1 PETER #4: GRIEF AND JOY IN TRIALS

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It is normal and appropriate to grieve when we face hard things in our life. Even so, God uses those things to cause us to grow, and to refine our faith in Jesus. We can trust His work through our suffering because His greatest work came through the suffering of Jesus Christ.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 4

1 Peter #4. 1 Peter 1:6-9

6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:6-9, ESV

Last time, we saw that Peter began by encouraging his readers with the amazing promises of our eternal inheritance. He now provides a contrast. We have that amazing inheritance, a treasure that will always be there for us. It cannot be corrupted, and it will never lose its freshness or joy. Peter now acknowledges that in the meantime, before we receive that inheritance, we may experience various kinds of difficulty and hardship. The word Peter uses for these struggles is usually translated trials. This is a word that is often used in the New Testament.

I want to take this opportunity to address a misunderstanding that some Christians seem to have. Many people seem to think that the only kind of hardship that “counts” as suffering for Christ is persecution. In other words, (they think) if you are persecuted, any hardship that results from that persecution is suffering for Christ. But if a drunk driver hits you and you lose your legs, that’s just bad luck, and it isn’t the same thing as Christian suffering. But Peter here refers to “various kinds” of trials. This is exactly what is sounds like: it means that there may be many different kinds of hardship and struggles that you encounter. It could be illness, or something caused by an accident, or something done to you by someone else. It might be financial hardship, or emotional problems, or struggles in your relationship with someone. The point that Peter makes is this: whatever the source of the suffering, when we are in Jesus, God uses it to create character, or to test character, or both. It ultimately results in praise and glory and honor.

I want to make sure we are clear here. I don’t mean that God deliberately inflicts pain directly upon people. But when pain comes, he puts it to good use. The Holy Spirit, in Romans 8:28, says this:

8 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, 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. (Romans 8:28-30, ESV)

God uses all things in the process of making us more like Jesus, more like the people we were originally intended to be, apart from sin. “All things” working for our good includes trials and suffering, obviously. So, when difficult times come about as a result of living in a world full of sin, and living in bodies that are corrupted by sin, God uses those to develop and refine our character.

3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5, ESV)

The Spirit inspired James to write something similar:

 2 Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3 for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4, ESV)

I can say, without a doubt, that God has used suffering to make me a better person. He has used suffering to help me feel more close to Him than I had ever felt before. He has used suffering to wean my affections away from the things of the world, to help me become less interested in sin. As Paul, and James write, there have been times when I have rejoiced in the suffering that God entrusted to me. Suffering has made my faith far deeper and stronger than it was before – it has been tested, like gold in the fire, and purified in the same way. By the way, I am not claiming to be some great person. I just mean that God has made me more like Jesus than I was before I began to suffer. I’m still not very far along that road, and I don’t claim to be better than anyone else, but I believe I am farther along than I was before, as a direct result of my struggles.

But I am so glad that the Holy Spirit inspired Peter to remind us that there is also grief in suffering. Peter writes here that we rejoice in our eternal inheritance, while the trials are bringing us grief. I don’t believe that there is a conflict in these perspectives. It is possible, and good and right, to rejoice in suffering. It is also good and right to grieve in suffering. Even Paul, who also wrote about rejoicing in suffering, in addition, recorded his deep distress, many times:

8 We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. 9 In fact, we expected to die. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NLT)

I think there are times when suffering results in rejoicing. But at other times, we are pressed beyond our ability to endure (as Paul confesses), and we grieve, and cry out. This too, is an appropriate, godly response to trials, when we cry out in tears, yet still with faith:

11 What strength do I have that I should continue to hope?
What is my future, that I should be patient?
12 Is my strength that of stone,
or my flesh made of bronze?
13 Since I cannot help myself,
the hope for success has been banished from me. (Job 6:11-13, HCSB)
16 I weep because of these things;
my eyes flow with tears.
For there is no one nearby to comfort me,
no one to keep me alive.
My children are desolate
because the enemy has prevailed. (Lamentations 1:16, CSB)
3 I am weary from my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes fail, looking for my God.
4 Those who hate me without cause
are more numerous than the hairs of my head;
my deceitful enemies, who would destroy me,
are powerful.
Though I did not steal, I must repay. (Psalms 69:3-4, CSB)

