THE BEAUTY OF MALE AND FEMALE, PART 2

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These instructions to men and women teach us to die to our own self-centeredness, and live for others. They also they point us to the incredible love and sacrifice of Jesus.

COLOSSIANS 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 33

Colossians #33  Col 3:18-19 PART B

Last time we looked at Colossians, we considered the fact that God created our genders deliberately, and with a purpose. The Bible teaches us how to work with that fact in loving each other and following Jesus. The latest science decisively confirms that human beings are gendered to the core. However, because we are all made in the image of God, gender is something even deeper than biology. Women and men are made to relate to one another in a way that shows the world something of the glory of God. This happens in all sorts of contexts, not just marriage.

By the way, I want to be sure we acknowledge and recognize that some people have difficulties in coming to terms with their biological gender. As Christians, we must have compassion and grace for people who have these difficulties. Our churches should be safe places for such folks, places where there will be no insults or cruel words. The facts of science and biology do not change the very real emotional struggles that some people have.

At the same time, as Christians, we should not compromise what the bible says. In the case of gender, science is also crystal clear. Our call is to speak the truth, but to do so in love. Simply agreeing with whatever anyone thinks is not loving– often that is actually cowardice. We are afraid of getting flak, or of being seen as hateful, or we want to be “on the right side of history.” But it is when we disagree with someone that true love can be shown. Jesus pointed out that naturally, anyone loves his friends. But real Christian love can occur when we care for people and respect them as human beings even when they disagree with us, even when they make choices that we think are wrong. Real love, deep love, always wants the best for others, even when those others may not recognize or agree with what “the best” means. So it is my ongoing hope and prayer that anyone at all would feel welcomed by our house churches, and also that in our house churches anyone at all would come face to face with the truth of the gospel, which is that we need to repent, turn away from all sin and self-centeredness, and surrender all to Jesus, receiving his grace and forgiveness.

The Bible claims to be God’s special revelation to humankind. It comes through human authors, but it originates with God. In short, it is God’s Word to us. One of the things the bible tells us is that all human beings have sinned, and our thoughts, attitudes and desires are often corrupted by sin. If this is true, it means that the bible will contradict and challenge some of our thoughts, attitudes and desires. Since every human culture was developed by sinful human beings, the Bible will challenge every culture at some point or another.

One of the most difficult things in understanding the Bible is learning to recognize our own cultural biases, and being willing to consider things that challenge our “normal” way of looking at the world.

The culture of Papua New Guinea when I was growing up was one that highly valued both debts and vengeance. The economy of that culture was based upon people owing each other favors, and sometimes people owing each other revenge. For that culture, accepting what the Bible says about forgiveness – especially forgiving and loving enemies – was challenging and difficult.

Texts like ours today in Colossians about men and women present a challenge to 21st Century Western culture. Our culture does not see gender the way the Bible teaches us to see it. In addition, our society encourages us to be highly sensitive about the possibility that someone or something is oppressing women (or, in fact, oppressing any one of several different categories of people). I’m not saying that is always a bad thing to be sensitive to this, but we should be aware of our own biases  when we read a text like this one. In case you think I am wrong, and you believe that our culture is more likely to oppress women than to be worried about oppressing them, let me give an example.

There has been a great deal of awareness raised about the fact that more men than women are involved in Science Technology Engineering & Mathematics (STEM). More men than women get degrees in STEM fields, and work in those types of careers.

A few years ago the Microsoft Windows lock screen was used to raise awareness about the fact that the STEM fields are dominated by men. These days, scholarships, internships and opportunities abound for women interested in STEM education and careers. In addition to all that, there are vast numbers of organizations and foundations which exist to help women especially get both bachelor’s and graduate degrees in all fields. There is constant awareness-raising for women’s education.

However, the truth is, women have far outpaced men in education for more than forty years. Since 1980, far more women than men have gone to college and received degrees at all levels. Women dominate many different academic fields. On average, female college professors make more money than their male counterparts with the same qualifications and experience.

The average male high school senior reads at the same level as the average female eighth-grader. Grade school boys are disciplined and reprimanded more than twice as often as girls. Boys and men have fallen far behind in every academic area except STEM.

So, where are the organizations and foundations trying to create more opportunities for men in the arts and humanities? Where are the endowments for specifically male writers, or the scholarships for men to make up the gap in literature, or sociology or history? Where are the windows lockscreens agonizing over the fact that men don’t even go to college as often as women, let alone graduate with a degree?

I will say it again: our culture is primed to expect women to be oppressed. Am I saying that women are never oppressed? Of course not! But I am saying that when it comes to gender and sexuality, our culture has a chip on its collective shoulder. We are waiting to get angry about gender injustice, even in cases where the facts say there is no issue there. So, take a deep breath. Recognize that we may not be totally objective about gender issues. Try to be conscious of our cultural biases while we deal with these verses.

In order to avoid knocking the chip off our shoulder, I will deal first with what these verses are telling men to do and be. Again, however, I want to make sure that we recognize the cultural biases that make it necessary to take these verses out of order. For you women, as you read, look past these instructions to men, and recognize and remember the great love that Jesus has for you.

