GOING WITH JESUS

go-therefore-feet-walking

The spread of faith in Jesus Christ came about through ordinary Christians who lived their lives in such a way, and spoke about their faith in such a way, that others came to faith also. We don’t have to do any of this alone. We don’t have to do it with our own power, or skill. Obviously, if we are disciples who are in true fellowship with other disciples, we have each other. But even more than that, Jesus promised that will have Him.

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Download Matthew Part 100

Matthew #100.  Matthew 28:16-20

16The 11 disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw Him, they worshiped, but some doubted. 18Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:16-20, HCSB)

This section of scripture is often called “The Great Commission.” One way or another, all four gospel writers record that after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples that he wanted them to spread the word about Him. So Luke writes, at the beginning of Acts:

3After He had suffered, He also presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While He was together with them, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise.

“This,” He said, “is what you heard from Me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, are You restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time? ”

7He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:3-8, HCSB)

Mark has it like this:

15Then He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. 16Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16, HCSB)

And John includes this incident:

21Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 22After saying this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23, HCSB)

I doubt that any of these refer to the same incident. Instead, it seems that after his resurrection, several different times, and in different ways, Jesus told his disciples that they were to continue on with his mission after he left the earth, and that he would empower them with the Holy Spirit to do so, and that His presence would be with them through the Spirit.

This mission was not only for the eleven faithful apostles. Earlier on, Jesus sent seventy of his followers on a smaller mission, preparing them for the time when they would have the opportunity to share the full good news (Luke 10:1-12). Almost immediately after Jesus left the earth, we find not only the apostles, but other Christians as well, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Stephen, who was not one of the twelve, shared it so boldly that he became the first Christian martyr. After his death, the Christians in Jerusalem were scattered by persecution, but even as they left their homes, they brought the good news to other places:

4So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of good news. (Acts 8:4, HCSB)

Mostly, they spoke to other Jews, but eventually, they began sharing with the culture at large:

19Those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one except Jews.

20But there were some of them, Cypriot and Cyrenian men, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Hellenists, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21, HCSB)

The spread of faith in Jesus Christ came about through ordinary Christians who lived their lives in such a way, and spoke about their faith in such a way, that others came to faith also. I italicize “spoke” because many people think they shouldn’t have to say anything. I have heard many Christians express enthusiasm for the saying: “Share the gospel. If necessary, use words.” It sounds cool, but it is utter nonsense. There is no record in the New Testament of anyone coming to faith without hearing someone speak. Cornelius was a man who was seeking God. He had a vision from the Lord. The Lord did not reveal the full gospel in that vision. Instead, he instructed Cornelius to find Peter, and he instructed Peter to share the good news with him. In order to make disciples, we must be willing and able to speak about Jesus.

Of course, it is important how you live your life as well. Both things: Living your life for Jesus, and speaking about Him, are important. The rest of the New Testament backs me up with this.

14But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed, 15but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. (1Pet 3:14-15, HCSB, emphasis added)

5Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. 6Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person. (Col 4:5-6, HCSB, emphasis added)

Even in our text for today, Jesus emphasized that teaching is an indispensable part of making disciples.

These texts show us that speaking about Jesus is the responsibility of all Christians. Obviously, some are called to do it in a special way, full time, but every Christian should be willing and able to share about Jesus at any time. The Greek expression for “go therefore” might also be translated “as you are going.” In other words, this is something all Christians do, as we go through life.

To more fully express the mission Jesus gave us, we might say this: all Christians are supposed to be disciples and help make other disciples, as we go through this life. Most certainly, that is what the very first Christians did (and not just the apostles).

Let me clarify some things that many Christians seems to get confused about. Acts 11:26 tells us that “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.” In other words, to be a Christian means you are a disciple. To be a disciple means you are a Christian. Being a  Christian (and thus, a disciple) means that you trust Jesus, and, however imperfectly, try to allow him to be in charge of your life. This means that you make decisions based on what you believe Jesus wants you to do. You treat others the way you think Jesus wants you to treat them. You live your whole life that way.

In order to do this of course, you have to get to know Jesus. Disciples spend their whole lives getting to know Jesus more, and more. They do this through reading the Bible (which is His special message for us, so it is listening to Him), praying (which is talking to Him), and “doing life” with other disciples so that you can help each other along the way. This is what Jesus meant when he said “make disciples.”

Jesus did not say “make converts.” A convert is someone who goes from believing one thing, to believing another. Often, becoming a disciple involves being converted. But that is only part of the process. Once you are converted, you are supposed to continue to walk the path of discipleship. Conversion is only one step in that path.

Jesus did not say “make churches.” However, becoming a part of a church is a necessary by-product of being a disciple. A real disciple is part of the family of God, and according to the New Testament, the family of God is not “all humanity,” but rather, it is the church. We need other disciples of Jesus to encourage us, pray with, and for, us, tell us when we are being stupid, work together with us for the purposes of Jesus, and help us through tough times. A church can also get together and call Bible teachers, who can assist people in understanding God’s Word (the Bible), which, again, helps us to be better disciples. A real church navigates the ups and downs of life together. If you don’t have a group of fellow-disciples-of-Jesus with whom to do that, you need to find one, as soon as possible. Christians quickly drift away from really following Jesus when they don’t have a church.

Even so, being a part of a church is merely part of being disciple. In other words, if we make disciples, and pursue discipleship ourselves, we will naturally join together and form churches. If we keep the proper mission in view (“Make Disciples”), then churches will indeed form. But we need to remember that our main goal is not to form churches, but to be, and make, disciples. The emphasis should always be not on growing churches, but growing, and making, disciples.

We don’t have to do any of this alone. We don’t have to do it with our own power, or skill. Obviously, if we are disciples who are in true fellowship with other disciples, we have each other. But even more than that, Jesus promised that will have Him:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Luke and John, and the rest of the New Testament, teach us that when Jesus returned to Heaven, he sent his Holy Spirit to be with us in a special way. Through the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus is always with every one of His disciples.

16And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever. 17He is the Spirit of truth. The world is unable to receive Him because it doesn’t see Him or know Him. But you do know Him, because He remains with you and will be in you. 18I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to you. (John 14:16-18, HCSB)

Now, I hope you know that this is a scary thought. That’s right, he’s with us always. When you did that thing, you know what I’m talking about – the Holy Spirit saw you. That’s why Paul writes:

30And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You were sealed by Him for the day of redemption. (Eph 4:30, HCSB)

And:

15Don’t you know that your bodies are a part of Christ’s body? So should I take a part of Christ’s body and make it part of a prostitute? Absolutely not! 16Don’t you know that anyone joined to a prostitute is one body with her? For Scripture says, The two will become one flesh. 17But anyone joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. (1Cor 6:15-17, HCSB)

But it isn’t just that Jesus knows when we sin. Through the Spirit, he applies the work He did on the cross, to us. Through the Spirit, he forgives, washes and renews us:

4But when the goodness of God and His love for mankind appeared, 5He saved us — not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, HCSB)

Through the Spirit, he teaches us, comforts us and guides us.

25“I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you. 26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit — the Father will send Him in My name — will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you. 27“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Your heart must not be troubled or fearful. (John 14:25-27, HCSB)

We can only do the work of discipleship, and making disciples, through our connection with Jesus by the Holy Spirit:

5“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me. (John 15:5, HCSB)

I am embarrassed when I sin, and then after, remember that the Holy Spirit is with me. But His grace and forgiveness are bigger than my sins, and bigger than yours, also. He reminds me of all the teachings of Jesus, and applies all of the work of Jesus to my heart.

All in all, the promise that Jesus is with us always through the Holy Spirit should bring us tremendous comfort and joy. Relying on the Spirit’s power and guidance, if we give Him our willingness, we can be sure to find joy in fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus, in being His disciples, and in helping other disciples to come to Him, and grow.

The Presence, Power and Purpose of Jesus

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The church is not a therapy group, or an advice repository. It is a gathering of unique people who experience the Presence, Power and Purpose of the living God as we come together in his name.

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EXPERIENCING LIFE TOGETHER #2

We were almost all set to wrap up the house-church meeting. Our discussion was over, we had spent some time in worship and now we were praying for one another.

“Does anyone else want prayer?”

“I’ll take prayer.” It was a neighbor lady, who came to house church, off and on. She had been raised Roman Catholic, and it was clear that she knew the right answers. But it was also clear that somehow, she had not fully connected with the life that is in Jesus Christ. She shared a few things that she wanted prayer for: her relationship with her boss, a sore back and a few other things. These were mostly shallow issues and it seemed to me that if all her prayers were answered the way she wanted them to be, nothing much would change in her life. But we stepped forward to pray for her anyhow. Tonight, we were anointing the people with oil as we prayed for them. I explained that this practice came from the book of James 5:13-16. I opened my Bible and read from it. Usually, I simply read vs. 14 to show newcomers that were not completely wacky to anoint people with a little olive oil as we pray for them. But for some reason, this time I continued to read all the way to the end of verse 16. And this is what vs. 16 says:

“Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.”

I opened my mouth to begin the prayer. But the woman held up her hand and said “wait.”

She continued, “that little verse you read at the end, about confessing your sins to one another? I need to confess something. I’m a witch.”

It is my suspicion that in many churches this is not a particularly common scenario. In any case, however, she spoke a little longer, and then we prayed with her and for her, and the next day she took all of her witching paraphernalia and burned it. Shortly after that she turned her life over to Jesus Christ as her Lord and savior.