Why do I call these passionate, desperate, words, responses “of faith?” Because they were poured out as prayers. They are full of sorrow, and pain and despair, but even in the midst of all that, they were poured out to the Lord. Job, Jeremiah and David (the writers of the three passages above) fully experienced their pain and suffering. They did not pretend that they were OK. They were honest and eloquent about how hard it was. But even so, they brought their pain to the feet of the Lord. Yes, the pain is deep, and even despairing, and yet, by bringing their pain to the Lord, they are showing faith. They are terrific examples for us. I’ll be personal for a moment. Today, I feel much more like the verses I just gave you (by Job, Jeremiah, and David), than the ones about rejoicing in suffering. Yet, I know that I am OK with God. There is room for many different responses to suffering. God can handle it. We have a God who personally knows what it is like to suffer within a human body. The writer of Hebrews says (about Jesus):

17 Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. 18 Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. (Hebrews 2:17-18, NLT)

For the first two years of my suffering, I was confused and troubled; that was OK. God handled it. Then for almost four years, I did truly rejoice in my suffering. But now, today, I identify with the Biblical writers who talk about despair and hopelessness. I don’t believe that God loves me any less now than he did when I was doing well. He knows what it is like. He can handle our unexpected courage and fortitude, and he can handle our crushing despair. He won’t let either one go to waste, but instead, will use all things to cause us to grow into the people he intends us to be. He will use them ultimately to bring praise, glory and honor, where right now we experience suffering, grief and despair. Again, this is something that the entire New Testament affirms in many places:

17 And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.18 Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. (Romans 8:17-18, NLT)

And, what has become my life-verse:

16 That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. 17 For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! 18 So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18, NLT)

One gigantic difference between Christianity and every other world-view is this way of thinking about suffering in the light of eternity. If you are an atheist, life is simply fundamentally unfair to most people, and then you die, and it is over. If you live in a wealthy country, you might not see just how deeply unjust and terrible life is for millions, but it is true. If you are a Buddhist, suffering is ultimately meaningless; it is merely an illusion. If you are a Hindu, all of your personal suffering is your own fault; perhaps from a previous life, but it’s still all on you to pay back your debt to karma. But we Christians see suffering in the light of a glorious eternal future, trusting that a God who is far beyond our comprehension is indeed making things right. It is only logical that an infinite God would do things, or allow things, that we don’t understand. Understanding doesn’t always bring comfort anyway. But our comfort comes from trusting God; trusting that He is indeed good, and that he loves us, and we can rely on that, even when we don’t understand, because he went through incredible pain and suffering himself, for our sake.

Remember when Jesus was on the cross? He cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He understood what it was to have grief and despair in trials. And the cross gives us confidence that even when we don’t understand, God is doing something good. At the time, it seemed to the disciples as if it was a disaster. How could God use the crucifixion of the Messiah for good? And yet, through the suffering of Jesus, God brought about the eternal good of untold numbers of people. If God can use the death of Jesus for good, we can trust that he can use our sufferings for good as well, even when we don’t understand what he is up to, or how it could possibly result in good.

Peter has acknowledged the reality of the grief that suffering brings. He has also set up the eternal perspective, and so, he goes on:

8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:6-9, ESV

Peter saw Jesus personally. It must have been a kind of wonderful thing to him to meet so many people who developed faith in Jesus without ever meeting Him personally. I am sure he was reminded of Jesus’ words to his friend, Thomas:

29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29, ESV)

Paul makes it clear, also:

7 For we live by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:6-7, ESV)

Again, from 2 Corinthians 4:18 (quoted above), we are to fix our attention on things that are not seen physically. I’ve said this before, but faith requires a kind of surrender. We have to give up control in order to trust. We have to accept the possibility that we are being foolish. Even so, Peter gives us a clue that when we do trust our unseen Lord, there is a confidence that results. Many people have asked me over the years whether it is possible to know if you are being saved. Well, Peter makes it crystal clear here. He is writing to people who have taken the leap of faith. They are trusting the unseen and infinite God. As a result, they are filled with joy, and they can be sure that they are receiving the goal of that faith: the salvation of their souls.

