god's love

How can we avoid legalism, and trying to earn points with God, but also avoid lawlessness and sinning?

The answer is love. Love is at the heart of Christianity because love is at the heart of the Christian understanding of God, and what it means to have faith. Love not fear, nor selfishness, is what changes us and radically influences our behavior.

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 24

Colossians #24. Colossians 3:5-7

 5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. Colossians 3:5-7

We are taking things in small bites, but it is very important to remember our overall context. Paul started this section by saying: “In the same way you received Christ, now walk in him.” He reminded us that all the fullness of God dwells in Christ; and the fullness of Christ dwells in us. Through faith, by God’s grace, we were buried with Jesus by baptism, and raised to new life. Our old life, the sinful flesh, has been put to death. Paul then began to discuss one potential problem in the Christian life: the issue of legalism. Legalists don’t fully believe in the work of Jesus. They think perhaps that they can add to what Jesus has done. They want to be in control of their own fate, and they often want to control the behavior of others. But Paul demolishes legalism by reminding the Colossians that in Christ we have nothing left to prove. We can’t be righteous enough to please God. We don’t follow God according to the ways of the world.

Last time we talked about the amazing truth that our real life, our true life, is found not in external things, but in Jesus Christ. It is already there, waiting for us. It will be fully revealed in all its glory at the same time that Christ is revealed in all of his glory. This is because part of the glory of Christ is what he has done for us. Real life comes from God, into our spirits, and from our spirits into our souls, and from our souls, it influences how we behave.

So, while some of this might be hard for us to hear, let us not forget the message of grace and life that the scripture has been hammering into us for many weeks now. Context is everything.

With all this in mind, Paul now begins to address a second potential problem in the Christian life: lawlessness. Remember the picture of following Jesus as a road? On one side of the road is a deep and dangerous ditch called legalism. Now, Paul begins to address the deep and dangerous ditch on the other side of the road: Lawlessness. In many ways, lawlessness looks like the opposite of legalism. Instead of following rules, like legalism, lawlessness rejects any kind of standard for behavior at all. A lawless person might think like this: “Well, the Bible tells us that Jesus did everything for us. There’s nothing for us to do. Therefore, I can live in whatever way pleases me best. I know I’m not married to this person that I’m attracted to, but I can’t earn points with God anyway, so I’m going to go ahead and have sex with her. And with anyone else I feel like.” Lawlessness says: “Paul just wrote that restraint and self-discipline don’t help us in our relationship with God, so I’m not going to restrain myself at all. If I want to do something, I’ll do it. If I can get something I want, I’ll get it. If I don’t feel like doing something, I won’t do it.”

Lawlessness is lazy, and, above all, self-centered. Like legalism, the heart of lawlessness is being in control. Lawless people might think that they are the opposite of “in control,” but behind the “anything goes” behavior is an attitude that says: “No one can tell me what to do, or not do.” Like legalism, lawlessness says, “No one is the boss of me. I’m in charge of my own life, so I can do what I want.”

Unfortunately, most public schools in America, along with most universities, indoctrinate young people with the ideas of lawlessness. They tell people that the most important thing is to be true to yourself. In other words: “Make sure that you do what you really feel like doing. Don’t do anything that you don’t feel like doing. Do not accept any standard for behavior except what feels right to you. Don’t let anyone else impose any kind of standard on you.”

Legalism had a tiny bit of truth behind it. So does lawlessness. It is true that Jesus, and Jesus alone makes us right with God. If we trust Jesus, we are thoroughly forgiven, and we can’t add anything to what Jesus has done for us. In Jesus, our sins are not counted against us, and the righteousness of Jesus is counted for us.

But we need to understand something: if we truly believe this, our behavior will change. If we truly love Jesus, the most significant part of us will not want to sin at all. If we belong to Jesus, we have accepted him as our Lord and King, and we have given up the right to live for ourselves.

I’ve used this illustration before, because the Bible uses it in many places. Picture a marriage. Two people love each other, and they agree to give up their lives as single people, and from their wedding day forward, they make a new life together. Part of marriage means you give up some of the independence you had as a single person. Now, you organize your life not only to please yourself, but to please the two of you together. When you were single, you might have gone out with your friends, and stayed out late. But when you are married, you decide together what you will do with your time. You don’t stay out all night unless you have talked it over and agreed with your spouse. You don’t spend your money as if it was all your own. You prioritize together how you as a couple will allocate your resources. You do things for each other and with each other because you love one another. Sometimes, you do things you would rather not do because you love your spouse. At other times, you might refrain from doing something you would like to do, because you love your spouse. You don’t behave in these ways because there are laws about marriage. You do it because you love your spouse. And you behave in ways that are loving sometimes even when you don’t feel all sorts of loving feelings, because you have made a commitment to honor and value your spouse.

Now, if you were a legalist, you might say: “I must sit here and listen to my spouse talk, because if I don’t, I must not really be married.”

There is no love there, only fear and obligation.

If you were a lawless person, you might say: “I don’t feel like sitting here and listening to my spouse talk, because I’m not getting anything out of it. I’m going to go watch TV because that’s what I really want to do right now. Besides, even if I don’t listen to her, we’re still married, right?”

There is no love here, either, just self-centeredness.

This is why I say the good, true road of Christianity is love. Love eliminates both legalism and lawlessness. Being a Christian is all about receiving the love of Jesus, and loving him back. And because of his love, also loving our neighbors. Love changes us. It reorients us, reorients our lives, toward the one we love. Love affects how we live, and the choices we make. If it doesn’t, it isn’t really love.

This has to be really clear: we don’t change our behavior in order to become acceptable to God. Jesus, and Jesus alone makes us right with God. But once we trust Jesus, once we believe what the bible says, our behavior will change, because we grow in the love that Jesus has for us, and the love we have for him. If our behavior does not change at all, not even a little, perhaps we don’t really believe what the Bible says about Jesus.

When Paul was speaking about legalism, he talked about some of the things that we died to: false humility, working to get God to accept us, and so on. Now, Paul is telling us about a whole different category of things to which we have died: the things of the flesh. He starts with five. These five are all about things that we might wrongly desire: sexual immorality; moral impurity; evil passion; lust; and covetousness.

The word for “sexual immorality” is the very broad Greek term porneia. Porneia means “any sexual activity apart from that between a man and woman who are married to each other.” To be specific, it includes: sex between people who are not married at all; sex between people who are not married to each other; homosexual sex; prostitution; sex between more than two people, rape, etc.

Moral impurity catches pretty much anything left after porneia. Just in case you have someone (for instance, like former President Clinton) who wants to argue about what exactly “sex” means, this Greek word covers basically any other kind of immoral thought or behavior. We might throw pornography of all types into this category also.

The next term is “passion.” The Greek word used does not always mean something negative, but in this context, it is safe to assume that Paul means any kind of ungodly passion, and probably passion with immoral sexual overtones.

Following that, Paul mentions evil desire. Sometimes, this might be translated “lust.” This is desire for something more than, or in addition to, what you actually need, and it includes a demand that the desire be satisfied, even if it is wrong. You can lust, or have evil desire, for all sort of things, including (but not limited to) food, power, money, sex, control, or material things.

I want to pause before we move on. The problem with all of these things is that they are corruptions of things that would otherwise be good. The Bible teaches us that sex between married couples is a good thing, and in fact, it says very clearly that married couples should not withhold sex from one another (1 Corinthians 7:1-5). But Jesus teaches us to avoid corrupting and debasing God’s good gift of sex. Passion is often a good thing. But when the passion is directed to an object or person that it should not be, it becomes a sin. Desire is good. It is the same word used when Jesus said he eagerly desired to eat the Passover with his disciples. But evil desire is for something that should not be desired.

The final sin in this set of five is “covetousness.” The idea behind it is that you want something that is not yours to properly want. That could be money, it could be a relationship, it could be a certain status or possession. The ten commandments give us some examples of the ways we might covet:

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (ESV, Exodus 20:17)

I’ve never coveted a donkey in my life, though I may have come close with a cow or a goat. But the idea of house or spouse is helpful. Your neighbor’s spouse is not available for you to want. Neither is her house, or car. You want something that should not belong to you anyway. You wish you could take it away from someone else, and have it for yourself. That is covetousness.

In verse six we are told that the wrath of God is coming because of such things. This is important. Sometimes, the attitude of lawlessness is that sins are not such a big deal anymore, because Jesus has forgiven us. But Paul is telling us that these things are deadly. Those who do not turn to Jesus will be under the wrath of God for such things. They aren’t something to play around with.

Each of these five sins refer primarily to strong desires for things that we should not desire. Let’s make sure we put in this context. Last time, Paul said that our real life was in Christ. Right now it is hidden, but it is no less real for that, and one day it will be fully manifested. We learned that we should seek life in Christ, not in external things, not in things that will wither and die anyway, things that will never satisfy us. So, now Paul is saying, put to death your habit of seeking life in the wrong places. These five sins: sexual immorality, impurity, evil passion, lust, and covetousness, are all ways in which we seek to find life. When we engage in such things, we are seeking life in the flesh, in things where there is no life. Paul says, “put those habits to death, where they belong. They are dead ends; worse, they are roads leading to even more death. Seek your life in Christ, and be done with seeking it in things like that.”

Paul also says: “This is how you used to be. You used to do these things, but now, in Jesus, all of that is changing.” I don’t want to gloss over verse Sometimes after people become Christians, they feel bad about what they did in the past. But that is over. The new reality is Christ. A few verses later Paul writes:

You have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (ESV, Colossians 3:9-10)

That reminds me of what Paul said to the Corinthians:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (ESV, 2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

Yes, I know we still sometimes fail and fall back into evil desires. But our real life is hidden with Christ in God. Our flesh (as it is right now) is destined for destruction – the part of us that wants to sin is as good as dead already. We need to remember that the part of us that wants to go on sinning is no longer who we really are. We are now holy and blameless in Christ. We are in a spiritual marriage with Jesus.

