1 PETER #25: THE MEANING OF BAPTISM.

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Using this text as our starting point, we are going to take a deep dive into the meaning and practice of baptism. Before we do, I want to make sure some things are very clear. For several centuries now, good and true Christians have disagreed about baptism – what exactly it is and what it means. It is not necessary, therefore, at New Joy Fellowship, or the Life Together Churches network, that everyone hold the same view about baptism.  What is necessary with regard to this issue, is that we treat each other with respect, and allow the same differences of opinion that the Lord has allowed in his church for the past five centuries. Since so many great Christians of the past have disagreed about this issue, it would be a tragic mistake to let differences of opinion on baptism divide New Joy Fellowship.

However, let us also not let different opinions keep us from seeking what the Bible says about it. If we end up disagreeing, that’s OK. It won’t divide us. But we can still seek the best understanding possible about baptism. I think we can all agree that the goal is to search the scriptures with an open mind, and a desire to know what it really teaches.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen. 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 24

1 PETER #24. 1 PETER 3:18-22

Our focus this time is on verses 21-22. In verse 20, Peter uses the people who disobeyed during the time of Noah as an example of the types of people to whom Jesus proclaimed the gospel in hell. I think Peter uses Noah’s time particularly, because he wants to introduce the next thought, which is about baptism. In Noah’s time, the flood killed almost everyone by drowning. But the water also washed the earth clean of wickedness and filth, and it lifted up the ark and carried it, causing the people within it to be saved. Peter says “this corresponds to baptism.” Or, in other words, “it gives us a picture of baptism.” The water brought a special kind of cleansing. Before, Noah and his family lived in a horribly depraved, sinful world. Then, through water, and a special vehicle (the ark), they were brought into a world that had been renewed by God. How does this paint a picture of baptism? We live in a horribly depraved, sinful world. Through water, combined with a special vehicle (the promise of God) baptism cleanses us, lifts us from the dying, sinful world, into the Kingdom of God.

Using this text as our starting point, we are going to take a deep dive into the meaning and practice of baptism. Before we do, I want to make sure some things are very clear. For several centuries now, good and true Christians have disagreed about baptism – what exactly it is and what it means. Since it has not been necessary for about 500 years that Christians agree about this, it is not necessary, at New Joy Fellowship, or the Life Together Churches network, that everyone hold the same view about baptism.  What is necessary with regard to this issue, is that we treat each other with respect, and allow the same differences of opinion that the Lord has allowed in his church for the past five centuries. Since so many great Christians of the past have disagreed about this issue, it would be a tragic mistake to let differences of opinion on baptism divide New Joy Fellowship.

Having said that, I will present my understanding of the Bible, and of history, with the same force and rigor that I try to use with every sermon. In my own mind, the most important things about baptism are quite clear from the scripture. Please understand, however, that if you disagree with me about baptism, it is not a problem. I have my opinions, but I recognize many of the great Christians of the past five hundred years have had different ones about this topic. Though I think I’m right, and I might come on strong, I’m telling you right now that I realize I could be wrong. So, let’s give each other grace here.

In the meantime, I want to teach clearly what I really think the Bible says about baptism, because it seems to me that these days, many things about baptism often get confused, and distorted. Sometimes, some of the most powerful scriptures about baptism are not even part of the conversation.

When it comes to baptism, I think there are three main issues: 1. What, exactly is baptism? What kind of meaning does the Bible attach to it? 2. Who should be baptized (for instance what about infants in believing families?) 3. How should we go about baptizing people?

The truth is, there is quite a bit of Biblical material about the first question. The biblical information about the second two questions is much more thin, and harder to process. Therefore, today, we’ll try to consider the first. What is baptism? What does the Bible say about it? I want to point out that today, what we cover should not be particularly controversial. We’ll simply be looking at the things the bible clearly teaches about the nature of baptism.

The English word baptism comes directly from the Greek word in the Bible. We don’t really have a good single English word for all the Biblical meanings. In general, it means “a ceremonial, or religious washing with water.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says this:

The Greek words from which our English “baptism” has been formed are used by Greek writers, in classical antiquity, in the LXX and in the NT, with a great latitude of meaning. It is not possible to exhaust their meaning by any single English term. The action which the Greek words express may be performed by plunging, drenching, staining, dipping, sprinkling.

(International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, article on Baptism)

“The LXX” means: “the ancient Greek version of the Old Testament.” So, even before the time of Jesus, Greek-speaking Jews used the words baptize/baptism to mean a wide variety of things, but the common idea was some kind of ceremonial, or ritual, washing with water. The Easton’s Bible Dictionary agrees, saying:

Baptists say that it means “to dip,” and nothing else. That is an incorrect view of the meaning of the word. It means both (1) to dip a thing into an element or liquid, and (2) to put an element or liquid over or on it. Nothing therefore as to the mode of baptism can be concluded from the mere word used. The word has a wide latitude of meaning, not only in the New Testament, but also in the LXX Version of the Old Testament, where it is used of the ablutions and baptisms required by the Mosaic law. These were effected by immersion, and by affusion and sprinkling; and the same word, “washings” (Heb. 9:10, 13, 19, 21) or “baptisms,” designates them all.

(Easton’s Bible Dictionary, article on Baptism)

So, we don’t get a ton of help from the word itself. As the two quotes above point out, in the Greek version of the Old Testament (which was probably used by most of the early Christians) the word generally used for rituals involving cleansing with water was “baptism.” Again, it can mean immersion, dipping, pouring or sprinkling.

John the Baptist used baptism in his ministry. For those who received it, it meant that they were repenting of their old way of life, receiving forgiveness of sins, and entering into a new mode of living. Baptism was a kind of “initiation” into that  new way of life.

4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

(Mark 1:4-8, ESV)

This concept of initiation into a new way of life seems to be a key factor with regard to baptism. Also, put a little mental note on the part where John says that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Mark records these words of Jesus:

28 I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John. Yet even the least person in the Kingdom of God is greater than he is!”
29 When they heard this, all the people—even the tax collectors—agreed that God’s way was right, for they had been baptized by John. 30 But the Pharisees and experts in religious law rejected God’s plan for them, for they had refused John’s baptism.

(Luke 7:28-30, NLT)

The people, by being baptized, had aligned themselves with John, they were, in a sense, one with him. By refusing baptism, the religious leaders made it clear that they were not aligned with him. They did not want to be part of him or his movement. So baptism initiates you into something, aligns you with it. Christian baptism means you have been joined with Jesus Christ, and with his people. Galatians makes the same sort of argument about Christian baptism. We weren’t just “baptized” in some vague, general way. We were baptized into Christ.

26 It is through faith that all of you are God’s children in union with Christ Jesus. 27 You were baptized into union with Christ, and now you are clothed, so to speak, with the life of Christ himself. 28 So there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles, between slaves and free people, between men and women; you are all one in union with Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are the descendants of Abraham and will receive what God has promised.

(Galatians 3:26-29, GNT)

So, being baptized into Christ means that you become “part of Christ,” in some way – you were baptized into union with Christ. You are initiated into him. Paul uses this same concept of being brought into union with someone or something in 1 Corinthians 10:1-5. He affirms this again in 1 Corinthians chapter 12:

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

(1 Corinthians 12:12-13, ESV)

We were all baptized into something. We are brought into union with Christ, and brought into the body of Christ (that is, true spiritual fellowship with everyone who trusts Jesus). In Romans, Paul says that part of the meaning of baptism is that we were united with Christ specifically in his death and resurrection.

3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

(Romans 6:3-4, ESV)

He says something similar in Colossians:

11 In him you were also circumcised. It was not a circumcision performed by human hands. But it was a removal of the corrupt nature in the circumcision performed by Christ. 12 This happened when you were placed in the tomb with Christ through baptism. In baptism you were also brought back to life with Christ through faith in the power of God, who brought him back to life.

(Colossians 2:11-12, God’s Word version, bold formatting added by me)

So baptism unites us with Christ in a general way. It also, in a special way, applies his crucifixion and resurrection to us, or unites us with them. God does something in us when we are baptized. This leads to another thought. No one baptizes themselves. Baptism is something that is done to us, and for us.

I want to pause and point out a few things. Some people view baptism as a kind of testimony – something we do for God to show that we do indeed have faith. That could be a part of it. But clearly, in the New Testament, baptism is also much more than our testimony of faith and obedience. In fact, it is portrayed mainly as something that God does for us.

Baptism brings you into union with Christ. It identifies you with the death and resurrection of Christ. It initiates you into the body of Christ. All that should be plain from a straightforward reading of the texts above.

But wait! There’s more! In the New Testament, baptism is often also connected to forgiveness of sins:

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

(Acts 2:37-39, ESV)

16 And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’

(Acts 22:16, ESV)

The early church took this very seriously. Sometimes too seriously, in fact, or at least, too literally. The only arguments critical of infant baptism during the first 1,500 years of the church were about this. Some few people thought that since baptism washes away sins, it was a waste to baptize infants, since they were certainly going to sin again as they got older. Instead, these folks argued, baptism should be delayed as long as possible, so that the baptized person had a chance of dying before they sinned again.

Finally, there are many promises connecting the Holy Spirit to baptism. Acts 2:37-39, already quoted above, seems to say that the Holy Spirit is connected in some way to baptism. Mark 1:4-8 (return to the mental note I told you to make) supports this. Jesus himself had a special encounter with the Spirit at his baptism, and he involves the Holy Spirit in his command to baptize:

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

(Matthew 28:19-20, ESV)

Paul found some people who were baptized with John the Baptist’s baptism. He demonstrated that they needed to be baptized into Jesus, after which they received the Holy Spirit:

1 And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. 2 And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying.

(Acts 19:1-6, ESV)

The apostle Peter preached to some Gentiles. The people heard and believed, and it became clear to Peter that they had been given the Holy Spirit, so he ordered them to be baptized. Later, he explained this to the Jewish church:

15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?”