Of course, as with anything the idea that you can be sure of your salvation can be abused. I have met people who prayed a prayer with a preacher, and got baptized, and have since had nothing to do with Jesus whatsoever. They live the same kind of life as people who have no faith. Even so, they seem to think they will be saved. Thankfully, I am not the one who will judge their fate; even so, I think such people are probably mistaken, and they are often the “so-called Christians” who give other Jesus-followers a bad name.

If you truly do know that you are saved, if you truly believe what the Bible says about Jesus, it will affect how you live. Certainly, you won’t become perfect, and sometimes it will be two steps forward, one step back, but our actions will reveal what we truly believe.

However, we need to be clear. We don’t have faith in our own ability to be good. We don’t have faith in our own strength of faith. We have faith in the person of Jesus Christ, and on His ability to keep us and guard us until we receive the amazing eternal inheritance he has promised (which we talked about last time). We can indeed have confidence that we are receiving the goal of our faith, the salvation of our souls. In the meantime, yes, we experience  trials and grief, but they are nothing compared to the joy of our eternal future.

Will you trust Him with whatever trials you face today?

1 Peter #3: A BETTER HOPE

When we experience hardship, we begin to see that this life is not strong enough, durable enough, to hold all of our hopes and desires. We see that ultimately, disappointment is the result of all things here and now. There is nothing on earth that we cannot lose. But we cannot lose our eternal inheritance in Jesus Christ.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download 1 Peter Part 3

1 Peter #3. 1 Peter 1:3-5.

Peter gives us a great example when he begins by praising God. Our salvation is a gift that we can often take for granted. But Peter reminds us that God’s grace to us is not automatic. God did not have to treat us with mercy and grace. What he has done for us is astounding, even more so because not a person in the world has ever deserved any of it. All of what comes to us is according to God’s mercy. It is not by justice, not by us earning it, not by us paying for it, not by another human getting it for us. God’s mercy alone gives us the incredible gift of salvation. Mercy is never deserved. We don’t deserve anything from God other than death and hell. But in spite of what we deserve, he forgives us, and instead showers his gifts on us.

It may be puzzling to some that he blesses “The God, and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But this is phrase that packs a lot of punch in just a few words. Remember, Peter has already mentioned the Trinity: The Father, the Holy Spirit and Jesus, the Son. Here in one short sentence, we have the Trinity once again. Peter is obviously blessing God the Father,  who chose us to be in Jesus, and knew ahead of time what would take place. He also blesses “our Lord Jesus.” To call Jesus “Lord” is to call him God. In the Old Testament times, the ancient name for God was “Yahweh.” But instead of saying “Yahweh,” the Jews said “the Lord.” So calling Jesus “Lord” is like calling him “Yahweh.” Finally, Jesus is not only Lord, he is also “Christ.” Christ means “anointed one,” or, to put it more clearly, “one especially filled with the Holy Spirit.” So we have here Father, Son and Holy Spirit in this one short phrase.

In God’s mercy, he has caused us to be born again. In Greek it says literally: “according to his great mercy, he has regenerated us.” (Regenerated is often translated “given us new birth” or something similar). To generate something is to cause it to be. So, God caused us to be physically, but he has also regenerated us – caused to be all over again, in a new way.

Think abut a computer game. In a computer game, you are alive outside the game. You enter the world of the game through your game character, sometimes called your “avatar.” When your character/avatar dies in the game, it regenerates and comes back into the game at the last point in which you were saved. This gives us a helpful way to think about spiritual regeneration.

In some ways, game regeneration is almost the opposite real spiritual regeneration. Imagine that we are players who have existed only inside the game. We aren’t outside the world, sitting at a console, playing a game. Instead, we have only ever been inside the game. The game is our whole world. We have no perspective outside of it.

Now, when God regenerates us, it is like he gives us a life outside of the game. Instead of a player who is alive in the real world, stepping into the world of the game, and being regenerated inside the game, we begin inside the game, and God now regenerates us out into the real world. We are still in the game, but now we are also outside, sitting at a gaming console. We are no longer confined to the game. If we die in the game, we still have our life outside of it.