Meditate on these things right now. What does it mean to put to death the things of the flesh? One nuance of “put to death” in Greek is “deprive of strength or power.” I think this is a helpful thought. What gives these sorts of sins strength or power, and what takes power away from them? How will feed your desires for the things of God, and starve the desires of the flesh?

What does it mean to put off the old self, and put on the new? How will you do that in the coming days and weeks? How will you avoid both the trap of legalism, and the trap of lawlessness?

And finally, how will you help your brothers and sisters in Jesus to do the same?


men and woman in red tank top is ready to run on track field

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on
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 21


Colossians #21. Colossians 2:18-19

We are continuing from last time. Paul set the stage by telling us to continue to walk in Jesus in the same way we received him: that is, by grace, through faith, not trusting in our own goodness or good works, but trusting Jesus to be enough. He reassures us that we have all the fullness of Christ living inside of us, and in Christ is the fullness of God. Then he again reassures us, telling us that through grace, by faith, we were buried with Christ in baptism, and raised to new life. Our sins have been nailed to the cross of Christ, and so have all the judgments that were against us.

Remember that last time we talked about the picture of a road: the good, safe road is love for Jesus, and through Jesus, love for others. On one side is the ditch of legalism, and the other, lawlessness. In our verses today, Paul is continuing to warn about legalism.

Last time we considered Paul’s exhortation to not let anyone judge us for things that are neither commanded, nor forbidden, by Christ or his apostles. These sorts of things include worship ceremonies, food and drink, church festivals, the day of the week that we worship, and so on. Now, Paul continues his exhortation:

18 Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.(Colossians 2:18-19)

In verse 16, Paul says, “let no one pass judgment on you.” Now he says, “Let no one disqualify you.” There is a difference in the two. I think it’s worth thinking about. Last time we talked about judging and being judged for things that don’t matter. Now Paul is taking this attitude: You already have the prize: Jesus Christ. Everything you need is found in that prize. Therefore, don’t let anyone suggest you don’t have all that you need already to be a Christian. Don’t let anyone put doubt in your mind about whether or not you’ve been given the prize. Don’t let anyone shake you loose from the prize that you already have.

Paul talks about a certain kind of person who might try to say that you have been disqualified. This is someone who insists upon false humility. The NIV translates the Greek this way, while other versions use “asceticism,” but I think false humility captures the sense of it.

This is a tricky one, because true humility is an important part of following Jesus. Just as Jesus knew who he was, yet felt no need to rub the noses of others in it, so we should be the same. We don’t need to insist on our own way, even if we know we are right. We don’t need to insist on receiving the honor that we might rightly deserve. We should delight in honoring others, even if we don’t get the honor we think we should have. We don’t have to pretend to be less intelligent, or weaker, or less attractive than we are, but neither do we need to insist that everyone recognize these things. We can be humble in this way because we know that God knows who we are, and nothing we do escapes his notice. Through Jesus, he honors us, even when others fail to do so when they should.

And we should live with a recognition that everything we are, and everything we are capable of doing, are gifts from God, not something we somehow got for ourselves. It is not as if we were smart, or beautiful, or strong because we designed our own physical bodies. This is true, even when we have worked hard to use what we have. For example, say I have worked hard to study the Bible and be good at teaching it to others. But I was given the ability to learn and understand, and without that gift, my hard work would not have amounted to much. If I had not been given the opportunity to take time to learn and to have good people to teach me, my hard work would have come to nothing. Even my own motivation and self-discipline to work hard was originally given to me by God. This is true of each one of us, no matter what area of life we have become good at. True humility recognizes these things.

It might be helpful to use the road analogy. This is a smaller road, the road of true humility. On one side is the ditch of no humility (overt pride) and the other is false humility. So, false humility is something different from the real thing. False humility is a tool used by some to try to either shame or control other people. It can be very dangerous, because it is also, often, very subtle. Someone who is humble in a false way puts their pious Christian behavior on display. It is hard to argue with them, because they seem so spiritual and right. They might even say words that are good, but you can see from their tone that something else is going on. They often find ways demonstrate (sometimes without even saying it) that you aren’t as religious as they are. Some of these people might also insist upon some sort of outward pious behavior. This could involve telling people that they must fast at certain times, or implying that they ought to pray a certain way, or do certain specific good works. Usually, you will feel like you have to do these things in order for such a person to accept you as a real Christian. Now, it is good to fast. It is good to do good works. But we cannot insist upon certain fasts or certain good works. Especially, it is wrong to think that those things earn us special favor in the eyes of God.

Paul warns about two additional types of things that such people might be involved in. First the worship of angels. This is more or less a literal translation of the Greek, and it leaves us a with a slight problem. Does it mean that certain people worship angels? Or does it mean that some people claim to know how the angels worship God, and insist that we should worship the same way?

We might not be wrong to take it both ways, but I lean toward the second, for various reasons. In the first place, Paul is talking to Christians, and Christians are pretty clear that we must worship God alone, and never worship anyone else, not even an angel. In the Bible, several times, angels themselves told people not to worship them. (for example, Revelation 19:9-10)

Paul has been talking about things that are neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture, and the way we worship falls mostly into that category, so I think that this the point here. We know that there are some things we should do as we worship (like praising God, and praying, celebrating the Lord’s Supper) but the way we do those things is more or less up to us, as long as we honor the Lord. We are certainly never told to find out how angels worship, and then to imitate that.

The next thing Paul warns about it someone who has an unhealthy obsession with visions, and is probably proud about the visions and spiritual experiences she has had. As I describe this, keep the idea of the ditches in mind. All of these things might be done in healthy ways that honor God and encourage other Christians. We don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. At the same time, many people do engage in behavior that seems spiritual on the surface, but is full of false humility, real pride and with no true connection to Jesus, the head of the body.

Let me describe some of what Paul is warning about. For several years, I tried to be a part of a certain pastors’ group. I never felt comfortable in that group. One reason I didn’t like it is because whenever we met, it sounded to me like the pastors were boasting, under cover of false humility. They might say things like this:

“We felt like we ought to hold a revival. We brought 176 souls to Jesus in one week.  All we were doing was stepping out in obedience to the Lord, and he provided.”

When I write these words, I realize that you can’t hear the tone of voice, or see the expression. But when it was spoken, it was clear that this person was proud as a peacock about the revival, and felt pretty sure that 176 people came to the altar because he was the best preacher this side of Memphis. These are spiritual words. We should be glad that 176 people came to Jesus (if in fact that’s truly what happened). He gave lip-service to the idea that it was God who did it, but he made sure to not only tell us the number of people, but also to emphasize his own act of stepping out in obedience. This is someone who uses spiritual words and spiritual activities to build himself up, especially in contrast to others.

Another time we pastors were gathered around a meal, and someone volunteered to bless the food. His prayer probably lasted three minutes, which is a long time when you’re hungry, and completely unnecessary for a table prayer. Certainly, the “thank you for the food part,” took less than ten seconds, and the rest of the prayer was spent on other things. Mostly what I remember is that his prayer proved that he was eloquent, and spiritual, and that he had a great speaking voice. It felt like a competition, and he had just thrown down a challenge. He even sort of smirked when he was done, sort of like: “Try and beat that, fellas.” That was the last day I spent with that gathering.

Now, it is good for pastors to gather together. It is good to talk about what’s going on with our ministries. It’s good to pray. But we can do that in a way that is genuine and that builds each other up. Or, as with my experiences, we can engage in false humility.

I was part of another prayer group for about two years. I really connected with some of the people there. But prayer became a performance. Everyone began to pray very long prayers, with many words where few words would have been sufficient. Their attitude was something like, “Why use two sentences when we could make it last five minutes?” Their voices trembled with emotion, and their words were replete with thick eloquence. In short, they were showing off. Every week I thought of what Jesus said:

5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (ESV, Matthew 6:5-8)

Jesus says, don’t do that, don’t be like them, yet these Christians did that again and again, every week for the two years I was with them, and presumably much longer.

Let’s cover the next thing Paul mentions: an obsession with visions. I believe in the fullness of the work of the Holy Spirit today. I believe the Spirit empowers miracles of all kinds – everything that we see in the New Testament is still happening today, and can still happen among you and I. But once again, there are ditches here. One ditch is to say that God does not speak in any way at all except through the Bible. The other ditch is to become obsessed with the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. People who are obsessed are often much more interested in the supernatural activities than they are in the fact that the Spirit of God lives inside those who trust Jesus, and has power to change lives from the inside out. They are very concerned about the outward, dramatic manifestations of the Holy Spirit, while they do not cultivate the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their own daily lives: love, joy, peace patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

The Spirit of God will never contradict what is written in the Bible. So, if someone speaks about a vision that does not seem to be in accordance with the Bible, then that vision is not from the Holy Spirit.

Some folks may have prophecies or visions that don’t directly contradict the Bible. However, they seem to give as much, or more, weight to the visions as to the Bible. The fact that they have a supernatural experience makes them feel superior to those who have not. Their focus is not on Jesus, and not on the Bible, which reveals Jesus to us. Instead, their focus is on their own special revelation, which, even if it is genuine, is not as important as the Bible.

