Colossians Part 3: The fountain of Love and Hope.

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Colossians Part 3: The fountain of Love and Hope. Colossians 1:3-9

When we truly hope for something important, that hope creates fellowship with others who have the same hope. Therefore, when the grace and love of God are poured into us, they create a kind of fountain that first fills us, and then pours out of us into our relationships with other Christians, and then fills the church (our fellow Christians) and pours out into the world. That is God design. If the fountain doesn’t seem to be working, the first place to check is the source: our own connection to the love of God in Jesus.

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By the way, I take all of the five verses above in one piece, because, in Greek, they are on sentence. There is a lot to this sentence (paragraph, in English) but all of the thoughts hang together. The ESV translation captures this quite well. Obviously, as we discussed before, Paul has never met most of the Christians in Colossae. But here he points out that because of their common faith, it is appropriate for Paul to give thanks for them, and it is appropriate for all Christians to love even those believers whom they have not yet met. It is worthwhile to notice that the Apostle Paul often gives thanks when he writes. But we should also notice that his giving of thanks is very specific. He thanks God, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He does not thank “the universe,” nor does he just feel vaguely thankful. He is thankful to a specific person, God, that is, the Father of our Lord Jesus (not a pagan god, nor some god-principle). He is thankful to the One the Bible describes as the only true God.

Second, Paul is specific in what he is thankful about. In all his letters, he is especially thankful when he hears that people are putting their trust in Jesus, and receiving the salvation that comes only through him. I think it is often helpful to be thankful for little things, like warm biscuits, and fresh cold water, and good friends and a working vehicle. However, none of those things is guaranteed in life. We can be rightly grateful for them. But we may not always have them. But there is one thing that is guaranteed. One thing, if we want it, is ours forever, and can never be taken from us. There is one thing for which we can give thanks, no matter where we are, or what is happening. That one thing is the love of God given in and through Jesus Christ. Every single person, in every time and place, from a cold dungeon to a sumptuous palace, can thank God for his love given to us in Jesus. God’s greatest gift to us is himself. If God is, well, God, then He is simply the greatest, most wonderful thing in the universe. He gives us many other things, but he also gives us what is best: Himself. He does it through Jesus.

I have said before that giving thanks has real spiritual power. One of the primary ways we can truly “take hold of” some of the “abstract” gifts of God (like love, peace, joy and so on) is to thank him for them. So, one of the primary ways to receive more of Jesus in our lives is to thank God for Him. Paul knew that, and did it regularly.

Paul is thankful for their faith in Jesus, and for the love they have for the saints (remember, that means, all Christians) because of the hope laid up for them in heaven. When we put our faith in Jesus, we gain an everlasting hope. One of the results of that hope is that we learn to love the other people who share it. Not too many weeks ago, we spent time thinking about the hope we wait for in the new heavens and the new earth. This is the hope Paul is talking about. The hope of having our sins and mistakes wiped away beyond memory, and being made perfect, to fulfill every purpose for which we were created. The hope of being completely and utterly known, and still loved. The hope of eternal, abundant, fulfilling, joyful life in the New Creation. The hope of being with Jesus, and our other loved ones, forever.

Hope brings people together. This might surprise you, until you think about it. Have you ever been a fan of sports team, hoping your team will win the big game? When the game is on, and you are gathered with others, don’t you feel a kind of fellowship with those who, along with you, hope for your team to do well? You have a warm fellow-feeling, even with people you don’t know, if they root for the same team. Hope creates fellowship. Also, the more important the hope is to you, the stronger you feel fellowship with those who have the same hope. Elsewhere Paul writes this:

5 This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (CSB Romans 5:5)

Before we move on, I want point something out. Most of the verses in the New Testament that talk about loving other people are written to tell Christians to love other Christians. Now, it is certainly not OK to hate anyone. Jesus himself tells us to love our enemies, and even to pray for those who persecute us. But Christian love begins with love from and for Christ, and moves from there to love for other Christians. If you love those who are not  Christians, but fail to have love for your fellow-believers, something is wrong. Imagine a fountain that bubbles up into a small bowl at the top. The water fills that bowl, and then spills into second, larger bowl below it. It fills up the second bowl, and spills out over to a third, even larger one below that. That might work as a picture of Christian love. The first bowl is ourselves. The love of God is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5). The second bowl is other Christians. The love that God gives us, spills over into love for others who have the same hope. Next, together, the love that Christians have for each other spills out into love for the world – including those who are not Christians.

Now, if we try to take short cuts on that process, it doesn’t work. If our own bowl is not full of God’s love, we will have nothing to give to our fellow Jesus-followers. Our bowl is the smallest. Loving the world is too big a task for individuals on their own. It needs the second bowl – the combined love of the fellowship of believers – to love the world.

Also, Jesus was very clear – one sign to those who do not know him is that those who do know Him will love each other. People will see quite quickly how we Christians treat one another.

35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (CSB) John 13:35

Think about it. If I see a group that sort of barely tolerates each other, that’s not something I want to be a part of, even if the group claims to love me. If they don’t truly love each other, the moment I become a part of them, I will no longer be loved them. You see? So we must love each other, or we cannot hope to love the world.