In our experiences of networked-house-church, we could tell many such stories — all of them true. But the fact is, these things don’t happen simply because we strictly adhere to some sort of methodology. They happen because house-church ministry is used as a vehicle for the Presence, Power and Purpose of Jesus Christ. Last time, we considered the fact that our basic need is Jesus, not a certain way of doing church or small groups. We believe that house-church ministry lends itself quite well to being used by Jesus. But when we come together, we are not meeting as a therapy group, social club or even a Bible study. Instead, we come together to experience that Presence, Power and Purpose of Jesus Christ. For the sake of brevity, we often call these the three P’s. Whenever we come together, we keep in mind that we are here to facilitate the three P’s. Sometimes, like in the case above, this happens quite dramatically. At other times, we seem to have a “normal” night. We usually employ a house-church agenda, but we always have in mind that the true agenda belongs to the Holy Spirit.

On the night which I described above, we did not set out to find out if there were any witches in our midst and to get them to confess their sins and come to Jesus. We purposed instead to experience the presence, power and purpose of Jesus in our midst. It was the Holy Spirit who prompted me to read a verse that I don’t usually read. It was the Holy Spirit, working on that woman’s heart, who prompted her to confess her involvement in witchcraft. It was the Holy Spirit who directed our response. We had an agenda for that evening, and in fact we followed it for the most part. But when something came up that was not on our agenda (for example a person confessing involvement in witchcraft), we adjusted our agenda to fit what God was doing that night.

Let’s take a brief moment to examine the biblical bases of the three P’s.

1. The presence of Jesus.

I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven. Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:18-20, HCSB)

These verses are about exercising the authority of Jesus. It is a promise that when we come together under his authority, for his purposes, his presence is with us. In fact, this verse ties together the three P’s — his power (authority), his and his presence. When we come to house-church meetings, we are not there merely to socialize, nor even simply to study the Bible. We are there to be in the presence of Jesus.

We know that Jesus is always with us. He said he would be, in Matthew 28:20 (more on that in a moment). But this verse tells us, and Christians have always recognized, that Jesus is with us in a special way, when we gather together in his name. The gathering of believers is not just social interaction – it invites Jesus to be with us in a way that he cannot be with us when we are alone. I believe he does this because he wants his people to understand that they need each other. The Holy Spirit expressed His desire for His people to keep meeting together in Hebrews 10:24-25

And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25, HCSB)

We need each other, because the Presence of Jesus is expressed differently through each individual.

2. The power of Jesus.

For I didn’t think it was a good idea to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom but with a powerful demonstration by the Spirit, so that your faith might not be based on men’s wisdom but on God’s power. (1Cor 2:2-5, HCSB)

The fact is, if we are going to follow the agenda of the Holy Spirit, we must rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to do so. There is a tendency at times within small groups to try and find a solution within the resources of the group itself. For instance, if somebody is struggling with an emotional issue, other group members may be tempted to offer their advice or to share their past experiences with similar issues. While advice is not always inappropriate, we must make sure that it does not keep us from relying on the power of God. We must always keep in mind that the only resource of lasting value within the house-church group is the power of God. In practical terms this means that prayer is almost always a first response to a need or problem that a shared with the group. This doesn’t mean that the group never offers practical help to its members, however, that practical help should arise from the Lord’s direction as we look to him for his resources. We don’t rely on human wisdom, but rather, the Spirit’s power.

Practically, that means when someone shares a struggle, we should start racking our brains for a solution; nor should we simply pretend we are therapists, and just listen sympathetically. Instead, we should listen carefully, both the person, and the Lord. We should ask the Lord quietly, “What do you want to do here and now? In what way do you want to use me to accomplish your goal?”

3. The purpose of Jesus.

Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:18-20, HCSB)

When we come together in a house-church group we ought to have one unified purpose: to make disciples of Jesus. Making disciples involves helping those who are already Christians to grow in their faith (becoming better disciples) and also helping to lead others who don’t know Jesus to true saving faith in him. We don’t come to church simply to increase our knowledge or to fulfill a program of the church. We come to be motivated by Jesus’ mission.

It should be obvious as we consider the presence, the power and the purpose of Jesus, that we cannot experience these things without being completely dependent upon God. We cannot make Jesus come to us. We cannot fake his power. And we cannot fulfill his purpose without his presence and his power. In the house-church we do not depend on our own resources, rather we depend fully and completely upon God. God may use other house-church members to minister to you; or he may use you to minister to other house-church members. But in the end it is God who is doing the ministering through us.

THE JOY OF HOPE

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Joy seems to be connected to hope. The more superficial your hope, the more superficial your joy. And so, from that most powerful and eternal of hopes, comes the most powerful and lasting joy. When our largest and deepest hope is rooted in eternity, no circumstance, no trouble, hardship or grief can prevent us from having joy. And that is the picture of joy that we get from the Bible.

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Galatians #20 . Chapter 5:22

Last week, we looked at what Paul calls the “works” of the flesh. This time, we’ll dig into his description of the “fruits” of the Spirit. When Paul calls the one “works” and the other “fruits,” it is definitely intentional. He isn’t just using a literary device to make the letter more interesting to read. I believe that Paul means us to understand that there is something completely different in the character of the Spirit, versus the character of the flesh. Not only do they desire what is opposed to each other, but they also operate in completely different ways.

The flesh exerts energy. The word “works” is actually the Greek word from which we get our English term, “energy.” The flesh involves effort and “push” and, well, work. And the energy of the flesh results in all those things Paul wrote about in verses 19-21.

But the Spirit operates in a completely different way. It is not about energy and effort and working. It is about bearing fruit. This picture was originally given by Jesus, in John 15:

I am the true vine, and My Father is the vineyard keeper. Every branch in Me that does not produce fruit He removes, and He prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in Me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in Me.

I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me. If anyone does not remain in Me, he is thrown aside like a branch and he withers. They gather them, throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you remain in Me and My words remain in you, ask whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this: that you produce much fruit and prove to be My disciples. (John 15:1-8, HCSB; italics applied for emphasis)

Bearing fruit is a passive activity. I don’t mean that we never do anything. But I mean that real spiritual fruit is not the result of our great effort; it is the result of our great trust in Jesus. Spiritual fruit grows in us as we get closer to Jesus. The more we trust Jesus and obey him and grow closer to him, the natural result will be the fruit of the Spirit. It isn’t up to you to generate energy. It isn’t up to you to push and strive. Instead, sink your roots deep into Jesus, into his love and into his Word (the bible). The fruit of Spirit has both a power and a peace behind it. The fruit illustration, used by Jesus and by Paul, shows us that the key to the Christian life is to remain close to Jesus, and indeed, to keep getting closer to him. What we do flows out of our connection to Jesus. In fact, Jesus points out that we don’t do anything ourselves. He says, “apart from me, you can do nothing.” He bears the fruit through us, as we trust him, and give him access to our lives.

I’m cautious when it comes to speaking about different “styles” of ministry or spirituality. Even so, I have come to have a distrust of people who are always going and always pushing. They may be doing wonderful things “for God,” but I wonder sometimes if is really Jesus working through them, or if it is more them working hard from the effort of their own flesh. And I certainly distrust those who demand that other Christians be always pushing and energetic and doing a lot of activities.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying a good Christian never does anything. But there is a difference between doing something out of self-effort and self-esteem and obligation, and doing something because Jesus, living in you, wants to do it. There is either guilt or stress or competition behind the one; there is joy and peace behind the other.

I want to talk a little bit about some of these fruits of the Spirit, because sometimes, we have a superficial idea of what they mean.

Love. This is the Greek word agape. It does not mean “a feeling of attraction.” It doesn’t mean “brotherly or friendly affection.” Agape (love) is a decision to value and honor another person, and place them and their interests equal to your own (or even ahead of your own). Sometimes feelings are associated with it; sometimes they are not. You can actually feel bad, or even negative, toward someone, and still make a choice to “agape” them – to honor them, value them, and make their interests and needs a high priority. This is impossible to do out of self-effort or flesh. It comes from God.

Joy. Let’s not get confused about this one. Joy is not a superficial pleasure found in the present moment. It is not merely a human emotional response to good or pleasant circumstances. Over and over again, the Bible talks about joy in the midst of difficulty and suffering. Here are just a few examples:

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, ​yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. (Hab 3:17-19, ESV2011)

Habakkuk declares that he is rejoicing in the Lord. He takes joy in the God of his salvation. His circumstances are, frankly, rotten. But his joy is rooted not in what is going on externally in his life, but in his relationship with God.

Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have also obtained access through Him by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions… (Rom 5:1-3, HCSB)

Paul says that we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, and we do so, even in our afflictions. Affliction does not bring pleasure. It does not naturally result in happiness. But joy is possible in affliction. That joy, says Paul, comes from our hope in God and his work in us to make us righteous and give us grace.

For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, in the Holy Spirit, and with much assurance. You know what kind of men we were among you for your benefit, and you became imitators of us and of the Lord when, in spite of severe persecution, you welcomed the message with joy from the Holy Spirit. (1Thess 1:5-6, HCSB)

The Thessalonians went through severe persecution, and were filled with joy from the Holy Spirit in the midst of it.

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God granted to the churches of Macedonia: During a severe testing by affliction, their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed into the wealth of their generosity. (2Cor 8:1-2, HCSB)

Again, the Macedonian Christians experienced a severe testing by affliction and, at the same time, an abundance of joy.

