COLOSSIANS #10: FILLING UP WHAT IS LACKING IN SUFFERINGS OF CHRIST

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When we Christians suffer well, trusting God and his purposes, even when we don’t understand them, it is a powerful testimony to the world. It shows the world that there is something so good, so powerful that even suffering is redeemed. It shows the world that suffering and love can, and do, go hand in hand. When we suffer well, it is like we are teaching the world about the sufferings of Christ.

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Colossians #10. Colossians 1:24-26 (Part B)

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, 25 of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. Colossians 1:24-26

This is the second sermon on the same set of verses: Colossians 1:24-26. If you have not read the first sermon on this passage (Colossians #9), please go back and do that now. Some of what we learn in this sermon absolutely depends upon what we already received from the previous one.

We began last time by examining Paul’s words: “I rejoice in my sufferings.” Those are powerful words. Until we understand how it is possible to rejoice in our sufferings, we cannot understand this next phrase: “I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

If you stop and think about it, this is a very puzzling phrase. What does it mean to fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ? How can Christ’s afflictions be lacking? Does this mean that the death of Jesus is not enough, and we need to suffer in order to be saved?

Paul uses some unusual language in this little phrase, but there is one other place that uses almost exactly the same Greek wording. That other verse comes in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The Philippian church collected some money and sent it Paul  to help support him as he worked for the kingdom of God. Paul was in Rome at the time, a long way from where they lived, so they sent the gift with a man named Epaphroditus. Epaphroditus arrived in Rome with the money, and he also assisted Paul in the work, but at some point, he got sick, and almost died. Paul says that he considered this sickness of Epaphroditus to be suffering for the sake of Christ, and he wrote this:

Therefore, welcome him in the Lord with great joy and hold people like him in honor, because he came close to death for the work of Christ, risking his life to make up what was lacking in your ministry to me. (Philippians 2:29-30)

The phrase “to make up for what was lacking” is almost exactly the same in Greek as our verse today where he says, “I am filling up what is lacking” in Christ’s sufferings.

In the first place, it is interesting to note that Epaphroditus was not persecuted.  “He came close to death for the sake of the Lord” because of an illness. This should show us that anything and everything that happens to us as we try to live for Jesus is “for the sake of the Lord.” His suffering was no less suffering for the Lord, even though it was not persecution, but “ordinary sickness.”

Next, let’s consider how Epaphroditus “made up what was lacking” in the ministry in the ministry of the Philippians to Paul. He didn’t raise the money himself. Also, Paul does not mean that Epaphroditus added the last, needed twenty dollars. What was lacking in the Philippian gift was a person to deliver it, to make sure that Paul got it. Epaphroditus made up for that lack. He provided the delivery, and the personal touch. He personally represented the love and fellowship the others felt for Paul.

So when Paul says he makes up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ he does NOT mean that the suffering of Jesus was not enough to bring forgiveness of our sins. The whole New Testament is quite clear that the death of Jesus was entirely sufficient to forgive our sins, to make us holy and restore our relationship with God:

11 Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. 12 But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he sat down in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 13 There he waits until his enemies are humbled and made a footstool under his feet. 14 For by that one offering he forever made perfect those who are being made holy. (NLT, Hebrews 10:11-14, bold formatting added for emphasis)

18 Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone. 19 Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous. (NLT, Romans 5:18-19)

1 So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. 2 And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. 3 The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins. 4 He did this so that the just requirement of the law would be fully satisfied for us, who no longer follow our sinful nature but instead follow the Spirit. (NLT, Romans 8:1-4)

So, the sufferings of Jesus are entirely enough to save us. We cannot add to the salvation that Jesus obtained for us. His sufferings are not “lacking” in power to save us. But there is one thing that Christ did not accomplish while he was here on earth. He did not tell every human being about himself. He gave that assignment to the apostles, and to the whole church. Therefore, what “is lacking” in Christ sufferings is that not everyone has heard about those sufferings, nor understood what they mean. Just as the Philippians needed someone to deliver a generous gift, so Jesus needs Paul – and us – to bring the good news of his gift to the world. What is lacking is, in essence, the delivery of the gift.

Paul, and the other writers of the New Testament, take it for granted that bringing the good news to others will involve suffering.  Epaphroditus became physically ill while serving Jesus, and it is counted as suffering for the sake of Christ. So, in essence the sufferings of Christ – in his body, the church – will not be complete until all the world has heard the good news.

John Piper puts it like this:

What is lacking is that the infinite value of Christ’s afflictions is not known and trusted in the world. These afflictions and what they mean are still hidden to most peoples. And God’s intention is that the mystery be revealed to all the nations. So the afflictions of Christ are “lacking” in the sense that they are not seen and known and loved among the nations. They must be carried by the ministers of the Word. And those ministers of the Word “complete” what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ by extending them to others…

…Paul exhibits the sufferings of Christ by suffering himself for those he is trying to win. In his sufferings they see Christ’s sufferings. Here is the astounding upshot: God intends for the afflictions of Christ to be presented to the world through the afflictions of His people. (John Piper, Desiring God)

Let me give it to you in a different way. When people suffer, mostly, they just want it to stop. Suffering is seen as universally bad. Suffering creates problems for most people. Many people even turn away from the idea of God, because they feel that a good God would not allow anyone he loves to suffer.

Certainly, the Bible says that God the Father loves his Son, Jesus Christ. Yet Jesus Christ experienced a terrible, eternal quality of suffering that we can only begin to guess at. However, The suffering of Jesus was an act of love, because it saves those who trust him. The suffering of Jesus also shows us that Jesus was looking beyond temporary pain into eternal glory.

When we Christians suffer well, trusting God and his purposes, even when we don’t understand them, it is a powerful testimony to the world. It shows the world that there is something so good, so powerful that even suffering is redeemed. It shows the world that suffering and love can, and do, go hand in hand. When we suffer well, it is like we are teaching the world about the sufferings of Christ.

I am utterly convinced that many people have been encouraged by seeing me navigate this life of pain in faith. I think it has had a deeper impact on both me, and others, than there would have been from a miraculous healing. When people see that even in my suffering I find Jesus to be a good, all-sufficient savior, then I am, in a sense presenting the sufferings of Jesus to them. Because I am a  member of the body of Christ, it is not my suffering, but the suffering of Jesus.

Again, from John Piper:

Since Christ is no longer on the earth, He wants His body, the church, to reveal His suffering in its suffering. Since we are His body, our sufferings are His sufferings. Romanian pastor Josef Tson put it like this: “I am an extension of Jesus Christ. When I was beaten in Romania, He suffered in my body. It is not my suffering: I only had the honor to share His sufferings.”  Therefore, our sufferings testify to the kind of love Christ has for the world. (John Piper, Desiring God)

Suffering is an opportunity. It provides us with a chance to experience the grace of God in a special way. In addition, it allows us to present the worth of Christ to the world in a very compelling manner.

Just a few weeks ago, a prominent Christian singer from Bethel church lost her two year old daughter to sudden death. This was a terrible tragedy. It was also an opportunity for God to give that family special grace, and for them, by trusting that grace, to show the world the surpassing value of Jesus Christ. Instead, they chose to very publicly pray for the resurrection of the child. Though I have my small share of suffering, I cannot imagine what it would be like to lose a young child suddenly. I am not judging them, but I want us to use their example as a thought experiment.

Suppose God had answered their prayer for the resurrection of their child. What then? Yes, it would be a great miracle. But it would also leave hundreds of thousands of other stricken parents wondering why God did not choose to raise their child. It would tend to make people believe that the value of trusting God is mainly in what we can see, mainly in him making our lives better here and now. But that is not a Biblical viewpoint.

What if these parents had responded differently? What if they had immediately leaned into the grace of God to trust, even when they cannot understand? What if they had been able to say, “This is the most horrible thing I have ever experienced – and yet, I find that God’s grace is enough. I don’t understand, but I trust him, anyway.” I believe that would have been more powerful, and more helpful to others, than the resurrection of a single child among the millions of those who die young and tragically.