9 The one who says he is in the light but hates his brother or sister is in the darkness until now. 10 The one who loves his brother or sister remains in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. 11 But the one who hates his brother or sister is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and doesn’t know where he’s going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. (CSB 1 John 2:9-11)

John writes this because if we have the love of Jesus in our hearts, we will naturally love our fellow Christians. The two go hand in hand. Let me be really clear. If we don’t love our fellow Christians, the solution is not to try harder. The solution is to connect more deeply with the way God loves us, and hope we have together in Jesus. The more we really trust how much God loves us, the more real our future hope is to us, the more we will love our fellow believers. The first will cause the second. And the more we love our fellow believers, the better we can together love the world.

Paul mentions that this very thing is happening both with the Colossians, and around the world. As a result, the gospel is bearing fruit. There are two kinds of fruit that come about. The first is inner growth. Paul says that the gospel is bearing fruit and growing in you. That means that it is causing them to grow inwardly. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are

love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. (CSB Galatians 5:22-23)

These are things that grow inside us as individuals, and which we practice in our relationships with each other. I would add, based upon many other texts, that we also grow in knowing what the Bible says, and what it means, and how it applies to our lives. There is also growth in the sense of learning to say to “no” to the ungodly world, the devil and our sinful flesh, while we say “Yes,” to God, more and more.

There is an outward kind of fruit, and that is: new disciples. The gospel makes us grow inwardly, and also it grows outwardly, by adding more people to those who have the hope that is found in Jesus alone. Paul says that all over the world, more people are coming to know Jesus. In fact, as we grow inwardly, that causes to treat people differently, and also to motivated to share with them the grace we have received from God.

Did you know that, just as it was true when Paul wrote it, it has been true throughout all of history, and is true even today? I live in the Western World, where Christianity has begun to sort of “age,” and perhaps show signs of decline. But the fastest growing religion in the world today is still Christianity. Though we don’t notice it in America, there are other places in the world where Christianity’s growth is dynamic. In the past, America, and Western Europe sent missionaries all over the world. Today, many of the places that used to be mission fields have such strong churches that they are sending missionaries themselves. I have personally met missionaries from Korea, China, Japan, Brazil, Angola, Kenya, Ethiopia, Bermuda, Tonga, and probably a few other places I have forgotten. Christianity is not, by any means, in decline, when you consider the worldwide picture.

Paul ends this sentence by praising Epaphras, who was the missionary to the Colossians. It is good and right for them to recognize and honor the one who brought God’s word to them.

Some areas for application: Should we consider making it a regular practice to give thanks to God for Jesus, and our salvation? What kind of difference might that make in our day to day life of following Him? Do we love our fellow-Christians? If we don’t, then answer is not to beat ourselves up, but rather, to dig more deeply into the that hope we share with all believers. Finally, is the gospel bearing fruit in your life? I am not concerned about the amount or “size” of fruit in the lives of disciples. I think the real issue is, is there any kind of fruit from the gospel in your life? You see, God is the one who provides the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7: John 15:4). How much, and in which ways, we grow, is up to Him. So the issue is simply this: if you have truly believed the gospel, there will be some fruit in your life, however small. It is usually best to ask a trusted Christian friend about how they see the fruit of gospel in you. We tend to either minimize, or exaggerate what God is doing.

Pray and meditate on these these things now.

DESIRE, HOPE & THE RESURRECTION

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What if our deepest desires – and our deepest disappointments – are really signs that we were made for something more? Jesus, by letting Lazarus die, was trying to get the attention of his loved ones. He wanted to reconnect them with their deep, unfulfilled desires, so that he could show them that He himself can and does fill them. He wanted to show them both, the depth of their desire for a world without death, and also, how completely unrealistic that desire is – apart from Himself

 

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RESURRECTION SUNDAY, 2019

John 11:1-53

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central truth on which all Christian theology depends. If Jesus wasn’t really raised from the dead, then he was a madman or megalomaniac, or maybe a demon. But if he was truly raised, then what he said was true; and he said he was God the Son, come into the world for our salvation.

I have talked before about the theological implications of the resurrection. I probably will do so again in the future. I have shared with you substantial evidence that supports the claim that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. I’ll do that again in the future also. But this year, I want to talk about the resurrection in a personal way. To do that, I want to consider a different resurrection: the resurrection of Lazarus, recorded in John chapter 11:1-53. Don’t get me wrong, this is also about the resurrection of Jesus. However, I think by considering what happened in this incident, we can learn some things about Jesus’ resurrection, and the eternal life he offers us.

Jesus was at least two days of traveling away from his friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Lazarus became seriously ill, and so the sisters sent word to Jesus. What John says next is pretty strange:

Now Jesus loved Martha, her sister, and Lazarus. So when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two more days in the place where He was.

John connects two things that don’t seem like they should be connected. He says Jesus loved Lazarus, so when he heard Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was. What kind of sense does that make? I can see John writing, “Jesus loved Lazarus, but when he heard he was sick, he stayed where he was anyway.” Or it would make sense to say, “Jesus loved Lazarus, so when he heard he was sick, he hurried to his side.” But John very deliberately connects the fact that Jesus loved Lazarus to the fact that he didn’t go to him, and allowed him to die.

Now, of course, that isn’t the end of the story. Jesus does go back – after Lazarus has died and been in the ground for four days. He speaks to Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary. Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This is actually a statement, but implied here is a question: “Why did you let him die? Why didn’t you come when we called?”