(Acts 11:15-17, ESV)

To reiterate what we’ve learned so far. Baptism is an initiation into Jesus. It unites us with his death, his resurrection, and his life. It unites us to other Christians. It is connected in some way to the forgiveness of sins, and to the Holy Spirit.

I also want to make it clear that these verses, along with many others, show that baptism is a part of the salvation process. If you are a follower of Jesus, you should be baptized. It’s part of the deal. Jesus commanded us to baptize as part of the process of making disciples (Matthew 28:1-20, quoted above).

Also, much like with salvation in general, we cannot receive any of the gifts given to us by baptism unless we repent of our sins and put our trust in Jesus Christ. Jesus died for all people, whether or not they repent and trust him. If someone does not repent, and does not trust, she will not receive any benefit from the death of Jesus. The benefit is there. But without faith, it is not applied to a person. The person cannot “take hold of” salvation, except through faith. So, in a similar way, when we are baptized, all of the benefits of baptism are made available to us. But they do us no good unless we receive them in repentance and faith.

We’ll talk more about infant baptism next time, but there is an important point here. Those who support infant baptism do so with the understanding that the baby will be brought up to, and taught, a life of repentance and faith, so that the child can take hold of the wonderful promises given to him at his baptism. No real Christians believe that baptism works like magic. Those who baptize infants simply believe that faith can begin very early.

In brief then, we can see that baptism is a ritual that involves water connected to the promises of God. Water, combined with the Ark was, in a sense, a gateway from the old world to the new for Noah’s family. In the same way, water, combined with the promises of God (that is, baptism) is a kind of gateway from our old life, a life that was oriented on our sinful flesh into our new life – into the life of Jesus himself, who lives in and through us. Peter is saying that, combined with faith, this baptism is part of the process God uses to save us, through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

One useful way to think about baptism is to compare it to a passport given to a child that was born outside of his home country. As a citizen of his own country, but living elsewhere, that child needs a passport. He doesn’t earn it for himself – it is given to him as part of his citizenship. It allows him to go back to his country of citizenship when the time comes. The passport means he belongs to his home country. The passport enables him to live where he is, but it gives him all the rights and privileges of his home country.

In the same way, we are children born again as citizens of heaven. We don’t yet live in our real country, our true home. But baptism marks us as belonging to God through Jesus Christ. Baptism grants us the rights and privileges of the children of God, even while we live this mortal life.

A couple of possibilities for application: first, if you are a follower of Jesus and have not been baptized, I strongly encourage you to be baptized soon. Second, for those of us who have been baptized, let’s learn to appreciate and understand all that God has given us through baptism and faith. He has dealt with the problem of our sinful flesh, by crucifying it with Jesus in baptism. He lives his new life in us by the Holy Spirit, through baptism. We have been initiated into Christ – we belong in the kingdom of God. Baptism is our passport, our certificate of birth and citizenship. Take hold of these things by thanking God for them!

1 PETER #16: GOD AND GOVERNMENT

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I am free, no matter what kind of government exists in the country I live in. I am a servant of Christ, no matter how free I am politically. I am a follower of Jesus, who endured injustice, and instigated a kingdom that is not of this world. These things have profound impacts on how I relate to the governments of this world.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button: For some people, the player above may not work. If that happens to you, use the link below to either download, or open a player in a new page to listen. 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 16

1 PETER #16. 1 PETER 2:13-17

I will take this next section piece by piece, but we should keep in mind the whole section from verses 13 through 25, because we need to keep the context clear to understand it properly. Please read all of those verses (13-25) before continuing.

The ESV says “be subject to…” Other translations might say “submit to.” The thing we are told to submit to is “every human institution.” Just to clarify, Peter names the types of things he means: emperors and governors. In other words: “be subject to the government.” Right away, I would expect most Americans to bristle at this idea. I know I do, and I was not even raised in America. I don’t want to “be subject” to anyone. I want to be free. It gets worse when I find that it is the government to which I should submit.

Let’s start out with the qualifiers, exceptions, and objections – there are legitimate ones. Peter himself, on several different occasions, refused to obey governing authorities. If you want to find a couple of those, please read Acts 4:18-21, and Acts 5:27-29. In those cases, Peter and the other apostles were doing what Jesus told them to do: preaching repentance, forgiveness and salvation, in the name of Jesus. The authorities told them not to do it. Peter responded, in Acts 4:19: “”You yourselves judge which is right in God’s sight—to obey you or to obey God.”

This gives us a clear understanding of certain situations. If obeying the governing authorities would lead us to disobey God, we calmly choose to obey God. In addition, we accept the consequences of disobeying the government. Peter and the other apostles were in and out of prison, and sometimes beaten or whipped, for their continual civil disobedience in this way. They never said: “You don’t have the right to imprison us!” They never reacted violently. However, they continued to obey God when there was a conflict between following Jesus and submitting to the governing authorities. You might say this principle in short is: “Obey God, and accept the consequences.”

I want to make sure this is clear, however. This civil disobedience came about only from a direct conflict between following Jesus and obeying the authorities. In other words, they didn’t disobey the government simply because they perceived it to be unfair, or unjust, or even criminal. The only cause for disobedience was when obedience to the government meant disobedience toward God. In other words they disobeyed only if the authorities were telling them to stop doing something that they must do as followers of Jesus, or to do something that God says is wrong (that is, sinful). So, if the government tells you your taxes are going up, or that you aren’t allowed to raise chickens in your neighborhood, or that you can’t park wherever you feel like, you have no Biblical case to disobey.

On the other hand, if the government tells you to stop reading your Bible, or to stop participating in church, or stop telling others about Jesus, you can disobey with a clear conscience – although you should also be ready to accept the consequences of your civil disobedience. In the second category, if the government tells you to do something wrong, like murdering someone, or lying, it is appropriate to disobey the government. Again, however, don’t be surprised if you end up in trouble for it. Peter’s point is that following Jesus is worth the trouble. We do need to understand that following Jesus won’t necessarily keep us out of trouble with the government, or our bosses at work.

There’s another caveat to add. The apostles and early Christians apparently saw nothing wrong with doing what they could to avoid conflict, and even to avoid unjust punishment from the government. When a great persecution broke out in Jerusalem, many Christians fled from there to other areas, and that, in fact, helped the gospel to spread. In plain terms, they ran away before they could be caught and thrown into prison (Acts 8:1-3). The Bible does not condemn them for that, and in fact, seems to see it positively.

Shortly after Paul became a Christian, he began to preach in the city of Damascus. The authorities came after him, and Paul’s friends helped him escape one night by lowering him over the city wall in a basket (Acts 9:23-25). So, again, this is an example of someone running away from the governing authorities, and he is not condemned for it.

One of the times Peter was imprisoned is recorded in Acts 12:1-19. The apostle James was executed. The authorities were going to kill Peter, also, but, as the church prayed for him, an angel released him from prison. I want to point out that the church did not lead an insurrection that led to Peter’s release. No, they prayed for him, and trusted God with the result. After going to the house-church and telling them he was safe, Peter hid from the authorities. The Bible never suggests that it was wrong of Peter to hide for a while after escaping from prison.

Also, whenever possible, Christians used the mechanisms of the government to get relief from persecution. Several times Paul used his Roman citizenship to force the authorities to treat him better (Acts 16:37) and give him a fair trial (Acts 21:22-29). So it isn’t wrong to dispute with the government through proper legal mechanisms.

It is important to understand these types of exceptions and qualifications. But the fact remains that, in general, we are supposed to be subject to the governing authorities. Paul too, affirmed that this is normal Christian practice (Romans 13:1-7) In teaching this, Peter and Paul were only passing on the teaching of Jesus himself.  When Jesus was questioned about paying taxes, he said, in no uncertain terms, that people should pay them. These taxes were manifestly unfair to start with, and were collected by corrupt people who charged extra in order to line their own pockets. But Jesus told his followers to pay them anyway, and focus instead on the kingdom of God:

13 Then they sent some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to Jesus to trap him in his words. 14 When they came, they said to him, “Teacher, we know you are truthful and don’t care what anyone thinks, nor do you show partiality but teach the way of God truthfully. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn’t we? ”
15 But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you testing me? Bring me a denarius to look at.” 16 They brought a coin. “Whose image and inscription is this? ” he asked them.
“Caesar’s,” they replied.
17 Jesus told them, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him.

(Mark 12:13-17, CSB)

In a way, Jesus was saying, “The government is irrelevant. The corruption is irrelevant. None of that can stop the kingdom of God. None of that matters as much as your citizenship in heaven.”

So, the whole point behind the Christian attitude toward government is that we are, first and foremost, citizens of the Kingdom of God. We need to live like that, and that means that the actions of any particular government are not as important to us as our callings in God’s Kingdom.

The government when Peter wrote these verses was made up of layers of dictatorships upon dictatorships, and corruption upon corruption. The common people had very little freedom or opportunity. In other words, they put up with a lot of – [insert your own adjective] – stuff from the government, and Peter says, “obey the government anyway.”

If it is any comfort, you don’t have to like it. But the truth is, as much as I like to complain, I am still better off under the American government today than I am under any other government in the world at this time. In fact, I am better off under the American government today than I would have been in any other place in the world, at any other time in history, except possibly the American government of forty to fifty-seven years ago. (If you go back to earlier than 1964, you will find that the U.S. government legally allowed the oppression of minorities and women). So, compared to Peter, and compared to most of the population of the world throughout history, and even today, we don’t have much to complain about.