When I was a young single man, I found myself living in a city I did not like, doing a job I did not like, with very few friends, little money and some difficult relationships with co-workers. At the same time, I was filled with joy. The joy came from the fact that I was falling in love with a young woman who was falling in love with me. Even so, Kari lived almost four-hundred miles away. My daily reality was not very pleasant. I didn’t have joy from my circumstances. But my joy was in my growing relationship with Kari – even though she was not physically present with me. Believe it or not, young folks, this was before the Internet, email and cell phones. We talked on the phone once in a while, but mostly, we wrote letters to each other. Though I hoped and yearned for us to be together, I did not need Kari’s physical presence with me in order to have joy in our relationship. That joy was independent of anything else that was going on in my life.

Christian joy, Holy-Spirit-joy is very similar. You don’t need to have great circumstances going on in order to have it. Spirit-joy comes from your relationship with Jesus. It comes from your hope of eternal life with him. Matthew Henry writes this:

The joy and peace of believers arise chiefly from their hopes. What is laid out upon them is but little, compared with what is laid up for them; therefore the more hope they have the more joy and peace they have.

I think Matthew Henry is on to something. Paul says to the Romans:

Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe in Him so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

Joy seems to be connected to hope. This makes a great deal of sense. The more superficial your hope, the more superficial your joy. If you hope to find donuts at church, and you do find them there, you may have a momentary burst of joy, but it will not last much longer than the final bite. It is a small hope, and therefore a small joy. When we hope for things that will not last, we will have joy that does not last.

We also find, strangely, that when a shallow hope is fulfilled, joy diminishes. A few months ago, I was looking forward toward a two-day block of free time that I would have when I was in California for a conference. I was hoping to spend time climbing in Joshua Tree National Park. That hope gave me joy for two or three months. Now that I have been there and done that, and it is no longer something to look forward to, I get less joy when I think about it. Now, this is not true of more meaningful hopes. I still get a great deal of joy from my relationship with Kari. But that relationship is life-long, and much deeper than a trip to California, or a donut.

This is why we get the greatest, most powerful and enduring joy from our hope of heaven, and hope of an entirely restored relationship with God and all of his new creation. It is a hope that will not be fulfilled in this life. It is a love that cannot be marred by our circumstances or our failures. And so from that most powerful and eternal of hopes, comes the most powerful and lasting joy. When our largest and deepest hope is rooted in eternity, no circumstance, no trouble, hardship or grief can prevent us from having joy. And that is the picture of joy that we get from the Bible.

Now, feelings of joy can come and go. But I suspect that we can tap into those joyful feelings more reliably when we fix our hope more fully on being close to Jesus and the wonder of the New Creation that comes after this life.

It seems to me that far too many people think like this: “I’ll deal with eternal matters at some point when I have the time. Right now, I need to focus on getting my next raise, and putting my kids through college.” Maybe it isn’t about a raise or college, but too often, we focus on superficial and shallow hopes, and as a result we have only superficial and shallow joys. We think it is most important to deal with what is immediately in front of us. However, even though it seems like eternal life and Jesus are “out there,” if we focus on them, and put our hope on them right now, it makes a huge difference in our level of joy, right now.

This wasn’t exactly my original plan for this message, but that’s okay. I assume that some of you needed to hear this about hope and joy this morning. Take a minute to ask the Holy Spirit what he is saying to you right now. Be sure and be willing to do whatever he asks you to do as a result of what he is saying.

DOES GOD SEND EVIL SPIRITS?!

1 Samuel 16:14 says God sent an evil spirit to torment king Saul. What do we make of this?

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1 SAMUEL #15. 1 SAMUEL CHAPTER 16:14-23

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Now the Spirit of the LORD had left Saul, and an evil spirit sent from the LORD began to torment him… (1Sam 16:14)

When we first read this, it almost feels like one of the most troubling verses in the Bible. I believe, however, when we really understand what was going here, it becomes one more instance for us to thank God for his incredible grace to human beings.

First, let’s remember the context. Saul, since the very first record of him in the Bible, has either ignored God, or considered Him a tool to be manipulated and used. Time after time, Saul betrayed his own securities. Time after time, he refused to trust God, and sought instead to protect his own interests. When he did worship God, it was to get the people to remain in the army, or to try and manipulate God into helping him. Saul represents the very worst in religious leaders – he tries to use religion as a way to exercise power over others, all the while avoiding personal trust in the Living God.

Finally, the Lord told Samuel that he had rejected Saul as king. God simply could not use Saul as His chosen instrument in that generation – Saul wouldn’t let him. After this, God directed Samuel to David – a boy who had given his heart fully to God. David became God’s chosen instrument in that generation. (Remember in those days, Jesus had not come, and so the Lord worked usually only through one or two people at one time. Today, all believers are the given the Holy Spirit. We are all supposed to be his chosen instruments in this generation)

Now, to understand what happens next, to make sense of God sending an evil spirit to Saul, we need to understand this situation completely. God rejected Saul from being king. He rejected him as God’s chosen instrument for that generation. Samuel makes this quite clear (1 Samuel 15:23). But this does not mean that God has given up on Saul as a person.

When I was a child, I remember I desperately wanted a knife. A knife represented power and maturity. It was both weapon and a tool. It was the next logical step in my progression to responsible adulthood. After a lot of powerful legal maneuvering on my part, I got my parents to give me one. Looking back, I realize now that my wise parents gave me a tiny pen-knife, something I couldn’t do much damage with. But back then, after carrying it around for a while, I realized that I wasn’t really using it. Out in our yard we had a clothesline made of rope. I opened my knife and took a swing at it. To my delight the line parted like the waters of the red sea. Later on I examined the metal fly-screen on one of our windows. I wonder if this knife will cut metal? I thought. There was really only one way to find out. It did. I was awed by the power I held.

I don’t remember much about the discipline that followed these incidents. But I do know this: my parents continued to love me and teach me, while at the same time, they took away the knife until I was older. I wasn’t ready for that kind of power. Even so, they loved me, and didn’t reject me. They just rejected the idea of me with a knife.

I think that when they took the knife away, I was probably more upset about losing the knife than I was about the fact that I had done wrong. I don’t remember, but I probably had to be disciplined in other ways so that I could see that what I had done was wrong.

Saul is in this situation. When Samuel tells him that the Lord has rejected him as king, Saul is naturally upset. But to me, it reads like he is upset about losing his position as God’s chosen instrument, far more than he is upset about the fact that he hasn’t trusted God. As we continue through 1 Samuel, we will see that this is in fact the truth.

Now, even though God rejected Saul as king, as His chosen instrument, God does not force Saul to abdicate the crown. He remains king until the day he dies. He just isn’t God’s chosen king. What grace – that God allowed him to continue as king, even when he couldn’t use him.

Continue reading “DOES GOD SEND EVIL SPIRITS?!”

Is the God of Old Testament Different from the God of the New?

1 Samuel #4

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1 Samuel 6:13 through 1 Samuel 7:15

We left off last week where the Philistines put the Ark of the Covenant into a cart, and hooked it up to two cows who had been separated from their calves. Rather than return home to their calves, the cows pulled the cart into Israelite territory. They stopped near the town of Beth-shemesh, which was a town given to the tribe of Levi. The tribe of Levi (Levites) were the priests for the people of Israel.

The cart came into the field of Joshua of Beth-shemesh and stopped there. A great stone was there. And they split up the wood of the cart and offered the cows as a burnt offering to the LORD. And the Levites took down the ark of the LORD and the box that was beside it, in which were the golden figures, and set them upon the great stone. And the men of Beth-shemesh offered burnt offerings and sacrificed sacrifices on that day to the LORD. (1 Samuel 6:14-15)

The Ark had come home, so to speak. The Lord had refused to let the Israelites manipulate him through the Ark; he had erased their idea that it was a kind of lucky rabbit’s foot. Next, he used the Ark to show the Philistines that he was more real and powerful than the idols and demons they worshiped. But now, he brought it back to Israel. Even so, the Lord does not seem to be finished with the lesson. This perplexing incident is recorded:

And he struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the LORD. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the LORD had struck the people with a great blow. Then the men of Beth-shemesh said, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? And to whom shall he go up away from us?” So they sent messengers to the inhabitants of Kiriath-jearim, saying, “The Philistines have returned the ark of the LORD. Come down and take it up to you.” (1Sam 6:19-21, ESV)

The Old Testament has several stories like this. They can be confusing and perplexing. A few years ago I was reading through Leviticus for my daily devotions. I did this almost to dare God to speak to me through Leviticus, which is some pretty dry reading at the points when you can understand it. I got nothing out of it for almost two weeks. Then I read a story from chapter ten. Two priests sacrificed “unauthorized incense” and God burned them up instantly. I said, “What’s up with that, Lord? That doesn’t sound like you. It doesn’t sound my Father, my Comforter, my never failing Friend.” Then I read Leviticus 10:3

I will show my holiness among those who come to me. I will show my glory to all the people.

So also, the Israelites say when they are struck down for disrespecting the ark: “Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God?

When I was a teenager, my High School science teacher took a very small piece of pure sodium (which exists as a soft metal) and put it into a tub of water. It immediately began to hiss and steam, and then suddenly the sodium exploded into flames. Pure sodium cannot exist in water. It burns up and explodes in the presence of water, becoming a different chemical in the process.

In the same way, though we often forget it, sin cannot exist in the presence of God. It burns up, explodes and is destroyed. It isn’t a matter of God not tolerating sin – the very nature of God destroys it. The problem of course, is that we human beings are born with a sinful nature. This means that there is no way for us to get close to God without being destroyed. Who is able to stand before the Lord, this holy God? Who indeed? No one with sin in him. So in the time of the Old Testament, unless people took the extreme precautions laid out by God, they were destroyed if they even did something like touch the ark improperly, or offer unauthorized incense.

