LOVE CHANGES THE BELOVED.

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.

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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!

A DAY OF RULES, OR A DAY OF REST?

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

 

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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.

~

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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?

honey

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.

ARE YOU TRULY FREE?

1 Samuel # 5. Kingship, Freedom and Responsibility

aslannew

GOD IS KING OF HIS PEOPLE

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.