Between these past two weeks, we have learned that it is possible to rejoice in suffering, and also that suffering is a means by which God’s people can show the world that He is good, and He can be trusted. It would be foolish to go and look for ways to suffer. However, if and when you do find yourself in hard times, press into Him, trust Him. Once more, I leave you with one of my new favorite bible quotes:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (ESV, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

THE SHOCK-WAVES OF A SINGLE CHILD

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If God really came into the world, we would expect that to create some changes. The event would reverberate through history. In fact, that is exactly what we find.

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CHRISTMAS 2019: THE SHOCK-WAVES OF A SINGLE CHILD

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).

24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25, ESV)

The central claim of Christmas is that at a certain point in time, at a certain place in history, God himself came to earth as a baby. Matthew said that this God-child will be called Immanuel, which means: God with us. It is a stunning claim; if it is true, there are huge implications for every area of existence. Think about it this way: if God came to earth, it would be like dropping a boulder into a still, calm pond. The ripples would go out in every direction and disturb and change the surface of the pond. If God came to earth, it would change everything, and the changes would continue to be felt, long after the event.

So, what do we find? The God-child went around with the name Jesus. Jesus grew into a man who gathered followers, and he taught them God’s truth. Part of the truth that he taught them was about his own identity as God-in-the-flesh. Part of his mission was not just teaching, but also to die on our behalf, and he fulfilled that mission. What effect did all this have on the course of human history? Can we see any ripples in the course of human history?

I’m going to start with something that is frivolous, but actually somewhat remarkable, if you think about it. It is now roughly 2,000 years since Jesus was born. Even today, even in 2019, when we enter the season of remembering the birth of Jesus, millions of people behave better than at other times of the year. Throughout late November and December, people in the Western world are typically much more generous to each other, and to those less fortunate. We do little favors for strangers. We feed the poor. We give to charities. We overlook little offenses because we are influenced by the “season.” I think that the power of that original event can still be scene in how millions of people are a little bit more kind, caring and loving when we remember the birth of Jesus. That little child entered the world twenty centuries ago, and we still feel the shock-waves of it at the end of every year.

There are bigger things, also. One of the central truths that Jesus imparted to his followers was that all human beings are equal in value. Nowadays, we in the Western world take this for granted. But in the history of human cultures, this is a unique idea that came from one source: the teachings of Jesus Christ. Before Jesus, people in every culture, all over the world, took it for granted that human beings were NOT equal. Generally speaking, women were considered second-class. Noblemen were more valuable than peasants. Slaves existed to serve their betters. Adults were better than children. No one questioned this view of the world.

In recent years, as our culture has grown less Christian, some academics have tried to suggest that modern democracy arose only from ancient Greece, and Rome. They don’t want to credit Christianity with anything positive. It is true that the creators of modern democracy found inspiration in some of the writings of those ancients. But even the most enlightened of the ancient Greeks and Romans approved of killing unwanted babies (especially girls); of pederasty (that is men, sexually abusing boys); of slavery; and of the second-class status of peasants and women. They believed in a ruling class that was intrinsically better than anyone else. If there was a country today that practiced democracy in the same way as ancient Athens, that country would be condemned by the Western world for abuse of human rights.

No, the idea that all human beings are equally valuable came from Jesus Christ alone. That one idea has created innumerable ripples throughout human history. The teachings of Jesus on this issue elevated the status of women. His teachings are the source of the idea that children are precious and should be protected.

During the 1700s in the American colonies a revival of Christianity occurred. This was known as the first Great Awakening. It was the power of Christianity, bolstered by the first Great Awakening, that led the founding fathers to create modern democracy. Author Dinesh D’Souza writes:

The first great awakening, a Christian revival that swept the country in the mid eighteenth century, created the moral foundation of the American revolution.

…Historian Paul Johnson writes that the American revolution is “inconceivable… Without this religious background.”

Even before the Great Awakening, the political philosophers who inspired the American revolution (people like John Locke) were applying their devout Christian faith to political systems. The very idea of limited government, with rights to individual people, is a result of the teaching of Jesus. To put it simply: one of the ripples of the Christ-child is modern democracy. Millions of people live in freedom today because of that child born in Bethlehem.

In 1785, a British politician became a true follower of Jesus. The influence of Jesus on his life led him to believe that slavery was morally wrong, because, in the sight of God, all people are equally valuable. The name of the politician was William Wilberforce, and his Christian faith led him and sustained him as he created a movement that ended slavery in the British empire.

The abolition of slavery in the United States was largely a result of the second Great Awakening. Again, D’Souza writes:

The second Great Awakening, which started in the early nineteenth century and coursed through new England and New York and then through the interior of the country, left in its wake the temperance movement, the movement for women’s suffrage, and most important, the abolitionist movement.

Another one of the great ripples of this child coming to earth, was literal freedom for slaves. Slaves were freed only in countries where there was a significant Christian presence. Elsewhere in the world, slavery was ended only when Christian nations used their power and wealth to pressure other nations into freeing slaves.

Before Jesus, the Greeks and Romans had a few small facilities to take care of wounded soldiers. However, nothing like hospitals existed anywhere in the world. It was people who were trying to apply the teachings of Jesus who created the first hospitals; hospitals that were open for anyone in need. Even today, there are hospitals that exist for profit, and those that are run as charities (that is, they are not trying to make a profit, but rather simply to serve the community). Christian charitable hospitals outnumber all other charitable hospitals by a crushing majority. The compassion to help the sick, merely for the sake of helping them, is just one more ripple of this God-child.

In fact, there are so many significant ripples, that there really is not time to tell about all of them, nor to go into how they all came about. Universities would not be in this world if it were not for this God-child. Modern science would not have been possible without him. The whole idea of nuclear family, which is the only solid building block for stable, free societies, arose from this God-child. Our economic system, which recognizes human selfishness and manipulates it for human good, and has led to best standard of living the world has ever known, was made possible only by a Christian view of the world, which was only possible because of the child in the stable. Without that child, most of us would not be able to afford the presents under the tree.

Many of us don’t know a lot about history, or about other cultures. We may not have realized just how brutal and unfair life was before Jesus Christ came into the world. But his entry into history has profoundly changed the entire course of human culture. That is what we would expect to find if the claim is true.

Part of the power of this Child is that he not only entered history: he also enters the hearts and lives of all who will receive him. Just as his entry into the world caused profound changes, so also, his entry into our lives, personally, creates deep changes in us. When we invite him in, he brings love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. He changes our eternal future. He brings internal freedom, and wisdom, and compassion for others.

My prayer for you this Christmas is that he will indeed enter your hearts, and that you will continually receive, and rejoice in, the power of God with us. If you allow him to, you will find that it is the best Christmas present you have ever received.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

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SINGLE SERMONS
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FINDING FREEDOM, FIGHTING STRONGHOLDS

31 So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?”
34 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. 35 The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. 36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. (ESV) John 8:31-36

 When we talk about following Jesus, there are certain things that we can do that are like opening up channels to the Holy Spirit. If we are serious about the fact that Jesus is our Lord and savior, we ought to do these things, in order to grow closer to him, and be the people that he intends us to be.

I’m talking about things like  reading your Bible every day. Now, don’t sweat if you a miss day, or even two or three, once in a while. But if want to allow God into our lives in greater measure, if we want to grow spiritually and become what we were meant to be, we can’t do it without regular infusions of God’s Word, which we get from the Bible.

Prayer is another one. If  you are struggling in your Christian life, and you never pray, there is no mystery about why you struggle. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says we ought to pray continually. It’s like a long, ongoing internal conversation with God, along with times that are dedicated specifically and only for prayer.