The point is though, even when we do have legitimate complaints about earthly government, our focus as followers of Jesus should be on our citizenship in heaven. Peter writes: “Live as free people, but don’t use your freedom to cover up evil. Live as servants of God.” So we are free, no matter what the government does to us. And yet, even if we live in a wonderfully free society, we are bound to the Lord, and are His servants. Peter gives us the key: “Be subject, for the Lord’s sake, to every human institution…” We don’t submit to the government because it’s a good government. We do it for the sake of the Lord. After all, we are followers of Jesus. We should expect to live life as he did. This is the way Jesus lived with regard to the authorities:

21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

(1 Peter 2:21-23)

It is not that we expect the government to always be good and just. It is rather that we entrust ourselves to God. And even when injustice occurs (as it certainly did, in the crucifixion of Jesus) God will bring goodness, glory and grace out of it, sooner or later.

Peter also uses as an example the instance of a Roman slave who is treated unjustly. He says, to such a person, “There is something bigger here than your experience of injustice. God will deal with the injustice, and it will be sorted out in the end. In the meantime, when you suffer unjustly, it is a credit to you, and there is grace for you in following in the way of Jesus.”

We often want to make our submission conditional upon whether or not the authority we submit to is good. We’re willing  to submit when we can see why it’s a good idea, or if we can see the position of the government is just. But if we think it is wrong, or unfair, we are inclined to think, “I don’t have to obey, because it isn’t just or fair.”

However, if you only submit to those authorities that you judge are good, you are left with a huge problem. Who, aside from Jesus, is truly good? You could find fault with any authority whatsoever, because all human beings are corrupted by sin. Not only that, but we are human beings, so we could not even claim that individuals should have authority over themselves, because we ourselves are also corrupted by sin, and if we are “in charge of ourselves,” so to speak, that means that we are under a corrupt authority. No, there is no legitimacy in obeying only when we think it’s fair. Again, we submit not because we approve of the government, but because of the Lord.

I say all this with a great deal of trepidation. It seems to me that the rules are rapidly changing, and the American government and institutions are rapidly pursuing a course that will result in a great deal more legal injustice, even though they claim it is in the name of justice. I think it is a very real possibility that before long I will be confronted with whether or not I can follow my own teaching in this matter. Of course, I hope it isn’t my teaching, but that of the Bible. My point is, we live in a generation where this teaching will be severely tested.

Probably within eighteen months of when Peter wrote this, Emperor Nero began a horrific persecution of Christians in Rome, the city where Peter wrote this letter. During the worst part of it, Nero had Christians tied to stakes, and then burned alive, in order to light up the palace gardens at night. This was the emperor at the time when Peter wrote: “obey the governing authorities.”

Legend has it that Peter decided to flee Rome, along with thousands of other Christians. While he was on the way, he was met by a vision of Jesus. Jesus said, “Where are you going, Peter?” Peter took that as Jesus telling him to remain in Rome, and accept the consequences. Whether or not Peter had that vision, he certainly did stay in Rome, and he was killed by the Emperor that he told his readers to obey. He absolutely put his own words into practice.

So, too, we must be prepared to accept the consequences which come, which might involve the loss of a job, or even a career. In some instances, it might involve being fined, taxed unfairly, and possibly even imprisoned. Our own property might be taken from us. We Christians have a history  of peaceful resistance that spans millennia, and even today, Christians in various parts of the world are imprisoned, lose their own rightful property, and sometimes are killed, as they follow Jesus, and refuse to return violence for violence.

Again, there are clearly instances where we will have to disobey governing authorities. And again, I say that according to the Bible, this must be a peaceful disobedience, one that accepts the consequences without returning violence for violence

I have occasionally heard American Christians say things like: “If they come to take my guns, they can have them by the end that shoots the bullets.” Or, “They better bring an army when they come for my house.” Believe me, I understand the sentiments. I truly do. I feel those same feelings. It feels like there could be a time when our very freedom is at stake. But Jesus has made us different than that, better than that. Because we belong to Jesus, we are free, no matter what kind of government we live under. We can allow our property to be confiscated because we have “property” in the New Creation that can never be taken from us. Everything we have in this life is only borrowed, anyway.

Certainly, if such a thing happens to me, I will fight it by every legal and peaceful means I can employ. But in the end, the way to achieve freedom is to follow in the way of Jesus Christ. If we taught more and more people in our country to follow Jesus, political freedom would  not be an issue. Even secular writer Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the freedom experienced by Americans was directly connected to the fact that so many Americans were Christians at that time. If you want to “fight for freedom,” live like a follower of Jesus, and encourage others to do the same. If enough people follow Jesus, government won’t be an issue. However, according to Jesus, government isn’t an issue in any case.

In the meantime the point is, I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom before and after I am a citizen of any country on earth. Obeying the government whenever I can, and peacefully disobeying when there is a conflict with following God, becomes a way to follow in the path of Jesus, and to proclaim to the world that we have found something far better than anything this world has to offer.

1 PETER #13: THE ROCK-HARD TRUTH

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Many people, both past and present, recognize that Christianity has been a greater force for good in this world than any other religion or worldview. But some people want to have the benefits of Christianity without the difficult, almost embarrassing, business of actually entrusting their lives to Jesus Christ. That is, they want to stop short of having faith. However, Jesus’ chief apostle, Peter, presents us with something we in the modern world seem to hate: a binary choice. Jesus is the cornerstone, the foundation upon which everything depends. Those who trust in him will not be put to shame. Those who reject him will find themselves destroyed by that rejection. To be a Christian is to trust Jesus. Without that, there is no Christianity.

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 13

1 PETER 13: 1 PETER 2:6-8

Every year, during the week leading up to Easter, there are always a number of articles about Christianity written by public intellectuals. (According to Kari, I am not a public intellectual, but I am a private intellectual. I’m still not sure what to make of that…)

This past week I read an article by Tim DeRoche, a writer who is wrestling with Christianity. He recognizes that many intelligent people, even today, acknowledge the power for good that is found in Christianity, and how faith in Jesus Christ: “over the last 2,000 years has largely been correlated with decreasing levels of slavery, war, crime, poverty, and general suffering.” He is not the first person to recognize this, and it is not a matter of opinion, but rather, established historical fact.

At the same time, this writer seems to want the benefits of Christianity without insisting that we actually have to have faith in Jesus. DeRoche considers the modern philosophers who are also wrestling with the fact that Christianity has been such a tremendous force for good in the world. He writes:

Instead of arguing that Christianity is factually accurate or literally true, they show us how and why Christianity works—for the individual and for the common good. 

So where do I stand now? Am I a “believer” or a “nonbeliever”? I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters all that much.

(https://bariweiss.substack.com/p/the-secular-case-for-christianity?s=r)

At a different point, he tries to argue that the Christian and secular worldviews have been “falsely” separated by – if you can imagine – “belief.” I appreciate DeRoche’s interest and honesty, but unfortunately, he is utterly confused. He is not remotely the first person to want to have the good parts of Christianity without the difficult, self-denying leap of faith. But our verses today clearly point out that faith in Jesus Christ is something that irrevocably separates Christians from non-Christians. Jesus is the cornerstone. Those who trust him will not be put to shame, and those who do not will be undone by Him.

To help us understand this Bible concept, below is a picture showing a “cornerstone.”

The illustration shows the cornerstone as the largest stone in the middle of the picture. As you can see, the cornerstone is generally quite large compared to the other stones, and it supports the entire wall along both sides. In fact, in ancient building techniques, all four walls ultimately depend upon the cornerstone. If you were to remove the cornerstone, all the other walls would collapse, at least to some extent. So, the structural integrity of the entire building rests upon the cornerstone. It is, for all intents and purposes, the foundation of the building.

There are three important implications of this picture of Jesus as the cornerstone.

First, it means that everything depends upon Jesus. He is the foundation. Without him, there is no Christian faith. When I read the article by Tim DeRoche, (quoted above) I appreciated his interest in Christianity, and his openness and honesty. But it seemed like he has no understanding of what Christianity actually is. It is faith in Jesus Christ. Without that, there is no foundation, Everything falls apart.

Imagine I said: “I can see the benefits of technology. Electricity, running water, medical devices, computers and the internet have benefitted millions. I can agree with that. But I don’t like this business of science. I want to have the technology without all that troublesome science.” That is silly, of course. Without the science, the technology would never have happened.

That is what it sounds like when someone says they want the benefits of Christianity without having to have faith in Jesus. It simply doesn’t work that way. Without the faith, there would be no benefits. The Christianity that changed the world, the religion that has led to greater freedom for billions, more economic security, the end of slavery, the reduction of crime and suffering, is faith in Jesus Christ. Without people who actually trusted Jesus Christ, none of the benefits of Christianity would ever have come to be. You cannot be a Christian without having actual faith in Jesus Christ.

Second, when we trust him, when we build our lives upon him, we are ultimately secure. We can rely upon him. We won’t be put to shame. This doesn’t mean we will never suffer, or that life will always go well for us. But when we trust Jesus, ultimately we will be vindicated for doing so. Certainly if not before, our trust will be vindicated at the final judgment, which is where it matters most. Peter’s readers were a tiny religious minority in a culture that at times ignored them, and other times mocked them, or even persecuted them. Peter is telling them: don’t worry about that. Your trust in Jesus will turn out to be the most important thing in eternity. When life is over, the only thing that will matter is whether or not you trusted him. At that point everyone will see and be unable to deny that trusting Jesus was more important than any lost opportunity, any insult, any harm suffered for his sake.

The trajectory of our lives is bound to that of Jesus Christ:

who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2:6-11, ESV)

There may be a time where we are humbled by our faith in Jesus, when we may have to suffer, when it may look like the enemies of Christ are winning. But eventually, all humanity will have to acknowledge the victory of Christ. Eventually, just as we may be included in the path of his suffering, those of us who trust in him will also be included in the victory he has achieved.

