leaders in the churches were saying something like this: “Yes, Jesus is the messiah. We need to believe that. But of course, we still need to keep the Jewish law. You can’t expect to please God if you don’t follow Jewish rules like circumcision and kosher eating. You can’t have God’s favor unless you are one of God’s chosen people – that is a Jew.”

We don’t have any writings from the Galatians themselves, so we don’t know exactly what they were saying. But it seems that the basic message was what I just shared. Now, as I mentioned before, today, you don’t hear many Christians saying that. But we do have many churches and individuals who seem to preach “a different gospel.”

What are those “different gospels” that we might hear today?

Here’s one: Jesus has done what you cannot do. But he won’t do what you can do. Suppose God is a thousand yards away from you. You, flawed human being that you are, can only move one yard in his direction. So Jesus comes 999 yards to meet you. But if you don’t move that one yard in his direction, you’re screwed, because Jesus won’t do that extra three feet when you are capable of doing that yourself. A lot of churches teach this, without putting it so obviously. I have many friends who were raised Roman Catholic, and many of them experienced something like this. The problem is this: we are always left wondering, “Did I move my full three feet? What if I’m a few inches short?” Practically speaking, you are left still trying to work your way to God. There is still a separation between you and God – and you are responsible to close that gap yourself. You always feel a little guilty, a little unsettled, because maybe you haven’t done quite enough. It doesn’t really matter if the gap is one mile or one yard – if it is up to you to close it, this isn’t good news.

Brothers and sisters, this is not the message of the gospel. Jesus came all the way to get you. You can’t move an inch to meet him, and you don’t have to. There is no part of the gap between you and God that you are expected to close. Jesus has done it ALL. Do not listen to a false gospel. The good news is truly and completely good.

Here’s another false one. Jesus has done it all. Now you are set free to try and live a good life. You’ll fail, of course, but God forgives you because of Jesus, and so you have an infinite number of opportunities to keep trying to get it right.

I read something on Facebook just the other day that captures this idea. Someone mentioned Ephesians 4:17-32 and said:

While it is impossible for us to do we are to work at it daily. When we fail we shouldn’t beat ourselves up nor should we make excuses, just pick ourselves up again and keep trying.

Does that sound like good news to you? It sounds sadistic to me – to have to keep trying to do what both God and I know I will never be able to do. To try and fail infinitely: that sounds discouraging, exhausting and frankly, pointless. It almost sounds like punishment, not forgiveness.

Thankfully, that is not the real gospel either. The real gospel tells me I can’t do a single thing to measure up. Jesus has done all the measuring up for me. I can’t add to what he’s done. I am free from pointless striving. In Jesus I have never sinned. In Jesus I have already done every good, and never failed to do what I should.

Now, in our small-group last week, the question came up: If that’s so, then why are there so many passages in the New Testament that tell to do certain things (like use our money and talents for God) and to not do other things (like getting drunk or committing adultery)?

We will get into that more deeply as we go through the book of Galatians. The short answer is this: if we truly believe the good news and trust Jesus, he lives in us, and our lives will naturally begin to look more and more like Jesus as time goes on. It won’t be us striving – it will be the life of Jesus increasing in power in our lives as we surrender to him and trust him more. If that doesn’t happen, if we never show any improvement, the appropriate response is not to try harder to do the right thing, but to examine whether we really trust Jesus. Those commands in the New Testament are there to help us see if we are really trusting Jesus or not. For instance, in Ephesians 4:17-32, which led to the quote above, people always miss the first part

But that is not how you learned about the Messiah, assuming you heard about Him and were taught by Him, because the truth is in Jesus. You took off your former way of life, the old self that is corrupted by deceitful desires; you are being renewed in the spirit of your minds; you put on the new self, the one created according to God’s likeness in righteousness and purity of the truth. (Eph 4:20-24, HCSB)

You don’t keep trying to do what you can’t. Instead, through faith, you “put on Jesus.” As you trust him, your spirit and your mind are renewed, and as a result, your behavior begins to change. You don’t change your behavior – the Holy Spirit changes it as you trust Jesus and daily.

There’s a final “other gospel” that I want to point out, one that is becoming more and more common in America. That false gospel is something like this: Jesus has forgiven our sins. Because of that, now if we do good works, God will give us blessings in this life. This particular false gospel has two errors. The first is that it puts the focus of our faith on getting blessings in this life. I know far too many people who have been sucked into this. They are focused on getting good finances, good health and good relationships through God. God is just a means to their goal, and their goal is a good life here and now. Paul says this about such people:

If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. (1 Corinthians 15:19)

These folks usually do believe in heaven and are happy enough to think they’ll go there someday. But for now, what they’re really after is good stuff here and now. Faith isn’t about being reunited with God. Instead, it treats God like Santa Claus. If the boys and girls are only good, they’ll get lots of presents. By the way, I think these folks do more to turn other people off Christianity than all the atheist clubs in the world.

The second error is that those blessings are based upon what we do. We earn them. They are not given by God’s grace. This false gospel says if you just believe right, behave right, and speak “in faith,” that means that God has to do what you want him to do. God is a vending machine: you put in good works, and get blessings in return. If you want to gain a lot of followers, that is what you should preach. A lot people do. But Paul says he is not preaching to please people. That isn’t the gospel. The gospel is about our eternal relationship with God. Sometimes he blesses us here and now – certainly more than we deserve. Sometimes he doesn’t.

The real gospel is the message that we are completely and totally dependent on God’s grace, and he has given us that grace fully through Jesus Christ. There is no gap for you to make up. There is no fruitless striving for you to do. There are no blessings that you could ever deserve or earn. As we trust him, he changes us (we don’t change ourselves). And the hope of eternity outshines and dominates the struggles and disappointments we encounter in this life.

I encourage you to receive this message more and more fully each day. And let no one lead you astray to any “false gospel.”