There is also fellowship with other believers. If we don’t have regular Christian community, our walk with Jesus will suffer. The same is true of worshipping God with other believers, and also serving others. All of these are practices and disciplines that are channels between us and God. The Lord can and does use things to pour more of his love and grace and joy and peace and so on into our lives. We really cannot expect to move closer to God without them.

Now, I want to make sure we have this straight. We don’t do them to please God, or to motivate him to bless us. These are means by which we can connect with the Life he offers. He still has to choose to bless us – we can’t make him do it. But he has designed us as human beings to need these things, and also to have them as resources to help us.

If we do these things regularly, it is likely that we will, at God’s chosen pace, grow in our faith, and also grow in the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

However, there are a few situations in which these things are not enough. The first situation is one that I have experienced during the past few years. At times, the Lord calls his people to suffer. No matter how hard we try, there is at least part of life that simply cannot work, because God has given us the honor of growing through suffering. This is a mystery, of sorts, but there can be wonderful grace as we suffer for him. Sometime, I’ll expound more on this.

There are times, however, when we suffer unnecessarily. You see the Bible insists that we are in a spiritual war. Sometimes, we face struggles and hardships because we are not paying attention to what is going on in that war. Listen to some of what the Bible says about this:

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12); the devil stalks around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8-11); the devil has schemes against us (2 Corinthians 2:11) we are waging spiritual war (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).  We are urged to participate in that war:  We should act as soldiers of God (2 Timothy 2:4); we must resist the devil (James 4:7); fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12) and contend for our faith (Jude 3).

You see, sometimes we think it’s hard to be a disciple because…it’s just hard.  But why is it hard?  Because we have enemies who make it hard for us.  These enemies are not flesh and blood.  Our battle is

against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm (1 Timothy 6:12)

“Rulers” and “authorities” do not refer to earthly government, but to different sorts of evil spiritual entities called the devil and demons.

Now, there are two mistakes we make in the spiritual war. The first is assume that neither the devil nor his demons are real, or that the threat they pose is not significant. Prior to September 11, 2001, in the United States, Americans were only dimly aware of radical elements of Islam that hated the United States. No one took the threat seriously, and that resulted in tragedy. Let’s not make the same mistake with regard to the spiritual war.

The second mistake is to imagine that everything that ever goes wrong is because of the devil. If you never maintain your car, and it breaks down on the way to church, that probably is not spiritual warfare. Sometimes mental illness is medically based, requiring medications and other treatments. Sometimes, life just doesn’t go the way we planned. It is not necessarily all the fault of the devil.

This is tricky, for instance, when we talk about something like depression. My wife Kari has struggled with depression off and on throughout her life. One time, we prayed about it, and we were convinced that her depression had a spiritual cause. We engaged in spiritual warfare, and the depression lifted for several years. After many years, it returned. We prayed, and we realized that Kari’s life was very hard at that time, and her depression was a natural result of her circumstances, and so we needed to change some things.  A third time, the depression returned, and this time we were led to seek medication, and found that in this third case, there was a chemical imbalance. I encourage you to seek out all possibilities, but do not discount the spiritual one until you have investigated it.

The Bible also tells us that these entities work against us primarily by influencing how we think and feel. The battleground of the spiritual war is in our mind and emotions.

And so, at times, there may be a kind of spiritual block that is interfering in your relationship with Jesus. The Bible calls these spiritual blocks: strongholds.

A stronghold is a place in your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus. Maybe it helps to think of it as a room in your house that is locked off from the rest of the house. Inside that room, it is not Jesus who is in charge. We may think we are the one in charge in that area, but the truth is, if we have locked it off from Jesus, that area will be under the influence of the devil and his demons. If you walk past that room, they can use that as a base to dart out and attack you.

3 For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. 4 For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. 5 We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, 6 being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete. (ESV 2 Corinthians 10:3-6)

If there is some area of your life where you seem stuck, where you can’t get victory and you just don’t understand why, there is the possibility that it is because of a spiritual stronghold.

Bitterness and unforgiveness are major sources of spiritual strongholds. In Ephesians 4:26

26 And “don’t sin by letting anger control you.” Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 for anger gives a foothold to the devil. (NLT Ephesians 4:26-27)

Jesus himself said that when we refuse to forgive others, we are closing our selves off from God’s forgiveness:

14 “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NLT) Matthew 6:14-15

Now, I don’t think God is being vindictive. I think that unforgiveness creates a major stronghold that interferes with us being able to receive God’s grace. It isn’t God being mean, it is us cutting ourselves off from his grace.

Other strongholds can be created when we make a firm decision – what I call, an internal vow – that excludes God. Perhaps a woman grew up in poverty. At some point, she felt so humiliated by her family’s condition that deep inside, she made a vow, something like this: “I will never, never allow myself to be poor again.” But what if the Lord calls this woman to marry a missionary, or to have a career in some area that doesn’t make much money? Her vow excludes God’s authority in her life, and it will cause all sort of issues later on.

Some people make vows that they will never allow themselves to be emotionally hurt badly again. Sometimes this works in the short term, but usually that sort of thing gives an opportunity for the devil, because God often calls us to self-sacrificing love for others. That sort of stronghold could really play havoc in a marriage. It could seriously interfere in someone’s ability to be close to others.

Addictions often accompany strongholds, or vice-versa. Without consciously saying it, we have decided God can do anything he wants, but he just can’t touch my habit of….fill in the blank.

Any area of your life that is not fully surrendered to Jesus will be unfair game to the forces of evil. Any place where you are excluding God can become a stronghold.

There is, however, terrific news. One of the reasons we create strongholds in the first place is because we don’t trust that God will truly do what’s best for us. Or, we think he will do what’s best for us, but we believe that we find that very unpleasant. You will indeed find God’s purposes for you to be troublesome and unpleasant for as long as you hold on to your own right to manage your own life. However, when you surrender to the Lord and receive whatever he wants to do in your life, you can find grace and joy in any situation.

I know what I’m talking about. I have suffered severe, intense pain for the past four years. The short description is that it feels like I have been trying to pass a kidney stone, 24/7 365 days a year, for more than four years. The first two years were horrible in every possible way. I still find it daunting to get through some days. However, I also find a great deal of joy, peace and meaning, even in the midst of this, because I am accepting whatever the Lord is doing. I believe he is good, he is powerful and he loves me. The pain has impressed that into every fiber of my being. So, even that which looks terrible from the outside can become joy and blessing when we surrender to Him.

The good news, we can be free, and the Lord has made it simple to be free.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (ESV Galatians 5:1)

In the first place, Jesus took all the guilt of our sin upon himself at the cross. In Jesus, you are now declared “not guilty” – even of the sins you have committed. Second, through the cross, Jesus defeated the powers of evil:

13 You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. 14 He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. (NLT Colossians 2:13-15)

The spiritual powers of evil – including those which inhabit any strongholds – have been disarmed by Jesus. They have suffered a public defeat. Therefore, when we command them in the name of Jesus, they must go. They go, not because we are strong enough to resist them, but because Jesus will back us up when face them. He will make them go way when we tell them to.

The Lord has already defeated the devil. So, for us, destroying a stronghold has three simple parts. First, we identify the stronghold. Next, we repent of it, and ask Jesus to come and take control there. Finally, we speak a prayer by the authority of Jesus, telling the powers of evil to release that stronghold. I have helped many people clear there lives of various spiritual strongholds. I have cleared a few out of my own life, also. It can be shocking to see how free and joyful we can be when all areas of our lives belong fully to Jesus.

I don’t mean that we are perfect, and we never thwart his will. But a stronghold is a place where we persistently, continually thwart God’s control of our lives. When are free of such things, it makes a tremendous difference.

Really what I am talking about is taking inventory, and consciously allowing Jesus to be in control of every single part of your life. Paul did that, and that is why he wrote this:

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. (ESV, Galatians 2:20)

That life, by the grace of God, is a life of love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control. It is also a life filled with tremendous hope.