The difference between these incidents I read about in Old Testament, and my own experience of relationship with God, is the work of Jesus. Jesus took all of our sin – past, present and future – into himself. When Jesus took that sin into himself, “God made him who knew no sin, to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God,” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Because Jesus was in nature God, and as a human was not himself sinful, the sin which God laid on him could be destroyed with destroying Jesus also.

So now, through Jesus, we are no longer in a situation where the presence of God destroys us. Now his holiness is not a problem that keeps us apart, because our sin has been removed. This is one reason why I say that if we are in Jesus, we don’t have a sinful nature anymore. If we did, the Holy Spirit could not live in us, and we would be destroyed by God’s presence.

In any case, the point I want us to get from this passage is this: the way the Old Testament tells us of God is not inconsistent with the way God is revealed by the New Testament. They are not two different Gods. But through faith in Jesus, we are reconciled to the holiness of God in a way that people were not. This passage, above all, reminds me of my deep need for Jesus.

The writer of 1 Samuel continues the narrative, twenty years later. An entire generation grew up. Previously, under the leadership of Eli, Hopni and Phinehas, the people were disconnected from God, and they didn’t care. They were arrogant, sure of themselves, sure they could manipulate God through the ark. They blamed God in their defeat, and tried to force him to give them victory.

But after their defeat, and their difficult experiences with the ark, the new generation grew up in humility. By the way, this was Samuel’s generation. He was probably in the middle of it, age-wise, and he led them spiritually. This generation didn’t take anything for granted. 7:2 says that a time came when they lamented for God. For once it wasn’t their circumstances that they were upset about. They truly repented. They wanted to be close the Lord. Samuel told them that they needed to get rid of the idols in their lives, to stop seeking comfort and hope in anything that was not the Lord.

And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the LORD only. (1 Sam 7:3-4)

So they got rid of the idols. They were serious about following Him.

What happened next is something that I think surprises most of us in America these days. They turned to the Lord with their whole hearts and then things got worse. While they were gathered to worship God, the Philistines attacked. For some reason, preachers in America have been telling us for awhile now that if you just start following Jesus, everything will go well for you. Funny thing – Jesus never said that. Following Jesus, giving their whole lives to him, brought plenty of trouble to Peter, Paul, John James, Barnabas and many others. Following God brought trouble and hardship to Jeremiah, Ezekiel and yes, to Samuel’s generation.

It’s a bad idea to turn back to God in the hope that doing so will make your life go more smoothly. It just ain’t necessarily so. The great thing about Samuel and his generation was that they wanted to follow God because they believed he was the one true God. They dedicated their lives to him because it was good and right, and their hope was in God alone. If he gave them victory, that would be very good indeed. But they planned to follow him regardless.

One of the reasons I get so angry at people who preach that following Jesus brings mainly prosperity and peace is that when trouble comes, those who believe that lie are undone spiritually and emotionally. A common reaction among those who believe this is that if they experience trouble, either they must have failed to follow God, or God is not truly real. They won’t allow for the idea that God might lead us directly into trouble sometimes.

The truth is, not only did Jesus promise persecution and trouble (Matt 6:10-11; John 16:33), but we also have spiritual enemies who will do whatever they can to make trouble for us – the devil and his demons (Eph 6:12; 1 Peter 5:8-10). The older I get, the more I think we should be surprised if we are truly seeking the Lord with all our hearts, and we experience no opposition at all. At the very least, we should be deeply grateful for those times. I’m not trying to make you depressed. I’m only suggesting that we take what Jesus said seriously:

I have said these things to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, ESV)

So how did Samuel’s generation react when the Philistines attacked them? Naturally, they were afraid. No one with any sense at all wants to fight in a war. No one really wants suffering or tribulation. At the same time, they faced it with courage, and asked the Lord humbly for help. They didn’t assume he would deliver them, but they asked for it, in case he would. They didn’t try to manipulate him; they didn’t blame him. They just asked for his help, and they seemed ready to trust him and follow him whether or not he gave it at that particular time.

As it happened, the Lord helped them. The text says that he “thundered against the Philistines with a great and loud voice” (7:10). As I have pointed out before, these older manuscripts were often originally written on animal skins. If you wanted to explain things in detail, you had to go out and kill another animal to make another manuscript. So the thunder is not explained. It may even be an expression that was common in those days, something almost like slang, that we don’t understand the full meaning for nowadays. In any case, it was clear that the Lord intervened, and protected his people on that occasion.

As the Philistines, fled, the Israelites chased them. Where the battle stopped, Samuel set up a stone, and called “Ebenezer,” which means, “stone of help.” It was a way for the people to remember how God helped them that day.

Sometimes it may be helpful for people of faith these days to have our own “stones of help” – something that reminds us of specific times when God helped us. One way to set up an “Ebenezer” is to keep a journal, and record the times when God helped. For other folks, it might be a song that you listened to frequently during a time when God was especially present or helpful. I know of some Christians who collect rocks, and each rock reminds them of something the Lord has done. The principle is to have a helpful, concrete way to remember times when God’s presence was obvious to you.

Take a minute to reflect on what the Lord is saying to you through 1 Samuel 6:13 through 7:15. Do you need to be reminded of your need for Jesus? Do you need to remember that in Jesus, your sin has been thoroughly removed and is no longer a barrier between you and the Lord? Is the Lord calling you to come back to him with your whole heart, like Samuel’s generation? Perhaps you need to be reminded that trouble is a normal part of life when you are walking with the Lord. Or perhaps today you need to set up an “Ebenezer” – a reminder of God’s presence and help in your life. Let him speak to you.

The Woman Who Wanted

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This is the first in a new series on the book of 1 Samuel. This is an exciting and interesting historical book, and many of the most famous bible stories come from it. It is always important to have a little background about a biblical book, so that we can understand it in context. The events recorded in 1 Samuel took place roughly three-thousand years ago.

This was a very unsettling time in the history of the people of Israel. It was roughly four-hundred years after the time of Moses and the Exodus. The Israelites certainly had their problems in the wilderness, but at the end of it all, they had entered the promised land as a united nation, under strong leadership. However, once they began to settle the land, they splintered back into a loose confederation of tribes. Worse, they ignored the Lord’s command to drive out and completely eliminate the pagan cultures around them in the land. What followed was a few hundred years of the darkest times in their history. They forgot God, and began to adopt the pagan practices of the peoples around them – the very people whom they were supposed to drive out. They were oppressed by those same people, and frequently various areas and tribes of Israel were almost slaves to other cultures. God did not forget them. He used the negative circumstances to remind them about Him. When they prayed for his help, He answered and saved them, but usually within a generation or so, they forgot Him again, and went back to a cycle of worshiping false gods, being oppressed by the surrounding people. Then they remembered God again, and asked for his help, and so the cycle continued. The people were ignorant of God, brutal, and divided. At the time recorded by 1 Samuel this had been going on for long, most people probably felt like this was just how life was. There was certainly no reason to hope or expect that anything could ever change and be permanently different.

The nation of Israel was supposed to be united by their common faith, and they were meant to function as a nation by following God, as they had during the Exodus. Because God was supposed to be the King, technically they were all free. But because they weren’t following the Lord, it wasn’t working. Instead of freedom, they generally alternated between chaos and oppression.

At the time that this particular historical record begins, the spiritual leadership was as bad as the rest of the country. Eli, the High Priest was short-sighted and a weak leader. His sons Hophni and Phineas were self serving – they took every opportunity to abuse the power they had over the people. None of them actively led the country from a position of faith in the Lord or obedience to Him.

1 Samuel 1:1-2:11 records how the Lord began to change all this, not just for a few years, or even just a generation but for the long term. It was an unlikely and surprising beginning. God didn’t call a hero to defeat the enemies of Israel (he had already done that many times over the past few hundred years, and it never lasted). He did not raise up someone to campaign for unity among the tribes. God did not lead anyone to go on a crusade to clean up corruption among the priests, or to start a movement to educate the ignorant children in the outlying areas. If Hollywood screenwriters were making a movie, any one of those choices might be their storyline.

But God did something different and unexpected. He began with a woman who just wanted to be a mother. Her name was Hannah. Her deepest desire was to have a child. She turned her desire over to the Lord, even while continuing to desperately want it. And the Lord pursued his goals through her life and those desires.

Hannah was married to a man named Elkanah. He had a second wife, called Peninnah. He almost certainly married Peninnah only because Hannah couldn’t have children. Chapter 1:5 and 1:8 record that Elkanah loved Hannah deeply. But in those days, having children was simply not considered optional. The culture considered it a curse from the Lord if a couple could not conceive. God blessed Adam and Eve and told them to be fruitful and multiply (Genesis 1:28). If someone could not do that, they figured it must mean that God’s blessing wasn’t on them. Besides that, children were the only source of “social security.” When someone got too old to work, he relied on his children to take care of him. Finally, having children ensured that the family name would continue, and be included among God’s people (Israel) for another generation.

All this is why a man like Elkanah, who seemed to have a genuine love for Hannah, would go the length of marrying a second woman just to have children. By the way, some folks say that the Old Testament endorses polygamy without reservation. That is not exactly true. It records that some men had many wives, and it does not condemn them, but it almost always also describes that situation in a negative light. This is true here also. Elkanah had two wives, and there was rivalry and jealousy and strife between them. This was true also of Jacob, even though his wives were sisters. Solomon, had hundreds of wives and scripture makes it clear that it was his downfall.

Anyway, Hannah’s lack of children meant several things to her. First, she thought it meant God somehow had something against her. It had led to the destruction of her married happiness and love with Elkanah. Finally, if Elkanah were die before she did, there would be no one to take care of her in old age. As we can see, the issue was both emotional and practical. There was deep hurt and pain wrapped up in Hannah’s barrenness, as well as practical concern about the future.