This leads us to the third thing: the person of Jesus Christ is unmoving and unyielding. All who oppose him will ultimately be destroyed. Imagine trying to fight a rock with nothing more than your body. If a giant rock and your body collide, it is your body that will be destroyed, not the rock. So, Peter writes this:

7 So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,
“The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone,”8 and  “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.”
They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

(1 Peter 2:7-8, ESV)

I’m sure Peter was thinking of Jesus’ own words when he wrote this. Here’s how Jesus himself put it:

42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is what the Lord has done
and it is wonderful in our eyes?
43 Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruit. 44 Whoever falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will shatter him.”

(Matthew 21:42-44, CSB)

Those who reject Jesus will eventually be broken by him. Right now, we live in a time of grace. As long as you are still alive, you have the chance to repent, and to trust Jesus. But when Jesus returns, or, when you die (either of which could happen at any time), if you have rejected Jesus, you will be broken to pieces and shattered by the cornerstone.

We don’t have the option of saying, “I’ll take Christianity, except without all the business about whether or not I actually believe.” Christianity is trusting Jesus. Jesus himself, in the passage I just quoted, made it clear that if we do not trust him, we will be destroyed. If you simply read the gospels, this is all quite clear. Jesus himself was the one who claimed that he was the only way to be saved. He consistently taught, time and time again, that our eternal future depends upon how we respond to him. That is the essential core of Christianity.

This business of being destroyed is not a threat. Christian theology has never allowed us to try and convert anyone by fear or by force. (History records Christians occasionally trying to convert people by force or coercion. But those who did so were defying the teachings of the Bible).

The situation is like this: you are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and your ship has sunk. There is nothing around you but empty ocean for three-thousand miles in every direction. There is only one lifeboat. If  you want to be saved, that lifeboat is your only option, and there is plenty of room on it. Anyone who is willing to get on it will be helped to do so. If you don’t like the idea of being in that particular boat, or you don’t like the people on it, you don’t have to get in it. But it is the only option if you want to live. If the words of Jesus are correct, he is the only lifeboat in the entire ocean. If you reject him, you have refused your only chance of living. The result will be predictable.

That might sound arrogant – to say that Jesus is the only way to be saved. But that is the claim of Jesus himself, given in his own words, and also in the words of those who knew him personally, and knew what he taught about himself:

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

1 This Jesus is the stone rejected by you builders, which has become the cornerstone.
12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:11-12, CSB. This was said by Peter, who wrote the letter we are studying)

11 And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 The one who has the Son has life. The one who does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:11-13, CSB)

There are many other places in which Jesus clearly taught that the only important thing was how people responded to him. The heart of the teaching of Jesus is that we must trust him to be saved. There is no Christianity without that.

Some people might be troubled by Peter’s words in verse eight. It makes it sound as if some people were born to go to hell. I  find the words of Matthew Henry to be helpful here:

God himself hath appointed everlasting destruction to all those who stumble at the word, being disobedient. All those who go on resolutely in their infidelity and contempt of the gospel are appointed to eternal destruction; and God from eternity knows who they are.

1 Peter 2:4 – Matthew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible

As Matthew Henry points out, God knows who will receive Jesus, and who will reject him. So, in that sense certain people were always going to end up in hell. But even so, they go there by their own choice. What God foreordains is not who goes, but rather where they go. Those who reject Jesus are destined to be lost, because they have refused the only way of salvation.

So where are we today? Perhaps this idea of Jesus as the cornerstone is new to you. Perhaps you didn’t realize that Jesus calls each person to have allegiance to Himself above all others. Maybe you didn’t realize that Christianity without faith in Jesus is no longer Christianity. Maybe you need to hear his call today. He is either who he claimed to be, or he is a liar, or a crazy person. He doesn’t sound like a liar or crazy person, though.

The movement Jesus founded has unquestionably brought immense good into the world. It sounds bigoted to say this next thing, but it is indisputably true: Christianity has brought more good into the world, and has resulted in more human flourishing, than any other religion or worldview. Though Hinduism and Islam were dominant in the country of India for many centuries before Christianity, it was Christians who built the first hospitals and universities in India. It was Christians who turned Hindi and Urdu into written languages and taught Indians to read. It was a Christian woman (Mother Theresa) – not a Hindu mystic – who founded the first and most famous organization to bless the poorest of the poor in India. The same kinds of stories can be repeated about almost every country in the world. It is hard to believe that a liar or crazy person would have such an incredibly positive influence on the world. Maybe it’s time you came to grips with the real Person, Jesus Christ.

Perhaps you have already trusted Jesus with your life. But maybe you need to hear again today that those – like you – who trust in him, will not be put to shame. Life can be hard and cruel sometimes. It’s easy to feel abandoned by God. But we have a promise that we will be ultimately vindicated. Our trust in him is not misplaced. We may sometimes walk in the valley of the shadow of death, but we do not need to fear any evil there. Jesus too, walked through that valley, and he does so still – alongside his people who are suffering. We have eternal promises that can never be broken by this world. Our hope is in the right place, and will be rewarded with more than we could ask or imagine.

Finally, perhaps some of you need to hear that the choice is binary, because Jesus himself makes it binary. To choose against Jesus is to choose ultimate suffering, and blackest darkness, forever. This doesn’t sound like much of a choice, but that doesn’t really matter if it is a reflection of reality. If you decide you don’t like the binary confines of gravity, and you jump off a cliff, you will die, whether that seems fair to you, or not. Truth matters, and sometimes truth is hard. The incredible grace of God is that, in the person of Jesus Christ, he reconciled the truth of our rebellion against him with the truth of his immeasurable love for us. His tortuous death shows us just how serious our rebellion against God is. It also shows us how much God loves us – how much he went through to save us. The cross, and the resurrection, offer us a gateway to new life, to a new kind of life. Perhaps today is the day you will decide to receive it.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today!

LENT #4: THE SURPRISING GRACE OF TEMPTATION

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Whatever our temptations, and whatever our failures to pass the test, remember that Jesus faced the same temptations, and for our sake, he did pass every test. He accomplished what we could not, and he did it on our behalf. Because we cannot live perfect lives, Jesus lived a perfect life in our place. Now, we are released from having to meet that standard of perfection on our own. Instead, through faith, by God’s grace, we are judged not on our own performance, but the performance of Jesus.

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 Lent Part 4

LENT #4. LUKE 4:1-14

We have been using our passage as a jumping off point for various topics that are associated with the season of Lent: Suffering, Fasting, and Solitude. Now, we will return to the text and consider the encounter Jesus had with the devil. Most translations make it seem like Jesus spent forty days in solitude and fasting, and then, when he was just about done, the devil came and tempted him. That is a possible interpretation – there is room in the Greek for that. However, in Greek, it looks much more like the devil was bothering him the whole time. Apparently, when he came back, he told his apostles about three particular kinds of temptations that he faced. The NET captures this fairly well:

1 Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he endured temptations from the devil. (Luke 4:1-2, NET)

I want to say a few words about temptation. In the first place, the Greek word normally used for temptation has a wider range of meaning than we typically give to our English word. It seems to me that we think of “temptation” as being enticed into doing something we should not do. We’re tempted to eat ice cream when we are on a keto diet. We are tempted to lust, or to have an affair. We are tempted to cheat or lie when it seems clear we could get away with it. In English, temptation is all about an alluring opportunity to do the wrong thing. Temptation attracts us toward the wrong thing, the sinful thing.

This is part of the meaning of the Greek word. But in Greek, the main emphasis is not about desire, or enticement. Instead, in Greek, the idea of temptation is about testing something to prove what it is made of. Another good word might be trials. When engineers make some new kind of device to make cars more safe, they have to do safety trials in order to find out if their device works. When scientists develop a new drug, they have drug trials, to test it, to make sure it does indeed work. That idea of a trial – putting something through a test, to see how it does – is the essence of the New Testament word for temptation.

Now, of course, the test does consist of being enticed to do something that God says we should not do, but we should keep in mind that temptation is not all negative. When we pass the test, it glorifies God, and brings grace to us. Temptation has a positive outcome in mind. It isn’t just about avoiding evil – it is about proving what is good.

This brings up something very important: temptation is not the same as sin. Jesus was tempted in every way, but was without sin:

15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:15-16, ESV

7 Therefore, He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. (Hebrews 2:17-18, HCSB)

And yes, the word the HCSB translates “tested” (above) is the same word many Bibles translate as “tempted.” So, if Jesus was tempted/tested in every way, but did not sin, that means that being tempted to do something is not, in and of itself, sinful.

I’m going to use a particular temptation that I am familiar with as an illustration. It is generally more true of men, but I think you women can still understand it, because the main points apply to both male and female. Over the years I have spoken with many men who struggle particularly with the sin of lust. I myself have had a significant battle with it at times. I think many men who struggle this way fall prey to a trick of the devil. It is normal male biology to notice attractive women – that’s part of the nature of male levels of testosterone. It is especially normal for men to notice women who are displaying a lot of skin, or emphasizing their various physical “assets” in some way. A lot of men look at such women more or less involuntarily. In some cases, it’s very hard to avoid looking twice.

Now, having seen a woman in such circumstances, the temptation comes along. The devil, or our own flesh (it doesn’t really matter which) raises up these kinds of thoughts: “Let’s think about what she would look like if she was wearing even less. Let’s think about what it would be like to be with her.” Most of the time, such things sound like our own thoughts.

Here’s the important part: so far, the man has not sinned. It is not a sin to be tempted. But I know many men who think they have already failed at this point, simply because they have looked, and were tempted by such thoughts. What often happens then, is the guy thinks, “I’ve already blown it. I might as well go ahead and enjoy the fantasy.” And then, of course, he does sin. But I want to reiterate: temptation is not sin. Jesus was tempted, but did not sin. So, the fact that such things interest or entice you does not mean you have failed.