Take  a moment right now to examine your heart. Pick a time this week when you will spend an hour – or several – thoroughly surrendering every part of your life to care of our loving savior and Lord, Jesus Christ.

REVELATION #47. PARENTHESES: SEX, MARRIAGE AND CIVILIZATION

man couple love people
Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

Even here at the end of Revelation, Jesus mentions the problem of sexual immorality. The Bible’s teaching on sex is much greater and deeper than simply “don’t do it.” In fact, the Bible tells married couples that they should “do it.” Let’s investigate the importance of Biblical sexuality together. Many people have failed in this area, but Jesus offers forgiveness and holiness to everyone who trusts in him, no matter what they have done, or not done.

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Revelation #47. Revelation 22:12-15

The second declaration of Jesus is this:

12 “Look, I am coming soon, and my reward is with me to repay each person according to his work. 13 I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. (CSB, Revelation 22:12-13)

I have spoken several times in this series about the preciousness of God, reward in heaven, and having Jesus as your desire, and reward. So, I won’t reiterate all of that here. Just understand that Jesus felt that it was so important, it was one of the last seven things he said to his people on earth. We should focus on the joy and fulfillment we have in Jesus, even here and now in this life.

Now we move on to the third Declaration of Jesus:

14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates. 15 Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. (ESV) Revelation 22:14-15

Here we have a reiteration of what a blessing it is to have your name in the book of life. There is once more, a reminder – from Jesus himself, that not everyone is willing to have Jesus make them holy. You may have noticed that Revelation frequently mentions lists of sins. In almost every list, among other things, you have sexual immorality. I want to spend the bulk of the time talking about this, because it is very important. Some people say that Christians talk about sexual immorality too much. I say, we don’t do it often enough. Here’s why: In our culture today, no one  saying that murder is not a sin. No one is going around saying, “Hey, it’s no big deal if you lie. In fact, if you lie in a loving way, it’s a beautiful thing.” But our culture is saying that sexual immorality is no big deal, when, according to the Bible, it is such a big deal that it keeps getting mentioned, even here in the very last section of Revelation.

By the way, of course I know that this is a sensitive subject. I know that some people have already failed in the area of sexual immorality. But please stay with me as we go through this topic together. Where there is Jesus, there is always hope. He suffered and died so that you could be not only forgiven, but made holy. If you are tempted to feel ashamed, let that lead you to repentance. If you have already repented, trust what Jesus says, that he has forgiven you, and cleansed you from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7-9)

Sometimes, we Christians make the mistake of simply saying, “Just don’t have sex until you married.” That’s true and right, as far as it goes. But it might be helpful to talk about the big picture, about why sex within marriage is good and right, and why sex outside of it is wrong and destructive. It isn’t just about sex – it is about our whole view of what it means to be a human person, created by God.

Our culture does not believe that God made the world, and everything in it. Sex, therefore (according to them), is not from God, it is just a desire to be satisfied. In our present culture, most people think that the highest good is for each individual to satisfy their own desires in whatever way they please. Therefore, telling someone whom to have sex with (or whom not) is ridiculous and offensive.

But Christians believe that God created the world, and human beings, and that he has a purpose for everything he created. Sex is part of God’s creation, therefore it has meaning, and purpose, given to it by God himself. The Bible is clear about the meaning and purpose of sex. It is a shadowy reflection of the joy that we will have when we have true intimacy with God. It is inextricably bound up in love, no matter how much people don’t want to accept that. And one of the main purposes for sex is the formation of marriages, and then families, and then societies.

When sex is channeled into love and marriage, men and women are bound together with one of the strongest forces in creation. They work together to create families, and homes. When they do that, they ally themselves with other families and homes, and become communities. Communities come together to form societies. Societies based on strong marriages in this way have always, throughout history, created stable places where human beings thrived and bloomed. Of course, no society has ever been perfect, but strong sexual morality has been the basis for the greatest civilizations of the world, benefiting millions upon millions of people. You might say that the sex-drive, channeled in a Biblical way, builds great cultures, and allows the largest number of people to be safe and happy.

If this is the first time you are hearing this, please understand that this is not a new idea. Sir Edward Gibbon’s famous work The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire outlines this quite clearly, as do other respected scholars throughout history. Gibbon, by the way, was not a Christian, and so was not biased toward this idea in any way. Instead, he simply found these facts to be true. In modern times, however, this is something no one wants to hear, so the truth has been ignored, mocked, and even suppressed.

Now, on the other hand, where sex has not been confined to marriage, societies typically come apart.  We are witnessing that very thing today in Western culture.

In ancient cultures, sex was something that strong people inflicted on the weak. The result was a lot of pain and misery. The Judeo-Christian value of sex-only-in-marriage protected women from being used and cast aside. It created a stable environment for children to be raised in an emotional healthy atmosphere. It was the Christian sexual morality that changed the world, and made it a better place for all people, whether Christian or not.

Again, today, in Western culture, we think that the highest good is for each individual person to be satisfied however they see fit. For most people, that means using sex in such a way as to be personally satisfied. That separates sex from love. It creates situations where children are raised without strong men in the picture. That alone makes those children far more likely to be poor, uneducated, and involved in criminal activities. It makes them more vulnerable to abuse. It is not an exaggeration to say that the increases our culture is experiencing in violence, drug-use, suicide, the erosion of work ethic, the general rudeness – all these are, in one way or another, largely due to sexual immorality.

As Rod Dreher, author of the Benedict Option puts it:

Unbridled erotic passion creates chaos and disintegration. Eros that submits to Christ bears fruit in the gift of children, stable families and communities.

You might say, “But I’ll use birth control until I’m married. That will fix the problem.”

However, there is more to the story. We are spiritual beings, and everything we do has a spiritual aspect to it. Paul writes that if we engage in sexual immorality as Christians, we are actually somehow joining Jesus to the act.

15 Don’t you know that your bodies are a part of Christ’s body? So should I take a part of Christ’s body and make it part of a prostitute? Absolutely not! 16 Don’t you know that anyone joined to a prostitute is one body with her? For Scripture says, The two will become one flesh. 17 But anyone joined to the Lord is one spirit with him.
18 Flee sexual immorality! Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body. 19 Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20 for you were bought at a price. So glorify God with your body. (CSB 1 Corinthians 6:15-20)

Sex is a deep, powerful, even spiritual connection. When you have sex, the Holy Spirit is there, within you. If it is with your spouse, this makes it a powerful force for the good of your marriage. If it is with someone else, you are literally dragging the Holy Spirit along with your sin.

When you recognize that God himself is there in the middle of sexual activity, it becomes a powerful force for blessing in marriage. When you recognize that you are dragging God himself along in the middle of your sexual sin…well, you see why the Bible mentions it so often.

Also, when you have sex with multiple partners, you bring a lot of baggage to the relationships you have. Eventually, when you get married, you are bringing all of that baggage to your spouse, and to your marriage relationship. That tends to make things difficult and complicated. On the other hand, when you follow God’s plan, you can truly say to your spouse: “You are truly my only one.” That is a tremendous gift of love, a gift of self-denial and self-sacrifice for another. It is a gift that echoes with the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. Which is another point: Marriage intended to give a picture of the relationship that God has with his people. When we have sex with multiple people, we are totally ruining that picture.

There is another thing that strikes me as ridiculously unrealistic. In today’s culture, we have the idea that before marriage, sex is more or less just about personal fulfillment. People are expected to fulfill themselves sexually when and how they please. Then, suddenly, after marriage, people who have maintained that sex with multiple partners is normal and good, suddenly have to live with only one sexual partner for the rest of their lives. This makes monogamy meaningless for all, and very difficult for many people.

Sexual immorality strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a human being, created and saved by God. God will not allow his New Creation to be destroyed by the kind of self-centered use of sex so common in our culture. It is one more warning for people to abandon the idols of self-fulfillment, and pursue the joy that God has for us when we submit to His plan.