One year, when the family was at the annual worship pilgrimage, Hannah reached a breaking point. I love her attitude in 1:9-18. She is another one of those unsung heroines of the faith. I think what makes her so special is that she surrenders her desire to the Lord, while at the same time, she honestly acknowledges it. She tells Eli, the priest:

I am a woman with a broken heart. I haven’t had any wine or beer; I’ve been pouring out my heart before the Lord. Don’t think of me as a wicked woman; I’ve been praying from the depth of my anguish and resentment. (1 Samuel 1:15-16)

Many Christians in this day and age would encourage you to pursue your desire as if it was somehow holy just because you had it. They paint a picture of God as if he was there for the sole purpose of making your life comfortable and giving you anything you want. They preach a gospel of personal gain here and now. There are other Christians (though less common these days) who treat every personal desire as if it is evil; they suggest the only way to deal with any desire for anything personal is to get rid of it.

Hannah did not follow either path. She desired a child. She wasn’t going to pretend that she didn’t, and she wasn’t going to pretend that she thought her desire was wrong or sinful. She let God hear her anger, anguish and resentment. At the same time, as she asked God to fulfill her desire, she surrendered it back to him. Verses 10-11 in the message version record it this way:

Crushed in soul, Hannah prayed to God and cried and cried — inconsolably. Then she made a vow:

“Oh, God-of-the-Angel-Armies, If you’ll take a good, hard look at my pain, If you’ll quit neglecting me and go into action for me By giving me a son, I’ll give him completely, unreservedly to you. I’ll set him apart for a life of holy discipline.” (1 Sam 1:10-11)

Some people may look at this part of Hannah’s prayer as making a bargain with God. But I think it is a little different than that. Hannah will not let go of her desire. She’s asking for a son, not the strength to go on being barren. And yet, while not letting go, she does surrender that desire to God. It isn’t completely clear in the Message version of the bible, but what she is pledging is that when he is old enough, she will physically bring the child to the tent of meeting and he will stay there with the priests and serve the Lord. The child will not stay with Hannah or her family. In a sense, Hannah is saying, “I want to be a mother. But I also want to surrender to you. So if you do make me a mother, I will turn around and live as I was not a mother again. You will gain a child Lord, not me.” So, yes, in a sense it was a bargain. But I don’t see how else Hannah could both hold on to her desire and surrender it at the same time. It is this bravery and honesty that makes her a great woman of faith in my eyes.

To help us understand what Hannah did, I want to put in simplistic and shallow terms. It is as if you prayed, “Lord, please give me one million dollars. If you do, I will give all one million dollars to the church.” Now, looking at it that way, you may say, “What would be the point of that?” We see no point in that because our desire is either not real or not surrendered. If our desire isn’t real, then we don’t want one million dollars so badly that we’re willing to give it all up again just to say we did have it once. If it is isn’t surrendered, then we don’t want one million dollars unless we can keep some of it, or all of it.

Hannah’s desire was real, and it was truly surrendered. The result of that true and surrendered desire was a baby boy named Samuel. Because Hannah surrendered him to the Lord, the Lord was able to use him to change the course of Israel’s history.

The Lord needed both Hannah’s desire AND her surrender to do what he did through her. If she had kept the desire for a child, but did not give that up to the Lord, Samuel would not have been raised in the house of the Lord and become the greatest spiritual leader since Moses. If Hannah had not truly desired a child as deeply as she did, she probably would not have been driven to surrender him in the first place.

Israel was in a bad place spiritually and politically. Society was fractured, life was dangerous, people were ignorant. God did change everything for them. And he did it through a simple woman who was honest about her desire to be a mother while also surrendering that desire. That’s not how we expect Him to save society. But he often works in these unexpected ways.

So what about you? What are the deep desires of your heart? Are you willing to be honest about them? And are you willing to surrender them to the Lord at the same time? God needs people who are willing to follow in Hannah’s footsteps. I think the psalmist was talking about people like Hannah when he wrote:

Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Ps 37:4, ESV)

THE WHOLE PIE

LIVING IN REVERSE, PART 8

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If Jesus is really going to live his life through us, it can’t be only on Sunday mornings. It can’t be just when you have your quiet time with God each day. It can’t be only Sunday mornings, quiet times and small group meetings. It can’t be only after work. It can’t be only on weekends or mission trips.

You see, in America especially, we tend to have our own goals and ambitions, and we try to wedge God into our life as one piece of a very full pie. We’d be quite happy to let Jesus have more of us, but we just don’t have the time. Our plates our full. Our time and energy is used up.

I want to challenge you to be honest with yourself for just a moment. What is it all for? What is your time used for? What do you spend your energy on? What is your busyness accomplishing? Jesus said:

“My kingdom is not of this world,” said Jesus. “If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. As it is, My kingdom does not have its origin here.” (John 18:36, HCSB)

Yet, we seem to be fighting and struggling to make ourselves and our loved ones a comfortable place in this world. We can’t have both our own agenda, and the agenda of Jesus.

When I graduated from High School, the senior class had an official all night party. To make things more fun (as the organizers said) we were given fake money. We could beg for more, play games for more, or make trades. At the end of the night we could use the fake money to bid in an auction for real things, like a $100 gasoline card or even a motor scooter.

A friend of mine set his heart on the motor scooter. He spent all night working like crazy to get more fake money, so he could bid on the scooter. He hardly saw his friends. He hated card games, but he played endlessly to get more fake money.

At the end of the night he had a nice little pile of fake money. Even so, a few other people pooled their fake money, and outbid everyone else, including my friend. When it was all over, he threw his fake money in the garbage, and walked away with nothing but the memory of a wasted night.

There are several key differences between my senior class party and life as we know it. One of them is that, at the end of it all, you cannot use this world’s money, goods or accomplishments to bid on anything real that lasts for eternity. What we “gain” on earth is worth even less than the fake money at that party was worth. Remember what we learned through this series on living in reverse: “Don’t work for food that perishes!” (John 6:27)

Many of us who are grown ups, and particularly Christians, have started living for our kids. We aren’t living selfishly, we are truly not. We are sacrificing our time and energy and possessions for our children. That can’t be a bad thing, can it?

I want to be compassionate and flexible here, but also bold and honest. Sometime we say we are sacrificing for our children, but we are simply using them as an excuse for why we need to work longer hours or make more money. A lot of kids would be happier with less stuff, fewer opportunities and activities and more time with their parents. Some kids know this consciously. Others don’t know they would be happier that way, because everyone else runs around busy too, and they’ve never known anything different.

Some of what we say we are doing for the sake of our children doesn’t make that much sense in the long run. When my son was nine years old, we got him involved in a local community baseball team. They practiced for two hours every Saturday. They played two evening games a week, each one usually lasting about 90 minutes. By the time we drove back and forth everywhere, we were spending about eight hours a week for a nine year old child to play a game that was he somewhat indifferent about. If we had done that for every child in our household at the same time, we would have spent almost the same amount of time as a full time job, just keeping our children in sports.

99.8% of people will never be professional sport players. The skills we encourage our kids spend countless hours developing are for playing games. I know sports teach things like hard work and teamwork and integrity. But do you honestly think that kids can’t learn those things from you, in your family at home? I guarantee you that as a child, Abraham Lincoln did not play on a school team, nor a traveling team for any sport. I am certain that the apostle Paul didn’t either, nor Jesus himself, nor Martin Luther or Florence Nightingale or any of the people who truly shaped the world in which we live today.

Sometimes sports may be a way to college scholarships, I understand that. I can’t say too much about that, since I have no idea how my kids will pay for college. But I do know this: If Jesus, living his life through them, wants to go to college, he’ll go. He’ll make a way for them. But if I haven’t taken the time to teach them about Jesus, to let them develop an life that comes from within, from His Spirit, then even if they get a fully paid scholarship to Yale, I’ve failed.

I want to say one more thing. It isn’t uncommon for a family to spend ten, twenty or even more hours per week on activities and sports. If that is you, let me ask you, what are teaching your kids, by focusing so much on external activities? Do you spend an equal amount of time teaching them to read the bible and pray and listen to the Lord? Do you teach them how to be content and to draw life from the Lord when there is nothing going on externally?

Sometimes the reason we are so busy is because we are trying to get life out of external things. David Wilcox has a great line in the song Hurricane. He writes: “When hope is gone, she confessed, that when you lay your dream to rest, you can get what’s second best, but it’s hard to get enough.”

When we try to get life externally, we need a lot of external activity, a lot of external things going on. It’s hard to get enough, because it isn’t real life. Our busyness is often a cover up, a way to avoid dealing with the fact that we are missing the internal life. And by our busyness, we often are teaching our children to seek life externally also.

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If I’m Dead to Sin, Can I sin all the time now?

LIVING IN REVERSE, PART 4. ROMANS 6:12-23

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Last time we considered the New Testament teaching that in Jesus we died to sin and to the law. Through this death, which is accomplished through the death of Jesus, we have been set free from sin and the law. (Romans 6:7,14,18; Romans 7:4,6) Last week I shared no less than one dozen scriptures that teach explicitly that in Christ we have died.

The picture Paul gives us at the beginning of Romans 7:2-3 is of marriage. When two people are married in the eyes of the law, they are married. It would be a sin to marry someone else at the same time. But if the husband dies, the laws regarding marriage no long apply. Because of the death, the law doesn’t apply any more. It would no longer be sinful or illegal for the woman to marry someone else. The law was made irrelevant by death.