With that long introduction, let’s look at this verse, and then one that says the same thing, but with more detail. For our verse today, I provide my own translation:

You husbands, love your wives sacrificially, and do not cause them to be grieved, or make their lives bitter.

And then, the expanded instructions come from Ephesians 5:22-33:

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (ESV, Ephesians 5:22-33)

The New Testament uses three different Greek words for love. There is eros (air-rohs), which is romantic/sexual love; phileo (fil-lay-oh), which is brotherly/friendship love; and agape (uh-gah-pay), which is self-sacrificing love. Husbands are told to agape their wives. Agape is the way God loves us. Jesus provided the ultimate example of agape when he suffered on the cross, died, and suffered hell on our behalf. He did not need to do any of it for himself. It cost him everything to love us this way. This, my dear brothers, is how we husbands must love our wives. We love, even when it costs us dearly, when it costs us our own comfort, our own desires, yes, even if it costs our own well-being.

We men are to sacrifice for our wives. We are to cherish them and nourish them physically, spiritually and emotionally. Jesus is not passive in the way he loves the church. He pursues us. He gently, but purposefully moves into our lives, giving us opportunities to trust him. So we too should relationally pursue our wives, purposefully seeking to deepen and strengthen our connection. As Jesus led through self-sacrifice and service, so we too are called to lead – not by commanding or controlling, but by serving like Jesus did.

Men are often consistent in pursuing their wives sexually, because that is something that we want. But we must also pursue a deep relational and emotional connection with our wives, to seek to meet their needs as diligently and consistently as we seek to meet our own.

Just in case we miss the point, let’s use some concrete examples. You are both tired from a hard day. You sit down together, with no energy, but someone needs to do something about supper. As a husband, loving your wife like Jesus loves the church, what is your response to this situation? I think most often it should be that you, called to love sacrificially, take responsibility for dinner. Now, that doesn’t rule out ordering pizza, but it should mean that you serve your wife by taking care of the thing that nobody wants to deal with.

Or suppose your wife feels the need to talk about something, even perhaps, just how her day went. You are tired, or there is something else you want to do, or maybe even the game is on. Sometimes sacrificial love means giving her time and attention when you really don’t feel like it. By the way it wouldn’t be wrong to ask her if you could have the conversation after the game you want to watch is over, but be sure she’s OK with that, and be sure to follow through.

Sacrificial love for your wife may mean that you get up and deal with your daughter’s nightmare, or the cat’s throw-up. It may mean that you take responsibility for caring for the house, or doing the finances. In our case, Kari wants to be part of handling the bills, but we discuss our finances and make decisions together, and it is understood that if she doesn’t want to work (and is willing to take a hit in our standard of living) she doesn’t have to.

Above all, sacrificial love means you men accept responsibility for your life together as husband and wife. Leaning on Jesus and all of his power, you do your best to make sure that your wife feels loved, safe, and secure, to the extent that you can. I can’t make Kari feel at peace with everything, but I can make sure that her lack of peace isn’t because of me. I can’t make her feel secure, but I can ensure that she isn’t insecure because of me.

One aspect for men of loving sacrificially is that this also encourages men to be actively involved. If we are supposed to love like Jesus, it means we ought to be pursuing our wives, and actively leading our families closer to Jesus. Obviously, we won’t do those things perfectly, but we are to try. Coming home, watching TV and offering up one-syllable responses to your wife’s conversation are not usually consistent with loving your wife sacrificially.

Too many men prefer not to take a stand, or take ownership. Sometimes, we’re afraid of messing up, and we think our wives probably know better than us anyway, so let them do it. But that is not legitimate sacrificial love. Sometimes we don’t really know what to do, and we forget to ask Jesus. Sometimes, we’re just plain lazy, and it’s easier to be passive than to try, and then fail anyway. It feels safe if we don’t have to lead. But we men don’t have that luxury. We are supposed to love our wives to such an extent that they are the ones who feel safe, because they know that we will care for them as much as we care for ourselves, we will love them, even if it means hardship for ourselves.

By the way, women, you don’t get to take these words and taunt your husband with them. These words are not here for you to say: “Hah! You are supposed to love me sacrificially, so here’s my honey-do list, and be sure not to wake me up from my nap when you’re done.” These words are spoken from the Lord to the men, and I think it is meant for men to struggle through what it means to apply them. Your turn will come next.

The biggest threat to any marriage (actually to any relationship at all) is the fact that all of us are deeply self-centered. We are focused on ourselves, on our own needs, what we want, and what it takes to get our wants and needs satisfied. The verses here are meant to destroy our self-centeredness. Men, you don’t get to be passive and coast through life doing as little as necessary. You don’t get to demand whatever you want from your wife. Neither do you get to check out, and ignore your responsibilities. Instead, you die to yourself by loving her sacrificially. You allow the Holy Spirit to put to death your self-centeredness by learning to love your wife selflessly. When you do that, you are doing your part to show the world the glory of God.