One other thing that often does not get said. This means that sex between married people is good thing, thing that can bring powerful blessing to a marriage and family. If you are married, don’t use sex as a tool for manipulation, and don’t regularly abstain unless the two of you agree to, for a definite reason. I’m not saying that on my own: I am summarizing 1 Corinthians 7:1-7. Here is one piece of it:

2 But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 3 The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (ESV, 1 Corinthians 7:2-5)

Go read the Corinthians passage, preferably with your spouse. Most spouses have differing levels of desire, and that is something to work through lovingly. The spouse who is more eager for sex must be willing to work on other parts of the relationship. However, God’s plan is that was sex was supposed to be a normal, regular part of marriage.  Sex should not be used for leverage in your relationship. That isn’t what it is for.

There is nothing in the Bible to say that God’s plan for sex has changed. In fact, the idea that spouses should not have sex with each other is just as wrong as the idea that they should have sex with other partners.

By the way, some people try to get rid of that passage in 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, because at the very end, Paul, referring to only one part of what he said, writes, “I say this as a concession, not a command.” The Greek there is very clear that the “concession” is only his idea that the couple abstain for mutually agreed upon periods for prayer. All of the Greek verbs in the rest of that passage are imperative commands, given in the present tense, meaning “this is what you should be doing.” They are clearly commands, not concessions. The only thing that is not a command is the idea that you abstain for a while for prayer.  Flatly refusing your spouse is no part of God’s plan for marriage. Listen to a few of the ancient Christian writers:

You have given up your wife, to whom you are bound. This is a big step you have taken. You are not abusing her, you say, but claiming that you can be chaste and live more purely. But look how your poor wife is being destroyed as a result, because she is unable to endure your purity! You should sleep with your wife, not for your sake but for hers. (Origen, Commentary on 1 Corinthians)

This applies equally to husbands and wives, of course.

If a woman stays away from her husband, she will make him angry, and vice versa. That is why Paul insists that [abstinence] must be by mutual consent. (Theodoret of Cyr. Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians)

Theodoret also makes it clear that these things apply equally to husbands and wives. There are not two sets of rules, one for men, another for women. We both submit to the same command of God. One more:

Great evils spring from this sort of continence [that is, married couples not having sex], if it is overdone. Adulteries, fornications and the destruction of families have often resulted from this. If a married man commits fornication, how much more will he do so if his wife denies herself to him? Unless there is mutual consent, continence in this case is really a form of theft. (John Chrysostom. Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians)

The scripture is clear. The wisdom of the ages concurs. Sex in marriage is a blessing that is not to be denied each other without mutual consent. Now, that may cause tension and friction in some marriages. In fact, it is normal to have to work through relational issues in order to have good sex. This means that God’s plan uses the power of sex as a motivator to work out your issues. It forces couples to deal with their issues, and this ultimately leads to greater intimacy and happiness in marriage.

I am not naïve. I’m sure that a great many people reading this this have already sinned in the area of sexuality.  If you have not repented, and started down a new road: well, let this be a warning to you. The passage is quite clear – if you choose to hold on to sexual immorality rather than Jesus, you will not enter the New Creation.

On the other hand, if you have repented, if you are trying to walk in the Spirit, on the path of Jesus, then listen:

3 We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of his great love that he had for us, 5 made us alive with Christ even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! 6 He also raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might display the immeasurable riches of his grace through his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift ​— ​ 9 not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do. (CSB, Ephesians 2:3-10)

God can redeem the past. Jesus came for this very reason: to forgive us, to cleanse us, and give us a new nature. If you have repented for your past sexual sin, then receive God’s grace and forgiveness, and move on. Trust that he has made you holy, and rely on Him to help you work through the issues you may have caused by your past behavior.

THE COSTLY GIFT

mary2

When Mary agreed to receive Jesus into her body and her life, it cost her a great deal. She lost the one thing she had to look forward to in a life of crushing poverty – her wedding. She lost respect, and social standing. She lost her home town for many years. But she knew that what she gained was far better than anything she lost. My prayer is that we too, make the same choice as Mary, and unconditionally receive into our lives the Savior of the world, the Lord of our lives, Jesus Christ, and find that what we gain is worth losing anything else.

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 Christmas Eve 2017

Luke 1:26-38. 

Mary

Our first child was supposed to born right around Christmas: we even gave her a Christmas-themed name. Kari and I are different in a number of ways, but we both have trouble feeling comfortable when our house is a mess. We like things neat and orderly. We also prefer to prepare for things ahead of time, rather than waiting until the last minute. So, before our daughter was born, our house was all in order. We thought we were ready.

About a week after we got home from the hospital with our daughter, I looked around our place. There were diapers, and blankets strewn around everywhere. Rumpled clothing lay on the floor where it had been cast off. The kitchen was full of unwashed dishes. Kari and I stared at each other out of bleary, sleep-deprived eyes, and said, “What happened?”

I remember very clearly talking to my mother-in-law on the phone and saying, “It feels like a bomb went off in here.” I also remember thinking, “Why didn’t anyone tell us how difficult this is?”

The truth is, it never really got any easier. There were uncounted dirty diapers. There was throw-up. There were messes, and laundry, and to go anywhere we needed to pack gear that outweighed the baby by about 10-1. Our quiet, orderly life was thrown into chaos. There was crying, and I don’t mean the baby. Aside from all of the chaos on the outside, having a child meant we had to rearrange our priorities. We couldn’t live selfishly anymore. This tiny little person – who couldn’t, walk, talk, eat solid food, or even smile, at first – changed our lives profoundly.

Becoming a father was one of the three greatest things that has ever happened to me. Fatherhood has challenged me, changed me, and made me grow. When you become a parent, you can’t remain exactly the same as you were before.

Now, with that in mind, think about Mary, the mother of Jesus. We think of her as holy and exalted. She carried the divine nature of God, joined to her egg, within her very body. She shared her own blood with Jesus. Think of it – the blood that he shed for the salvation of the world came originally from her. After he was born, she nursed him, feeding him still from her own body. She wiped his bottom when he did what all babies do. And yet, he was ultimately her Lord, her creator, her savior. In some ways, Mary must have had the most unique relationship with Jesus that any human being has ever had.

Even so, I think we can learn from Mary. In many other ways, her experiences were exactly like our own. One of the messages of Christmas, of Jesus coming to earth, is that we are faced with a choice. He isn’t just a sweet little baby. He himself said:

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.  Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.  (Matt 10:34-39, ESV2011)

And yet, we think of Christmas as a time for “peace on earth.” The truth is, Jesus is divisive, because he calls us to respond to him. Even Mary, who, for more than anyone, had a real relationship with a sweet little baby, found that even Jesus as a baby, as an unborn baby, presented her with a difficult choice.

Let’s back up to a young woman entering adulthood. We make much of the fact that Mary was only a teenager, but in her culture, she was considered an adult. She was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter. In that culture, her betrothal meant several things. First, it meant that the marriage was a done deal. Solemn promises and vows had already been exchanged. The only thing different between betrothal and marriage was that the couple did not yet live together, and had not consummated the marriage. Breaking a betrothal was like getting a divorce.

Generally, the betrothal period lasted about a year. I’m not sure why. It’s likely that it might take that much time for bridegroom to raise the necessary money for the bride-price and for the wedding festivities. It would probably also take several months to spread the word and gather any relatives who lived far away.

Wedding festivities lasted for week. The actual “wedding” began with an extensive parade through the town. The bridegroom paraded to the house of his wife, with friends and family accompanying him and celebrating along the way. It was obviously a very public occasion; in a small town, a wedding would be almost like a holiday.

On this occasion, the bride would be wearing the most beautiful clothing that she could possibly obtain. Her hair would be elaborately styled, and all in all, she would feel as beautiful as she ever would in this life. For this one day, all eyes would see her as beautiful.