Now, I got very specific there, but this applies to any temptation we might experience. Perhaps you struggle with gossip and slander – this could be equally true of men or women. You are tempted to use your words to cut other people down, to show the world that they are not so great after all. You hear something about someone you know, someone who is far too uppity. It’s a juicy bit of information, and you could use it to teach that person a little much-needed humility. In fact, you want to use the information, you want to say something. But you haven’t yet sinned. You have been convinced by the devil that you want to use your words in a hurtful way, but you haven’t done it yet. Don’t be discouraged: temptation is not sin. You haven’t sinned yet. The attraction you have to do the wrong thing is not the same as actually doing it.

We face temptations from three sources: The world, the flesh and the devil. They are all connected. Perhaps we internalize messages from our ungodly culture. Or maybe something in our sinful flesh draws us toward sin. It might also be the devil, or one of his servants – and they use our sinful flesh to whisper into our minds. Either way, scripture makes it clear that the primary battle takes place in our minds:

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, (2 Corinthians 10:3-5, ESV)

On the positive side, this is a test. By not doing the wrong thing, by doing what God wants instead, you are accomplishing good things spiritually. You are bringing glory to God. By using the resources of the Holy Spirit to battle the tests of the world, the flesh and the devil, we show the world the greatness of Jesus Christ. And of course, all sin is ultimately very bad for us, so we help ourselves when we pass the test.

Let’s look at the first test that Luke records for Jesus:

1 And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness 2 for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” 4 And Jesus answered him, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.’” (Luke 4:1-4, ESV)

There is a lot of significance packed into these few words. Of course, Jesus was hungry, but the temptation was not really for Jesus to break his fast. Instead, there were two things the devil was trying to do here.

Remember, before Jesus went into the wilderness, he was baptized, and God spoke from the heavens, saying “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” After being in the wilderness with no food, the devil came at Jesus. He wanted to place doubt in Jesus’ mind about what God had said. If you are the son of God…prove it! Turn these stones to bread.

The devil was saying: At your baptism, it was one quick sentence. Did God really say that? Wasn’t it maybe just a rumble of thunder? If God is pleased with you, why are you out here all alone and hungry? Can you really believe what you heard?

This temptation to doubt God’s word is the very first way in which Satan assaulted human beings:

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1, ESV)

This temptation comes in many flavors, but underneath it is one of the most common attacks of the devil: casting doubt on what God has revealed through his Word.

  • How can God actually love you? You know you aren’t loveable, so what it says in the Bible about God loving you can’t really be true, can it?
  • Does God really forgive your sins? Isn’t that too easy? You can’t really trust what the Bible says about this, can you?
  • It’s not really a sin to get drunk is it – does the Bible really say that?
  • Did God really say you should save sex for marriage?

And so on. There is a place for honest questions. It is normal to want to understand where the Bible – God’s Word – comes from, and why we should trust it. If you have those honest questions, please contact me about a sermon series on that subject. Also, feel free to check out my book: Who Cares About the Bible?

However, this temptation of Satan is not about asking honest questions. At the heart of it is a desire to doubt, a desire to believe that the Bible is not trustworthy. There may be a lurking bitterness, almost an eagerness to say: “See! I told you that you couldn’t trust God to be good, told you that you couldn’t trust what God says!”

So the first part of the trial/test/temptation is to doubt God’s word. The second part is this: because you doubt God’s word, you really should take matters into your own hands. So, in the case of Jesus, first the devil casts doubt on what God clearly said to Jesus. Then, he says, “Since you can’t trust God, you better take care of yourself. Don’t wait for God to provide for you, don’t wait for God to show the world who you are – make your own bread. Prove to yourself and to the world that you are God’s son, and satisfy your hunger the same time.”

The devil offers a “solution” for both problems. First, if Jesus were to turn the stones into bread, it would prove that he is indeed God’s son. Second, it would provide what Jesus needs (food) since (according to the devil) God won’t provide it.

Again, remember that Jesus was voluntarily limiting himself to the resources of only his human nature. The devil was trying to get him to stop living in that human dependence on the Father, and instead tap into his own divine nature, his God-nature. If Jesus had done that, he could not have been the perfect sacrifice for human sin. It would have undone the whole reason he was here on earth.

If all of that sounds really tricky and nasty, you are getting the idea. The devil’s tempting can be deep and complex, and he doesn’t play fair.

Jesus’ reply to the devil destroys both lines of temptation. He says: “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone.” Let’s unpack this. Remember, the devil is trying to get Jesus to doubt what God says. Jesus responds with “It is written.” In other words, he is reaffirming his trust in God’s Word. It’s almost like he is saying: “You want to talk about what God said? I can do that: What God said is written down.”

The second part of what Jesus said – that is, the scripture he quotes – is also a deadly response to the devil: “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Actually, Luke gives us the shortened version. Matthew adds the next phrase. I think it is useful for us to see the specific passage from Deuteronomy that Jesus is quoting, because both Jesus and the devil knew it well:

3 He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then He gave you manna to eat, which you and your fathers had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:3, HCSB)

Jesus is reaffirming his dependence on God. As we saw in the message about fasting, this is the essence of fasting: to recognize our dependence on God, to recognize that we actually need God even more than we need food. More specifically, the scripture quoted by Jesus says that we need the Word of God even more than we need food. So, he is telling the devil: “Yes, God did say those things, and I believe him. In fact, I count the Word of God as more important than food. I am hungry because God is in control, and His Word says he wants me to wait patiently, learning that I can trust him not only for physical food, but for spiritual food, His Word.”

This is a massive reaffirmation of Jesus’ trust in the Father, and of his intention to live, like all human beings, in dependence on the Father.

Where are you tempted to doubt what God has said? Is it what the bible says about what is right or wrong? Or are you tempted to doubt God’s word about forgiveness and love?

In what ways are you tempted to satisfy your own needs apart from the provision of God? There are scripture passages that say everyone who is able should work and provide for their family, so it isn’t wrong to work to provide for your physical needs. But I think some people are tempted to trust in their own finances more than in God. Others are tempted to  satisfy their relational needs in ways that God says are sinful. Or, here’s one that I have struggled with: Like every human being, I have a legitimate physical need to eat. But I am often tempted to eat more than I need.

Whatever our temptations, and whatever our failures to pass the test, remember that Jesus faced the same temptations, and for our sake, he did pass every test. He accomplished what we could not, and he did it on our behalf. Because we cannot live perfect lives, Jesus did live a perfect life in our place. Now, we are released from having to meet that standard of perfection on our own. Instead, through faith, by God’s grace, we are judged not on our own performance, but the performance of Jesus.

1 Christ was without sin, but for our sake God made him share our sin in order that in union with him we might share the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21, GNT)

Let us remember that God has indeed told us these things, and let us cling to them, even when the devil tempts us to doubt what God has said. Let us remember, when we are tested, that God has already provided all we need. Once again, look at what God’s Word says:

This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. (Hebrews 4:15-16, NLT)

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you about all this, today.

1 PETER #5: THE KEY TO THE BIBLE: JESUS CHRIST

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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 5

1 Peter #5. 1 Peter 1:10-12

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, 11 inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. 12 It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look. 1 Peter 1:10-12

Our next section might feel like just a little transition between main points, and in some ways, it is. Even so, I believe the Holy Spirit can use these verses to strengthen our faith. Peter has been talking about the wonderful promises that are ours in salvation, promises that are so glorious and wonderful that even suffering on earth is nothing in comparison to what is coming to those who receive that salvation. Peter now briefly mentions something of the history of those promises. In short, Peter is telling his readers something about the Bible. We can learn several important things here.

First, remember that at that point in time, the only Bible that they had was the part that we Christians call the Old Testament. Peter was a Jew, and in the Jewish thinking of those days, there were two main parts to the Bible/Old Testament: “the Law,” which was the first five books, written by Moses; and “the Prophets,” which is, essentially, everything else. It also helps to know that though the first five books are indeed called “the Law,” Moses himself (who wrote those books), was also considered to be a prophet. So when Peter talks about “the prophets,” he doesn’t just mean Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and so on. He means every single book of the Old Testament.

Peter tells us something very important about the Old Testament: it is ultimately all about Jesus Christ. Peter makes it clear that the prophets themselves did not entirely understand this – they wondered about what God was inspiring them to write – as he says in verse 10, they questioned what it was all about. Even so, Peter says it was the Spirit of Christ in them who inspired them to write, and what he inspired them to write was ultimately all about Christ, and the suffering, grace and glory of the salvation that he won for us, even though the writers did not understand that at the time.

Elsewhere, the New Testament affirms this. After his resurrection, Jesus walked with his disciples one time, but prevented them from recognizing him, initially. He gave them the same lesson about the Old Testament scriptures:

25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27, italic formatting added for emphasis)

Notice here, again, the idea that “the prophets,” begins with Moses, and includes all of the rest of the scriptures. So, even the Old Testament scriptures are about Jesus. Jesus made this same point about the bible, more than once. Talking to the Pharisees who rejected him, he said:

The Father who sent Me has Himself testified about Me. You have not heard His voice at any time, and you haven’t seen His form. You don’t have His word living in you, because you don’t believe the One He sent. You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me.  (John 5:37-39, HCSB)

The Old Testament speaks about Jesus in some more or less direct ways. What I mean is, there are texts that were understood to be predictions about the coming Messiah for centuries before Jesus was born. When he was born into humanity, through Mary, his life fulfilled those prophetic utterances. We know that the last Old Testament book to be written was finished about 450 years before Jesus was born. The Greek translation of the Old Testament appeared 250 years before the time of Jesus.

Let me give you a  brief, faith-building taste of those fulfilled prophecies. According to various places in the Old Testament, the Messiah was supposed to be a descendant of King David, and born in Bethlehem. But though he was to be born in Bethlehem, he was also supposed to be from the region of Galilee – which is far north of Bethlehem. Yet also, he was supposed to have come from Egypt. In addition, noblemen from the East were supposed to bring him gifts.