The model for men is Jesus Christ. Now of course, husbands, you will never be able to love your wives as well as Jesus loves all of us. However, Jesus invites you to lean on him, and allow Him to work through you and in you, so that you don’t love your wives from your own strength, but from all the resources that Jesus has. Ask him to help you, and lean on him as you love your wives.

For both men and women, our attention is supposed to be directed away from ourselves, and to Jesus. Like a perfect husband, he makes us, his people, secure. We know we are loved, and safe. He has provided all that is needed for forgiveness and a life of eternal joy in Him. He is patient with us, and He loves us, not because of what we do for him, but rather because he has decided to do so, and nothing will sway him from that commitment. He didn’t wait for us to come to come to him – he died for us while we were still enemies of God. Let’s remember God’s grace to us through Jesus, and thank him for it.

COLOSSIANS #29. THE KEY TO MEANINGFUL, LASTING PEACE.

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Most of what the world sells to us is about being in control of one area of our life or another. Anything at all, other than trusting God to do what is best, when it is best. But Jesus offers us peace in a different way. The way of Jesus to surrender control to him. This requires that we trust him. It means we must trust him to have our best interests in his heart, and the best interests of those we love. It means we must trust that he is able to what is best. It means we trust that his timing is better than ours. It means we must trust even when – no, especially when – we do not understand what he is doing.

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 29

Colossians #29  Colossians 3:14-15

14 Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful.

Starting in verse 12, we were told to “clothe ourselves” or “put on” seven different aspects of the character of Christ. This is what it looks like when Christ lives both in each of us individually, and among us corporately:

Compassion, kindness, humility, patience, gentle restraint (meekness), bearing with one another and forgiving each other. Paul caps off this thought with the following:

“And above all these, the love; it is binding all together to perfectly complete the purpose.” (my “literal” translation)

By the way, when I offer my own translations of various Bible passages, I am not claiming to be a better Bible translator than those who work on the major English versions. Sometimes, however, those who create translations cannot get at the “feel” of the Greek text, because to do so would not be proper English, and more than a few sentences of it would be hard to read and understand. The main thing I want us to see is that love not only binds people together, it also fulfills the purpose of the character of Christ in Christian community. The idea here is very much like the one that Jesus spoke very plainly

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (NIV Matthew 22:34-40)

Paul summed it up like this for the Galatians:

14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (NIV Galatians 5:14)

He explains more clearly for the Romans:

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (NIV, Romans 13:8-10)

In other words, if we really love another, we will be compassionate and kind with one another; we will be humble, patient, meek; we will bear with one another and forgive one another. Love is at the heart of the character of Christ, and so love – and all that loving each other means – perfectly fulfills Christian community.

The next line is this: “And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful.”

There are two ways in which this peace should be applied. The application is peace among members of the church. There can be no doubt that this is part of Christian peace. The Holy Spirit is speaking through Paul to Christians who are members of house churches. They are actively involved in a small Christian community. He says that peace should rule between members of these communities – because we together, as one body, have been called to peace. To look at it another way, if we put into action all of what Paul has been saying so far about having compassionate hearts, being kind, gentle, forgiving and so on, we will be at peace with one another.

The second way peace should be applied is within the heart of each individual Christian, because he says that peace should rule our hearts.

Before we go on, let’s talk about what exactly the bible means by “peace.” I think there are three parts to it. First, peace means the absence of strife and worry. In other words, if you have peace, you will be free from conflict, and free from worry, or anxiety. This should be obvious. If you are at peace with someone else, you are not fighting with them. If you are at peace within yourself, you are not worried or agitated.

Second, peace is also the positive presence of calmness or tranquility. Peace is a powerful force that brings rest and quiet confidence into our hearts.

Finally, when the bible talks of “peace” it is often referring to our relationship with God. Peace with God means we are no longer “fighting” with him, or at odds with him. We know that because of Jesus, all is well between us and God.

I think it may be helpful to understand what prevents us from having peace. First, deep in our hearts, we have decided we will do everything we can to get what we want, even if it is not what God wants. For whatever reason, in some area of our lives, we have decided that what we want is non-negotiable. We don’t mind using God to try and get it, but if he won’t help us, we plan to make it happen anyway. Sometimes, maybe it is not something we want, but it is something that we are afraid of. It works the same way, however: we have decided that we must prevent something, even if God has decided to allow it. If God won’t get with the program, then we’ll try to stop it on our own.  

If we are doing anything like this, peace will never rule in our hearts. All the pressure is on us. It is all up to us to either prevent the bad thing from happening, or make the good thing happen. Even if we enlist God’s help, we will not permit him to be in charge, because we must determine the outcome. If we let God be in control, he might allow an outcome that we think is unacceptable.

From all of this it is clear that one the great barriers to peace is our demand that we must be in control. The beginning of peace is to give up control. The Holy Spirit makes this clear by saying “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.” It is something we have to allow. We have to stop preventing Christ’s peace from entering.