Jesus, typically, doesn’t answer her unspoken question. Instead, while their brother is still rotting in the tomb, he asks them to put their faith in him. You see, Jesus had bigger plans for Lazarus than merely healing him from a deadly disease. He had plans for resurrection.

We want to restore things as they were. Jesus wants to let things “as they were” die, so that he can resurrect something better in its place. In order for resurrection to occur, death must occur first. In other words, Jesus cannot resurrect something unless it dies first. To go back to the point I made earlier: Jesus loved Lazarus, therefore he let him die. This isn’t necessarily a pleasant thought. Usually, we want to skip the dying part, and go right to the resurrection; but death is a part of the equation. Jesus said:

24 Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  (John 12:24, ESV)

This is an obvious truth when it comes to seeds. When you plant a seed, you destroy it, as a seed. But the destruction of a seed results in something new and wonderful, something that is actually much greater than the seed was. In the same way, resurrection requires death. This truth is all over the bible:

24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?  (Matt 16:24-26, ESV)

When Jesus says “take up his cross” he means quite simply, “be willing to die.”

2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 3 For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  (Col 3:2-3, ESV)

20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  (Gal 2:20, ESV)

Ultimately, this means our physical death. It means that death is not something to fear. It leads to resurrection. But even now, before physical death, there are things that Jesus would like us to let go. There are ambitions, hopes, values, material things, perhaps even relationships, that we need to allow to die. [By the way, when I say “relationships” I don’t mean marriages. As always, we need to consider the whole scripture, and the Lord has made it clear that he considers marriages to be permanent in this life. Please do not interpret this message in any way that contradicts some part of the bible].  We might feel like letting go of our rights, or our dreams or material things is a terrible thing. And it might indeed be very difficult and traumatic. But there is a resurrection waiting, and sometimes the only thing holding up the glorious new life is the death that must come first.

You can’t fault Martha and Mary and the disciples for failing to see this, when it came to their brother. It is so much bigger than anything they have thought of hoping for. They are thinking of this life. They are thinking of what seems possible, given their level of interaction with Jesus. But they are not thinking like Jesus.

23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”  (John 11:23-27, ESV)

I identify with Martha and the others. I usually hope for what seems somewhat realistic. Considering how they had themselves seen Jesus heal people, it was reasonable for them to hope for healing. But resurrection was outside their experience. It was outside their paradigm. So often, we are like that. We want healing and continuation of this life. Jesus wants to give us resurrection. We want what seems possible, even if unlikely. Jesus wants to give us what we haven’t even thought of yet.

Before we are too old, we learn that life is full of disappointments. We find out we can’t fly. Animals don’t talk. Mom and Dad are really going to stay divorced. Work is hard, as is managing money. The odds against winning the lottery really are one-hundred million to one against it (or even worse). My marriage isn’t perfect. I can’t make a living doing what I love to do. You know exactly what I’m talking about. So, we adjust our expectations. We adjust them radically downwards. Chocolate cake is doable. I can dream of having chocolate cake, and I think I can make that dream happen. I can’t be fulfilled in my work, but I think I can manage to be pleasurably distracted by TV, or computer games.

But what if our deepest desires – and our deepest disappointments – are really signs that we were made for something more? The great philosopher, Blaise Pascal wrote:

What can this incessant craving, and this impotence of attainment mean, unless there was once a happiness belonging to man, of which only the faintest traces remain, in that void which he attempts to fill with everything within his reach? (Pascal, Pensées)

When we get honest with ourselves, we know that the world doesn’t seem right. We have a deep restlessness. As I said, we cover it up with things we think we can realistically get for ourselves, like work, entertainment, shopping, sex, food, adventure, relationships – the list is endless. But if we would just stop, and be still, we would realize that there is a deep emptiness in us. That’s probably why we so seldom stop and be still. We often blame the emptiness on ourselves; and it’s true we certainly don’t do ourselves any favors. But the problem is not only just with us. It is that we are out of place. We were made for paradise, and instead we are living on the outskirts of hell. C.S. Lewis writes:

Now, if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object. (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory)

Jesus, by letting Lazarus die, was trying to get the attention of his loved ones. He wanted to reconnect them with their deep, unfulfilled desires, so that he could show them that He himself can and does fill them. He wanted to show them both, the depth of their desire for a world without death, and also, how completely unrealistic that desire is – apart from Himself. As we follow Jesus, he sometimes asks us to let some things die, so that he can replace them with that which is far better.

Let’s continue with the story:

28 Then she returned to Mary. She called Mary aside from the mourners and told her, “The Teacher is here and wants to see you.” 29 So Mary immediately went to him.
30 Jesus had stayed outside the village, at the place where Martha met him. 31 When the people who were at the house consoling Mary saw her leave so hastily, they assumed she was going to Lazarus’s grave to weep. So they followed her there. 32 When Mary arrived and saw Jesus, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled. 34 “Where have you put him?” he asked them.
They told him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Then Jesus wept. (NLT) John 11:28-35

Jesus himself understood that this life is deeply troubling. Even though he knew what he was about to do next, he wept. It is entirely good and appropriate sometimes to grieve, to be deeply troubled – even when we have the hope that Jesus gives. This life can be terrible and tragic. Jesus did not pretend that a future resurrection meant that you should never cry here and now. We are indeed living in a place where we were not made to live. Continuing on:

36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him! ” 37 But some of them said, “Couldn’t he who opened the blind man’s eyes also have kept this man from dying? ”

And there it is: If God is so powerful, why does he let bad things happen? If he is good, why would he allow evil to exist? I think the full answer is beyond our understanding, but one reason is this: if God were to destroy all evil, he would also have to destroy all of us, because none of us is without some evil. Only those who trust Jesus to do it for them can be made holy without being destroyed at the same time. God is patient, waiting for more people to enter through the only door. I know, however that that particular answer, though correct, is not complete. There is more going on with that question than we can understand. I know that Jesus calls us to trust, even when we can’t understand. That is certainly what he was saying to Martha and Mary. Let’s finish this story:

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 “Remove the stone,” Jesus said.
Martha, the dead man’s sister, told him, “Lord, there is already a stench because he has been dead four days.”
40 Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God? ”
41 So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you heard me. 42 I know that you always hear me, but because of the crowd standing here I said this, so that they may believe you sent me.” 43 After he said this, he shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out! ” 44 The dead man came out bound hand and foot with linen strips and with his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unwrap him and let him go.” (CSB) John 11:36-44

Now, as amazing as this is, I want to point something out: today Lazarus is dead again. His resurrection was not THE resurrection. It was a miracle that Jesus did to show who he is, and what is coming. But it is important for us to realize that it was temporary, because far too often, what we think we want is for Jesus to fix this life, and what Jesus wants to do is give us an entirely new life that will never be broken again. We want Jesus to raise things that will just have to die again anyway. We get so focused on this life, and the things in it. But the resurrection that Jesus offers us is not just a restoration of what we have right now. That was Lazarus’ resurrection, but it is not the resurrection that Jesus promises, and ultimately that Jesus himself had.

The apostle Paul describes both the resurrection that Jesus had, which is also promised to us, when we trust Jesus:

When you put a seed into the ground, it doesn’t grow into a plant unless it dies first. 37 And what you put in the ground is not the plant that will grow, but only a bare seed of wheat or whatever you are planting. 38 Then God gives it the new body he wants it to have. A different plant grows from each kind of seed. 39 Similarly there are different kinds of flesh—one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish.
40 There are also bodies in the heavens and bodies on the earth. The glory of the heavenly bodies is different from the glory of the earthly bodies. 41 The sun has one kind of glory, while the moon and stars each have another kind. And even the stars differ from each other in their glory.
42 It is the same way with the resurrection of the dead. Our earthly bodies are planted in the ground when we die, but they will be raised to live forever. 43 Our bodies are buried in brokenness, but they will be raised in glory. They are buried in weakness, but they will be raised in strength. 44 They are buried as natural human bodies, but they will be raised as spiritual bodies. For just as there are natural bodies, there are also spiritual bodies.
45 The Scriptures tell us, “The first man, Adam, became a living person.” But the last Adam—that is, Christ—is a life-giving Spirit. 46 What comes first is the natural body, then the spiritual body comes later. 47 Adam, the first man, was made from the dust of the earth, while Christ, the second man, came from heaven. 48 Earthly people are like the earthly man, and heavenly people are like the heavenly man. 49 Just as we are now like the earthly man, we will someday be like the heavenly man.
50 What I am saying, dear brothers and sisters, is that our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever.
51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.
54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die, this Scripture will be fulfilled:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
55 O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
56 For sin is the sting that results in death, and the law gives sin its power. 57 But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ. 58 So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless. (NLT, 1 Corinthians 15:36-58)

Are you willing to let temporary things die so that you can receive something that will never die? Are you willing to believe that our deepest, most unfulfillable desires might be signs that we were made for Resurrection life? Especially, are you willing to trust Jesus to be the true Resurrection and Life, to be patient until he brings that Resurrection Life to us? When we are so willing, as Paul writes, nothing we do for the Lord is ever useless!

22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. 24 We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it. 25 But if we look forward to something we don’t yet have, we must wait patiently and confidently.) (NLT) Romans 8:22-25

Let us look forward with hope, because the One who called us is faithful. He has risen!

He has risen indeed.

Revelation #15 THE PLAN FOR THE FULFILLMENT OF HISTORY

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This life will never completely fulfill us or satisfy us, because it is not supposed to. The good news is that Jesus Christ is enacting God’s plan to bring history to its ultimate fulfilment, and to bring those who trust him – his people – into the New Heaven and New Earth, where we will be completely fulfilled, and completely joyful.

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Revelation #15. 5:1-14

Pieces of Revelation chapters four and five can be found in countless hymns, songs and liturgies. “Holy, Holy, Holy,” is of course, from 4:8. There’s a line in that song: “casting down their golden crowns, around the glassy sea.” This is, clearly from 4:6 & 10. The music group “Casting Crowns” obviously got their name from here. Several of my favorite other hymns reference this part of Revelation. The phrase: “Worthy is the Lamb” is found in probably thousands of Christian songs.

All that shows us that these chapters can, and should, present us with a powerful desire for heaven. These images inspired generations of Christians to live their lives with a view of heaven. Some people object to this. There used to be a very common phrase: “He (or she) is so heavenly minded, he’s no earthly good.” I hate that phrase with a passion. The truth is exactly the opposite. If we do not have a clear picture of the hope that awaits us, and a deep, strong desire for the goodness and joy of heaven, we will be relatively useless as God’s people here on earth.