I want to speak about a few more types of people who might try to disqualify us (or make us believe we are disqualified) from the kingdom of God. For instance, I know a couple of people who live by faith in a fairly unique way. They don’t have regular jobs. They wake up in the morning, and look for whatever opportunities the Lord seems to be putting before them, and, as best they can, they follow his leading. They have some amazing and wonderful stories of God’s work and provision. There are also problems and pitfalls with this sort of life that, sadly, these people seem blind to. They might empty their bank accounts for a homeless person they just met, but then they go home and refuse to help their families with simple household chores. They are focused on big dramatic gestures, and they are easily bored or irritated by the ordinary things involved with following Jesus every day.

Related to this are people who feel a certain kind of calling on their lives, and then they try to impose their unique calling onto everyone else. The two I mentioned above seem to think that everyone should live the way they do. Here’s another example: suppose I am called to overseas missionary work. If I was an immature Christian, I might think that my passion for missions means that every single Christian should be a missionary. If I met someone who claimed to be a Christian, yet they weren’t missionaries, I would judge them. Now, I could make a pretty good case from the Bible that missions is important. But I might overlook the fact that if everyone went overseas as missionaries, there would be no Christians left in my home country to lead people to Jesus, and, also, no one left to give financial support to all the missionaries.

We are all called to follow Jesus. Certain parts of following Him are the same for every single person. But we are also all unique members of the body of Christ. Just because one person is called to a certain type of ministry and lifestyle, does not mean every person is:

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:14)

17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (ESV, 1 Corinthians 12:17-20)

Our text here is to remind us that we should not let such people disqualify us. They aren’t better Christians than you, because you, dear friends have Jesus. Jesus is the sum total of what any of us has – no Christian has any more, or any less than Jesus. Long winded eloquent prayers do not make us into God’s favorite disciples.  Supernatural experiences and visions cannot replace the everyday, ordinary life of following Jesus, and they sometimes even hinder people from day-to-day discipleship. Don’t be fooled by their cloak of piousness. You, dear friends, focus on Jesus. He is the head from which the holy body is nourished and grows. If you want true life, abundant, everlasting life, spend your time, energy and strength on Jesus, getting closer to him.



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 20

I think this sermon contains two extremely important concepts; ideas that we will use over and over as we cover the rest of Colossians. Please download the audio and/or save the written version so that you can refer to it again in the future.

Colossians #20  Colossians 2:16-17

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17 These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

Important concept #1: The Two Ditches.

Before we jump into these verses, we need a broader context about the teachings of the Bible. Martin Luther compared following Jesus to riding a horse. He suggested it is possible to fall off either the right side of the horse, or the left side. In these days, I like the analogy of a road with two deep ditches. You might veer off into the left hand ditch, or the right hand one, and if you do, you end up in trouble. Ideally you stay in the middle, on the road.

Let’s call the right-hand ditch “legalism.” If you go this direction, you start to think that following Jesus is all about behaving correctly. The problem is that there is a tiny bit of truth in legalism. Our behavior should change once we have received the grace of God through Jesus. But it changes because God is changing us through the Holy Spirit, not because we have to earn credit from him. If you are in the legalism ditch, instead of recognizing that right behavior is a result of a true faith, you think (maybe unconsciously) that if you behave correctly, you prove that you are worthy of God. Without realizing it, you start to think that God blesses you because you are a good person. Certainly you aren’t like those other people. People in this ditch are sometimes proud (but often they hide their pride behind pious talk and behavior). They are at least as concerned with how other people behave as with their own lives, and frequently they focus not on what is in their hearts, but rather, what they do (or keep away from doing). They think (sometimes only hinting, but not saying directly) that when people suffer, it is because God is punishing them for their sin. This is a dangerous ditch, even more so because many of those who fall into it think that they are good, Christian folks. They are so busy trying to appear righteous that other people might think of them as strong Christians as well, while in reality, they are offending God by thinking that their “righteous” acts amount to anything.

The truth, of course, is that God’s punishment for sin is death and hell, not troubles in this life, and Jesus already took that punishment for those who trust Him. We cannot earn God’s love or favor, and our attempts to do so are offensive to God. All human beings have been judged equally guilty and unworthy, and all human beings are saved only through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After receiving Jesus, the good works we do are not about earning anything from God; they are about responding to the new life given to us by the Holy Spirit through the work of Jesus.

There is another dangerous ditch – the left hand ditch, which I will call “lawlessness.” This ditch also contains a tiny bit of truth: That Jesus paid all for our sins, and there is nothing we can add to that payment. But “lawless” people take it beyond what it means. These folks think that anything goes. If Christ paid for all my sins, past present and future, then why does it matter how I behave? Why not get drunk, or high, when I feel like it? Why not have sex with whomever I want, whenever I want? Why not get everything I can for myself, and live as comfortably as possible, no matter what that does to others around me? Why pay attention to anything except what I really want?

The problem with the lawless ditch is that it does not recognize that receiving Jesus Christ changes a person. The life of Christ that is in you through the Holy Spirit does not want to get drunk. It does not want to indulge the desires of the flesh. The Holy Spirit is God, and the character of God is holy, not lawless or self-indulgent. Sinning is like throwing pig-manure on the person who saved your life. If you really believe he saved you, you won’t want to do that; certainly, at least, a significant part of you will not want to.

The middle, the safe and good road, I call love. It is love for Jesus for who he is, and what he has done, and love for other people because Jesus loves them too. Love is other focused, not self-focused. Love manifests the character of God. Love puts the desires of Jesus above my own, and the good of others equal to my own.

Starting here, Paul is going to warn the Colossians about the two ditches. He begins with a warning about the ditch of legalism. In Colossae, at the time Paul wrote, the legalists typically felt that everyone should follow Jewish laws. They thought Christians should observe the kosher laws of the Old Testament (what you eat and drink) and also observe the Jewish festivals, the sabbath regulations and so on. These laws are found in various places in the Old Testament, but 2 Chronicles gives us a summary:

At that time Solomon offered burnt offerings to the LORD on the LORD’s altar he had made in front of the portico. He followed the daily requirement for offerings according to the commandment of Moses for Sabbaths, New Moons, and the three annual appointed festivals: the Festival of Unleavened Bread, the Festival of Weeks, and the Festival of Shelters.(CSB 2 Chronicles 8:12-14)

The disadvantage of taking the scripture verse by verse is that we might forget the context we are in. Paul has been talking about walking in Christ. He reminded us that all the fullness of God dwells in Christ, and Christ dwells inside of us, through the Holy Spirit. When we were still dead in our sins, when our flesh was still in control of us, Jesus died for us. One consequence of his death was that the law that rightly condemned us was fulfilled, and so made irrelevant to those who are in Christ. It is no longer a basis for judging personal righteousness. We no longer have to live by it.

“Therefore,” says Paul, “let no one pass judgment you…” The first things he mentions are parts of the Jewish law. These things, along with kosher regulations, and laws about ancient Israel, are just a shadow, pointing to Jesus. The reality of them is fulfilled and found in Jesus Christ. The writer of Hebrews agrees:

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. (NLT, Hebrews 10:1)

Unfortunately, some people are strangely confused about this. I think it is because they are inclined to listen to human beings more than actually reading the Bible. I know a few Christian families who think it is wrong to eat pork, for instance. What puzzles me is that they don’t follow all of the other kosher regulations. They don’t have two sinks, or two refrigerators, or avoid cheeseburgers. Perhaps I am in danger of judging them, but it is very clear here that what we eat or drink has nothing to do with salvation. Trying to follow one small part of the Jewish food laws, as a requirement of following Jesus, is nonsensical.

2 Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3 I’ll say it again. If you are trying to find favor with God by being circumcised, you must obey every regulation in the whole law of Moses. 4 For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace. (NLT, Galatians 5:2-4)

Paul said this about circumcision, but it applies to any part of the Jewish law. We are saved by Jesus, by God’s grace through faith alone. If you think avoiding pork contributes in any way to your salvation, then you must obey every single part of the law perfectly. If you think observing the sabbath or Jewish festivals is necessary for true Christians, then you are obligated to follow the whole law perfectly. No. Paul is clear: these things are a shadow of the good reality. Jesus Christ is the actual good reality.

Now, what all is contained in this? What I mean is, most Christians eat pork, but we still think that committing adultery is a sin. The command about adultery was originally in the Old Testament. So how do we know what we are supposed to follow literally, and what we aren’t? Let’s look at important concept #2: How we handle the “law parts” of the Bible.

If we actually read our Bibles, it isn’t as difficult as it might seem. The New Testament makes it clear that the food laws are not necessary – in fact, it does so in our verses for today, as well as several other places (Mark 7:14-18; Acts 15:1-29; Romans 14:14 & 20). Our verses today also make it clear that we don’t have to follow the Jewish festivals, or sabbath day regulations – these were fulfilled in Christ. All of the Jewish worship regulations are just shadows of the reality in Jesus – the temple, the sacrifices, the priests’ clothing and everything to do with temple or tabernacle worship (Hebrews 8:5; 10:1). All of the regulations that were about ancient Israel no longer apply literally. Things about the types of clothing to wear, or stoning adulterers, and so on – these were all given for a particular nation at a particular time in history. They can still tell us about God and point us to Jesus, but we are not supposed to follow them literally.

The moral laws of the Old Testament are different. Jesus, and his apostles, affirmed the moral truth of the ten commandments. These still serve two purposes: 1) To show us that we can’t be good enough, therefore we need Jesus. 2) To show us the kind of character we should be developing as we follow Jesus. In other words, we still ought to do our best to live by these moral laws, because that is what the Holy Spirit, who lives inside of us, wants to do. These moral laws are a reflection of the character of God. When we fail, we fall back on the forgiveness of Jesus, but we continue on away from sin, toward God. We’ll talk more about this when we get to the lawlessness ditch.