I want us to dig deeper. Why must we be in control? What is it inside of us that wants to take over, and do all that we can to get our own desired outcome? Selfishness might be part of it. But I think the deepest problem is this: we don’t really trust God.

One of my own biggest barriers in the past was that I thought if I let God be in charge of my life, he would make me miserable. I would have live somewhere I didn’t want live. I would have to do things I didn’t want to do. Now, there is a certain kind of truth to that. I am by nature introverted and selfish. When God called me to be pastor, I had to open up life not only to God, but also to other people. I had to have more chaos in my life, and some heartache that maybe I could have avoided (watching people I had grown to love as they made bad choices). But when I surrendered fully to the Lord, I found tremendous joy in his will for me. I see how empty and vain my life would have been had I insisted upon my own ways. God may have you go through something, or do something, that you don’t want right now. But when we surrender fully to him, when we trust him and give up control, there is a joy that outmatches the hardship.

I certainly never wanted five years of unbelievable pain (I still sometimes say to myself: “This is unbelievable!”). But I have found joy in the midst of this pain. It is not as hard as it sounds, because, by and large, the peace of Christ rules in my heart. I am literally squirming in pain as I write this. Even so, I am at peace. I can’t imagine how angry and depressed I would be if I was still trying to control the outcome of this pain; if I did not trust Jesus fully in the midst of it.

Another issue in trusting God is that sometimes we are not fully convinced that he is good, and that he is working for our good. We think maybe we know better than he does.  We think maybe if we let go and trust him, he may not prove trustworthy. And as long as we insist upon our own expectations and desires, it will indeed often seem like God is letting us down. But when we fully release ourselves in trust to him, we will find that He is indeed good, and his ways are best.

This is not complicated. It is often hard to do, but it is not difficult to understand. If we want the peace of Christ, we must give up on trying to control life, and we must trust Jesus to do what is best, when it is best. We must give up upon insisting that we get we want. We must also give up trying to control things by preventing anything negative from happening. We have to trust God more than we trust ourselves. We have to recognize that if we have Jesus, everything else is ultimately OK. We will certainly have times where we do not understand what God is doing (or why he is not doing something). But we have to trust even when we don’t understand.

I know this is hard to do at times, but we also need to remember that our own sense of being in control is an illusion. You can’t actually prevent a loved one from getting sick. You can’t actually prevent your child from being killed by a drunk driver. You can’t actually insure that you won’t get ALS, or Alzheimer’s. Jesus said:

27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (NIV John 14:27)

How does the world offer peace? Only through control:

Are you afraid of being alone all your life? A dating app will help you get control. Afraid of being judged for how you look? We’ve got your health clubs, your make-up, your clothes, your hairdresser, everything you need to get control of the situation. Afraid of getting sick? We’ve got your supplements, your diet programs, your exercise regimens, pharmaceuticals, and much more. Most of it is only $19.99. Are you worried you’ll be stuck in a terrible marriage? Our divorce lawyers will help you take back control. Concerned about finances? We’ve got spreadsheets, tax advisors, financial planners, investment opportunities and much, much more.

Most of what the world sells to us is about being in control of one area of our life or another. Anything at all, other than trusting God to do what is best, when it is best.

But Jesus gives peace in a different way. He says “Let me handle it; I will take care of it it my way. All you have to do is trust.”

The Holy Spirit tells us to let peace rule our hearts. This is the opposite of us being in control. It is no mistake that right after, he adds, “And be thankful.” Thanksgiving is a gateway to peace. When we thank the Lord, we are recognizing that he is in charge, and that he is trustworthy to do for us what is good. If you are struggling to give up control, struggling to trust God, I highly recommend developing a habit of thanking God for everything.

When I get up in the morning, I’m usually pretty miserable. I don’t sleep well, so I’m very tired. The night time is my longest stretch between doses of pain medication, and I’m usually in a lot of pain. So I don’t feel thankful at that time of day. But you know, I can thank Him for coffee. I wouldn’t survive without it at this stage of my life. Then, of course, electricity is required to make coffee (we don’t have gas appliances), so I can thank him for electricity. Kari usually greets me right away when I get up, and I can thank the Lord for her. Basically, what I am saying is that we should start with anything at all we can think of about which to thank the Lord. As we thank him for little things, more things keep coming to mind. If we do this consistently, it becomes a wonderful habit, and it helps us to trust more, to give up control more, and therefore to allow the peace of God to rule our hearts.

In addition to thanksgiving, reading the Bible is helpful for letting the Peace of Christ rule our hearts. There are more than 80 verses in the New Testament alone about peace. I want to leave you with a few to meditate on:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (ESV, Philippians 4:6-7. Note that thanks-giving element in there!) 

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (ESV, Romans 15:13)

23 Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely. And may your spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful, who also will do it (ESV, 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24)

 

 

 

 

 

COLOSSIANS #24: THE TRAP OF LAWLESSNESS AND THE SOLUTION OF LOVE

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?

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!

LOVING OBEDIENCE…OBEDIENT LOVE. JOHN 15:9-12

Loving Obedience

In the Bible, the opposite of rules is not “no rules.” It is loving relationship. It is a completely different paradigm.