Jesus, of course, was born in Bethlehem. Some time later, the Magi from the East came, bringing gifts. Within two years, his parents fled with him to Egypt. Before he was twelve, they returned from Egypt and moved permanently to Nazareth, which is in Galilee. Jesus himself, if he was merely human, had no control over fulfilling these prophecies – no baby gets to choose the place of its birth, or where it is raised. Those are either gigantic lucky coincidences, or they are fulfilled prophecies.

Just a few more. The Old Testament predicted that Jesus would be born of a virgin, that he be innocent, yet suffer for the sins of the guilty, that people would gamble for his clothing. It says he would be pierced in his side with a weapon. Again, Jesus had no way of arranging these things, if he was merely human. All of the evidence shows us that the New Testament developed so rapidly, that it isn’t possible to imagine that centuries later the church made up stories about someone who wasn’t real, and made him to fit the prophecies. That idea is based upon the fiction novel, The DaVinci Code, and it is indeed fiction. Also, Jesus fulfilled many of the prophecies in ways that Jews at the time had not expected.

There are over three-hundred Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled in Jesus (and in no one else). If you want a simple, easy taste, read Isaiah chapter 53, and ask yourself what it says about Jesus. Then recognize that it was written about seven hundred years before Jesus was born.

In 1963, Mathematician Peter Stoner published a book called Science Speaks. He used the science of probability to calculate how likely it was that one person would fulfil just eight of the three hundred prophecies about the Messiah. Remember, all eight (to say nothing of all 300) have to be fulfilled in the same person. His calculations were reviewed by a committee of the American Scientific Affiliation, and found to be correct mathematically. He found that the chance that one person would fulfill just those eight particular prophecies about the messiah was 1 in 1017. That’s 1, followed by 17 zeros. As an illustration, if you had that many silver dollars, you could cover an area the size of Texas (that’s larger than either France, or Spain) two feet thick with silver dollars. Paint one more silver dollar red, drop it in and mix it with all the rest, and have a blind man randomly travel to somewhere in Texas, and plunge his hand into the silver dollars and pick one. The likelihood that he comes out with the one red silver dollar is the same as the likelihood that Jesus was not predicted by those eight Old Testament prophecies. When you throw in the other 292 prophecies, there is virtually no chance that Jesus fulfilled them by accident. What a treasure we have, to know that God planned it all!

Even when we aren’t talking about predictions of the Messiah, the Old Testament reveals Jesus to us, and helps us understand what it means to live as his follower. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to talk about this same way of seeing the Old Testament:

4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

(Romans 15:4, ESV)

I think the words of Jesus that we read earlier can be understood this way, also. When we realize this, we find that Peter and the others have given us the key to getting the most from the Old Testament. Yes, there are complex historical and cultural situations in it. Yes, we should seek to understand culture, and context and history. But the bottom line is, it is all about Jesus, and all we really need, when we read the Old Testament, is to let it teach us something about Jesus, or about what it means to follow him. So, when your read your Bible, ask these sorts of questions:

  • What does this passage show me about Jesus?
  • Does one of the people in this story act in a way that reminds me what Jesus is like?
  • Does this make a prediction about the Messiah (Jesus)?

In addition to directly revealing Jesus to us, the Bible explains things about God, human nature, and what life is like, and could be like, for people who follow Jesus. So we should also ask some questions like this:

  • What does the text show me about God? About his holiness? His love? His justice? Some other aspect of his character?
  • What does it show me about sin?
  • What does it show me about my need for God and for forgiveness and grace?
  • What does it say about human beings?
  • What does it say about how a human being lives in relationship to God, and/or to others?

If you want to get more out of your Bible, I know of no better way than to ask questions like these, and, actually any other type of significant question that occurs to you. If we don’t ask questions, we don’t learn much. If you know of anyone who really knows not only a lot about what the Bible says, but also a lot about what it means, and how to apply it, that kind of wisdom almost certainly came about from asking questions, including hard questions, about various parts of the Bible.

As a practical exercise, let’s use this wonderful gift that Peter has given us to tackle a difficult text in the Old Testament, from Deuteronomy chapter 20. We’re doing this just as an example of what it means to recognize that the prophets of old were actually writing about Jesus. Moses was speaking to the people of Israel about wars. He instructed them that when they fought with people who were not in their homeland, they were to first try peace, and then ask for a surrender, and then, if battle was necessary, they were to show mercy once they had conquered the enemy city. Next, he talks about the wars they must fight with people occupying the promised land:

15 “But these instructions apply only to distant towns, not to the towns of the nations in the land you will enter. 16 In those towns that the LORD your God is giving you as a special possession, destroy every living thing. 17 You must completely destroy the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, just as the LORD your God has commanded you. 18 This will prevent the people of the land from teaching you to imitate their detestable customs in the worship of their gods, which would cause you to sin deeply against the LORD your God.

Deuteronomy 20:15-18, NLT

This sounds horrible and brutal, right? There certainly are issues here to think about with regard to the history of Israel. However, for Christians, we know that this passage is not about fighting Hittites, Amorites and all the other “– ites.” We know that this passage is about Jesus. It tells us something about Him, or about how we should or shouldn’t behave as we follow him. It might tell us about sin, or salvation or human relationship. So, let’s ask our questions:

Where is Jesus? I don’t know about you, but the only place I see Him directly is in the name “the Lord.” So it seems to be Jesus who is talking to us through this passage. He is giving instructions, teaching us.

Does one of the people in this story act in a way that reminds me what Jesus is like? Does this make a prediction about the Messiah (Jesus)? Easy. No, and no. Maybe another time I’ll come back to this text, and see something about these questions, that I hadn’t seen before, but not this time.

What does the text show me about God? About his holiness? His love? His justice? Some other aspect of his character? Ahh. Here we go. It shows me that God’s holiness is very serious. It is a deadly serious thing to contradict his holiness, which is what sin does. His holiness is extreme, and calls for an extreme response to avoid unholiness.

What does it show me about sin? Sin is deadly serious. It requires death. Idolatry (having something in your life that is more important or valuable to you than God) is the problem in the text. We Christians still sometimes make things more important than God, so it is speaking to that tendency. This passage shows me that it is so important to have Jesus first, that I need to eliminate anything that might get in the way.

What does it show me about my need for God and for forgiveness and grace? If God’s holiness is so serious, and idolatry is so bad, that in those days it required the death of every living thing, then I am in serious trouble. I am lost without God’s grace. I need a savior to save me from my sin, my laziness and my tendency to value things more than God. Oh! Now we see Jesus. I need a savior. I need Jesus!

What does it say about human beings? Human beings cannot do what is necessary to be holy. Again, we need a savior!

What does it say about how a human being lives in relationship to God, and/or to others? I think we can use this question to put it all together. Whatever the text may have been about in the past, today, it is about Jesus, and what it means to follow him. So first, it leads me to repent of my own sin, my own tendency to let other things become more important in my life than God. Idolatry is nothing to mess around with. It leads me to my desperate need for Jesus to save me, to provide forgiveness, mercy and grace.

It also shows me something else. The people of Israel were supposed to take radically extreme action to avoid idolatry and sin. Their relationship with God was so important that they literally had to kill anything that might lead them astray. Today, because the text is about Jesus, we know it is not about hurting other people. But we should make implacable, unrelenting war on anything in our lives that tends to lead us astray from Jesus. I should show my own sin no mercy. I should be willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that Jesus is first in my life, now and always. If something threatens that, I need to eliminate it. Again, I am talking not about other people, but my own attitudes and actions. It is true, there may be a time when I need to back off from a relationship with a person that is damaging my faith in Jesus, but we do that sort of thing in accordance with the rest of the bible, which tells us it must be done graciously and with patience and love for the other person.

Now that we see this about Jesus and following him, we can find many other verses that teach this very thing:

29 So if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. (Matthew 5:29-30, NLT)
37 “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. 38 If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. 39 If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. (Matthew 10:37-39, NLT)
4 Instead, clothe yourself with the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ. And don’t let yourself think about ways to indulge your evil desires. Romans 13:14, NLT)

So this little transitional verse in 1 Peter helps us understand the entire Bible!

A final thing. Peter mentions that people came and preached to his readers, and that their preaching was inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit. No preacher is equal to the Bible. All of us make mistakes, whereas God provided the Bible as a foundation for all time, so that no generation can be led astray if they know the scriptures. But Peter shows us that the Holy Spirit also uses preachers who deliver the Biblical message to specific people, at specific places and times. The work of a preacher is not to add to the Bible, but to help us unwrap God’s Word to us in a way that helps us see how it is relevant to our lives here and now.

Peter’s main point is that God has gone out of his way to make sure that we heard His Word. We can count on it. We should delight in it, and learn from it.

Imagine the song “Silent Night.” Like many Christmas songs, it has been arranged in many different ways, and played by many different groups and performing artists. Think of it being played instrumentally, by an orchestra. You’ve probably heard it that way. Now, imagine how it sounds sung by a full choir, with no instruments at all. It’s the same song. The same music is being conveyed, and yet, it sounds very different. Now, hear a twangy, country-western singer singing Silent Night, maybe featuring a pedal-steel. Next, try to imagine someone singing it as a kind of operatic solo. Picture it done to swing-rhythm. Now imagine it as “muzak” or “elevator music,” played at the mall. Think of a rendition of the song by a 1940’s “big band.” Hear it done by Reggae artists.

All of these are the same song, conveying the same “musical message.” And yet each style and performance conveys that same “musical message” in a very different way. We can appreciate some of those ways better than others, but it all goes back to the same composer, the same basic set of notes, the same lyrics.