Let me make sure this is clear. If we are Christians, the best is yet to come. This life will never completely fulfill us or satisfy us, because it is not supposed to. We are made for something better, truer, deeper than this life can offer. And the wonderful news is this: because the of the Lamb of God, we will someday enter the world that we were made for. We will find true joy, total satisfaction and all that we need. Because we know that, we can be patient in the here and now. We can be willing to be less self-centered, because we now that someday, our hearts will be completely satisfied. We can put up with the crushing imperfections of this life, knowing that the best is yet to come. That allows us to work for good here and now, even when it does not directly benefit us. It is those people who are trying to get satisfaction here and now, who aren’t willing to trust and wait, that are not much use in this world to the One who sits on the throne.

Chapter five begins with a scroll, sealed with seven seals (5:1). The NAS version translates it “book,” and indeed, the Greek (biblios) would be literally rendered “book.” However, “book” to the majority of John’s readers would have meant some sort of written document in a scroll form (bound books were relatively uncommon until about hundred years after Revelation was written). The reason this is important is so we can picture what John is picturing. He is seeing a scroll –something like a rolled up poster. Instead of a rubber band to keep it rolled up, there are seven “seals” that keep the scroll from unrolling. A “document seal” in the ancient world was made of wax. The wax was heated and dropped onto the scroll. Usually, the sender of the document made an “impression” on the wax while it was still warm. The “impression” or picture that was pushed into the wax was often from some sort of ring or stamp that had a design on it. The design was usually unique to the owner of the ring or stamp. The reason it was called a “seal” is because the wax was dropped half on the edge of the end of the scroll, and half on the rest of the roll where it met the edge. This resulted in the wax holding the documented closed, or rolled up. On the scroll that John saw, there were seven seals; I would imagine them running across the width of the scroll, holding it closed in seven places. Another way to picture it would be as follows: The scroll held one seal on the outside. After the first seal had been broken, it was unrolled a bit, and another seal was revealed, keeping the rest of the document closed. After this was broken, further on came another seal and another. This certainly would have been an unusual arrangement, and not easily envisaged even by the initial readers of Revelation, though it is favored by many Bible interpreters. I personally prefer to think of the seven seals as found in the first arrangement – all at the beginning of the document.

In any case, the scroll and the seals clearly represent something more than just a written document. The scroll is in fact, God’s plan for the culmination of human history. In other words, the unrolling of the scroll results in God setting in motion the judgment of the world, the return of Jesus Christ and the ultimate salvation of all who know Jesus. The scroll gives meaning to human history. Without this plan, without God’s control and deliberate intervention, human history is just a series of random and meaningless incidents strung together in time. With it, the entire picture is given coherence and hope.

I believe that there is one primary purpose for the seals, and that is that they prevent anyone other than Jesus Christ from “opening the book.” In this way we are given a complete picture of God’s control of history. First, the scroll is in the right hand of the One who sits on the throne – God is holding the plan for the end of history. Second, only one person has the ability to enact this plan, and that is Jesus Christ. It is supremely important to understand therefore, that the breaking of the seals and the opening of the scroll is a GOOD thing, if you are a Christian. John wept bitterly when he thought that the scroll would not be opened – he wanted to see God’s plan brought to fullness. I have spoken with many people who are a bit afraid of Revelation and the things it predicts and teaches. They don’t like the thought of plagues and wars and all that. We must understand however, that to John and to the first readers of the book, the opening of the scroll and the beginning of God’s judgment on the earth was a completely positive thing. They weren’t afraid of the scroll being opened – to the contrary, they were afraid it wouldn’t be opened. Therefore, as we continue through Revelation, we ought to interpret it wherever possible in a way that brings hope and joy to the Christian – for that is how the first recipients of the book read it.

In chapter four we had a picture of God the Father in heaven – on the throne, in control, seeing everything. Now, in chapter five we are given insight into the role of God the Son – Jesus Christ.

Jesus is described as the “Lion of the tribe of Judah;” “the root of David;” and “a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, (5:6)” In his Gospel, John remembers that John the Baptist had called Jesus, “the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1:29). Peter also compares Jesus to a sacrificial lamb (1 Peter 1:19) as does the prophecy about Jesus found in Isaiah 53:7. The fact that Jesus appears as a lamb serves both to identify who John is talking about (Jesus) and what the Lamb’s great work was (to die for our sins).

That this lamb (Jesus) is part of the Trinity –in very nature the same as God – is indicated by the fact that he is “in the midst of the throne” (the most literal translation from the Greek). Once again we are dealing with things that go beyond our dimension, but it is clear enough that at some level, the Lamb is somehow ‘the same’ as the One who sits on the throne, yet also somehow different.