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Single Sermons. Loving Obedience. John 15:9-12

 9“As the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you. Remain in My love. 10If you keep My commands you will remain in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commands and remain in His love. 11“I have spoken these things to you so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. 12This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you. (John 15:9-12, HCSB)

This is a stunning passage of scripture. We could spend weeks finding new and wonderful things in these few verses alone. I don’t have weeks, so let’s see if we can break off a digestible portion of this wonderful part of God’s word.

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. It’s easy to drift over this quickly, but just stop for a minute and listen. How does the Father love Jesus? In the first place, he is the heavenly Father. His love has no limit. His love has no flaws. The Father has loved Jesus eternally. Here on earth, our love is hampered by our limited capacities. It is corrupted by our sinful flesh. Sometimes, loving others is a lot of work. At times, we lose patience with those we love; we get irritated with them; we become frustrated, or just plain weary. None of those things are a factor in the way the Father loves Jesus. Therefore, none of those things are a factor in the way Jesus loves us.

In fact, Jesus offers us the same experience of love that He has as a member of the Holy Trinity.

God is a Trinity – that is, He is one God, and yet he exist in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is something here that is beyond the grasp of human imagination (incidentally, the doctrine of the Trinity is one of the best arguments that Christianity is not made up by people – human beings would have come up with something more understandable). Between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit there is a constant flow of love and joy. Jesus tells us “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” He is, amazingly, offering us the kind of daily experience of love and joy and grace that He himself has. His own experience of the Father’s love is deep and abiding. It is not something that goes away, and it is something that sustained Him and influenced Him every weary day of His time on earth. I’m reminded of what Paul wrote to the Ephesians:

14For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Eph 3:14-19, ESV2011)

We need the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, strengthening us, in order to even begin to understand the love that Jesus Christ has for us. It is beyond our ability to know completely, it is abundantly far more than all that we could ask or think. The unfathomable, unlimited love of Jesus for us is the bedrock for everything else in our lives. Particularly, it is the foundation upon which the rest of this text is built. We’re going to talk about what it means to keep the commandments of Jesus. But we cannot begin to understand what this means without the foundation of his all-surpassing love for us.

Abide in my love. “Abide” is not a word that we use very often anymore. Some good synonyms might include: remain, dwell, rest-upon, stay, be, exist-in. We are to dwell in the love of Jesus. We are to rest upon it, to exist continually in it.

Everything in our entire lives ought to be built on one foundational fact: that God loves us. If we get that fact wrong, there will be a host of other things in our lives which we will get wrong, and many things will not make sense. This is not to say that when we truly grasp by faith that God loves us, everything makes sense, and nothing ever goes wrong. But if we build our lives on any other basis than the love God has for us, sooner or later the uselessness and hopelessness of it all will come crashing in.

For many of us, there have been times, perhaps brief periods, when we have truly understood how much God loves us, and those times stand out as high points in our walks of faith. But much of the time, though we know it with our minds, we find it hard to believe that God truly delights in us. On Monday morning at 8:30 when the boss is upset and you’re still smarting from the fight with your spouse, it seems difficult to feel God’s love, and almost impossible that His love should make a difference in your situation.

In John 15, Jesus is inviting us into an abiding experience of His love. He appears to be offering a life wherein most of the time, we will be conscious of God’s love for us, and that love will make a real difference in our daily experiences. Jesus did not simply come down from heaven, hand us a one way ticket redeemable upon our death, and say, “See ya when you get there.” No in His invitation to abide, He is offering a life that is different in quality, right here and now. And the central fact affecting the quality of our lives is meant to be His affection for us.

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. Now we hit the difficulty. Many times when we read this phrase after the other two we think, “Aha! I knew it was too good to be true. Now the other shoe has dropped. Sure, God loves us: but only if we obey his commands, only if we can be good enough to earn his love.”

As we look at these verses, it is important for us to understand the concept of “paradigm.” A paradigm is a way of looking at the world. Paradigms tells us how to interpret our experiences. We all have paradigms, and use them every day. Think about it. The color green does not actually mean “go” and red does not mean “stop.” But in the driving paradigm, we interpret those colors to indicate those things.

When it comes to obeying God, and keeping his commands, it is common to find two different and extreme views,. The first view says, “Jesus died to forgive us [this is true]. His death took away the power of the law to condemn us [also true]. Therefore, once I’ve prayed the sinner’s prayer and ‘gotten saved’ I can go off and live my life however I please [this is not true].”

The second view goes like this: “Even the New Testament – after Jesus’ death and resurrection – tells us we need to obey God [true]. It says we should be holy and righteous people [true, but we need to understand this in the proper way]. Therefore not only should we try to live sinless lives, we actually can do so [not true]. Therefore, if we sin, we may not be true Christians [really not true].”

The underlying problem with both of these approaches is the paradigm. They both view our faith as set of rules. One way thinks we have to follow them; the other way thinks we are free from them. But the paradigm in both cases is about following rules. Both ways of understanding the scripture are legalistic, because they view obedience to Jesus as something to do with the law.