In the same way, the power of sin to bring us condemnation through the law has been destroyed by the death of Jesus, and by our death which happened in Jesus, as we have trusted him. We can’t be condemned as sinners anymore, because as Paul writes:

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4, ESV)

Now, when you really get this, there is a natural question that arises. Does this mean I can sin all I want, because the law no longer applies to me? Now stick with me here. I am going to give you an answer that may surprise you, but you need to follow through the ENTIRE answer I am about to give.

Technically, the answer is, Yes, you can sin all you want. If you are in Jesus, your sins don’t “count” anymore. In the eyes of the law, you are dead, so the law cannot be used to condemn you for anything you do now.

Now, that is a shocking answer. It isn’t the whole story yet, and I want you to stick with me as I give some further explanation in a moment. But just pause here for a moment. Do you see how outrageous the grace of God is? He has made it so that if you simply continue to trust Him, you cannot fail. Even when you do fail, it isn’t counted as you anymore. That’s why we see all those passages in the New Testament saying that when we are in Christ we are New Creation, we are Holy, we are Blameless and so on.

You see it isn’t our job to work ourselves into a state of holiness. God has already put us into a state of holiness, in our spirits. Our only job is to keep believing that he has done this, and through that faith, He will continue to work the holiness deeper and deeper into our soul and body life.

I use the expression keep believing quite deliberately. It is a daily (sometimes hourly) habit of continuing to believe who Jesus is, what he has done for us, how he feels about us, and continuing to rest upon it. This is not a one shot deal. This is not a situation where you just say, “Well I got baptized, so I’m good now.” Or “Well, I got saved five years ago, so I’m good now.” This is a process of continually putting our trust in Jesus, day by day. That is what it means to be “in Jesus” and all these things are ours, only in Jesus. I’m not saying that you have to work hard and live the Christian life on your own strength in order to be in Jesus. But I am saying that to be in Jesus, you need to continually rest in Him with trust in what his Word says, and in what he has done for us.

Last week I spent some time talking about how what we believe profoundly shapes what we do. So the next part of the answer comes here. Technically, you can sin all you want, and it doesn’t count against you. But if you really believe that God has freed you from sin, that you have already been made holy, you will be far less inclined to sin than if you believe you are still fundamentally a sinner.

If you believe you are half sinner, and half saint, then it is only natural for you to go through life sinning half the time. If you believe that, and you sin less than half the time, I commend you for your great will power, though it is misguided. The bible does not say you are half sinner, half saint. It says that if you are in Jesus, then in the most essential part of your being, the part that doesn’t change, the part that already has a solid connection to eternity – your spirit – you are entirely holy. You are completely separated from sin and the law.

When you believe what the Bible says – that the essential you is already holy and is free from sin – you will sin less, not more, because action follows belief. If you find that you are sinning a lot, what you need is not to try harder to stop, but to believe more fully what God says about you.

Now, there is another thing that will eventually restrain our sinful actions. There is a movie from the 1990s called Groundhog Day. In it, a weather reporter named Phil gets trapped in an endlessly repeating day – February 2 1993, to be precise. Only Phil is trapped in this day. Every day, the other people he meets are living the day as if it is their first February 2, 1993. The only thing that carries over from day to day is Phil’s memory. Naturally, at first he is depressed. One night he is drowning his sorrows in drink, and he says out loud: “What if nothing you did mattered. What if you woke up every morning as if the previous day had never happened?”

One of the other drinkers in the bar said, “That would mean there would be no consequences. You could do anything you like.”

Phil catches on to this idea, and at first, he abuses the fact that there are no consequences for his actions. He gets drunk, commits crimes, and does many morally reprehensible things. After a while all that loses its luster, because he realizes there is no life there. So he tries to commit suicide. He kills himself dozens of times, but always wakes up the next morning at 6:00am on February 2, 1993.

But finally, truly knowing there are no consequences, he begins to live for love. Repeating this day endlessly with one of his co-workers, he falls in love with her. And knowing it doesn’t matter what he does, he finally chooses, because of love, to do what is good and right and noble. He devotes himself to literature and music. He tries as much as possible to help others. Every day he says the same boy from breaking his leg, and the same man from choking. Every day, he tries to save the life of the same old bum who dies on February 2, 1993. Day after day, he tries to bless the people that he is stuck with.

I suggest that you are really in Jesus, and you really know you are free from sin, you will discover quickly that there is no real life in sin, and the pleasure you get from it is false and always disappoints you. When you really know you are free from sin and law, you will find yourself more often drawn to the Lord and REAL life, than the shallow, brief and bitter pleasures of sin. And when we learn to love God, we find that living for love naturally moves us away from what would hurt our loved one, and toward things that are good and right and noble.

Here’s another analogy. I am married to Kari. We have a legal marriage license from the state of Illinois. Suppose we went to a marriage counselor and I said: “Kari committed to be my wife, ’till death do us part. We are legally married, and there is no part of the legal document that specifies what I must do, or what I may not do. So does that mean I can stay out until 3 AM every night and party all I want? Can I stop working, and let her provide all of our finances? Can I spend all our money however I want, without talking to her about it? Can I leave dirty dishes and smelly laundry all over the house?” I could go on, but you get the picture.

Marriage is not about a legal contract in which I fulfill my duties or else face the consequences. I could technically do all those things and remain legally married to Kari. But what kind of relationship is that? I don’t do those things (except leaving the occasional dirty dish) because I love Kari. Now there are times when either Kari or I do things that hurt each other. When that happens, we have to talk about it, and ask forgiveness, and give forgiveness, and heal the relationship. But we don’t say sorry because we have rules about saying sorry. I don’t clean up after myself (a lot of the time, anyway) because there is a rule that I have to. But I know it is helpful for our relationship if I do. I am motivated by love.

This is the picture the New Testament gives us of our relationship with God. Truly, if you are in Jesus Christ, sin is irrelevant. But what is relevant is your relationship with him, your love for him.

Paul describes it almost exactly this way. He uses the analogy of a woman who husband dies, and then she is free to marry someone else. Paul says:

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4, ESV)

We died to sin and to the law so that we could be raised into relationship.

If you are looking to find out how much sin you can get away with, then I question whether you actually are in relationship with God. I would say at the very least, you relationship with him is in very serious trouble. And, believe it or not, that is really the question of someone who is still trying to live by the law. You want a rule about how many rules you can break and still be OK. You aren’t really in relationship with God.

So, to go back to the sin question, since you are free from sin, dead to it, is there a problem if you sin? Well, is there a problem in your marriage if you cheat on your spouse? Of course there is. It isn’t a law problem, it is a problem that shows lack of belief in what God says, and lack of love for him. But we need to understand that it isn’t about performing correctly for God or reforming ourselves or making ourselves holy. It is about believing Him and loving him.

I don’t like it when I hurt Kari feelings. I hate the feeling when we are fighting and our relationship isn’t right. I feel the same way with the Lord. And the truth is this. If I say something hurtful to Kari, and I never say sorry and seek her forgiveness, it puts a barrier in our relationship. The more I hurt her and refuse to resolve the hurt I’ve done or acknowledge my mistake, the more distant our relationship will become. Eventually all the hurts and barriers and distance add up, and if we let it go, we might end up divorced. But you can’t divorced without signing papers. It can’t happen without you knowing about it and agreeing to it.

In the same way, if we continue to live in such a way as to hurt our relationship with God, we will become more and more distant from him. Eventually, we may be so distant that we get no benefit from our relationship with Him. The prodigal son left his father. The father still loved his son, and called him his son, but the son got no benefit from it. Even though he was the son of a loving, kind and generous father, he was living with pigs and eating pig food to survive. He might have died that way, and so, through his neglect of the relationship, never received anything more from his father.

Some of you reading this believe you can never lose your salvation. Some of you believe you can. Wherever you come down, the Bible is very clear that it is very serious thing to be distant from God. The bible exhorts us to continue to have a daily relationship with Him, through faith.

But once more, I want to emphasize that if you truly believe how outrageous God’s grace is, when you truly know that He really has freed you from sin, you will not be motivated to sin nearly as often as before. The more you believe, the less you injure that relationship with God, and the more quickly you will seek healing and resolution when you do hurt that relationship.

We don’t fight sin by trying be good with our own willpower. We don’t conquer temptation by gritting our teeth and getting over it. We start by believing that we are already holy, that in fact, we don’t have any relationship to sin any more. We live now in relationship to God, a relationship of faith that is based upon unconditional love, not rules.

Now, there is another question we need to address. If we are already holy, and already free from sin, why do we sin anymore at all? I apologize, but this message is getting long, and so I will answer that question next time.

LIVING LIFE IN REVERSE

PART I:  GET YOUR BUT IN LINE

Genesis 29:16-35


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We know that God loves us. We know that through Jesus, we are forgiven. We keep our faith in Him. But where we really struggle, is with ourselves. I’m glad I’m forgiven. And I know that I am. But (notice that pernicious little word!) I wish I didn’t sin so much. I wish my life was easier to live. I wish I didn’t worry. I wish I was more compassionate. I wish I wasn’t so lazy.

I know (or at least I think I do) how God wants me to be. So I try to be more like that, but I often fail. After I fail, I say sorry to God. I know that I have forgiveness in Jesus, and that forgiveness is always available. So I get that forgiveness, and then off I go to try again. Sometimes I even try harder. I might even get it together for awhile, but sooner or later I crash and burn again.