The four living creatures in God’s throne room worship and praise Jesus, the lamb of God. The 24 elders worship and praise him. A multitude of angels worships and praises him. Since the entire Bible is very clear that only God Himself is to be worshipped, this is yet one more strong affirmation that Jesus is in very nature, God. This is exactly what our Christian doctrine of the Trinity tells us (that God is one Being who exists in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

The picture of Jesus as a lamb also reminds us that like a sacrificial lamb, He was perfect in every way. Lest we be led astray imagining a cute cuddly little baby sheep, we are also told that the lamb “has seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God (5:6).” These horns and eyes are not literal – it is a word picture, used to communicate something. “Horns” represent strength throughout the Old Testament, and also elsewhere in Revelation. Although we might be tempted to think Jesus is weak and helpless, this picture reminds us that he is perfect in strength – you can’t get any stronger than seven horns. In addition, of course, he is also “the Lion of Judah.” The eyes, as the verse tells us, represent the Holy Spirit, completing the picture of a God who is “three-in-one.” Here is one, who with all the power in the universe at his command, laid it aside to willingly die for us (Philippians 2:6-11). He died instead of us, to pay the penalty for sins we committed (he committed none himself). By his sacrifice he lost none of his strength, and now arisen offers everyone a chance for a new life – for free. In all heaven and earth there is no one else so powerful or so perfect or so loving as to be able to break the seals of the scroll, and execute God’s plan of judgment and salvation. Only Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God can do it. Only He is worthy.

So taken together, these two things in chapter five tell us that Revelation is a book about Father God’s purposes being fulfilled through the work of God the Son, Jesus Christ and through God the Holy Spirit. This book (like the rest of the Bible) is all about Jesus, and the dark and scary things to come are only supposed to be dark and scary for those who do not know Him. The calamities unleashed by the breaking of the seals are unleashed by Jesus himself; to bring judgment to those who have rejected him, and to allow them one last chance to repent. As we read on, we must bear in mind that redeemed in heaven rejoiced at the breaking of the seals, and the martyrs groaned at how long it seemed to take before it was all brought to completion. The scroll will soon be opened, and it is time to rejoice!

So, let’s try to apply this to our lives right now. In the first place, perhaps some of us need to focus on the power and majesty and authority of God. In this day and age, we tend to not respect authority. But this picture of God leaves no room for insolence. He is God, we are not. This is a simple truth, but it is also very powerful. We don’t get to control things. We don’t get to judge God. He is the Supreme ruler of everything that is. Even Jesus, the compassionate lamb of God, is revealed as perfectly strong and all-knowing.

Secondly, perhaps we need to remember that Jesus Christ is in control of history. It is unfolding according to God’s plan. The seals are broken by Jesus himself; it is Jesus who enacts God’s will through history. If we trust God, we have nothing to fear from international tension, or corrupt politics. We have nothing to fear in the events of our own lives. That is not to say that everything will always work out according to how we want it to; but it is clear that we are never, even for a moment, out of the care of Jesus Christ. Even when things seems chaotic and scary (like much of Revelation) we know that Jesus is working all things for our good. In view of this truth, the apostle Paul writes some of the most comforting words in the entire Bible:

28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,8  for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. 31 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be9  against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised— who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.10  35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;

we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:28-38)

I pray that we would have such a clear vision of the joy that awaits us that any tribulation in the meantime seems small in comparison. I pray that we begin to truly desire God to enact his plan in history, to bring his will to culmination and welcome us into the New Heaven and New Earth.

ANOTHER GOOD ONE FROM JOHN PIPER: “The Inexplicable Life.”

Here is another wonderful sermon on suffering from John Piper.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download John Piper’s “The Inexplicable Life”

You can also get it directly from the Desiring God website by clicking here.

THE PEOPLE OF HOPE

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You may not believe Jesus was actually, physically raised from the dead. But there is no question that every single writer of the New Testament did believe it – and most of them claimed to be eye-witnesses. True or not, this isn’t a fairy tale, or an allegory.

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Matthew Part 99

Matthew #99.  Matthew 27:62-28:15

Many people seem to have the feeling that the Bible is a bit like a fairy tale. In a fairy tale, all sorts of strange and magical things happen. In the Bible, all sorts of strange and miraculous things happen. It’s somewhat understandable that some people get confused, especially if they don’t read fairy tales, or the Bible, very often.

Even so, the Bible is very unlike a fairy tale in several respects. In the first place, fairy tales take place in a vague and imaginary place. The classic beginning to one is “once upon a time, in a kingdom far away,” or some such variation. If you searched for the time and place where the events in a fairy tale took place, you would not be able to find them: they don’t physically exist.

The same is true of the people in the stories. When did Snow White live? Where was she born? In what year did the evil queen take power? It is silly to ask such questions, because clearly, when you are dealing with a fairy tale, you aren’t supposed to think it really happened.

Another thing is that in fairy tales, we accept magical and improbable events as simply ordinary parts of the story. Returning to Snow White, there is no explanation given as to why a mirror could talk to a queen. These things aren’t considered out of the ordinary, in the context of the tale. Of course the mirror can talk. The story doesn’t tell us how or why.

Let’s set this in contrast to our text today. Matthew 28:1-8 tells of a miracle. You might say, it tells of THE miracle, the most significant one that has ever happened: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death.

THE miracle didn’t happen “Once upon a time,” or “far away in a strange Kingdom.” Matthew tells us where it happened: Jerusalem. The place where it happened still exists today. The people in the story of the resurrection are likewise real people. Pontius Pilate was really a Roman governor – all historians agree about that. Romans really did crucify people. Caiaphas really was a High Priest in Jerusalem. There really was a temple there. People really did and said the kinds of things that Matthew describes. The only resemblance to a fairy tale is that Matthew says something unusual happened: Jesus Christ was truly physically dead, and then later, he was truly physically alive.