Our regeneration takes place in the real, eternal world, not the temporary world of the game, which is the only world we have known up until now. Now, our life inside the game – what we have always called “real life” – is not our only life, and it is not our most true life. Before, when we died, we died. But now, when we die, our “avatar” – that is, our body of flesh – is dead. We don’t get a do-over. But since we now have life outside the game, when we die here, it’s like shutting down the game, and participating in real life. What happens “in the game” is important, because here, in this life, God uses us to show his glory. But what happens outside the game is ultimately more important, because that is where our real life is waiting for us.

Obviously this regeneration is not (yet) a physical one. However, it will eventually result in a new physical body

20 But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.
21 So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. 22 Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. 23 But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back. (1 Corinthians 15:20-23, NLT)

In the meantime, however, we have already been born again, in spirit. The Greek verb for “regenerated,” is in a special type of past tense form. This shows us that this has already happened. Being born again is not something that will happen to us in the future. It is not something that is still in process. It has already taken place. In addition, while it is a done deal, our regeneration has ongoing consequences.

There are many types of things that happened in the past, which, however, have ongoing consequences. Picture a wedding that took place ten years ago. The wedding is in the past. It happened; it’s a done deal. But the fact that the wedding happened in the past has a profound and ongoing effect today upon the two people who got married. Once you have a wedding, you are fully married. Yet, as you grow with your spouse, that marriage changes and deepens and affects you more deeply. It affects every day of your life, though some days the effect seems greater, and other days, less.

So it is with being born again. Because God regenerated us once, in the past, we are still  regenerated (born again) today. The fact of our being born again continues to play out in our lives. We are growing more and more fully into everything that it means to regenerated. Some days we see the effect more clearly, other days we question how much being born again has changed our life in the body. But it would be a mistake to think that we are only partially born again. Just as you can’t be “partially married,” so you can’t be partially born again.

Some days you may feel like you are doing well in your marriage. Other days you may feel like a lousy husband, or neglectful wife. Your feelings about how things are going do not change the fact that you are married. You can be a better or worse husband or wife, but you can’t get divorced without knowing it. So too, your feelings about how well you are manifesting the new life of Jesus do not determine whether or not you are born again. You might be a better or worse Christian on any given day, but you are born again because of God’s merciful choice, not your own performance. You aren’t more born again when you feel holy, and you aren’t less born again when you feel like a sinner.

Again, it may help to keep in mind that this regeneration takes place in our Spirit. Our bodies have not been born again, that’s obvious. But the rebirth of our spirit can now influence our soul, and then our mind, and then affect how we live in these mortal bodies into the Lord gives us new bodies that are also regenerated.

This becomes clear as Peter goes on. Our rebirth is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is connected to the eternal life-force of Jesus, a life that has proven itself to be indestructible (Hebrews 7:16). Because we have been born again through the resurrection of Jesus, because we are born in again in the eternal spirit, we have a new kind of inheritance. This our life “outside the game,” a life which has already begun, but one which we cannot fully enter until we are done with the game.

Inheritance is a good way to picture all of the wonderful things we have through Jesus Christ. An inheritance is something that belongs to you. It is yours. And yet, you cannot fully receive all of your inheritance until there is a death. So it is with us. Our inheritance in Jesus belongs to us. It is certainly and assuredly ours. But we cannot step into the fullness of that inheritance until a death happens. In our case, it is two deaths: first, the death of Jesus Christ obtained the inheritance for us, and second, we wait for the death of our flesh, which is corrupted by sin, and keeps us from fully experiencing all that Jesus has given us.

Peter tells us that our inheritance is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. Imperishable means that it cannot be destroyed, it cannot decay or degrade. This isn’t  a stock portfolio that might lose some of its value. It is not  a warehouse full of goods that could burn or be destroyed in a flood. Even cash can lose some of its value through inflation. However, this inheritance will be there for us, guaranteed. There is nothing to be had on earth that we could not possibly lose at some point. In fact, age and death determine that we will lose all earthly things. But we cannot lose this gift, this inheritance held for us by God. It is the only thing we cannot lose.