Maybe after awhile, I realize I haven’t been very bright. I think, “Ohhh…Jesus has given me the Holy Spirit to help me!” So I get back on the horse, determined to try harder, and succeed this time with the Spirit’s help. And maybe for awhile it goes better. I stop and consciously ask for God’s help to live the life of a Christian. I ask for help when I am tempted. Maybe I also get connected to other Christians, and seek help and support from them. That helps too, because God has given us each for that very purpose.

Now it goes better. But the truth is, it is still a lot of work. And the truth is, though maybe I fail less frequently, I still fail plenty often.

Whole shelves of books have been dedicated to help people like me pull it together. Some of them are quite helpful. Somehow though, I can’t seem to make the improvements permanent or consistent.

Andrew Murray seems to know what I’m going through. He puts it like this:

“The idea they have of grace is this – that their conversion and pardon are God’s work, but that now, in gratitude to God, it is their work to live as Christians, and follow Jesus. There is always the thought of a work to be done, and even though they pray for help, still the work is theirs. They fail continually, and become hopeless; and the despondency only increases the helplessness.” (Abide in Christ)

We tend of think of it like this: ultimate failure, and the power of death and hell, are defeated through Jesus. Now, once we trust in Jesus we can play the game “safely” so to speak. So we can try and fail and try and fail as much as we need to, without being in danger of going to hell.

But does that really sound like “good news?” We are “free” to pursue a cycle of failure? Andrew Murray adds this:

“Dear souls! How little they know that the abiding in Christ is just meant for the weak, and so beautifully suited to their feebleness. It is not the doing of some great thing, and does not demand that we first lead a very holy and devoted life. No, it is simply weakness entrusting itself to a Mighty One to be kept – the unfaithful one casting self on One who is altogether trustworthy and true. Abiding in him [living the Christian life] is not a work that we have to do as the condition for enjoying his salvation, but a consenting to let Him do all for us, and in us, and through us. It is a work he does for us – the fruit and the power of His redeeming love. Our part is simply to yield, to trust and to wait for what He has engaged to perform.” (Abide in Christ).

Now that sounds like good news. Maybe too good. In order to lay hold of this, we need to begin by talking about your but.

Before you can truly grasp everything that Jesus has done for us; before you can take hold of the riches we have in Christ, you need to get your but straightened out.

I am talking, of course, about your B-U-T, not your b-u-t-t. What were you thinking?

We all have buts in life. (All right, insert whatever joke you like here, and then move on). What I mean is, we all say things like this:

Things are going well now, but who knows what will happen in the future?

I know God promises to take care of me, but things aren’t going well right now.

Generally, I have a good marriage, but sometimes he drives me crazy.

I would love to read my bible more, but I just don’t have the time.

I know God has forgiven me, but I still sin, and I don’t always feel forgiven.

There is something I have noticed – we give the most power, the most credibility, to what we put after the but. What we say after the but is what we think is the dominant thing about our reality. The first thing may be some kind of factor, but what we put after the but is more or less the final word on the subject.

What we need to learn, is to put what God says after the but. This is an act of will, but before that even, it is an act of faith. Nothing you hear this weekend will make sense until you agree to put God’s Word after the but.

I want us to look at the life of someone in the Bible who learned to do this. She is one of the least known, least talked-about heroines of faith in the Bible. Her name is Leah. Leah was the daughter of a man named Laban. Her story picks up in Genesis chapter 29. The bible says Leah had “weak eyes.” We don’t really know what this means, but it seems to mean that she was ugly. Right after this it says: “but her sister Rachel was shapely and beautiful.” Notice the but. It was probably one of the dominant “buts” in Leah’s life.

One day their cousin Jacob, whom they had never met, came from a far country. Jacob ended up working for his uncle Laban (Leah’s father). Jacob fell in love with Rachel, Leah’s sister. He told his uncle he would work for seven years as a dowry, and Laban agreed. Only, when the time came, Laban tricked Jacob. Brides in those days were heavily veiled, and the wedding took place at night – and there was no electricity. So Laban gave his older daughter, Leah, in marriage to Jacob, and Jacob didn’t find out until the light of the next morning. Laban offered to let Jacob marry Rachel too, if he worked another seven years. So after Jacob and Leah had been married just one week, a new wedding took place, and Jacob got Rachel at last. Then he had another seven years to work.

Needless to say, they were not one big happy family. We don’t know if Leah loved Jacob, or wanted to marry him. But we do know that Jacob did not love Leah, and had never wanted to marry her. Almost certainly, the reason her father had tricked Jacob in that way was because he thought it was unlikely that he would ever be able to marry her off. In other words, she was so ugly, her father had to trick someone into marrying her. Almost certainly, Leah knew this. She was ugly, not stupid.

Naturally, Jacob favored Rachel. He loved her, not Leah. Leah’s only consolation was that she had children fairly easily, while Rachel went for a long time with none. When Leah’s first son (Reuben) was born, she said, “The Lord has seen my affliction; surely my husband will love me now (Genesis 29:32).” Notice that her focus was on her unhappy situation, and she hopes the fact that she bore him the first child will change it. When her second son (Simeon) came along she said, “The Lord heard I was unloved, and gave me this son also (Genesis 29:33).” Still, her dominant reality is that Jacob doesn’t love her. After her third son was born, she was still focused on her struggles, saying, “at last my husband will become attached to me, because I have borne him three sons (Genesis 29:34).”

Now we know that it takes nine months to make a baby. There was no birth control in those days, but in general, when a woman is breastfeeding, that sometimes helps prevent pregnancy. Back in those days, children were probably breastfed pretty consistently for at least a year. So it reasonable to assume at least two years between each child. When you throw in the fact that Jacob had another wife, and everything that was involved in the family dynamics, it may have been more like three years, or even more between children. So Leah went between six and nine years, while the dominant fact in her life was that her husband did not love her.

But (notice the but) by the time her fourth son arrives, something has changed. There is no evidence that Jacob ever changed his attitude very much toward her. Reasonably, at least eight years might have passed by this point, perhaps a many as twelve or more. Say, a decade; ten long years of realizing her marriage will never be what she dreamed it might be. But listen to what she says when this fourth son, Judah, is born: “This time, I will praise the Lord (29:35).”

Leah is no longer fixated on what she lacks in her life. She isn’t trying to get Jacob to change anymore. Instead, her focus is on the Lord, and his love and favor for her. Her struggle had been with God and with her husband. But when she gave birth to Judah, she has given up the fight – in a positive way. Her troubles have led her to a place where she looks to God to meet her needs, and can receive his love and mercy with joy and thankfulness. I’m sure that Leah still struggled. I think it is only reasonable to assume that emotionally, her situation never changed much. Certainly, the Bible never records that Jacob changed his attitude toward her. But she came to the point where the dominant thing in her life was not her struggle, or her unfilled needs, but rather, God’s awesome love for her.

Genesis 29:31 says that when the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb. In other words, the Lord was the one who gave Leah these children; and even more, he gave them to her because he saw that her husband did not love her. Now, at first, her response was basically this: “Good! This child will change my situation. This child will make my husband love me.” But think about it. God gave the children to Leah, not as tools to coerce Jacob’s love – the Lord gave Leah children because the Lord loved her. He was showing her that regardless of what Jacob thought of her, He loved her. She was not unloved. At first she missed the point. She was still putting Jacob’s lack of love after the but. Finally however, she got it. When Judah was born, she praised the Lord. She finally saw that these children would not make her loved – they showed her that she was already loved.

Sometimes when we pray, God changes our situation, and makes it better. Sometimes, he leaves us in the same circumstances. When he does that, his desire is that our lives can be so filled with him, that the negative aspects of our situation pale in comparison. When Kari and I first started dating, I was in job situation that I didn’t like, living in a city I didn’t care for, with few real friends nearby. I remember sitting in a meeting at work, filled with joy. I wasn’t joyful because I was in the meeting. I wasn’t joyful because I liked where I was living, or because I was making much money, or that I liked my work. None of those things were true. But I was joyful because I knew that wherever I was, whatever I was doing, Kari loved me.

Now, I don’t mean to be negative, but the kind of joy that came when I first knew that Kari loved me, does not sustain me in the same way eighteen years later. We still love each other. It is still a big thing in my life that Kari loves me. But no human being has the power to fill you with joy consistently for a long period of time. Only God’s love is that strong.

I think that was the kind of place Leah finally reached. Jacob still didn’t love her. He probably never would. But God did, and the fact that God loved her was more important than the fact that her husband did not.

This is the key to “Living after the But.” Remember, whatever you put after “but” is the dominant reality to you. For many years, Leah probably said something like this: “I know God loves me, but my husband does not. I’m just a third wheel.” Finally, after the birth of Judah, she started thinking this way: “I know Jacob never wanted to marry me. He may never love me the way I want him to. But God loves me and cares for me.” The only thing that really changed for Leah is which thing she put after the “But.” However, I think it transformed everything for her.

I suspect that in the next few messages I have to preach, you might hear some things that cause you to think “but….” I want you to remind yourself to put the correct thing after the but.

The apostle Paul said something very important in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18:

Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

This verse teaches us something important about the nature of reality. Part of reality is seen. That is, we can perceive it with the senses. This part of reality changes. It proceeds through time. It has a beginning and an end. We might call it the “natural realm” or “this world,” Paul says that this part of reality is temporary. That doesn’t mean it is meaningless. In the broad scheme of things, this seen and temporary part of reality is where God works in us and through us for his own glory. What happens in the seen, in the here and now of time, has an effect on where we are in the other part of reality. In this world, we have struggle and change and process and need and growing and sowing and reaping.