However, in the Bible, the opposite of rules is not “no rules.” It is relationship. It is a completely different paradigm.

In the book of John, Jesus relentlessly pushes the idea that real life only found in a daily faith relationship with Him. In fact, that is the central message of the entire New Testament. What Jesus says here in John 15:10 about keeping his commands can be properly understood only in the context of relationship with him. And in fact, that is true of any verse about obedience in the entire Bible. The paradigm is not rules and laws, but rather, relationship.

Marriage (the way God intends it to be) is supposed to be the strongest and most enduring voluntary relationship we have with another person. That is why the Bible often uses marriage as an illustration of our relationship with the Lord (Ephesians 5:25; Isaiah 54:5, 62:4-5; Jeremiah 3:15, 31:32; Hosea 1:2, 2:19-20; Revelation 19:7-9). That’s also why I often use it as a sermon illustration. It is applicable once again here.

What brings a husband and wife together? Does the man sign up to follow rules laid down by the woman, then, if he follows those rules correctly, they get married? Of course not. They are brought together by love. But what about after the marriage? Do they say, “I know love brought us together, but we are married now, and from here on our marriage will based on fulfilling the rules we have for each other.” Ridiculous.

So, if marriage is not based on rules, does that mean that I am free to go have an affair if I want? Also ridiculous. Why? Because there are certain things that destroy love, and destroy relationships, and having an affair is one of those things.

I think one of the biggest problems we have in marriage is that we fail to see how our actions affect the love between us. We don’t realize (or we pretend not to) how our actions have the potential to either help or harm the relationship. So when a wife wants her husband to quit going out to bars with his buddies, it isn’t that she’s trying to base their relationship on rules. What she’s really trying to say is “when you do that, it injures the love we have between us. It hurts me and it hurts our relationship.” When the husband says, “I’m looking for more from you in our physical relationship,” he isn’t trying to say that he only loves her because of what happens in the bedroom. He’s saying, “This helps to build my love for you, and therefore it helps our relationship.” These aren’t rules. They are relationship builders (or relationship busters). Because I am married, my behavior conforms to certain standards. These are not rules I follow – I live this way because I love my wife.

It will put tremendous pressure on a marriage if one or both spouses start looking at behavior toward each other as rules, instead of actions that affect the quality of love.

Jesus is telling us today, it’s the same with him. He uses the language of “commands” and “obedience” because there is supposed to be submission on our part to the Lord. But what it is all about is relationship. Listen clearly: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love….You are my friends if you do what I command you.” He’s saying, “this is all about our relationship. If you love me, your behavior will reflect that. If you know that I love you, your behavior will show that also.” John writes about this more in his letters:

For this is what love for God is: to keep his commands. Now His commands are not a burden, because whatever has born of God conquers the world. This is the victory that has conquered the world: our faith. (1 John 5:3-4)

And this is love: that we walk according to his commands. This is the command as you have heard it from the beginning: you must walk in love. (2 John 6).

In other words, “keeping his commands” is all about that faith-relationship of love we have with Jesus. You should be able to tell I love Kari, not only because of the ring around my finger, but also because of how I behave with regard to her. You should be able to tell I love Jesus, not just because of a cross around my neck, but because of the way I behave with regard to Jesus.

Let me suggest one more thing. I don’t always feel like listening when Kari wants to talk. I don’t always feel like being kind or encouraging. I don’t always feel like helping her with things or doing her favors. But sometimes I do those things even if don’t feel like it, because the more I do, the closer we become; and the closer we become the more I actually want to do those things. Also, of course, the closer we are, the more I enjoy and treasure our relationship.

What I’m saying is, I choose to behave in such a way that I become closer to my wife. In the same way, obedience is a pathway to intimacy with God. The more we live as he asks us to, the easier it is to continue to make choices that increase our closeness to him. The more we obey, the more we learn to love Him, and our satisfaction and fulfillment – and our joy – grows.

When we remember that Jesus said this about keeping his commands in the context of abiding in Him it is impossible to doubt that he is talking about how we are behave in relationship with him. Basically, he is saying, “this is how to grow in my love and stay living in me. This is how you and I get closer.”

So what are the commands that Jesus wants us to keep? What are these things that help us grow closer to Jesus? In John chapter 6, some came to Jesus, wondering about this.

“What can we do to perform the works of God?” they asked.

Jesus replied, “this is the work of God: that you believe in the One he has sent” (John 6:29)

Another time, some experts on Jewish law came along and asked, “What’s the most important commandment to obey?” Jesus summed it all up when he said:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

In other words, to obey is to act in love. This exactly what we have been learning. Love for God and neighbor is obedience, and obedience to these commands (which really sum up all of the commandments) demonstrates love for God and neighbor. If I love my neighbor, I will not steal from Him. If I love God, I will listen to Him and His will for my life. If I love God I won’t sin, because that hurts him. If I love my neighbor, I won’t sin, because that hurts her.