However, the miracle of the resurrection is not treated as if such things happen all the time. Matthew records it as amazing and astonishing to everyone who learned of it. No one in the story of Snow White is amazed that the mirror talks, or that a kiss could cure a fatal illness. But miracles in the Bible, including the resurrection, are always treated as remarkable. It’s not like, according to the Bible, people rise from the dead all the time. In fact, no miracle is considered “commonplace;” by definition a miracle is something extremely unusual and amazing.

Matthew also deals with the skepticism of his readers. There was a counter story, circulated by some, that the disciples had stolen the body. Matthew tells us about it and explains how the story was concocted. How did Matthew know all this? Remember two of Jesus followers – Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus – were members of the Jewish ruling council. They were probably there as these decisions were made.

By the way, when Matthew says the story is told “even today” that “today” was only twenty years after Jesus was raised from the dead. I don’t know about you, but I can easily remember the major events in my life from twenty years ago. My oldest child was three, and my youngest was one. I had recently started a church in which many wonderful things took place. Almost all of those who were part of that church are still around, and could verify the many stories I tell about it. The same was true with Matthew. Most of those who witnessed the resurrection (more than 500, before Jesus returned to heaven) were still alive at this point. The apostle Paul explains, a few years after Matthew wrote his gospel:

3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1Cor 15:3-8, ESV2011)

You may not believe Jesus was actually, physically raised from the dead. But there is no question that every single writer of the New Testament did believe it – and most of them claimed to be eye-witnesses. True or not, this isn’t a fairy tale, or an allegory. If the New Testament described what it does, only without miracles, everyone would believe it: it describes real places, real people, and real first-century culture. People only disbelieve parts of it because they have a pre-existing bias against miracles.

The point of all of Jesus’ teaching hinges on the resurrection. We have seen throughout the book of Matthew that in a variety of different ways, Jesus claimed to be one with God. He continually acted as if the most important thing was how people responded to Him. Numerous times, he predicted not only his own death, but also his resurrection. If he wasn’t God, and he wasn’t raised from the dead, then much of his teaching doesn’t really make sense, and he would have to be considered an arrogant narcissist. We would also have to admit, that his major prediction – that of his resurrection – didn’t come true, so he certainly couldn’t be Divine.

This means that resurrection is incredibly powerful, and incredibly joyful. It means that what Jesus said is true! We are forgiven for our sins! We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to forgive and love others! If we submit our hearts, minds and souls to Jesus, we, like him, will be raised from the dead ourselves!

The first people to see Him alive – the women – responded with fear and joy. The fear part is that you don’t see a dead person come to life…really, ever. It filled them with awe. The joy is that everything he said was now proved to be true, and this man who filled them with peace, grace and love was still alive!

Christians, more than any other group on earth, are people of hope. The ultimate hope of Hindus is to cease to exist as individual personalities. The hope of Buddhists is to cease to exist entirely. Atheists have no real hope – they believe that death means the end of existence, which, though they usually refuse to admit it – makes all of life meaningless. Jews believe in a resurrection, but it’s a bit tough to know if you really qualify. Muslims hope they’ve been good enough to live in paradise, but the end, even for good Muslims, is very much in doubt. Allah makes no promises.

Only Christians, out of all the major world religions, have the concrete hope that we will be resurrected with new bodies to inhabit a new creation and live glorious eternal life, free from pain and sorrow. And that hope is based entirely upon the resurrection of Jesus, and therefore, our relation to him. If we entrust ourselves entirely to Jesus, and give him free reign in our lives, we are promised that wonderful, eternal future.

That promise makes a difference, even here and now. As I write this in February of 2017, I have been struggling with chronic pain for more than two years. For the past 8 months or so, it has become much worse. Even doctors at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic will not promise me that I will ever be free of this pain. But Jesus does. I may not be free of it in this life, but I will in the next. Through Jesus resurrection, I have the assurance that I will have  new body, perfected, and ideally suited to the new creation. There is more out there than this life can offer me. That gives me hope to endure anything. It can do the same for you.

WHAT ABOUT THE NO-ACCOUNT, GOOD-FOR-NOTHING PEOPLE?

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Jesus came first to the backwaters; the boondocks; the sticks. He went to where people felt shame and humiliation and hopelessness. He brought light to dark places. He still does.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 8

Matthew #8 . Matthew 4:12-16

We’re going to cover some historical and cultural details this week. Please have patience with this. First, I believe it will pay off in understanding what the Holy Spirit might want to say to you today, through these verses. Second, this information will useful many times as we continue our study of Matthew’s Gospel.

Apparently some time passed between chapter four, verse eleven, and verse twelve; we don’t know how much. We do know that the gospel of John records events that must have occurred between Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. Particularly, John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to Andrew and Philip, who then introduced him to Peter and Nathaniel and perhaps others. In any case, after a period of time, John the Baptist was put into prison by Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great who had killed all the babies in Bethlehem. At that time, Jesus went back to the region of Galilee, and remained there for some time.

The region is named for the Sea of Galilee, which is a very large freshwater lake. At its widest points, the lake is thirteen miles long, north to south (21 km) and eight miles wide, east to west (13 km). The total surface area is about sixty-four square miles (166 square km). If you walked the entire shoreline of the lake, you would go about fifty-one miles.

Just to be confusing, the Sea of Galilee is also called Lake Tiberias and the lake of Gennesaret. In modern Israel it is sometimes known as Kinneret. To make matters even worse, the New Testament also refers to two towns (on the shore of the lake) with the same names as the lake: Tiberias and Gennesaret.