So, let’s think about some application of this “let no one pass judgment on you…”While most of us don’t worry about how Jewish we are, there are some of us who became Christians later on in life. We’ve done things in the past that we regret; things we might even feel ashamed of. Sometimes, we encounter Christians who seem to have together, people who have been following Jesus all their lives. These folks should not make you feel inferior, or second class. We all stand on the same ground at the foot of the cross. Let no one pass judgment on you for your past – it is past. You might also make sure that you are not passing judgment upon yourself for your past.

Certain groups of believers say that we must not use musical instruments as part of worship. Others say we must follow certain liturgies and prayers when we worship. Some say we must not drink a single drop of alcohol. Others insist that true Christians worship on Saturdays, not Sundays. Others claim we must celebrate the traditional seasons, fasts and feasts of the historic church.

Paul says none of these things can be an occasion for passing judgment upon Christians. These things are not the substance that is Christ. They are external. They don’t affect a person’s heart. They may be useful, or they may not.

Let’s make sure we understand. So for example, if someone does not want to use instruments in worship, we should not pass judgment upon them. If someone wants to use traditional liturgies and church festivals, or even ancient Jewish festivals, we should not judge them for it. By the way, those of us in the House Church movement should be careful not to become judgmental of others. We know that House Church is Biblical, and we know how many tremendous advantages it has. But it is not commanded by scripture (nor, of course, forbidden). I might think you’re missing out if you don’t do house church, but I can’t say it is the only right way to do church. I cannot pass judgment on you if you don’t want to do church that way.

I want to add another thing. If someone says: “No one must use musical instruments in worship” or, “no one should eat pork,” or “Everyone should use this kind of liturgy,” we can judge their words. We aren’t passing judgment on them as people, but we can say: “No, that isn’t what the Bible says. You can choose to be that way if you like, but the Bible does not say you have to. It certainly does not say I have to.” We should not allow someone to judge us for such things.

One reason I love Lutheran theology is that it is very Biblical. Many centuries ago, the first Lutherans put forth this teaching in their own words:

“We believe, teach and confess unanimously that the ceremonies or church usages which are neither commanded nor forbidden in the Word of God, but which have been introduced solely for the sake of good order and the general welfare, are in and for themselves no divine worship or even a part of it…

We believe, teach and confess that the community of God in every locality and every age has authority to change such ceremonies according to circumstances as it may be most profitable and edifying to the community of God.” Formula of Concord, Epitome, Article X, paragraphs 1 & 2).

This verse is supposed to be freeing. The Gentile believers in Colossae felt second class, and Jewish folks didn’t mind them feeling that way. But they (and we) have all the fullness of Christ living in us, and in Christ lives all the fullness of God. All basis for judgment against us has been taken away and nailed to the cross. There are no second class citizens in the kingdom of God.

Some Questions for reflection:

  • What things make you feel like a second class Christian? Why do you think you feel that way?
  • What unimportant things are you tempted to use as a basis for judging other Christians?
  • What unimportant things have been used to judge you?
  • Which “ditch” are you tempted to veer towards: that of legalism, or lawlessness? Why do you think that is?


Love Changes

Imagine that my sister is a drug addict. Precisely because I love my sister, I will move heaven and earth to try and help her change. Because I love her, I am not content to “accept her as she is.” Love desires the best for the beloved. That is why God is not content for us to live our own lives on our own terms; that is not the best thing for us, not even close. Because of God’s love for us, our best good has become fully intertwined with God’s best good.

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 Ephesians 2;1-10


If I could use only one chapter of the Bible to summarize Christianity, it would be Ephesians chapter 2. Everything is here. It is Christianity 101. But one of the challenges of that is that it’s so “big.” I grew up in the country of Papua New Guinea. It’s an amazing place, and pretty much unlike anywhere else in the world. When I was younger, and people found this out, they would say, “What was that like?” I understand the kind spirit behind the question, but frankly, it was unanswerable. Growing up in New Guinea was my entire life, it formed who I am today. There were many things about my childhood that affected me profoundly; I had many remarkable experiences, and traveled more in my first 18 years than many people travel in a lifetime. If I hadn’t grown up there, I would be a very different person than I am now.

So, usually I answered the question by saying, “It was nice.”

But this Ephesians passage is like that. It is everything. The truth that is here has a deep, and profound effect on those who believe it. It forms who we are today. There is no way that I can do it justice. In the short time I have here. But I approach this passage, as always listening for what the Holy Spirit might want to draw out at this moment in time.

About 500 years ago, this verse, and a few others like it, shook Western civilization to its foundations. One of the men who was involved in that process was Martin Luther. Luther used to talk about the tensions in the Christian faith as if it were like riding a horse. It takes a certain physical grace to keep your balance on a horse. Some people fall off the right side, and others the left. (I myself, when I was young, managed somehow to fall off the back of a horse, but that story is irrelevant to my point here).

The left side of the horse is where we essentially take God’s love for granted. Of course God loves everyone – that’s part of what it means for him to be God, right? “Because God loves me,” (say the left-siders), “it doesn’t matter at all how I behave. I have a free ticket to heaven, so I can live however I want to, here on earth. God’s love is so great, that he doesn’t really care. He just wants to affirm me as I am.”

In our culture today, if there is one thing that most people believe, it is that every person should be the best version of themselves that they can be. To make it personal, I should try and best me that I can be. God made me, and so he wants me to be me. Since he made me, and loves me, everyone should just accept me how I am, and not try to change me, or put rules or restrictions on my behavior. But if this is how you think, I believe you haven’t yet understood what love is all about. Real love does not accept the beloved with no desire for change. Real love desires the best for everyone, and that usually means change.

Let me give you an example. Suppose a friend of my cousin is a drug addict. As a drug addict, my cousin’s friend is harming his body. He is destroying his relationships. He is ruining his financial future. He is inexorably deteriorating physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. If I find out about this concerning someone I don’t know – like my cousin’s friend – I may say, “Gee, that’s too bad.” But honestly, I’m not particularly motivated to make sure that that person changes. Do I except my cousin’s friend as he is, because I love him? No, in fact it’s almost the opposite. It is because I don’t care about him that I’m content to let him be “who he is.”

Now, imagine that the drug addict is not my cousin’s friend, but my own sister. Precisely because I love my sister, I will move heaven and earth to try and help her change. Because I love her, I am not content to “accept her as she is.” Love desires the best for the beloved. That is why God is not content for us to live our own lives on our own terms; that is not the best thing for us, not even close.

Listen to how Paul describes our situation apart from Christ:

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins 2 in which you previously walked according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient. 3 We too all previously lived among them in our fleshly desires, carrying out the inclinations of our flesh and thoughts, and we were by nature children under wrath as the others were also. (HCSB Free. Ephesians 2:1-3)

I want to make sure that we don’t skim over verse two. The “ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient,” means demonic forces, possibly the devil himself. Apart from Christ we are pawns of the devil. Either we belong to the kingdom of God, or we are in deep trouble. We are most certainly not okay as we are.

Sometimes Christians get the sense that once they are saved, they have a ticket for heaven and now they can live however they want to live until it’s time for them to go to heaven. That too, is the attitude from the left side of the horse. That too, is wrong. The deeper we get into this, the more you’ll see that, but I will just say that the end of this passage is in contrast with the beginning. In the beginning, apart from Christ we were “walking” in sin and trespasses. By walk, or walking, Paul simply means our way of life. But at the end, once we are redeemed in Christ, saved entirely by his grace, there is more. Still continuing on by grace (not by works). God has prepared good works for us to “walk in” (verse 10). So we are to go from living in a way that is contrary to God’s loving desire for us to a way of life that God has prepared for us, a way of life that brings honor and glory to himself.

But we don’t get there on our own. Remember the horse? We’ve been talking about the left side. The right side of the horse is to put too much emphasis on what you do for God. In Martin Luther’s time, everyone was falling off the right side. Almost everyone believed that they would be saved by being good people and doing good things. That might sound OK, at one level, right? I mean, it means people will try to behave well, and that’s good thing. But people who are trying to justify themselves are ultimately people who will hurt others in order to help themselves. They are under tremendous pressure to perform right, and to judge how well they are doing. Very few people can avoid also judging how everyone else is doing. People start making up rules so that they can know that they are “safe,” and they quickly become harsh and unloving.

Luther’s great task in life was to show those people that they were wrong, that God’s grace, as this passage teaches, has nothing to do with our efforts. Not only do our good works accomplish nothing, but apart from Christ, our good works are energized by the devil. That’s a scary thought. Sometimes, in our pluralistic society, we can sort of think that people who don’t trust Jesus are kind of in neutral territory. I hope that we Christians often meet people who think and believe differently than we do, and I hope we can be respectful and kind and loving to them. But we need to be very clear about what the Bible says here: there is no neutral ground. Now, let me be clear: we should never imagine that other people are the enemy. But they do live under the influence of the enemy. Either we belong to the kingdom of God, or we walk “according to the ways of this world, according to the ruler who exercises authority over the lower heavens, the spirit now working in the disobedient (2:2). Apart from God, we have no hope of actually being morally good, because there is no moral good apart from God.