Now, in reality, I don’t always love perfectly in action. From the way I talked about marriage, you might think I’m the perfect husband. Not even close. Sometimes, not only do I not feel loving, but I don’t act in a loving way either. That’s true in my relationship with the Lord, and with others also.

But we need to realize this: through dying on the cross, rising again and sending the Holy Spirit, Jesus has made it possible for anyone to keep his commands. There are people who believe we can attain perfect behavior in this life. They are mistaken, and they take a very poor approach to understanding the Bible. But the power of Jesus’ death on the cross is such that when we fail, forgiveness is available to us, and we can continue as if we never failed to obey Him. While we don’t reach perfect behavior, through Jesus, our Spirits are counted as perfect by God. Because we are in relationship, not under law, we repent, receive the love and grace and forgiveness God has made available to us, and so continue on in obedience. Through Jesus’ work, it possible for us to be in, and to stay in, right relationship with Him.

When I hurt Kari, or vice versa, it doesn’t mean divorce. Instead, we come to each other honestly, talk it over, ask for, give and receive forgiveness, and then move on. Remember, marriage is supposed to be a reflection of God’s relationship with us, and that is exactly how it works with the Lord.

Spend a few minutes now, reflecting on what the Lord is saying to you.

LOVE AND LIES

Love is easy. This is one of the big lies that destroys marriages, but it also destroys churches and personal friendships. When love gets hard, too many people “bail out” on marriages, churches and friendships. Real love does involve warm feelings. But real love also involves hard work. Forgiving others is hard, sometimes, but it is indispensable to lasting love. Being humble, saying sorry, and admitting that you are wrong are all very difficult, but all vital to real love. Withholding angry retaliation, being patient, listening, serving someone when you are tired and crabby – these are all important parts of true love, and they all take significant emotional energy and self-discipline. There are payoffs, of course. Many times, real love fills us with joy, happiness and wonderful feelings. But we need to know, and to remember, that true, lasting love is sometimes hard work.

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 Overlooked Letters Part 4

Overlooked Letters # 4. Love, and Third John.

 I ran out of time/space in my last message about Christian love. I’d like to finish the topic of Christian love. Since John’s concern is for both Love and Truth, let’s consider some lies about love, and how we can live and love in the truth.

My focus last time was to show you how the Bible teaches that it is of utmost importance that we Christians love our fellow Christians. According to the New Testament, after God’s love for us, this is the most important kind of love. For many of us, that message should convict us that we have to change our lifestyle. If the way we live does not allow time and energy to put into relationships with other Christians, then we will find ourselves disobeying the command of Jesus (2 John 5). If we do not make room in our lives to love our Christian brothers and sisters, we cannot truly claim to be following Jesus.

20If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. 21And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother. (1John 4:20-21, HCSB)

Now, unfortunately, our culture has, in large part, separated love from truth. Remember, John is deeply concerned about both. We need to be aware of cultural lies about love.

One of the biggest lies about love is that it means unconditional acceptance. In other words, if you love me, you will accept, without reservation, anything I do, or don’t do. In fact, our culture is rapidly becoming even more extreme about this, and now many people believe that if you love someone, it means you must agree with, and endorse, all of their choices. Author Rick Warren puts it succinctly:

“Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”

So, contrary to popular opinion, loving our fellow-Christians does not mean that we must agree with them on everything, and endorse everything they do (or don’t). Sometimes, the truly loving thing is to tell someone that they are wrong, or are headed in the wrong direction. The other side of that coin is that just because someone confronts you about something does not mean that they hate you, or are acting in an unloving way. We Christians need desperately to remember this, and to model it to the culture around us. I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again: If I believe you are going to hell (even if I’m wrong in my belief) and I say something to you about it, my motivation is loving – I don’t want you to go to hell. On the other hand, if I truly believe you are going to hell (rightly or wrongly) and I say nothing, I must hate you a great deal, because I’m content for you to go to hell, without warning you. So, many times, the hateful thing is to remain silent, while the truly loving thing is to share your belief.

In Christian relationships, it often isn’t about going to hell; it’s usually more nuanced. But often, we keep silent about things because we don’t want to put the time and effort into having real and genuine relationships with each other. Subconsciously, we know that if we speak, it might cause conflict, and deep down, we aren’t sure we love the other person enough to spend the time and energy to work through that conflict.

Here’s another lie about love that is very destructive, especially in Christian relationships: Love means never having to say “I’m sorry.” It’s a nice idea, I get it. The thought is, if someone really loves you, they will accept and forgive everything you do, and so you don’t have to apologize about anything. In reality, if you really love someone, one of the greatest gifts you can give them is to say: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” If you believe you are never wrong in relationship to someone else, or that you need never apologize, you are not living in the truth, and without truth, real love cannot thrive. Humility, apology, confession and forgiveness are powerful tools that make love grow. Our culture would like to minimize them. Don’t let it happen in the church. Love each other in truth, and that means being humble and saying sorry.