After meeting at her family’s house, the bride and groom would parade back through the town, again with singing and celebrating, to the home of the groom. Again, they would be surrounded with the joyful faces of friends and families, singing, shouting and joking.

Back at the groom’s home, they would eat one of the most lavish and delicious meals of they would ever have in their lifetimes. A wedding in those difficult times was one of the few places you could count on to eat more than enough of your favorite foods. Guests would look forward to the food alone for months ahead of time. Surrounded by loving family and friends, the bride and groom would be blessed, prayed for and toasted. They wore crowns, and were treated like royalty on this day. After that, after the guests departed, the couple would consummate the marriage, and they would be officially husband and wife.

The angel came to Mary sometime during the year of betrothal. Aside from whatever daily chores she had to do, her life would have been consumed with the details of the coming wedding. In dirt-poor Nazareth, her wedding was one of the only major life-events that Mary had to really look forward to. No one took vacations or pleasure trips, or had the resources for such things. For a young woman like Mary, her wedding was going to be the highlight of her entire life.

Now, enter the angel. He told her that she would become pregnant. It was obvious that he meant right now,  not after she was officially married, but now, before she had ever been with a man. We know from Matthew’s account that Joseph found out Mary was pregnant some time before the wedding celebration, so this may have happened fairly early during the year of betrothal.

And just like that, there went the one thing in all her life that Mary had to look forward to. She didn’t know Joseph very well – engaged couples were seldom in love, or even close to each other, before the marriage. The safe assumption was that Joseph would divorce her before the wedding day. Not only that, but she would have to take on the incredible burden of parenthood all alone.

We know that a quiet divorce was, in fact, Joseph’s plan. God intervened and angel appeared to him also. Trusting God, Joseph did not divorce her. Matthew records that he took her as his wife, but that they did not consummate the marriage until after Jesus was born (Matthew 1:24-25). He doesn’t give any great detail about the timeline – in other words we don’t actually when they were married. Luke, with a little more detail, suggests that they were still only engaged when Jesus was born (Luke 2:1-7).

I highly doubt that Mary ever got her “event-of-a-lifetime” wedding. In fact, I doubt they had any wedding celebration at all. It was quite unlikely that they would do so, because it would only highlight the shameful and disgraceful fact of her pregnancy. If they had the celebration after Jesus was born, it would have been just as bad. Of course, Joseph and Mary knew that there was nothing shameful or wrong going on, but no one else was likely to believe them. If they had a wedding celebration, many guests might have refused to come.

I think this is one reason why both Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem for the census. It was probably sufficient for Joseph to go alone, but they were probably both eager to get out of Nazareth and the shame and disgrace they were under. There are indications that they lived in Bethlehem for almost two years after Jesus was born. The census certainly did not require them to move there. I think they weren’t excited to get back to Nazareth.

Now, understanding the background, I want to say this a different way. When Mary received Jesus into her body and her life, it meant she lost the one cherished event in her whole life that she was really looking forward to. It meant she was exposing herself to disgrace and ridicule, and accepting a very uncertain future. It wasn’t as easy as saying “I get to be the Messiah’s mother? Cool! Bring it on!” By agreeing, Mary was inviting, divorce (without ever getting the fun of the wedding), ridicule and shame. She was relinquishing her only chance to have just one beautiful shining week in a life that was otherwise filled with crushing poverty. This is in addition to all of the “normal sacrifice” that is involved in becoming a parent.

The angel said that Mary had God’s favor. God has a funny way of showing his favor. It probably wasn’t what Mary would have chosen for herself. With all that in mind, listen to her reply:

And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38, ESV2011)

Mary’s sacrifice is something we often overlook in the warm-fuzzies of Christmas. We are happy enough to contemplate the little baby Jesus, all clean and quiet. We could hold that little child and feel all peaceful and happy. Mary did. But she also gave up her own dreams to do so, and received much hardship and disgrace in their place. It really cost her something to receive Jesus.

Are we ready to recognize that receiving Jesus costs us our own agenda, or own control over our lives? Mary took Jesus on God’s terms, not her own. It meant giving up something she really wanted, but she was willing to do so. Are you ready to do the same? Can you receive Jesus on God’s terms, and give up your requirements?

Becoming a parent meant a whole lot of self-sacrifice on my part, throughout the years. It has sometimes been very difficult. And yet, I would not hesitate to do it all again. I have gained so much more than anything I’ve lost.

Mary shows us the way. She submitted to God. She agreed to the sacrifice. And though she and Joseph never got their wedding, they found incredible grace and joy. A few months later, talking to her relative, Elizabeth, Mary said these words:

My soul proclaims the greatness of15  the Lord,

 47 and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,

 48 because He has looked with favor

on the humble condition of His slave.

Surely, from now on all generations

will call me blessed,

 49 because the Mighty One

has done great things for me,

and His name is holy.

 50 His mercy is from generation to generation

on those who fear Him.

 51 He has done a mighty deed with His arm;

He has scattered the proud

because of the thoughts of their hearts;

 52 He has toppled the mighty from their thrones

and exalted the lowly.

 53 He has satisfied the hungry with good things

and sent the rich away empty.

 54 He has helped His servant Israel,

mindful of His mercy,16

 55 just as He spoke to our ancestors,

to Abraham and his descendants17  forever.

When we give up our agenda, and humbly say, “I’m your servant, Lord. I’ll receive you on your terms,” we may lose some cherished dream, or control over life the way we want it. But in turn, we do receive the Savior, the healer of our souls, the unending source of grace and unquenchable joy. Mary could have had a week of joy during her wedding feast. She gave that up for an eternity of joy in presence of God. Losing her wedding, being subject to disgrace, she actually felt blessed, because what she received was greater than what she gave up.

For those of you who are parents, you know what we all give up to be good Fathers and Mothers. You know what we take on in added burdens and responsibilities. And yet, you know that every bit of it is entirely worth it.

God invites us to receive a child this Christmas. It involves just as much sacrifice as becoming a parent. But the promise is that what receive is even greater than parenthood, greater than all we can ask or imagine. I’m reminded of the words of the apostle Paul, in Ephesians:

14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3:14-21, ESV2011)

My prayer for all of us this Christmas is that we make the same choice as Mary, and unconditionally receive into our lives the Savior of the world, the Lord of our lives, Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas!

Revelation #7 WHO’S ON FIRST?

Jesus

Nothing – absolutely nothing, should come before God in our lives. What is your first love, really? Jesus is clear here – it should be Him. If Jesus is your first love, He should have first claim on your time, energy and resources of all kinds. This message shows you how much we need to repent, and promises how much we gain when we do.

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Revelation #7. The Letter to the Ephesian Church, part 2. Rev 2:1-7.

I want you to know that it is my hope and prayer that you always get more out of any given Bible passage than my sermon notes alone can offer. Sermons, in whatever form, should just be the icing on the cake for disciples of Jesus Christ. Our bread and butter, so to speak, ought to come from our own regular study of scripture, guided and assisted by teaching from sermons. Remember that “you reap what you sow” is a scriptural principle. If you put in fifteen minutes each week, reading the sermon notes during a hurried dinner without cracking the Bible, expect to learn and grow accordingly. If on the other hand, you spend twenty minutes or so with the sermon notes one day, and twenty minutes the next day with the scripture passage, and perhaps review them both on a third day, you can expect much more benefit from it all. Depending on the passage, you might spend twenty minutes or so each day for the entire week simply going over the verses and sermon notes for that week.

I know that some of you will automatically respond with “that is totally unrealistic.” Well, as it happens, that response relates to our sermon today. The basic question that arises from Revelation 2:1-7 is this: What place does Jesus have in your heart?

Last time we talked about the things for which Jesus praised the Ephesian church: an intolerance for Christians who sin openly and without repenting, and an intolerance for false teachers. In addition, they bore up under opposition, hostility and hard labor with endurance and grit. These are important examples that we too, should follow.