Second, it  is undefiled. That is, it can’t be spoiled or corrupted. Sometimes, we are capable of spoiling a good thing for ourselves. At other times, someone else might ruin a perfect moment for us. However it occurs, something that once seemed so beautiful and perfect can often become crass, crude, or even just ordinary and no longer interesting or exciting. This will not happen to our inheritance in Jesus. It cannot happen. That is one reason we need new bodies before we can enter the New Creation. We need to be incorruptible, because the New Creation will not be corrupted. Jesus has already made us incorruptible in our regenerated spirits. He will make us that way in soul and body as well. Another aspect of incorruptible is this: There is nothing on earth that we can desire fully, heart and soul, without somehow making it into an idol, and therefore spoiling it. We might love our children so much that it consumes us, and in loving them more than God, we corrupt the beauty of parental love. We may desire marriage so much that it becomes more important than God, and thus we corrupt something that might otherwise be good. But in the New Creation, we can embrace our desires with no reservation. Nothing will spoil it. We can desire our incorruptible inheritance with our whole hearts. It won’t be spoiled, or made into an idol.

Finally, our inheritance will never fade away. We can’t use it so much that it wears out, because it will never wear out. It’s not like a favorite piece of clothing that slowly fades over time as you wash it, or that stops feeling new by the fourth time you wear it. The joy of newness that we will experience on the first day in the New Creation will never wear out. Every day will feel like the first day. Every time we see some beautiful scenery in the New Creation, it will be as delightful as it was the very first time. Every conversation we have with an old friend will feel like the first time we talked that way. Nothing will ever feel “old.” Nothing will ever lessen in delight, or lose its luster, even if we indulge that exact delight every day for a thousand years. It doesn’t become worn out with use or repetition.

This amazing inheritance, says Peter, is kept in heaven for us. The word “kept” indicates a kind of watchfulness, a guarding. It’s in the bank. Nothing will happen to it. It’s safe for us.

We too are being guarded, by God’s power, through faith. The word “guarded” or “protected” (verse 5) here is the word for military garrison. It is as if God has deployed a cohort of warriors to surround you and protect you. It would be appropriate here to think about both God’s power in general, and also his power in deploying angels to protect us.

The phrase “through faith” shows us our own one small part in all of this: we must trust the words of scripture. This is what God says. It is ours as we trust it to be true. We take hold of it through trust. Thanksgiving, of course, is a terrific way to make it tangible to our own souls and minds. Finally, this inheritance, as we know, will be full revealed and fully ours when we die. Our present mortal bodies are perishable. They do decay, they are corrupt, and every joy, every beauty that we can experience in these bodies ultimately fades and comes to nothing. That is why we cannot receive the inheritance until the last times, the moment when God lets the old creation self-destruct, and brings in the New Creation, and gives us new, incorruptible bodies which will have the capacity to receive and enjoy our amazing inheritance.

This is our hope. I love that Peter begins the letter with this. He is writing to people who are experiencing many trials and struggles – the very next verse explains that. When we experience hardship, we begin to see that this life is not strong enough, durable enough, to hold all of our hopes and desires. We see that ultimately, disappointment is the result of all things here and now. So, knowing that his readers are faced with deep struggles and bitter disappointment, Peter reminds them of a hope that will never disappoint, never let them down.

Too often, I look for hope in this life. I’m reminded of a quote by the late Christian teacher, Larry Crabb:

“I’m troubled by how unquestioningly we live out our determination to make this life work. All our hopes for happiness are bound up in it. It’s as if we believe this is the only world we ever plan to inhabit.”

Larry Crabb

 But everything I could hope for in this life will let me down at some point. Peter reminds me that one of the first tasks of faith is to set my hope upon the inheritance that cannot be destroyed, that never spoils, never loses its newness and wonderfulness, an inheritance that is kept specifically for me, even as I am guarded by faith.

What about you?

HOPE CHANGES EVERYTHING

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One of our hopes through Jesus is a physical world created new, and fresh and perfect.

Hope is a surprisingly powerful thing. That is why it is one of the three foundations of the Christian faith. By and large, I think that we Christians do not spend nearly enough time thinking about and talking about our amazing hope. We have only to look at our behavior for evidence of our lack of hope. But when we focus on some of the astounding hopes we have through the resurrection of Jesus, our lives can be profoundly shaped in beautiful ways.