By the time of Jesus, the area around the lake had a checkered past and a questionable reputation. It was the ancestral home of the tribes of Zebulon, Napthali and Mannaseh. After the time of Solomon, when the Israelites split into two kingdoms, this area, being in the north, went with the Northern kingdom, of course (usually known as “Israel” while the Southern kingdom was called “Judah.”). The Northern kingdom was ruled from the city of Samaria, which was some distance from the lake. During its existence, The kings of Israel did not want their people going south to Jerusalem to worship (because it was in the kingdom of Judah), so they set up their own worship system in the north. They quickly became corrupted in their beliefs, and began to abandon worship of the One true God, instead, worshiping like the pagans. Though prophets called them to repent, they did not, and the Northern Kingdom was eventually wiped out by Assyrian invaders in about 723 BC (in other words, more than 700 years before Jesus was born). The people were deported and scattered around the Assyrian Empire.

The Assyrians resettled people from other places into the region of the old Northern Kingdom of Israel. There were still a few Israelites living there, and they began to intermarry with the foreigners. As time went on, they developed a kind of hybrid-Israelite religion, believing in the first five books of the Old Testament, but interpreting them differently, and not accepting the books of the prophets (i.e. the rest of the Old Testament). These hybrid-Israelites with their hybrid-religion became known as Samaritans, because Samaria was still the chief city of the area (all this is a simplification, but it gives you the general idea).

In terms of theology, it might have been a bit like the differences between Mormons and Christians. Mormons and Christians have a lot of outward similarities. At times, Mormons will even call themselves Christians. However, Christians know that there are profound differences between the Christian faith and the Mormon religion. We would say that it is totally inaccurate to consider Mormons the same as Christians. In the same way, Samaritans regarded themselves as a division of Judaism, but the Jews did not feel that way.

North of Samaria was the sea of Galilee. For a long time, no Israelites or Jews lived there, but a few hundred years before Jesus, Jews began to re-colonize the area around the lake. Those people saw themselves as connected with Jerusalem and Judea (previously known as “Judah”) in the south, and not a part of their nearer neighbors, the Samaritans, who were in between them and Judea. Immediately surrounding Galilee were other foreign powers. In fact, Jewish Galilee could really only claim the west side of the lake. The other parts of the lake, and the regions to the north, east and south-east were all inhabited by Gentiles (non-Jews).

Here is a map that roughly shows the territories involved. You can see Galilee near the top.

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When Jesus was a boy in Egypt, the Jews in Galilee, being some distance from Judea, had tried to rebel the son of Herod the Great. It was a bloody, violent rebellion, and was put down ruthlessly, with the assistance of the Romans.

When you put this all together, it is not surprising that, although it was an area full of natural beauty, Galilee was considered to be an undesirable, no-account sort of place. It was surrounded by foreigners who did not worship God. It was far from the center of power and learning (Jerusalem). It had a history of violence and war and turning away from God. People in Jerusalem thought of Galilee the same way that people in New York City might think of the remote valleys of Appalachia. It may be pretty, but who would want to actually live there? The whole region was depressed, with nothing worthwhile going on, it was populated by “rednecks.”

If wanted to start a movement, and really influence people; if you really wanted to be someone, Galilee was not the place to go. It had been a no-account backwards place for seven-hundred years. But Jesus specifically chose Galilee as the starting place for his ministry. This depressed, hillbilly haven was where people first heard the good news of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ first miracle was performed in one of its towns (Cana). The Messiah grew up there. The light of the world (as John calls Jesus) first shined in this place. Matthew records that this fulfilled another Old Testament prophecy, Isaiah 9:1-2.

Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, along the sea road, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles! The people who live in darkness have seen a great light, and for those living in the shadowland of death, light has dawned. (Matt 4:15-16, HCSB)

Let’s just pause here a moment and see if the Lord has anything to say to you through this. It isn’t just about where Jesus chose to live. It is about the fact that he knew that this place and these people were held in contempt; he knew that they felt shame, and that is why he went there. He did this because He cares deeply about people who are overlooked by others, people who are living in shame, people who are considered no-account.

Perhaps you have felt overlooked. Maybe you’ve believed that you are unimportant. Maybe you have shame placed upon from something you’ve done, or by how others have treated you. Jesus isn’t afraid of your shame; he’s not worried about being tainted by your humiliation. He comes to you, deliberately, and says, “Let me remove your shame. Let me shine the light of my grace into your life. Let me show you that you are important to me, and I am the only one that really matters.”

Possibly you feel that you have been “walking in darkness” for a while now. Could it be that the Lord is saying to you: “A light is coming to you. You won’t be in darkness forever!”

As for being unimportant, or doing unimportant things, listen to what the Holy Spirit says through Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:26-30

Brothers, consider your calling: Not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world — what is viewed as nothing — to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one can boast in His presence. But it is from Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became God-given wisdom for us — our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, (1Cor 1:26-30, HCSB)

Jesus came to take our shame and humiliation upon himself. He came to take our checkered pasts, our sordid family histories. He came to shine light into places that may have been dark for centuries. If you think you are of no account, or you are not worthy, then know this: he came exactly for you. He comes to us all, continually. Open your heart to the light.

~

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THE JOY OF HOPE

joy

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.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 20

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.