This is kind of how the Bible is. Sometimes, God conveyed his message about Jesus through the life of an old man, or a young princess. Sometimes, he sent it through laws that helped people at that time understand him better. At other times, God’s message came through prophets, or teachers, or letter writers, kings, or musicians. Sometimes, it is hard to recognize as the same message, because three-thousand year-old laws require more work to understand than clearly written letters from more than a thousand years later. But the messages about God, human beings and relationships are consistent throughout the Bible. As with Silent Night, though the “performances” are widely varied, the basic underlying message is the same. Different musicians may play the music, different instruments may create it, but at the same time, the music is, and always was, the product of the original composer.

Take joy and delight in reading the Bible and finding Jesus everywhere!

THE KING WHO CHANGED NOTHING AND EVERYTHING

palm sunday

The crowd on Palm Sunday was looking for a king who ultimately would have been just a historical footnote. Instead, they got someone who did not change their political or economic situation at all. And yet, he changed the entire history of the world.

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 Palm Sunday 2021

Matthew #72. Matthew 21:1-11

Each year, Christians celebrate and remember the last week in the life of Jesus before his resurrection. We call it “Holy Week.” For Jesus, the week began when he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, to cries of praise and celebration from the people. By Friday night of the same week, he was hanging dead on a Roman crucifix. On the very next Sunday, he rose from death; one week in total after riding into Jerusalem. Roughly one quarter of Matthew’s entire gospel is about that week, and with chapter 21, we have now entered that section of the book.

It was a kind of Holy Week for the Jews of that time too. The ancient Jewish calendar was different from ours, and sometime in March (it varies from year to year) was the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Fourteen days into the New Year, the Jews celebrated Passover – a feast commemorating their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Following Passover was a week-long celebration – the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Although you could celebrate this wherever you lived, most Jews felt the best place to spend Passover and Unleavened Bread was in Jerusalem. Then, forty days later was the Feast of Pentecost. Picture this time of year a little bit Thanksgiving and Christmas in the United States. A lot of people traveled to be with family and loved ones. There was a delicious meal (usually the same food every year) and good feelings and a lot of gratitude. Along with it was the knowledge that you were all probably going to get together again in a bit more than a month, for Pentecost. In Israel, this was the “most wonderful time of the year.”

So there was a big crowd headed into Jerusalem that day, just three days before the Passover and the start the Festival. They were probably in a good mood. They were ready for something new and exciting to happen. Then along comes Jesus, riding on a donkey. Certainly, he could not have been the only person riding a donkey into Jerusalem that day. But Luke records that his disciples started shouting and praising God joyfully. Matthew says that the people directly in front of Jesus and those behind him took up the cry. John records that many of the people there for the festival had heard about Jesus raising Lazarus. So they went out to meet him and joined in the praises. Soon, it was a kind of uproar that stirred up the whole city:

When He entered Jerusalem, the whole city was shaken, saying, “Who is this? ” (Matt 21:10, HCSB)

The people took up the cry of Zechariah 9:9

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zech 9:9, ESV2011)

That particular prophecy of Zechariah was all about salvation and deliverance. Many Jews probably felt it was fulfilled in some ways when the Maccabaeus Family led the rebellion that freed Israel from Greek rule, some hundred and sixty years before the time of Jesus. Now they were thinking that maybe God was going to do the same thing to the Romans and to king Herod, through this Jesus. They were thinking salvation all right, but political salvation.

Now the truth is, I think most of the crowd was cheering in ignorance, and for the wrong reasons. After the crucifixion, the entire number of Jesus’ followers was about 120. But this crowd sounds a lot bigger than that. It would take more than 120 people to shake up the whole city. So a lot people were cheering who didn’t know Jesus very well, or only knew of him. It was party time, and they were partying. It sounded exciting. They thought maybe they had a new Judas Maccabaeus on their hands, and maybe they were going to be free from the oppression of Rome and king Herod (Herod was not a Jew).

But why did Jesus participate in this? What Matthew records makes it sound like Jesus planned it: apparently Jesus had arranged the donkey ahead of time, and even agreed upon some sort of “password” with the owner of the animals. Luke and Mark also suggest that it was intentional on Jesus’ part. But the crowd had all the wrong reasons, so why did Jesus do it?

Matthew records one of the reasons: it fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9. Some of that prophecy certainly sounds like military deliverance from oppressing nations. In fact, it mentions war against Greece, so some of it may indeed have been fulfilled by the Maccabaeus Family. Remember, however, biblical prophecies usually have multiple layers that are not necessarily fulfilled at in one piece. And there are other clues in Zechariah 9 that show us that, whatever else it was about, it was also about Jesus.

It says that the one coming to Jerusalem on the donkey is righteous. Who else is truly righteous besides Jesus? It says he is the true king. Who has the right to claim kingship, but him? Judas Maccabaeus, more than a century before, was never a true Israelite king, because he was from the tribe of Levi, not the tribe of King David, which was Judah. The prophecy says he is bringing salvation, and that he is humble and peaceful. Zechariah 9:11-12, a few verses later, also says this:

As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double. (Zech 9:11-12, ESV2011)

Prisoners are set free and given hope – because of the blood of the covenant. Jesus was riding into Jerusalem to shed his blood, to create the New Covenant, sealed with his blood, brought about by his death. Certainly, at the time, no one else knew that, but Jesus did. And later, John writes, the disciples remembered it (John 12:16).

So, in this act of riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, receiving the praises of the people around him, Jesus was fulfilling prophecy, and giving anyone who cared to think about it a clue that he was the promised Messiah.

I think Jesus did this for other reasons too. It was time for him to give up his life for our sins. I think he was deliberately provoking the Jewish leaders into taking the actions that would lead to his crucifixion. Up until this very last week of his earthly life, Jesus had kept a fairly low profile, and avoided popular acclaim and confrontation with the Jewish leaders. But now, I think he was deliberately antagonizing them so that they would do what had to be done.

Finally, if Jesus really is who we believe he is, he was always worthy of worship at any moment in time. So, it is only good and right that as people come to celebrate the Passover, they worshipped the true Passover lamb who would give his life so that they could be spared. It is entirely appropriate that people worship him. He said as much to the Pharisees who criticized him.

Now, as I have pointed out, even those who praised Jesus, did so with quite a bit of ignorance. Frankly, I don’t think most Christians get the point any more than the First Century Jews. The Jews got all excited about Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and I’m sure many of them forgot that it was really all about God’s deliverance. We have the same issues in America with Christmastime and Thanksgiving. We get all happy and excited, but often neglect real thankfulness or real remembrance of Jesus. And we do the same with the beginning of Christian Holy Week.

Most churches I’ve been to wave palm leaves around at some point in the Palm Sunday service. I’ve been in churches where they brought in live donkeys and camels for the occasion. People shout and jump and sing, just like the Jews did on that first Palm Sunday. Just like the Jews did in ignorance. But we should know better, now.

It reminds me of Elijah’s experience with God:

Then He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the LORD’s presence.” At that moment, the LORD passed by. A great and mighty wind was tearing at the mountains and was shattering cliffs before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (1Kgs 19:11-13, HCSB)

We look for God in the excitement, the noise, the action. And there is some of God in that, sometimes. But Elijah found that the heart of God was something, deeper, quieter, more meaningful. It wasn’t wrong for the Palm Sunday crowd in Jerusalem to have a raucous celebration. It wasn’t wrong for them to want deliverance from the Romans. But the real thing, the most important thing, was deeper than that. Two-thousand years later, Judas Maccabaeus is sort of a footnote in the ancient history of the Greek empire; many of you may not have heard about him before today. And that’s what the Jews were looking for – another person to give them temporary relief, another person who would end up as just another historical footnote. But they got someone who would not change their local political situation at all. Instead, he changed the entire world.

I think we need to take notice of this. Too often, our vision is too small and limited. We just want Jesus to give us a better job, or more compliant kids, or to “fix” our spouse. Those aren’t necessarily bad things to want; it’s just that the vision is too small. What he wants to do inside our soul and spirit is so much bigger than a temporary situation fix. He has a permanent solution to the holes inside our hearts. He has brought us hope, and grace and love and permanent salvation; he has sealed it with his blood.

Zechariah’s prophecy says: “Behold, your king is coming to you, righteous and having salvation.” I say the same thing: Jesus is coming to us. Do you recognize him as your king, the one with the right to rule your life? Are you willing to be part of his real mission, not to temporarily change a little corner of your world, but to bring hope and salvation to all people for eternity? Are you willing to receive not just what you want, but what he chooses to do in your life and with your life?

Right after “Palm Sunday,” Jesus made this comment:

“I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop. The one who loves his life will lose it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me. Where I am, there My servant also will be. If anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him. (John 12:24-26, HCSB)

Jesus literally gave up his life. The result was eternal salvation for billions. He invites us to join him – not necessarily to literally lose our physical life (though he has called some to martyrdom) but to surrender our hearts and minds and wills to him, so that in return we can receive his salvation and honor.

The party is fine, as far it goes. The celebration is fun. The happiness is good and right and genuine. But let’s use this text as an opportunity to go deeper, to engage with the real mission of Jesus, and to receive him as our true king.

COLOSSIANS #31: ALL OF LIFE

Photo by James Smith on Pexels.com

For Christians, all of life is about Jesus. We live for him, we live with him, we live in dependence upon him. It is when we try to compartmentalize Jesus, and have him in just one area of our lives that we turn into religious hypocrites. When are “part-time Christians,” we have times when we act like Christians, and other times when we are not “in Jesus-mode,” and we act differently. This sort of hypocrisy does you no good, and it turns off those who are not Christians.

Tom Hilpert

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 Colossians Part 31

Colossians #31.  Colossians 3:17

17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (ESV, Colossians 3:17)

The Greek in this verse emphasizes all things. A literal-ish translation might be “in all things whatsoever…” Maybe another way of putting it would be “in absolutely everything…” Every single area of our lives should be involved in honoring Jesus. There should be nothing at all in our lives that cannot be done in the name of Jesus. If there is, we should either not do it, or change how we do it, so that we can do in a way that honors Him. If you needed any more reminders that following Jesus involves every area of your life, every moment of your life, here it is.