This is offensive to those who fall off the right side of the horse, but it is what the Bible says. The text says, “you were dead in your transgressions and sins.” A corpse can’t “try hard.” A dead person can’t “do the best he can.” No, if you are dead, your actions are taken completely out of the picture, because a dead person can’t do anything. There is nothing we could possibly do for ourselves, spiritually. We don’t “do our best and God does the rest.” God does it all. We can’t do our best. Our ‘best’ is sin and gratifying the desires of our corrupt nature. Our ‘best’ results in us being used as pawns of the devil. “Doing our best” is ridiculous, because a dead person can’t do anything, and we were spiritually dead. Now, bearing that in mind, look at what Paul says next:

4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love that He had for us, 5 made us alive with the Messiah even though we were dead in trespasses. You are saved by grace! 6 Together with Christ Jesus He also raised us up and seated us in the heavens, 7 so that in the coming ages He might display the immeasurable riches of His grace through His kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

Now, I want to make sure we understand God’s grace fully. Let me start by taking human beings down a peg or two. (I am going to say “you,” but please understand, I include myself in this.) Life is not about you. Once again, this is in contrast to our culture, which is all about people being the “best authentic selves” that they can be. Self-fulfillment is a by-product of trusting God, but it should never be our goal. God does not exist to help you become a fulfilled person. He does not exist to fix the people around you, or to make your circumstances better. If God is, in fact, God, than the Supreme Good in the Universe is Himself. If He is the best and most wonderful thing in existence, than it is only right that he should seek to please Himself, to glorify Himself. There is nothing better than him, no greater good than His own pleasure. So, just as we should seek to honor and glorify God because he is the Highest Good, so he should seek to bring honor and glory to himself – for the same reason. That is God’s focus. That is His continual, ongoing activity. We are not necessary to God’s happiness, nor to his glory.

But here is the amazing part: he has chosen to bring glory to Himself by being gracious and kind to us in Jesus Christ. We are part of God’s plan to glorify Himself; we are part of God’s plan to please himself. In his love, he has made us part of the best thing in the Universe. We get to be a part of this highest, best good. That means, it becomes part of the best thing in the universe for us to be saved by Jesus. Our best good has become wrapped up in God’s best good.

Imagine a billionaire who wants the world to see him as a kind, generous man. So, he buys two square miles of slum in the worst part of the city. He tears down all the houses, and builds a resort-style complex, and then settles all the former slum dwellers into million-dollar homes there. The billionaire might be building this for selfish reasons, but there is no way that the result is actually selfish. He has chosen to make the well-being of poor people necessary to his own sense of self as a generous person. He does this not because the poor people have pleased him, but rather, because it pleases himself to do it, and to have others see it.

That is a little bit like God, except that, because he is God, it is good and right for him to please himself. But he didn’t have to include us in that plan – he just did, because he is so gracious, kind and loving.

So, we need to fully understand what we do contributes nothing to our salvation and cannot earn God’s approval and grace. Those things have already been given freely to us and we receive them simply by believing and trusting that God has given them to us in and through Jesus Christ. That’s it – no “ifs,” “ands,” or “buts.”

With that firmly understood, let’s go back to the good works I mentioned earlier:

For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)

Being a part of God’s plan to glorify himself means that he has prepared good works for us to walk in. These are not good because we do them, but rather because God has already set us up to do them.

Let me explain it like this. Consider a family that has adopted a baby. The child belongs to the family for one reason only – the family loves her, chose her and wants her. There is nothing that a tiny baby could possibly do to earn that love. It starts with the love of her parents, long before she can ever return that love. This is how it is with us and God. After all, we already saw in Ephesians 1:5 that,

“In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ in accordance with his pleasure and will…”

Now think about an adopted child again. As she grows older, she will start to behave in certain ways simply because she has already been adopted. She may hug and kiss her mommy and daddy. She’ll come running to them with her fears and problems. This adopted child will probably grow up speaking like others in her family. She’ll fight and forgive and love her brothers and sisters. Her parents will train her concerning the rules, and will have to discipline her at times, and at times she’ll have to adjust her behavior. She will do these things, not to try and get into the family, but rather, because she is already in it.

Can you imagine a little boy who cleans his room daily, is always kind to his brothers and sisters, mows the lawn and fixes supper twice a week? I can’t either. But just suppose there was. Suppose his parents asked him why he did these things, and his response was: “Well, I want to get into this family. I want you to love me, and I know if I don’t do these things you won’t love me and I can’t be part of the family.” That would break the heart of any parent. We don’t accept our children on the basis of what they do for us. We accept them and love them because they are ours.

Consider it from another angle. Imagine there was a boy from another family who came over to your house and washed the dishes, cleaned the rooms and spoke to you respectfully. Would you, simply because he behaves well, adopt him as your own child? Of course not. Good behavior is not enough to make someone part of your family. It would be ridiculous if it were.

So, we are God’s children. There are certain things that the Lord wants us to do. There are certain behaviors he would like us to either change or start doing. But we do these things because God has already adopted us. We do them because that’s part of what it means to be in this family. There is no way that we can get into the family in the first place by trying to act like family members. We are adopted by God’s choice. “Doing” is a result of our adoption, not the cause of it.

In fact, we are God’s creation (not our own) and he has created certain things for us to do. There is a stunning truth about our good works: they aren’t ours anyway. God has already prepared in advance the good things he wants you to do. You see, when God made you, he had already planned certain things he wanted you to do.

God has worked for years to bring you to the place in your life where you are now. He created you and at the same time he created the opportunities for you to do certain things that only you can do. The Bible says that God formed your inmost being and put you together in your mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13-16). The Lord told the prophet Jeremiah this:

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I set you apart for my holy purpose.” (Jeremiah 1:5, God’s Word version).

Those words are not just for Jeremiah – they are for you too. You are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works that he has already set up for you to do. You are unique, and the good works that you are to do are also prepared by God uniquely for you.

Now, we can take this uniqueness a bit too far sometimes. It would be ridiculous to say – “well, I was not uniquely created to do the good work of obeying the commandment, ‘do not lie.’ Honesty is just not one of the good works I was created for.” No, because we are in the family, there are certain “good works” that are common to everyone. In other words, God created all of his children for the good work of honesty, and the other things in the ten commandments. Scripture is in fact very clear about the good works that are common to all believers in Jesus.

But there are good works uniquely prepared for you to do. Those things, also, are to show off God’s glory. We used to walk – to live our lives – in sins and transgressions, under the influence of the devil. Now, through God’s incredible grace, we are included his plan to glorify himself. You have a place. You have a purpose. You, as you trust in Jesus and walk in the good works he puts in front of you, are bringing glory to God. You, by God’s grace, are a part of God’s glory. I know you don’t always feel that that is true. But we are called to believe God’s Word (the Bible) even more than our own feelings. He says it is true. Rest in it. Do not sell yourself short, or undervalue your worth in Christ Jesus.

By the way, we do those good works not through striving, but through trusting. The more we believe what these verses say the more room the Lord has to work in and through us. Trust him, he will fulfill his plan to make you part of the best purpose in the universe. Thank him for his grace. And stay on that horse!


sabbath rest


What the Pharisees did was to change the Sabbath from a picture of God’s holiness into a series of steps you could follow. It was no longer a challenge that made you turn to God in desperation. It wasn’t even any more an invitation to rest in God’s grace and trust Him to take care of you. Instead, it was a series of boxes that you checked off in order to feel good about yourself


To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 38


Matthew #38 . Matthew 12:1-13

I think that one of the most frequently misunderstood things in the gospels is Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees. Many people think that Jesus had a particular problem with them because they were religious and traditional. In a way, that is true, but it’s not quite as simple as most people make it. Also, far too many people go on to take that as a blank check to reject anything they want to call “religion” including things like being a part of a church, or worshipping regularly with other believers.

The truth is, what Jesus rejected was a particular kind of religiousness, and a particular way of using traditions. It is good for us to follow in his example, to understand and avoid those same types of dangers; however it is also good not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Let me back up and set the stage for the religious behavior of the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. In the middle part of the history of the people of Israel, the time of the judges and kings, a majority of Israelites did not live according to the covenant that God had made with them. During the time of the judges, they continually turned away from God, and God continually got their attention by allowing the nations around them to oppress them. Then, for a few generations under Samuel, David and Solomon, the nation of Israel lived generally true to their faith, and they flourished. After Solomon, however, they turned to the worship of idols. There were good kings who led them back to worshipping God, but the overall trend was for them to get further and further away from living like the people of God. Finally, God allowed Assyria and Babylon to totally conquer the people of Israel, and a huge proportion of them were taken away in exile.

When the Lord engineered the return from exile, it seemed like the remaining Israelites had learned their lesson. The Jews became much more strict in their observance of the Law of Moses. At some level, they understood the consequences of turning away from God, and they wanted to avoid repeating history. There were some Jews, however, who were much more secular, and whom embraced the ways of the conquering Greeks. (the Greeks controlled the region for a while after the return of the exiles). After a struggle, a group of observant Jews succeeded cleansing the temple, and then in taking control from both the secular Jews and the Greeks (they were led by Judas Maccabaeus). Jewish independence under the Maccabeans only lasted a few generations, but the lesson seemed clear to many: the way to freedom as a nation was to strictly follow the Laws of Moses.

Another thing began to happen during the two centuries right before Jesus. The Jewish people concerned about following the law began to ask questions about how to do it. Moses had said:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. You must not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the foreigner who is within your gates. For the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then He rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11)

That was all well and good, said the Jews, but what does it mean, practically speaking? What, really is work? What makes a day holy? What constitutes rest? The Jews began to make up rules that explained in excruciating detail what it meant to properly observe the Sabbath. They came up with a certain number of steps that you were allowed to walk. They decided that lighting a lamp or candle was “work” and so the mother of the house would light these things on Friday night, and let them burn until Saturday night, so that she wouldn’t “work” by messing with lamps on the Sabbath. They basically created a new set of rules that you were supposed to follow, and if you just followed them, then you had done your duty to God.