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 Resurrection Hopes

In first Corinthians chapter 13, Paul talks a great deal about love. Near the end of the chapter he says this:

13 Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love ​— ​but the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13:13, CSB)

I hear Christians speaking about love quite frequently. I also hear a great deal about faith. Hope is also one of the three great pillars of Christianity, however, we seem to ignore it most of the time. I think Easter Sunday is a wonderful time to meditate on some of our hope.

There are many reasons why following Jesus in this world is difficult. However, sometimes we make it harder on ourselves by ignoring the astounding hope that we have in Jesus Christ. Trying to be a Christian without a real and living hope is like trying to canoe up river without a paddle. If we are not deeply connected to a powerful, vibrant hope, it is no wonder that we have difficulty reading the Bible every day. If hope is not front and center in our lives, no wonder we struggle to pray regularly.

Let me give you an illustration. A few years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to take a sabbatical. I had been in ministry for more than twenty years. Several difficult things had happened during the past ten or so years of ministry. I was battling severe, intense chronic pain, at that time, it had been for two years. I was worn out, and close to burned out. One autumn, Kari and I began praying for the chance to take a sabbatical. Many of our friends and colleagues in ministry had sabbaticals every seven years, and I had not even had one. I felt a desperate need, however, I did not have much hope that it could happen.

During that initial period I prayed, but I didn’t expect much. I certainly made no plans for traveling, and no plans to help the church during my absence, because I really could not even hope that I would actually get a sabbatical.

However, people in our ministry network began to send us contributions toward the sabbatical. More and more came in. We got a large tax refund during the early part of that year. Then, in March, I received a nerve block injection that seem to have potential to reduce my pain for a month or two. Finally, we found astoundingly inexpensive airplane tickets to Europe. Hope began to bloom in my heart.

Once I had hope, my behavior changed. I began to spend a great deal of time looking online at places to go and things to do on the sabbatical. I spent some money on travel gear. Kari and I and the kids spent many evenings dreaming and talking about our upcoming trip. I brushed up on my German language skills. I reached out to old friends who lived in Europe. I made plans with the church for what would happen in my absence. Suddenly the burdens I was bearing seemed less heavy, less important. I began to experience a lightness and joy, even in my everyday life.

Long before the sabbatical actually happened, my attitude was changed by hope. My plans were changed by hope. And finally, my behavior was changed by the hope that I had. I engaged in different activities, than I had before. I even spent my money in a different way once I had hope.

Hope is a surprisingly powerful thing. That is why it is one of the three foundations of the Christian faith. By and large, I think that we Christians do not spend nearly enough time thinking about and talking about our amazing hope. We have only to look at our behavior for evidence of our lack of hope.

When our hope is only for this life, then we spend our money on the things of this life. We spend our time, our energy, our passion on things that will ultimately be useless and pointless. We are not interested in spiritual things because we don’t really have any concrete hope connected with those spiritual things. If we truly had hope in Jesus we would spend our time thinking about Jesus, talking about him, dreaming about our future with him. We would naturally be spending our time reading our Bibles, finding out more about him, and what we will experience with him in eternity.

There are many aspects to the hope that we have in Christ, but since it is Easter, after all, I want to spend the remainder of our time focusing on the main thing: eternal life in the New Creation. I want to focus on just a few of the many aspects of that glorious future. That future is ours only because Jesus makes it possible through the resurrection.

Hope #1: Nothing that is good will be lost. All things will be renewed, restored, or made new.

28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, in the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields because of my name will receive a hundred times more and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Matthew 19:28-30, CSB)

5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:5, ESV)

19 Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away. 20 Then times of refreshment will come from the presence of the Lord, and he will again send you Jesus, your appointed Messiah. 21 For he must remain in heaven until the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through his holy prophets (Acts 3:19-21, NLT)

I love reading. Sometimes I will recommend a series of books to someone, and I am almost jealous to imagine them reading it for the very first time. I am often sad to realize I will never again have the delightful experience of “discovering” those books. I think there is something about this hope of renewal that is a bit like being able to experience those wonderful “first time experiences” once again. Everything will be renewed and refreshed in the full Kingdom of God.