But we ended, more or less, with verse three (and a peek ahead to verse 6 also). In verses 4-5, Jesus tackles a problem with the Ephesian church.

The church at Ephesus had a rich spiritual heritage. Paul had spent about a week there early on, but the church there was most likely founded by Priscilla, Aquila and Apollos. When Paul came there to spend some time, a few years later, there was already an established community of Christians. Paul spent two years there (Acts 19:10). After Paul left, Timothy, his protégé, spent many years in the city as one of the leaders of the church there. At some point, the apostle John also arrived and took up residence, training the next great Christian leader, who became the wise old martyr, Polycarp.

In short, the Ephesian church had one of the richest theological traditions of any early Christian church, having been home to no less than six remarkable first-generation Christian leaders, including two genuine apostles and their two protégés. At the time of Revelation, their doctrine was still strong. Their endurance was good. But they had lost something:

4But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent. (Rev 2:4-5, HCSB)

Most commentators, myself included think that “first love” refers to love for Jesus himself. All other loves spring from that. Though the Ephesians were convinced of the truth of the gospel, they had begun to let the love seep out of their commitment of faith. They were zealous for truth, but apparently not particularly zealous for Jesus himself, or for other Christians.

They were committed to Jesus, certainly, but they were far more committed to the ideas of faith in him, than to Him personally. They were missing the emotional and spiritual relationship that Jesus Christ desires with his people. It is no mistake that in speaking to these people Jesus emphasized that he was the one who “walks among the seven golden lampstands.” The lampstands, as you remember from 1:20 are the churches. The point that Jesus is making that he is actually with his people. The Ephesians needed to remember the importance of God’s presence with them, and to fall in love with Jesus all over again.

Just as it is possible to become fiercely committed to the idea of marriage while at the same time neglecting your spouse, it is possible to be committed to truth, while neglecting your relationship with Jesus. Frankly, I see it all the time in people who are conservative and have been Christians for a long time. Sometimes I even recognize it in myself. For a short time I attended a seminary where students were not allowed to announce unauthorized gatherings for prayer, but they were welcome to announce keggers (parties involving lots of beer). Their doctrine was good, but clearly something was wrong with their first love.

Jesus calls the Ephesians (and us) to repent, and to love Him above everything and everyone else. He wants us not just to be faithful and true, but to be actively engaged in relationship with him. He says very clearly that the church or Christian that does not continue in this relational aspect of faith will cease to be the church. The lampstand will be removed (2:5).

This first love message is deep and far reaching. In fact, it is nothing less than the first of the ten commandments. When Jesus was still on earth, someone asked him about the most important commandment:

36“Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest? ”

37He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38This is the greatest and most important command. (Matt 22:36-38, HCSB)

Nothing – absolutely nothing, should come before God in our lives. What is your first love, really? Jesus is clear here – it should be Him. If Jesus is your first love, He should have first claim on your time, energy and resources of all kinds. This brings us back to the beginning of these notes: if you think it’s unrealistic to spend an hour or two learning more about Jesus over the course of a week, how likely is it that he truly is your first love?

If you give to the mission of Jesus out of what is left over after you have spent your money on everything else first, does that really reflect that Jesus is your first love?

If you invest an hour or so a week in Christian community, and the other 167 hours in other things, can you truly say that you love Jesus more than you love anyone (or thing) else?

If you go through your day, doing things you have to do to make a living and take care of your family, and Jesus is not a part of how and why you do those things, how could you claim that you love Him more than anyone else?

Obviously, we can’t all be monks, and just sit in a monastery worshipping Jesus all day. Most of us need to work, and raise kids, and invest ourselves in our communities. But the way we do all that changes when Jesus is our first love. The motivations for what we do change. And when he is truly first, we are willing and able to say “no” to some things (even good things) in order to say “yes” to more time spent with Him in prayer and Bible reading, “yes” to more time and energy invested in a community of his people, “yes” to more concrete actions that advance the kingdom of God.

A few years ago, I knew a good Christian family who was having trouble with one of their children. So they invested more time in sports teams and events, thinking to teach him character and teamwork. Their investment in sports caused them often to say “no” to investing in worship and Christian community. There were many other factors involved, but needless to say, the sports strategy failed. The child became alienated from the family and from God. However, even if their strategy had succeeded in helping the child, their choice clearly communicated that Jesus was not the first love in that family.

I bet a lot of you think I’m talking about you. Actually, I doubt if any of you reading this knows whom I am speaking of, but I do know that it strikes close to home for a lot of people.

Remember, Jesus said this:

37The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. 39Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matt 10:37-39, HCSB)

This is hard to say, and hard to hear. But Jesus very clearly calls the Ephesians to repent. He also calls us to repent. Repentance means we stop doing the things that we shouldn’t be doing, and start making choices that reflect Jesus as our first love. We won’t be able to do these things perfectly, but we are called to a lifestyle of repentance. Even when we fail, we continue on the repentance road.

We might need to repent of putting a career ahead of Jesus, or a relationship, or even family (see above). We might need to repent of putting entertainment above Jesus, or alcohol, or food or other substances. Sometimes it is money. Sometimes it is even loving Christian doctrine more than loving Jesus. But the message of Jesus is clear: He will not stand for anyone or anything to rival Himself in our affections. He must be our first love.

I want to add one more thing. This isn’t just about some “litmus test.” I don’t want to be legalistic. But as we go through Revelation, we will find that God’s plan will force all human beings to make a choice. Pressure, persecution and hardship will get more and more extreme. The message of Revelation is terrific news for people who are totally sold out for Jesus, who have put all their eggs into the one basket of faith in Jesus Christ; in other words, for those who have Jesus as their first love. But for those with divided loyalties, the truth of Revelation will crush them between a rock and a hard place. If you read this, and Jesus is not your first love, it will sound either boring (because you don’t really believe it), or terrifying; perhaps it will even sound like bad news. If you have this reaction as we go on, hear what the Spirit says: Repent!

We need to repent not just so that we can feel good about ourselves, or “to be a better person.” No! We need to repent, or we will be destroyed and the light of our lampstands will be removed! Jesus is uncompromising about this. Read it again:

4But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. 5Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place — unless you repent. (Rev 2:4-5, HCSB)

Jesus offers forgiveness and restoration for those who repent. There is only one unforgiveable sin, and that is to refuse and malign the work of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31-32). In other words, the one thing that will keep you from forgiveness is if you are not willing to repent. If we do repent, however, we have forgiveness and new life.

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

The Garden of Eden held a “tree of life.” Adam and Eve sinned before they ate of it, and then they were driven out of the garden, before they could eat it and gain eternal life as sinners. Jesus is telling us that if we repent, his forgiveness is so complete, that He will so thoroughly remake us without sin, that we will be able to eat of the tree of life. This is nothing less than the promise of eternal life in paradise.

Matthew Henry puts it this way, in the slightly archaic language of his own generation:

They shall have that perfection of holiness, and that confirmation therein, which Adam would have had if he had gone well through the course of his trial: he would then have eaten of the tree of life which was in the midst of paradise, and this would have been the sacrament of confirmation to him in his holy and happy state; so all who persevere in their Christian trial and warfare shall derive from Christ, as the tree of life, perfection and confirmation in holiness and happiness in the paradise of God; not in the earthly paradise, but the heavenly.

Let us “have an ear” and listen to what the Spirit says to the churches.

Revelation #5 NO ROOM FOR FEAR

Old keys on a old book, antique wood background

Following Jesus often involves some sort of trouble or hardship, in the middle of which we are called to remain faithful and obedient to the Father, even when we don’t understand. Jesus words to each of us today are: “Do not be afraid. I have the keys to death and hades. I have this. I have you. I am the first and the last – I have your trouble surrounded.

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Revelation #5. Revelation 1:9-20

John continues his letter with a reminder, and then, his first vision of the heavenly realm.