The Jews did this with almost every command given by Moses. So you see, observing the Law no longer meant living in faith by trying to follow the commands in relationship with God; instead it meant following the rules made up by Rabbis. In general, those rules might have been irritating or inconvenient, but anyone could do them.

There are two major problems with this. The first is that the commands of the moral law given through Moses were meant to show us God’s holiness, and, in comparison, our sin. The law was supposed to show us how Holy God is, and how far short we fall. It was meant to show us our true and desperate need for God, and to make us seek a Savior. But what the Jews did was to turn this picture of God’s holiness into a series of steps you could follow. The Sabbath was no longer a picture of God’s holiness. It was no longer a challenge that made you turn to God in desperation. It wasn’t even any more an invitation to rest in God’s grace. Instead, it was a series of boxes that you checked off in order to feel good about yourself. Every law became similarly debased by man-made steps. Every law became just a manageable checklist. If you checked most of the boxes, and went to the temple and made sacrifices for the ones you missed, you could call yourself holy. Now there was no need for savior – if you just followed the rules of the Rabbis, (which were easier than the actual law) you were righteous.

The second thing that this rule-making did was to make following God about performance, rather than heartfelt repentance, worship and relationship. All you had to do was follow the steps. Your heart could be filled with murder, lust, greed and bitterness, but if you just did the steps, everyone would consider you to be holy. You could even hate God, but if you followed the steps laid out by the Rabbis, you were holy. What all this meant, is that God wasn’t even really in the picture any more. You could do the entire Jewish religion without God.

The great Israelites of the past followed God in faith. Abraham believed God, and God counted it to him as righteousness – not because he performed well, but because he trusted wholeheartedly in God’s promises (Genesis 15:6, Galatians 3:6, James 2:23). Moses interacted with God face to face. David worshipped God heart and soul through music and poetry and personal prayer, as did many others (just read the Psalms). Ruth and Naomi trusted in God’s gracious provision. Elijah prayed and trusted God.

But most of the Jews of Jesus’ time had reduced the life of faith to checking off boxes on lists of rules.

Now, we come to Matthew chapter 12. The disciples are walking through the fields on the Sabbath – with Jesus. What could make the Sabbath more truly holy than the presence of God in the flesh? Their day is set apart for spending time with the Lord. The fields were apparently fields of ripe grain which had not yet been harvested. For a snack, the disciples were pulling of heads of wheat as they walked, and munching on the whole wheat berries. It was equivalent to finding crab apples on a hike, and picking one or two, eating them as you walk.

But the Pharisees saw them and said: “Picking heads of wheat is technically harvesting grain, and harvesting grain is working; therefore, you are violating the rules of the Sabbath!”

But Moses never said, “Don’t even grab some wheat berries as you pass through the fields on the Sabbath.” He said, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Don’t do any work on that day.” It was the Pharisees who defined what the disciples were doing as work. It has as little resemblance to work as tossing a football around with the family in a private backyard resembles the practice-work of a professional football athlete. The disciples weren’t toiling at their livelihood; they weren’t threshing or grinding, or even cooking. They were relaxing with Jesus, and snacking from the readily available bounty of His creation. They were in fact, honoring the Sabbath and resting in the Holy Presence of the Creator Himself.

Jesus could have responded to the Pharisees in a number of ways. He chose to direct their attention the scriptures. First, he reminds them that when David had need, he ate the bread that was set aside only for the priests; yet David did no wrong in doing so. He then reminds them that priests work on the Sabbath. Since he says “the priests of the temple,” he is probably referring to the offering of sacrifices on Sabbath days, which was part of the work of a priest. He adds:

But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here! If you had known what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Matt 12:6-8, HCSB)

He is making two points. First, the important thing is not to follow man-made rules about the Sabbath – what God really wants is “mercy, not sacrifice.” In other words, the Lord is after a changed heart, not an external conformity to man-made rules. Second, he says that he (when Jesus says “son of man” he is referring to himself) is Lord of the Sabbath. Once more this is a claim to be Divine. He is saying, “I made the Sabbath, I think I know what is appropriate for it or not.”

Matthew records another confrontation over the Sabbath. This time, the Pharisees are actually using the Sabbath as an excuse to accuse and discredit him, to prove he is a bad Jew. There in the synagogue on the Sabbath was a man with a paralyzed hand. The Pharisees say to Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” Once again, what they are doing is insisting on viewing the Sabbath as a checklist of dos and don’ts, instead of an invitation to trust and rest. They are insisting upon their own, man-made version of the Sabbath, instead of taking God’s word through Moses in faith and trust.

Most of the world, at that time, including Galilee, was largely agricultural. Jesus points out that if someone has an animal in trouble on the Sabbath, they help it. How much more worthwhile to heal a human being in need! Again, Jesus’ response is to get to the heart of the Sabbath.

I want to point out something that is often misunderstood: Jesus is not abolishing the Sabbath here. He is not saying, “The Sabbath no longer matters; do what you want every day of the week.” But he is saying this:

“The Sabbath, like all of the Old Testament, is all about me (Jesus). It shows you your need for me, and it is fulfilled by trusting me and living your life in relationship to me. There is still rest that you need to take, and that rest is found in me alone.” He is not against the Sabbath, or any of the Old Testament law, but he is against the man-made rules that the Pharisees have made about it.

I have several pastor friends whom rarely take a day set aside for honoring the Lord by resting. When we talk about it, they sort of take an “aw, shucks,” attitude. Sure, they’d like to rest, but they’re just too busy doing the Lord’s work. In America, we’re inclined to give people like this a pass. How can working hard be a sin? In fact, we are inclined to admire people who work hard and are too busy to take a whole day to rest.

My friends are good men. If I told them that I regularly stole money and didn’t feel bad about it, they’d be shocked. If I told them I was committing adultery, they would urge me to repent. Yet the command to keep the Sabbath comes in the ten commandments, just like the commands to avoid stealing and adultery. It is no more holy for them to not take a special day of rest than it is for me to steal.

Let me say it again: Jesus does not abolish this command. He points out the error of how the Pharisees have turned it into a mere man-made checklist. He makes it clear that the true rest is found in trusting in him and being with him. He is clearly against a legalistic set of rules defining how the day must be spent. But he does not say, “forget the Sabbath.”

Returning to my friends who do not set aside a “Sabbath,” a time to rest and honor God, let’s consider a few things. They may feel like they are honoring God by working, however, what I think is really going on is that they are dishonoring God by not trusting him. They don’t trust that everything will be OK if they take time out. They act as if everything depends upon their hard work, as if their churches will fall apart without them. The Sabbath shows us, among other things, that God is in charge, it is up to him, and we can trust him. When we don’t take it, we are missing the chance to strengthen that trust.

Ironically, the Pharisees had turned the Sabbath into things that had to be done, rules that had to be followed, so that rest and trust no longer had much to do with it for them either. This is what Jesus criticizes them for. Never taking a Sabbath on the one hand, or insisting upon strict rules for how to implement it on the other, are two sides of the same coin, and that coin reads: “In ourselves we trust.” I want to make sure you understand what I am saying here. In today’s world, a Christian who does not set aside a day to honor and trust
God through rest, is essentially the same as a Pharisee in Jesus’ time who used rules to take the honor and trust and rest out of the Sabbath day. Even though the Pharisees outwardly looked righteous, they had gutted the real substance of the Sabbath. Even though non-resting Christians outwardly don’t look like Pharisees, they too, have gutted the real substance of the Sabbath, which again, is to remember and enter into God’s holiness through trust and rest.

Like so many things in the Christian life, what we need here trust and balance. Jesus clearly shows us that it is wrong to create a Sabbath checklist, a set of rules to show us we’ve righteously observed the Sabbath. On the other hand, the Sabbath, like the other commandments of the moral law, remains important for Christians. Though it may look different for different people, it is important for us to set aside a day that belongs to God, in which we honor and trust him by resting.

Let me use an example that may be helpful: Is it OK to mow the lawn on your “Sabbath?” (by the way, I don’t think the particular day of the week is as important as simply having some day that is set aside for trustful rest in the Lord; again, Jesus shows us not to be legalistic about such details). The answer is, first of all: stop trying to figure out a set of rules for the Sabbath. Trust the Lord. Accept that you need rest, and if you take it, the Lord will take care of what you are not working at. If you need specifics, ask Him first what it should look like for you.

Now, I’m aware that my first answer may not be immediately satisfying. You may genuine want to know, “how do we do this?” So here’s another answer: it depends. For me, mowing the lawn is a chore. It isn’t restful for me, and I usually end up wanting to curse at the lawnmower. So I don’t mow my lawn on my Sabbath (nor do I make my children to do it). But I have a friend who finds mowing the lawn enjoyable and restful to his soul. For my friend, mowing the lawn might be one of the most God-honoring and restful things he could do for a Sabbath; for me it is the opposite. The point is not to have a rule about a specific activity – rather it is whether that activity helps us to rest and to honor and trust God. So my friend sets apart the day as restful and holy by mowing the lawn; I set apart the day as holy and restful by not mowing the lawn.

Here’s another one. I often find writing restful. However, there are times when I find myself getting anxious about my career as an author. The result is that on some Sabbaths I write, and on others, when I’m finding it difficult to trust God with my writing, and it feels like work, or that I would be doing it because I’m worried about it, I avoid it. Do you get the idea here?

What about you? Have you been prone to the error of the Pharisees, making rules to control the Sabbath, or some other part of the moral law, thinking “if I just do a, b and c, I’ll be fine,”? Hear from the Jesus that He is the point of it all. Learn to listen to him and not lose sight of the point.

Perhaps you are on the other end of the spectrum, thinking you can safely ignore God’s invitation to remember his holiness by resting and trusting? Learn from Jesus that these things matter, because they are all about Him.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.


Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

I want to remind you again that we are a listener-supported ministry, and that means, first and foremost, that we are supported by your prayers. We need and value your prayers for us.

Please pray that this ministry will continue to be a blessing to those who hear it. Ask God, if it is his will, to touch even more lives with these messages. Ask him to use this ministry in making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Please also pray for our finances. Pray for us to receive what we need. Please pray for us in this way before you give anything. And then, as you pray, if the Lord leads you to give us a gift, please go ahead and do that. But if he doesn’t want you to give to us, that is absolutely fine. We don’t want you to feel bad about it. We want you to follow Jesus in this matter. But do continue to pray for our finances.

If the Lord does lead you to give, just use the Paypal Donate button on the right hand side of the page. You don’t have to have a Paypal account – you can use a credit card, if you prefer. You can also set up a recurring donation through Paypal.

You could also send a check to:

New Joy Fellowship

625 Spring Creek Road

Lebanon, TN 37087

Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.


Thank for your prayers, and your support!

Is it right to make rules for others?

1 SAMUEL#11. SAUL’S LEGALISM. Saul let’s his insecurity drive him to impose a vow upon the Israelites. How did that work out?


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 Samuel Part 11

To read the sermon, read it! Smile

Last time we looked at how Jonathan single-handedly attacked the Philistines. He acted out of faith, not fear, and God used that to create a huge victory for the people of Israel. The Israelites pushed the Philistines back to the edge of the hill country. But nothing spoils God’s work like false religion and religious pretenses. Saul again showed his lack of real relationship with God. He was worried about the outcome of the battle, so he made an oath and imposed it upon all the army that no one should eat until the sun went down. It sounds very religious and impressive. It was supposed to motivate people. It was supposed to impress God, so that God would help them even more.

It backfired because it was a stupid idea that again came not from faith, but fear, selfishness and pride. By the way, I want to point out the fact that Saul was not content to make the vow for himself. Instead, he imposed his fake religion (which sounded holy) on everyone else. This is typical of people who do not live by relationship. Precisely because they do not have their own relationship with God, they feel that everything they experience must be a rule that everyone should follow. They don’t recognize the give and take and unique life experiences that go along with walking with God in faith. They can’t go it alone with God. They live only by rules.

Saul’s oath is actually much more like a curse. He says: “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.” This doesn’t sound like the voice of the Lord. It sounds more like the devil. There is an Old Testament tradition of making vows that are associated with curses. However, such vows are also associated with blessings and promises from the Lord. Saul does not include any blessings in his vow. Neither is it associated with any promises from the Lord. To put it simply, there is nothing positive about it.

Notice too, how Saul sees this as his own battle, with the Philistines as his own personal enemies. This is in contrast to Jonathan, who clearly saw the battle as the Lord’s fight, with himself simply a tool in God’s hands.

Three negative things came out of Saul’s religious pretenses.

First, the victory was not as great as it could have been. In other words, the vow had the opposite effect of the one he wanted. The men were weakened by hunger, so they could not sustain their offensive against the Philistines. Saul’s vow preceded not from faith, but from the flesh. It was all about self-effort. Because of that, it was as weak as the flesh. Flesh without food is weak. So the vow flopped. Jonathan’s act of faith energized and sustained the troops. Saul’s rash vow, based in self effort and the flesh, drained them, and robbed them of strength. Jonathan himself realized this. After he himself had eaten in ignorance of the vow, one of the soldiers told him of his father’s words. Jonathan said:

“My father has brought trouble to the land. Just look at how I have renewed energy because I tasted a little honey. 30 How much better if the troops had eaten freely today from the plunder they took from their enemies! Then the slaughter of the Philistines would have been much greater.”

Second, because they were so hungry, when sundown arrived, the troops began to slaughter the captured livestock of the Philistines and eat without regard to the laws of Moses. Specifically, they were eating meat that had not been properly drained of blood.

For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood. (Leviticus 17:11-12)

The idea expressed in the Old Testament is that the life of an animal (or person) is carried in the blood. The life belongs to God, and so the blood must be given to him, not consumed by people. It is a way of saying, “Even as I take this food, I recognize that the life of this animal belongs to God, not to me. I receive it as a gift, and I give its life into God’s hands.” But Saul’s vow weakened the resolve of the people who had been running, fighting and marching all day long, and when sundown finally came, they were tempted to sin. They were in such a hurry to eat that they did not properly bleed out the animals. To look at it another way, Saul’s vow did not protect people from sin, but rather made them more vulnerable to it.

Third, Saul’s foolish vow led to strife when it came to Jonathan. Saul had bound everyone to his vow – even those who didn’t know about it. Jonathan, unaware of his father’s oath, ate some of the wild honey that was in the forest where they were passing through in pursuit of the Philistines. The Hebrew says that as a result his eyes became bright. This is one of those Hebrew expressions that is very obscure. The HCSB says, “he had renewed energy” which is probably pretty close to the meaning, though not the exact words. You might say, “brightened up” or “perked up.”

After the men have eaten and regained some strength, Saul decides to pursue the Philistines further – as he could have done, if he had not subjected his troops to hunger. Once again, Saul is simply doing something, moving ahead, without regard to what God may want to do. He is acting not out of faith or his relationship with God, but rather out of a rash desire to make up for the time lost that he himself had caused.

In the earlier part of chapter 14 we saw that Saul was indecisive. He wasn’t sure whether or not he was going to win the battle, and so he sent for the priest to inquire of the Lord. However, before the priest had finished asking God, Saul saw how things were going and told the priest to stop and charged ahead. In other words, he wasn’t asking God because he really wanted to hear from God, he just wanted to know whether or not he would win. Now, he makes a decision to continue the attack without even considering if it is God’s will or not.

The priest is the one who stops him and says, “Let’s ask God first.” Grudgingly, Saul agrees. But there is no clear answer from the Lord. We know that the Israelites cast lots, trusting that the Lord would determine the result. However, we don’t know exactly how this worked. Obviously, there was some possibility that the Lord would not answer at all. In this case that’s what happened.

Sometimes – not always, but certainly at times – we can’t hear God because we are separated from Him by our own sin. If your heart is turned away from God, if there is un-repented sin in you, it will be difficult for you to hear what he wants to say to you. This was a physical demonstration of that fact. Again, I’m not saying that every time you fail to hear from God, it is because of sin. However, if you are asking God to speak and you are not hearing, the very first thing to do is to ask Him to show you if there is any sin standing in the way. We can at least credit Saul for recognizing this.

Now, a straightforward reading shows that Jonathan was one who caused God not to answer. He was the one chosen by lot. And yet, we know that eating honey is not a sinful act. In addition, Jonathan was totally unaware of the curse Saul had called down on the army concerning food, so he did not deliberately or knowingly violate any oath. I don’t think the Lord chose Jonathan by lot to show that Jonathan was sinful. I think he did it to expose Saul – to impress upon Saul his own arrogance and foolishness and show him the results of it. Look at it this way. God did not withhold his answer because Jonathan ate honey. He withheld it because of Saul’s oath. Without the oath, Jonathan’s eating would have had no significance.

So Saul’s oath weakened the army both physically and spiritually, it prevented them from hearing the Lord, and now it led to the condemnation of their greatest warrior. Let’s say it plainly: the result of Saul’s rashness was to condemn his own son to death for simply eating when he was hungry, even after that very son had achieved a great victory.

Even when his arrogance and insecurity is so exposed, Saul will not repent. He doesn’t say, “I am so sorry, that was a foolish vow to make, let us ask the Lord for forgiveness and mercy.” No, he would rather kill his own son than admit that he was wrong. He continues his rashness and says, ““May God punish me and do so severely, if you do not die, Jonathan! ”

Remember those words. Nothing bad ever happened to Saul that he did not bring upon himself.

The people protest. Jonathan is the one that achieved the great victory that day. He was ignorant of the curse. He doesn’t deserve to die. Notice that Saul backs up. We can hope that he did so because he had a tender heart toward Jonathan, and really didn’t want him to die. But truthfully, that tender heart wasn’t enough. He didn’t back up until the people protested. What really changed his mind was popular opinion. Again he shows his insecurity.

It is quite likely that during all these proceedings, which probably took several hours, the Philistines made their escape. In other words, again, it is Saul’s rashness, harshness and foolishness that makes the victory less than it could have been.

Most people don’t make vows like Saul’s anymore. Maybe we’re too fond of our food. But the truth is, we do sometimes make internal promises to ourselves. Sometimes we let our negative emotions control us, and we act or speak rashly, or make quick, impulsive decisions that somehow bind us. We might say something like “I’ll never do something nice for that person again.” Or maybe we decide because of a certain incident, we hate and distrust all men or all Asians or something like that. We may not think of it like a harsh or rash vow, but it is basically the same thing that Saul did. I think we should expect the same types of results.

It seems obvious now what Saul should have done. He ought to have repented and asked the Lord for mercy and forgiveness. It would have involved humbling himself in front of his people. But everything might have been different for him if he had done those things. If there is some way in which we have taken Saul’s course, we can still correct that by doing what Saul was too proud to do. If we humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness and mercy, if we repent of our ungodly internal commitments, I am confident that the Lord will forgive us and help us.

A thousand years later, Saul’s namesake, who became known by his Roman name, Paul, wrote this:

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)-according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

King Saul’s oath, imposed on the entire army, did indeed have an appearance of wisdom. It promoted self-made religion and severity to the body. But it was of no value. Unfortunately, even today there are people try to impose their false sense of religion upon others. I’m not talking about people who speak the truth about what the bible says. I’m talking about people like Saul, who don’t really operate out of a faith-based relationship with the Lord. These are the folks who tell you, you cannot eat meat on Fridays, or wear blue jeans in church, or that you are not holy unless you pray like they do.