As I grow older, loss becomes more and more real. I have lost touch with people who were once dear to me. I have lost a certain amount of physical strength, and athletic ability. I have lost opportunities. In the very business of living, we are often forced to make choices that will include losing something either way. But the promise of God is that he will make all things new. Yes he will make new things. But these promises are also applied to old things that are good and will be renewed. Relationships will be renewed. Part of this promise, of course, is that we will see our loved ones again, all of those who died in faith. There is no need for regret. Whatever you have lost that was good and right will be restored. Even the entire physical earth will be restored and made new.

Hope #2: The end of suffering and sorrow, and the beginning of eternal joy.

3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4, ESV)

11 And the ransomed of the Lord will return and come to Zion with singing, crowned with unending joy. Joy and gladness will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee. 12 I — I am the one who comforts you. (Isaiah 51:11-12, CSB)

17 “For I will create a new heaven and a new earth; the past events will not be remembered or come to mind. 18 Then be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I will create Jerusalem to be a joy and its people to be a delight. 19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people. The sound of weeping and crying will no longer be heard in her. Isaiah 65:17-19

We are promised a world renewed without sin or defect, and bodies that also have no sin or defect. In the resurrection there will be no more grief, no more pain! Oh if you only knew what that particular one means to me! No more disappointment, no more fear, no anxiety, no loss. No separation from those we love.

Hope #3: Reward for the suffering, hardship and work that we have endured during this mortal life.

A lot of Christians don’t like to talk about this. They say, “Just being there is enough of a reward.” I think that such an attitude should be examined very carefully. The Bible is filled with references to rewards. Salvation, and the Eternal life that goes with it, of course, are not rewards for anything. We can’t earn it. It is the free gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-10). So, any time the Bible speaks of rewards in the New Creation, it cannot mean salvation, or eternal life. But the New Testament does speak of rewards frequently. This is not an obscure, disputed issue. It is a major teaching of Jesus himself.

Here are just some of the many passages that talk about rewards: Matt 19:28-29; Luke 19:12-19; Matt 5:12; Matt 6:1-4; Matt 6:20; Matt 10:41; Matt 16:27; 1 Corinthians 3:10-14; 1 Corinthians  9:7; Eph 6:7-8; Colossians 3:23-24; Hebrews 10:35; Hebrews 11:24-26; Revelation 22:12.

That’s fourteen Bible passages right there, and I could probably dig up a few more. The rewards are there for a reason. There are there to motivate us, and encourage us, and to give us hope.

Spiritual things are often hidden. A woman may be diligent in prayer, but no one else sees it. However, God sees it, and he will reward it (Matthew 6:6). Perhaps a certain man deals with deep temptations, and he battles faithfully to remain true to Jesus. No one on earth knows what it costs that man, but Jesus does, and he will reward it. A lot of what we think and do as we follow Christ is hidden. But it is not forgotten, and the scriptures promises rewards for those things. Some people give up opportunities, or relationships, or money or status in order to follow Jesus faithfully. None of that will be forgotten. All of it will be rewarded. The insults you have endured, the times others have treated you unjustly; the times you have held back when you might have retaliated – all of the sacrifices we make – will be used as occasions for the Lord to heap more blessings upon us once we reach resurrection life.

Personally, I think one reason why many Christians are so worldly is that they think it doesn’t matter how they live once they have received Jesus. They don’t realize that even more undeserved blessing is available to us when we trust the Holy Spirit and live the way he leads us to through the scriptures, and through his immediate promptings.

But it does matter. Listen to what Paul says. The foundation he refers to is salvation in Jesus Christ:

12 Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. 13 But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value. 14 If the work survives, that builder will receive a reward. 15 But if the work is burned up, the builder will suffer great loss. The builder will be saved, but like someone barely escaping through a wall of flames.
16 Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? 17 God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
18 Stop deceiving yourselves. If you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. (1 Corinthians 3:12-19, NLT)

He is writing to people who are being saved. But some of them, on judgment day, though they are saved, they will “suffer great loss,” and, essentially, barely be saved. Others will be richly rewarded. If you are content to be “barely saved,” Listen to the text: “Stop deceiving yourselves. You are foolish in God’s eyes.”