This can be really clarifying. Can I do my work in the name of Jesus? Can I be angry at another driver in the name of Jesus? Can I go swimming in the name of Jesus? Can I fill out a form for the government in the name of Jesus? Can I sue someone in the name of Jesus? Can I ride my bike in the name of Jesus?

Sometimes the answers are obviously yes, and at other times, obviously no. At other times, we have to apply it with careful, prayerful thought.

This will come up a bit later in Colossians, but one helpful question to ask is: “Could I be proud of this job if I was doing it for Jesus?” Because, in fact, you are doing it for Jesus. All things whatsoever, we are to do in the name of Jesus. Life is to be lived because of Jesus. It is to be lived with Jesus. It is to be lived through Jesus.

To be crystal clear: this doesn’t mean everyone should quit their jobs and join a monastery or convent. It means that we are to live every moment of our ordinary, everyday lives for and with Jesus, depending on him as we do. My work as a pastor might be directly connected to Jesus, but I also write mystery novels, and even though they are “ordinary” novels, I need to learn how to write them for and with Jesus, depending on him as I do. I also have had a few years when I wasn’t a pastor. During that time, one thing I did was business consulting. I would travel from business to business, helping them learn to cut costs, work more efficiently, and generally become better at what they did. In general, I think I did it in the name of Jesus. In other words, I tried to work as Jesus would work if he was a business consultant.

For example, on one particular job, I helped an industrial plumbing/welding contractor. I did a lot of good work for the owner in several different areas of his business. I wasn’t teaching him to rip off other companies, I was just showing him what he needed to do if he wanted to stay in business and earn an honest living. In fact, in some instances, I was showing him how to avoid getting ripped off himself. I spent three weeks with that client, and I felt like I could do that work in the name of Jesus. I had helped someone become better at what he was supposed to do.

However, while we were wrapping up the job for that owner, I got a call from the corporate office of my consulting company. They knew I had developed a good rapport with the client, and they thought I might be able to convince him to pay us for more consulting time. They wanted me to pretend that there was still a lot of work to be done, and that we could help him even more if we stayed on longer. The thing is, the owner didn’t need more consulting at that point. We had given him our best help, and more, at that point, would have just been racking up our consulting fees to no purpose. We would have been billing him for “busy work.” It would not have been illegal, but it wasn’t ethical. One of my superiors made it clear that he would be very upset with me if I didn’t make it happen. However, in my understanding, my ultimate boss is Jesus, and I felt I could not rip off the client in the name of Jesus, so I politely failed to make it happen. You might say, I did some business consulting in the name of Jesus, and I also stopped doing some business consulting, also in the name of Jesus. I listened to my earthly bosses and did what they asked as long as I could do so in the name of Jesus. But when I could not, then I chose to do what honored Jesus the most. I was prepared to lose my job over it, but as it happened, I got an offer of a promotion instead.

To be clear, I’m not saying that doing everything in the name of Jesus will always result in you getting a promotion. In some cases it might lead to you getting fired. But we do need to live with an understanding that Jesus has the ultimate say in our lives, and everything we do is to be with and for him. To put it plainly: following Jesus should be a lifestyle.

The alternative – living for Jesus only part of the time – leads ultimately to tedious religious duty and often hypocrisy. If take this approach, we have times when we are living for Jesus, and other times when we are not. One of the problems is, when we are “off” of our religious activities, we say and do things that conflict with who Jesus is, and we could rightly be called hypocrites. Even when we do serve or worship Jesus, we do it out of obligation, and often we can’t wait to get back to our “real life.”

A lot of people prefer fitting Jesus in as just one component of a busy life. They have softball on Thursday nights and Saturdays, date night Friday, work throughout the week, and church on Sunday. When they are at church, they are doing their religious thing, but it never occurs to them for Jesus to be present at work, softball, and date night. Christianity is an important thing, sure, but they want to keep it in a limited place. It’s just one thing, they think, out of many good and important things.

But Jesus rejected the idea of being just one component of life. This is what he says:

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it. 26 For what will it benefit someone if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will anyone give in exchange for his life? (CSB, Matthew 16:24-26)

For those who want to be Christians, all of life is about Jesus. He isn’t just one important piece of a fulfilling life. He is the life. Again, his words:

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

He isn’t part of life. He is the life. So, let’s understand this. Take the lifestyle I described above. It’s still fine and good to play softball. It’s not only fine, but good and right to go to work, and contribute to society, and to support yourself and/or your family. Date night is good, too. But a Christian does all of these same things with an awareness of the presence of Jesus in the midst of it all. So, at work and at softball, a Christian works and plays in ways that bring honor to Jesus. In the same way, a Christian avoids working and playing in ways that reflect poorly on Jesus.

Let’s get even more specific. A Christian at work can’t be dishonest with her boss, or her clients. She doesn’t get to do shoddy work, either. Maybe nobody at her job cares, but she’s working in the name of Jesus, and he knows and cares, so her work should reflect that, regardless of whether the people around her notice or not.

A Christian at play doesn’t get to cheat, even though it’s only a game, and all his teammates are doing it. He uses the kind of language that honors Jesus and blesses those who hear him (Ephesians 4:29). He doesn’t do this only with the church softball team, but everywhere he works and plays.

Christians on a date enjoy the relationship that God has given them, and they enjoy it in ways that honor Jesus. So, if they are not married to each other, they honor Jesus by staying out of bed. If they are married, they may happily enjoy the gifts of intimacy that God has given to bless marriage. But either way, they recognize that God is part of their relationship; he is there with them, and they honor him by being kind and loving and respectful toward each other, and celebrating the joy he has given them in each other.

Now, we don’t do all these things (or avoid doing other things) because of some legalistic rule book. We do it because Jesus wants to express the power of his life through our lives. This is how Jesus wants to live in you, and through you. I personally think Jesus enjoys it when we do a good job because of him. I think he likes being there when we play softball (or whatever). I’m sure he enjoys date nights and family times, and many of the things we do. He is not asking us to just sit around and “be holy.” He is saying, “In whatever you do, make room for me. Let me be in it, let it be for me, and as you rely on me.”

Let me be honest. There are times in my life where, if this text were describing me, it would say: “Everything whatsoever he does, in word and in deed, he does for the benefit of himself, complaining to God the father that he doesn’t give enough help.” I’m just guessing here, but perhaps  this describes some of you, also. (That was sarcasm. Of course it does. We all fall into this).

Let’s back up and address this. Our natural inclination is to live for ourselves. We require others to treat us according to what we want and need, no matter what might be going on in their own lives. In fact, we often demand it. And we often expect that our own failure to meet the needs of others can be excused because of the struggles we have, even though we don’t give others the same leeway in meeting our own needs. Sometimes we don’t demand our way, but that makes us feel self-righteous, as if we are self-sacrificing martyrs just for not requiring the world to conform to our own desires. This self-centeredness is wired into these mortal bodies that we inhabit. We only live for Jesus to the extent that it does not conflict with our own strong desires.

It’s important to understand how serious this issue is. We cannot do all things whatsoever in the name of Jesus until and unless this self-centeredness is addressed, but we can’t seem to break loose. Jesus himself provides the way, as we learned earlier in Colossians:

11 When you came to Christ, you were “circumcised,” but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. 12 For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead.
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. (NLT, Colossians 2:11-14)

When we came to Jesus, he pronounced the death sentence on our own way of living for ourselves. He himself was killed for our sins, and he included us in his own death and burial. Our real life is now with Him. Remember, this section of Colossians that we are in begins like this:

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 2 Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. 3 For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. (NLT, Colossians 3:1-4)

We need to remember and recognize that the selfish way of life belongs to a body that began to die the moment it was born. That way of life is passing away. It can’t last for more than a hundred years or so, and often doesn’t make it nearly that long. It is literally a dead end.

However, we can live every moment whatsoever in the name of Jesus when we focus on the new life he has given us. We set our sights on the realities of heaven (that is, the New Creation). We recognize that all of our legitimate needs have been met in Christ, and our illegitimate needs belong to a body that is temporary and dying. We take our needs to Jesus, not demanding, but humbly trusting he will do what is best for us, even when we don’t understand what that is.

The year our son turned five, I saw something interesting happen. Like pretty much all kids, he was often selfish, often very upset when he didn’t get his own way. When he turned five, he was old enough to understand that his birthday was his special day, a day when everyone else would be celebrating him. He looked forward to it. When the day came, he was confident that others would be giving him attention, looking out for him and treating him well. He knew that we might go easier on his behavior. But instead of acting out, he became so kind and gracious. A number of times, something happened that normally would have upset him. One of his siblings accidentally broke one of his toys. He graciously forgave her. Another sibling got upset about something, and he tried to comfort her, rather than getting us to focus on himself. It seemed like because it was his birthday he knew, at least for that day, that his needs would be met, that he didn’t have to worry about himself. So, he was able to let things go, and able to act kind, and unselfishly.

It should be the same with us. The God who created the universe has declared that we are special to him. He has provided all that we need for an eternal life of joy. We can know that we are celebrated, that we are safe. We don’t have to demand that our needs be met, because God has already met all our truest and deepest needs. Trusting this, we can now do all things, absolutely everything, in the name of Jesus.

I don’t want to gloss over the fact that this is the third time in the last three verses that tells us to be thankful. I have said before that thankfulness opens the door to help us receive the things that God is giving to us in the spiritual realm. I said recently that thankfulness is also the gateway to peace. In addition, thanksgiving is the beginning of what it means to do all things whatsoever in the name of Jesus. When we thank him, it helps lead us away from unselfishness. It helps us remember everything good in our lives comes in him and from him, and so encourages us to live more and more not for ourselves, but for, with, and depending upon, Jesus

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.