There are certain core things that all Christians believe and agree upon. I’m not talking about things like these. But apart from those core beliefs, when another Christian insists your faith must look and sound and feel exactly like her faith, she is operating out of a sense of law, not a sense of relationship.

I have fasted many times in my life. Often, fasting is a spiritually rewarding time for me. However, a few times, I’ve been in the middle of a fast and I realized it wasn’t doing me any good. At those times, I simply quit. This is because I’m walking in relationship, not by law. The whole point of fasting is to bless the relationship that I have with the Lord. When it doesn’t accomplish that, there is no point in doing it. Once or twice, I have fasted because others told me they wanted me to fast with them. Those times were counterproductive, spiritually speaking.

Let the Lord speak to you right now. Maybe you need to give up an internal commitment or vow that you have made. Maybe you need to realize that you are free from the expectations of others, so long as you continue to walk and true faith and in relationship with the Lord. Let him talk to you about this right now.


1 Samuel # 5. Kingship, Freedom and Responsibility



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 Samuel Part 5

Please read 1 Samuel 8:1-22

The battle recorded in 1 Samuel chapter seven ended when Samuel when was in his twenties. Verses 13-17 summarize most of the rest of his life. He led Israel, listening to the Lord, and telling them what the Lord had to say, helping them to understand what it means to follow him, and encouraging them to actually do it. And the people seemed to respond to his leadership. After those first tumultuous twenty years or so, things went well for that generation. The Philistine threat was greatly reduced. There was peace and people seemed listen to the Lord. What began with a simple woman wanting to become a mother, had brought peace, joy and goodness to thousands and thousands of people.

As he aged, Samuel tried to groom his two sons to lead Israel as he had. But it looked like they were headed down the same path as Hophni and Phinehas, the wicked sons of Eli, who had been in charge when Samuel was very young. History seemed poised to repeat itself. Samuel’s sons were dishonest – they took bribes to settle disputes, instead of judging fairly.

People Samuel’s age and older probably remembered what it was like back in the days of Eli, and were afraid of going back to those dark times. So the people gathered and told Samuel they wanted him to find them a king. I love Samuel’s response. The same little boy that was ready to hear God, still wanted to hear him as an old man.

One bible version says, “the request displeased Samuel.” The Hebrew word for “displeased” actually means to “ruin or spoil.” So it could mean that Samuel was upset about it – it ruined his heart. Or maybe he thought that the Israelites were going to spoil a very good thing. I think that is the best way to translate it, considering what followed.

So the first part of Samuel’s response is that he thinks it is a bad idea. He has good reasons for thinking that, and history basically proved him right. But, while that is what he thinks, he doesn’t just come right back with that. Instead, the second part of his response is to pray about what the people have said. In other words, Samuel was a humble God-follower. He was old and wise. He was a proven and popular leader. But he did not assume that his own opinion was right. Instead, he asked God about it.

Samuel’s attitude is definitely one worth learning from. When we have to make decisions about something, or deal with others, too often I know I’m right, and when I know I’m right, I think I don’t have to ask the Lord about it. Now, I’m not talking about things that the bible is very clear about – like who Jesus is, or whether it is wrong to lie. But there are many situations where God hasn’t given us a set of rules or a manual, and instead, we are supposed to rely on him to reveal his will in various situations. Should you take the new job or not? Does the Lord think it’s a good idea for you to go that party? Should your let your kids go on the overnight trip? Does the Lord want you to talk to your co-worker about what the bible says in this situation?

What God said to Samuel is surprising, puzzling and (I think) extremely interesting. He said,

The LORD said to Samuel, “Do everything the people request of you. For it is not you that they have rejected, but it is me that they have rejected as their king. (1 Sam 8:7)

So, let’s get this straight. He is saying, “Samuel, you have it right. When they ask for a king, they are rejecting me as king. This is a bad idea. So go ahead and help them get a king.”

Say what?

I think there are several things going on here. First, Samuel may have felt that he had personally failed as a leader. After he led them for a lifetime as a prophet, the people of Israel said, “we don’t want a prophet anymore. We want a king.” So Samuel may have felt that he somehow failed to teach them or encourage them in their relationship with God. He may also have felt bad about the choices his sons had made. The Lord was saying first of all “No Samuel, it isn’t you. You haven’t failed. They aren’t rejecting you, they are rejecting me.”

Sometimes this is a word we need to hear from the Lord. Maybe you have a family member you’ve been praying with or for. Maybe there’s a friend who has sought your advice. And yet the relative or the friend has ultimately decided to ignore what you have shared with them. Your prayers don’t seem effective. That person is going her own way, and that way is to move farther away from the Lord. Perhaps the Lord wants to say to you right now, “My beloved child, that person has not rejected you. She is rejecting my will for her life. Don’t take it personally. Don’t feel that you are a failure. This is about Me, not you.”

I want to talk for a minute about what the Lord meant when he said the Israelites were rejecting Him as their king. Since the time of Abraham, the people of Israel were not ruled by kings. For four hundred years in Egypt, and another four-hundred after they came to the promised land, the people were supposed to live free, with God as their only king. They were supposed to answer to Him – above any earthly authority.

The problem is, it didn’t work very well. Most people didn’t want to live that way. I am fascinated by how similar this is to the basic political philosophy of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her life growing up on the American Frontier during the late 1800s. In Little Town on the Prairie she makes some observations that are surprisingly relevant to our text today. One year, the new town she was living in celebrated the fourth of July. As part of the celebration, they read aloud the Declaration of Independence. After that, the crowd sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” ending with this verse:

Long may our land be bright; With Freedom’s holy light. Protect us by Thy might; Great God our King.

The crowd was scattering away then, but Laura stood stock still. Suddenly she had a completely new thought. The Declaration and the song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America’s king.

She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought) when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good.

Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free. It means, you have to be good. “Our father’s God’s, author of Liberty — ” The Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you the right to be free. (Little Town on the Prairie, page 76)

This is what God meant when he said to Samuel that the Israelites were not rejecting Samuel, but God himself. They were saying, “It is too hard to have to listen to what God says for ourselves. It is too much responsibility for us to do what is right. Give us a king to lead us. He can tell us what to do. He can listen to God and be responsible for what happens.”

There is a deeper truth here. Whenever we reject the Lord, we are actually rejecting freedom. We tend to think of it the other way around. We think God gives us rules to follow and that is the opposite of being free. I want the teenagers reading this to pay careful attention, because you are at an age where you crave freedom. True freedom only exists with true responsibility. What that means is, you can’t really be free unless you are also really responsible.

Think about it like this. Suppose you are sixteen years old, and you want the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want to. In other words, you want the freedom to drive your own car. In order to get that freedom, you must take on the responsibility of learning how to drive, and you must take on the responsibility of learning the traffic laws, and abiding by them, and maintaining your license, and maintaining your car and paying for gas. You get the idea? You can be free, but in order to be free, you must also be responsible. If you don’t want to be responsible enough to do these things, you won’t be free to drive either.

Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, we human beings want to be free without being responsible. It never works. The two things simply go together. What the Israelites finally admitted is that they would rather not be free, if it meant they actually had to be responsible for their own relationships with God. They were saying, “we don’t want to grow up spiritually. It’s too hard. We would rather give up our freedom, so that we don’t have to be responsible for ourselves.”

In verses 9-18, the Lord through Samuel, told the people that this was exactly the choice they were making. But they said that they still wanted a king.

I think we do the same thing when we rely too much on Christian leaders or religious rules that aren’t really in the Bible. I don’t want anyone to feel bad, but sometimes people in my church come to me and say, “pastor what should I do in this situation?”

My answer is usually something like this: “Get to know the Lord through reading the bible, prayer, sermons, worship and fellowship. Learn to hear for yourself what he has to say to you. Talk to him about it yourself.” That’s not to say that I never have any God-given insight for anyone. Hearing God through other believers is a valuable thing, a gift that the Lord sometimes gives us. But the truth is, we are all supposed to connect with the Lord on our own also.

These things require effort and personal responsibility. It’s easier just to have someone tell you what to do. Some people find it easier to have an extensive list of rules that can apply to every situation. That way you don’t have to actually deepen your relationship with God, to learn to hear him, to put in the time required to get close to him.

God’s response to the people is fascinating. What they want is a bad idea. They will ruin his plan for them to be free as they follow him. And yet, he says to Samuel, “Let them go ahead with it. In fact, help them pick a king.” Basically he said, “I’ll give you what you want, but it will frustrate you in the end. In the end it will just bring you back to the same place.”

This is one of those places in the Bible where we see clearly two things that seem contradictory, and yet they are both true. God gives everyone free will. He let the Israelites choose something that was not what he wanted for them. They truly had a choice, and they used it to choose against God’s plan. But then, once they made their free choice, God began to work his will in and through the circumstances that their choice created. They got to have their free choice. And yet God’s will was not ultimately thwarted, and he began to work. It is a reflection of Romans 8:28

We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose.

All things – even our own bad choices. God let the Israelites ruin his plan for a nation that lived free from tyranny and served only God. In fact, before he ever made the universe, he knew this would happen. He didn’t stop them. But he didn’t give up on them either. He continued to work with them.

Sometimes we are like the Israelites. We want what we want, even when someone (perhaps even the Lord) has warned us it is a bad idea. The Israelites experienced a lot of pain and heartache from their bad choices, but it did not separate them from the love of God. We may experience pain and heartache. But if we continue in faith, if we continue on in Jesus, God will work it out some way to our good.