I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

John says he is a brother and partner in three things that “are in Jesus.” I think these things are very important for Christians in our time to remember, or perhaps to realize for the first time. Being “in Jesus” involves each of these things.

First, John writes he is a brother in the tribulation that is in Jesus Christ. The Greek word here (thlipsis) implies pressure, or “being squeezed.” It can be translated, as tribulation, affliction, distress, or pressure. In his gospel, John records that Jesus said that tribulation or affliction will be a normal part of following him. In the passage below, it is this same Greek word that Jesus uses:

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

You will have suffering/trouble/affliction/distress in this world if you follow Jesus. Peter affirms this idea:

12Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. 13Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. (1Pet 4:12-13, HCSB)

We Christians in 21st Western Civilization need to understand this, for two reasons. First, we need to recognize that suffering and tribulation are the present reality for millions of Christians in various places around the world. Like John, we need to act as siblings and partners in tribulation with those Christians who are suffering for their faith more than we. In China, Indonesia, all over the Middle-East and North Africa, our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ are in trouble for believing what we believe and trying to live it in their everyday lives. We need to stand with them in prayer. We need to support those who support them. We need to communicate our love and encouragement to them.

Second, we need to recognize that, as we remain obedient to Jesus, we encounter various types of suffering – not all of them persecution. John Piper writes, in Desiring God:

The suffering that comes is a part of the price of living where you are in obedience to the call of God. In choosing to follow Christ in the way he directs, we choose all that this path includes under his sovereign providence. Thus, all suffering that comes in the path of obedience is suffering with Christ and for Christ – whether it is cancer or conflict.

Following Jesus often involves some sort of trouble or hardship, in the middle of which we are called to remain faithful and obedient to the Father, even when we don’t understand.

Those of you who know me well will realize that I know what I am talking about. More importantly, John knew what he was talking about.

The second thing that is “in Jesus” is “the kingdom.” We examined this in greater depth last week. When we follow Jesus, we belong to His heavenly kingdom. Our primary “citizenship” is in heaven, not in any earthly country. Our primary “fellow-citizens” are those who follow Jesus, whatever country they come from, whatever ethnicity or culture they wear on the outside. There is one other thing about “the kingdom that is in Jesus” and it is this: it means we must obey the King.

The third thing that John says is part of being in Jesus is “patient endurance.” This goes along with suffering/pressure/trouble.  Paul puts it together in his letter to the Romans:

3And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, 4endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope. 5This 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. (Rom 5:3-5, HCSB)

In case you were wondering, Paul’s word for “afflictions” is the Greek word thlipsis – the same that John uses, the one we discussed above. We aren’t called merely to suffer, we are called endure it patiently, to stick to Jesus, to have “grit.” This would have been very important for John’s first readers, since, as we shall see, they were facing all sorts of pressures and troubles. John is saying, “You aren’t alone in your struggles. This is part of the deal, this is part of what it means to be ‘in Jesus.’ You aren’t off track and you aren’t doing something wrong. We are all in this together.”

Next, John goes on to share one reason why we should be encouraged as we suffer and endure patiently in Jesus. He records that Jesus gave him a message for seven specific churches, but also to all Christians at all times. And Jesus not only gave him the message, he also gave him a picture of the heavenly reality that should encourage us; a reality that exists even when our lives are in the midst of pressure and struggle.

John says that he was “beginning-to-be in spirit on the Lord’s day,” (my rough literal translation) when he heard a loud voice behind him. I’ll tell you frankly, that I don’t have a clear idea of what that means. I suspect it means that John was meditating, deeply. But here’s something interesting. Even though John was “in the spirit,” the voice he heard came from behind him. It’s not much, but perhaps this is a reminder that even when we do all that we can, we still God to reveal Himself to us. For all his meditation, the voice of God came from a direction he did not expect. The revelation had to be given to him – he couldn’t get it simply by meditating.

John looked and saw a scene with seven golden lampstands, and Jesus standing among them. By the way, my own way of looking at Revelation divides the book into seven “heavenly encounters.” A “heavenly encounter,” for my purposes, is a vision of things as they are in heaven, or from heaven’s perspective. After each heavenly encounter in Revelation follows some content divided up into sets of seven. This vision of Jesus among the lampstands is the first Heavenly Encounter.

Thankfully, verse 20 explains what is going on. The seven golden lampstands are the seven churches to whom the letter is written. I think there is every reason to believe that the seven churches (named in chapters 2-3) were seven actual Christian communities that existed at the time John saw his vision. At the same time, I believe that the Lord chose seven particular churches in order to communicate that this amazing vision is for all Christian churches at all times in history. Remember, the number seven represents God’s complete work. So, I think he picked seven churches (there were certainly more than seven in existence at the time) to show he meant this to be for all of us.

In the midst of the seven lampstands John sees “one like a son of man.” He means Jesus, who consistently called himself “the son of man.” John’s vision of the Heavenly Jesus sounds similar to visions that were seen by Daniel and Ezekiel, down to details like the hair, feet, eyes and the sound of his voice; especially, however, the sense of bright light emanating from him (Daniel 7:9 and 10:5-6; Ezekiel 1:26-27).

Jesus holds seven stars in his hand. Again, we are given an explanation in verse 20. The stars are the seven angels of the churches. I don’t know about you, but this surprises me. I don’t normally think of an individual congregation as having an angel watching out for it.

While we are here, we might as well briefly talk about angels, since there is a boatload of them in Revelation. Though we don’t talk about angels very often, there are 182 verses in the New Testament that mention them directly, and a few others that speak of them indirectly. Sixty-five of the direct verses are in Revelation. Angels are usually portrayed as spiritual beings who do God’s work, often serving God as messengers. Hebrews 1:14 (one of the indirect mentions of them) gives us the clearest description of what angels are:

14Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation? (Heb 1:14, ESV2011)

So, angels do God’s work, and part of what they do for Him is to minister to us who are inheriting salvation through Jesus Christ. Apparently, also, some of them are responsible for individual churches. To put this theologically: That’s awesome. It might also give us a different view of church. There is an angel assigned to your church. Just think on that.

In verse 16, we get our first taste of the weirdness of Revelation: there is a sword coming out of the mouth of Jesus. This is meant to be symbolic. The Apostle Paul pictures a sword as a spiritual weapon:

17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word. (Eph 6:17, HCSB)

The sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth is The Word. For us who follow Jesus, that “word,” that sword, is the Bible. His words are powerful and strong. His words created the universe:

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3All things were created through Him, and apart from Him not one thing was created that has been created. (John 1:1-3, HCSB)

 3By faith we understand that the universe was created by God’s command, so that what is seen has been made from things that are not visible. (Heb 11:3, HCSB)

So Jesus stands among the churches, with the power of his Word evident. Now, listen once more to His words:

17When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man. He laid His right hand on me and said, “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last, 18and the Living One. I was dead, but look — I am alive forever and ever, and I hold the keys of death and Hades. 19Therefore write what you have seen, what is, and what will take place after this. 20The secret of the seven stars you saw in My right hand and of the seven gold lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches. (Rev 1:17-20, HCSB)

“He laid his right hand on me and said, ‘Don’t be afraid!’” How deeply we need this sometimes! We are afraid of so many things: the future, or the future of those we love. We are afraid of financial ruin, or social ruin. We fear pain, and sorrow and difficulty and loss. Most of all, we fear death, and the death of those we love. I invite you to gather your fears up right now. It’s OK. Admit to them, let them show themselves. Now, feel the strong hand of Jesus on your shoulder. Listen to him say: “Do not be afraid!”

And why should we not? Because Jesus is the First and the Last. He has us, and our lives, and everything surrounded. We fear death, but look – he has overcome death, and he holds the keys. Not only that, but he is with his church – he stands among the lampstands. He holds our angels in his right hand.

Jesus is with us. He hasn’t forgotten or abandoned us. He touches us and says “do not fear!”

Will you listen to Him today?