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. 25 Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. 26 Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. (1 Corinthians 9:24-26, ESV)

God piles grace upon grace. Even though we don’t deserve salvation, let alone anything else, he allows us to store up even more blessing and heavenly treasure. Don’t be so foolish as to waste that opportunity. Certainly, it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that we can obey the Lord in our day to day life. But we have a certain hope that when we allow the Spirit to work in us that way, he will pile on the rewards.

HOPE #4: An eternal, perfect, physical body to enjoy in an eternal, perfect, physical universe.

Make no mistake: the bible teaches the resurrection of the body. The thing that made Christianity so unique, and (for some) so hard to swallow, is that the first Christians claimed that Jesus was physically raised from the dead. Many, many people during that time believed in some sort of soul or spirit, and there was widespread belief that souls or spirits carried on even after the death of their bodies. To claim that Jesus was a disembodied spirit who appeared to many people would not have made Christianity particularly controversial. But when the apostles said Jesus was raised from the dead, they meant physically. They said his body was resurrected. They claimed they had seen and touched not his spirit, but his body. In many ways, his resurrection body was like his previous one. He still had his scars. He could be physically touched and his voice was audible, like anyone else’s. He ate food, smiled, laughed and so on.

In some other ways, however, Jesus’ resurrection body was different. He could make it so that others didn’t recognize him until he allowed it. He could disappear from one place, and appear in another. And for those who wonder if we can fly in the New Creation, remember that Jesus left his disciples by going up into the clouds. I don’t know what that is, if it isn’t flying! We are told that our bodies will be like his. We will experience the joy and glory of God as we eat, drink, laugh, play, use our gifts and abilities and relate to one another. John Piper speaks to this great hope:

The Bible says we are to eat and drink and do everything in our physical bodies to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), which must mean that the pleasures of God or the pleasures that God has built into the taste of food are not designed primarily as competitors with God’s beauty, but designed as means of its communication. He’s communicating something of himself in the good creation that he has made. The creation becomes one of the ways that we “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). Then the Bible makes it plain that this is not only true now, but will also be true in the resurrection. In fact, that’s why there is a resurrection of the body and not just the immortality of the soul.

(John Piper, “What’s the Appeal of Heavenly Rewards, other than Getting Christ?”. https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/whats-the-appeal-of-heavenly-rewards-other-than-getting-christ.  Accessed 5/21/19.  Bold added for emphasis)

Even now we can eat, and as we savor the taste, experience the goodness of the Lord. We can see beautiful natural scenery, or listen to music that touches us, and each one of those experiences are intended by God to connect us to him in deep, meaningful ways, full of variety and interest. Of course, here and now, the connection gets marred by our sin. We eat more than we should, or we eat things that are bad for us. We listen to things that arouse our lusts or angers. Sometimes we are just too spiritually dull to receive these things as good gifts from God. But the time is coming when every bite of food, every note of music, every word spoken or written will be a means by which we are blessed by God and receive more of him. None of it will be touched by guilt or even the weakest remnant of evil. Through our physical bodies, we will receive pure joy, not mixed with anything bad or wrong. Again, this will happen not only spiritually, but also physically.

If we could fully delight in God without bodies, I doubt God would have created a physical universe in the first place. But part of the delight he gives us is physical, and so part of our hope is for a physical future when every physical experience contributes to our delight in God.

We must continue to think about the stunning hope that we have because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. We need to talk about it with each other. Just as we humans delight in sharing memories with loved ones, so too, we ought to delight in sharing our hopes of the New Creation, our hopes of Resurrection. I think it would be terrific if we often had conversations where we say: “I can’t wait for the day when I get to fly.” Or, “I am so excited about being pain-free.” Or, “I can’t wait to make music and delight in music as a vehicle for the joy of God.” Let us encourage one another. One thing is certain: the day is coming for each one us.

Often in this life we know that the presence of God is a good and wonderful thing, but we seldom feel it. In the resurrection we will have bodies and souls that can handle the presence of God. What we have now by faith, we will have then in its fullest reality. The hunger inside our souls will be fully satisfied, and our joy will overflow like a fountain.

Why don’t you set a timer right now for five minutes, and spend that time thinking about the four amazing hopes we’ve just considered. Or, is there another hope from the resurrection that captivates your heart? Ask the Lord to make these hopes real and present to you each day.

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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Download Revelation Part 15

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.

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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.