The other part of reality is unseen and eternal. It is outside of time. We might call it the eternal realm, or eternity. It is the realm of the uncreated, of ultimate reality, of complete and wholeness where things are settled. This is the ultimate dwelling of God. When God appeared to Moses and Moses asked him his name, God said “I AM.” That is an idea of the eternal realm. There is no time there.

The bible says that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). That is is not true in this world, in the temporary part of reality. Jesus is not walking around Palestine today like he was two thousand years ago. When he was thirty he was physically changed from how he looked and acted when he was three. But in the eternal realm, that is true. Jesus existed before the creation of the earth. He exists now. He always will exist. His eternal spirit never has changed, never will change.

Maybe this is obvious, but these verses in 2 Corinthians show us that the eternal realm is greater, more powerful, and more permanent than the temporary realm of this world. We don’t mean that this world doesn’t matter or is an illusion. God made it. God even entered it himself as a human being, bound in time. So it is important. We are just acknowledging that what the bible says is true: the unseen realm is greater than the seen. We are supposed to focus on the unseen more than on the seen.

Both realms co-exist. They interact with each other. The bible teaches that we live in both at the same time – even as Jesus did. But simply for illustration it may help to think of a line between them. Above the line is the eternal, unseen realm. Below the line is the temporary, seen world.

In these terms, we need to put the truths that exist “above the line” – the eternal unchanging truths – after the but.

We deal with things below the line constantly. That’s what Paul was talking about in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. His outer person (below the line) was being destroyed. But…BUT his inner person (above the line) was being constantly renewed. His affliction is momentary – but the glory is eternal. He focuses therefore on what is unseen and eternal. He puts those things after the but.

Now, I want the Holy Spirit to make this practical for you. What have you been putting after the but? Has your dominant reality been what God says? Or have you given more power and credence to your circumstances, or how you feel, or what your mind tells you logically? Take a moment to think about it. Let the Lord bring to mind what you have reversed right now.

Your dominant reality might be very negative, and very powerful. Leah spent her whole life thinking, “but I’m ugly.” Long years of marriage only added, “and I’m unwanted, and I’ll never get the chance to be with someone who does want me.” That’s powerful stuff. And it was all true. She never was loved by her husband or anyone else in that way.

But…BUT – there was another thing that was true. It was true that she was made in the image of God. It was true that God loved her. It was true that God wanted her. She let God’s love become her dominant reality. She let his word be the final word.

We need to learn to believe that what God says is more real than what we think or feel.

I am not saying that your struggles aren’t real. I am not saying that you aren’t dealing with things that are truly bad, or difficult or wrong. But I am saying that God’s Word is more true, more powerful. It is an act of faith to believe it.

Closing Potpourri

1 CORINTHIANS PART 29. 1 CORINTHIANS 16:1-24


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potpourri

1 Corinthians chapter 16 is kind of a potpourri of closing thoughts, some of them apparently even kind of random. Even so, it is important for two reasons.

First, it is a window into the documentary heritage of the bible. There are certain groups of people who claim the bible was made up by people who wanted to control others through religion. They say the New Testament was gathered and edited by people with an agenda; that it was not inspired by God. Personally, if I was making something up, I’d leave 1Corinthians 16 out. It doesn’t look edited or shaped at all. In fact, it shows us what 1 Corinthians actually is: a letter, written by a real person to other real people. I believe that the Holy Spirit inspired the letter; I believe that the Holy Spirit has, and will continue to, use the words of this letter to teach God’s people and draw them closer to Jesus. In short, I believe that the ultimate source of the letter is the Spirit of God, and it remains supernaturally meaningful and powerful and authoritative. But that does not change the fact that the means the Holy Spirit used in this instance was one real historical person, writing a letter to other real historical, people.

Very shortly after they were written, the letters of the apostles, and their writings about the life of Jesus (which we call the gospels) were copied and shared with all the churches. Many, many copies of each of these documents were made within a short period of time. Within about two hundred years, these writings had all been gathered together into one group of documents which we call the New Testament. Each document in the New Testament had to have a clear historical connection to a known apostle, and each one had to be in wide use throughout virtually all churches in the known world at the time. Each one also existed in multiple copies, so the copies could be checked against each other for accuracy.

There are other pseudo-Christian documents that survive from the period. Generally, only a few local churches had these, and they cannot be traced back clearly to any apostle. There are very few copies of these, compared to early copies of New Testament writings. Those documents were not included in the New Testament. Every couple years, the National Geographic Society trots one of these out as if it were a major new discovery (bible scholars have known about them for almost a thousand years). They call them “The Lost Gospels” or do some sort of article or TV show about the missing books of the New Testament. This is nothing more than extremely poor scholarship sensationalized to gain readers and viewers, and possibly to push an anti-Christian agenda.

My point is, when we look at 1 Corinthians 16, we see the New Testament for what it is. It is very hard to read this chapter and maintain that it was made up a hundred years after the fact. This passage is far too haphazard and far too personal either to be made up, or to be left in by editors who had a religious agenda.

There is a second reason why I want to look at 1 Corinthians 16. Romans 15:4 says

For whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures.

When Paul wrote that, he was talking about the Old Testament, but it applies equally to the New Testament. The idea is that even in a chapter like 1 Corinthians 16, there are things that can instruct and encourage us. There are three things I want to pick out of this chapter with that in mind.

Verses one through four are about a collection that was being taken to help out the Christians in Jerusalem. We know that there was a famine that hit Palestine in the mid 40’s. Times were very different then, it may have taken years or even decades for the region to recover, and so other Christians were still trying to help out their brothers and sisters in that area. I want to pay particular attention to something Paul says: “Each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income.” The entire bible affirms the two principles contained here.

The first principle is that we should give some of our money and resources to God’s work. We learned in 1 Corinthians 9 that an essential part of this work is preaching and teaching His Word , and God intends some people to devote their full time to it. Other people need to give for that to happen (1 Corinthians 9:14). That principle is affirmed many times in the Old Testament as well. In addition, the New Testament encourages churches to provide material help to widows and orphans – that is people who had no options when it came to income. Finally, here we find the principle of helping other believers who are need due to circumstances beyond their control.

The second principle is that of proportional giving. Paul says to set aside an amount in keeping with income. In other words, a percentage. This is both important and useful. It is important, because it means that everyone can and should give. If you only make $100, you can’t afford to give $100. But you can afford $10. However, if you make $1000, you can afford $100.

Jesus affirmed this principle himself. In Mark 12:41-44 he observed a widow who gave two copper pennies. He compared her to others who were giving large amounts. He said:

“I assure you: This poor widow has put in more than all those giving to the temple treasury. For they all gave out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she possessed — all she had to live on.”

In other words, he wasn’t that impressed by people who gave because they had extra. He was touched by proportional giving. Sometimes we wait and see what we have extra, and decide what we can afford to give after everything else is taken care of. My problem, when I do that, is that I never have extra. But when it comes to giving, the entire bible in many and various ways encourages us to give to God first, and to do it as a percentage of what we get. Paul knows this, and so he tells them to set aside money each week in proportion to their income.

The next thing I want to pick out these verses for our instruction and encouragement is that Paul takes time here to name several leaders. He lists Timothy, Apollos, Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus. He tells them to treat Timothy well, and help him. He says of them all:

…They have devoted themselves to the service of the saints. Submit to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer.

…Give recognition to such men..

Remember how this letter began? Paul chastised them for following leaders instead of Jesus, and starting sects based upon the personalities of their leaders. Now, he tells them to recognize leaders, listen to them and give them respect. He doesn’t want them to form cliques around leaders, or to elevate them to cult-status. But he does want them to recognize that God has chosen certain people to teach and lead them, and he wants the Corinthians to be humble enough to learn from those people, and to contribute to the the disciple-making effort under their guidance.

I find two opposite extremes to be quite common among Christians. There are some who venerate leaders and elevate them far beyond what they should be. “Pastor John says this, so that’s the way it is.” I’ve seen people believe things that are unbiblical, simply because a charismatic leader told them it was true. That extreme is wrong. Our faith is in Jesus, not human leaders. But I’ve also seen Christians who have contempt for any kind of spiritual leadership. These people are not humble and teachable. They fail to recognize that some folks  are called to teach the bible and give spiritual guidance to God’s people. So in the first part of this letter, Paul warns them about the first extreme. Now he warns them about the second. There is a place for spiritual leaders. Those who are not called to that ought to be teachable enough to listen to and receive God’s help through those who are called to lead.

The last things I want to point out from this text come from verses 13-14. Paul gives them a rapid fire set of final thoughts: “Be watchful, stand firm in faith, act like men, be brave, act in love. When it says “act like men” I think what Paul really means is, “it is time to grow up in your faith.”

Remember how Paul began this letter. These Corinthians have all that they need – in Jesus Christ. In Jesus they are complete, they are wise, they are spiritually gifted, they have all things. The bulk of the letter, Paul spent pointing out how they were failing to live their lives out of who they are in Christ. Instead they were living out of their own flesh and their own efforts. So now Paul closes by saying, among other things: get steadfast about your faith – it’s time to give up these flesh-patterns and this self life. It’s time to grow up. Growing up means that they should be living out of the fullness that is in Jesus, not the emptiness and vain effort that comes from their flesh.

 it’s time to give up these flesh-patterns and this self life. It’s time to grow up. Growing up means that they should be living out of the fullness that is in Jesus, not the emptiness and vain effort that comes from their flesh.

That’s terrific advice for us too. For each one us, I bet there are areas for each one of us where we need to grow up. It’s time to stop living for ourselves; to stop pretending that life is about us. Instead, let’s grow up. Let’s be steadfast in our faith, be bold, be courageous and live out of who we are in Jesus.