6But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (Jas 4:6-7, ESV2011)

5Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 6Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1Pet 5:5-7, ESV2011)

31Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Eph 4:31-32, ESV2011)

Here’s another cultural lie about love: Physical attraction means love. The vast majority of our movies, television, music, and other popular art promote the idea that the highest expression of love is sexual intercourse. This is one reason the culture is so sensitive about sexual issues – any sort of sexual moral standard is viewed as interfering with “love.” This means the church is in trouble, because a) Churches who are “in truth” teach that sex is only for married couples. So the culture thinks we are somehow restricting true love. b) If sex is the highest expression of love, that means people in the church will never share the highest form of love with each other (unless it’s a weird, perverted cult, which, of course, would not be a true church). So Christian fellowship becomes kind of a “second class” love.

However, the Bible teaches us that highest form of love is self-sacrifice. In New Testament Greek, there are several words for love, including: romantic love (eros), brotherly/friendship love (phileo) and self-sacrificing love (agape). The love of Jesus, and of God, is described as agape. The famous “love chapter” that is often read at weddings – 1 Corinthians 13 – describes agape. All throughout the New Testament, it is agape – self-sacrificing love – that is the highest form of love. That kind of love, we can have in the church among everyone, and it transforms lives. There is indeed no Biblical restriction on this highest kind of love.

Another one: Love is easy. This is one of the big lies that destroys marriages, but it also destroys churches and personal friendships. When love gets hard, too many people “bail out” on marriages, churches and friendships. Real love does involve warm feelings. But real love also involves hard work. Forgiving others is hard, sometimes, but it is indispensable to lasting love. Being humble, saying sorry, and admitting that you are wrong are all very difficult, but all vital to real love. Withholding angry retaliation, being patient, listening, serving someone when you are tired and crabby – these are all important parts of true love, and they all take significant emotional energy and self-discipline. There are payoffs, of course. Many times, real love fills us with joy, happiness and wonderful feelings. But we need to know, and to remember, that true, lasting love is sometimes hard work.

Let me close the topic of Christian love by simply sharing a brief sermon given by the Apostle Paul on this matter. 1 Corinthians 13, “the love chapter” is one of the most-read passages in the Bible, and many people are quite familiar with it. Go ahead and read it on your own. But I want to share a different one, here. This passage below describes many practical ways in which Christians can and should love each other. This is how we should love one-another, Christian to Christian.

1I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

My comment: We can only love by surrendering to God, and presenting ourselves to Him. Then, he can use us. It will be his love, passing through us, to love others.

2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

My comment: this is about rejecting the lies of our culture (as I’ve described) and instead, being conformed to the truth about love, as given to us in the Bible.

3For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one.

My comment: This is talking about humility again.

4Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, 5in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another.

My Comment: We belong to each other. When we come to Jesus, we join a body. Every part (including you) is indispensable.

 6According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts: If prophecy, use it according to the standard of one’s faith; 7if service, in service; if teaching, in teaching; 8if exhorting, in exhortation; giving, with generosity; leading, with diligence; showing mercy, with cheerfulness.

 9Love must be without hypocrisy. My Comment: there we are: truth again.  Detest evil; cling to what is good. 10Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. 13Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. 16Be in agreement with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes.

18If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. 19Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. 20But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.

 21Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good. (Rom 12:1-21, HCSB)

DO YOU LOVE YOUR FELLOW CHRISTIANS?

This post is so important, that I’m reposting. For those in our fellowships, we will discuss this on the week beginning June 18.

I love mankind its people I can't stand full

Loving other Christians is part of what you sign up for when become a follower of Jesus. The idea of becoming a Christian, but not being a part of a Christian fellowship is absolute nonsense, and it is not supported anywhere in scripture. As John says elsewhere: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar.” In this context “brother” means “fellow Christian.” We are supposed to show the love of God to the world by how we relate to each other, and that love needs to be demonstrated in genuine, life-changing ways. 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Overlooked Letters Part 3

2 John #3: Loving Fellow Christians

We’ve been talking about John’s concern for the truth. He is also, obviously, very concerned about love:

4I was very glad to find some of your children walking in the truth, in keeping with a command we have received from the Father. 5So now I urge you, dear lady — not as if I were writing you a new command, but one we have had from the beginning — that we love one another. 6And this is love: that we walk according to His commands. This is the command as you have heard it from the beginning: you must walk in love. (2John 1:4-6, HCSB)

Unfortunately, Christian love has often been greatly misunderstood, and not really practiced.

Throughout the New Testament the command to “love one another” is given to Christians, for Christians. It is not a general call to “love the world,” but a command that Christians are to live and act in love specifically toward each other.

I can already hear the indignation coming back at me. After all, aren’t the two great commandments to love God, and love our neighbor? Didn’t Jesus tell the story of the Good Samaritan, to show us that all people are our neighbors? I understand the objections, but I want you to hear me out.

Of course the command: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” applies to all people. Specifically, it is a summary of six of the ten commandments (or seven, if you are Lutheran). We should try to live a “love our neighbors” lifestyle toward the whole world. If we personally encounter someone who needs our help, of course we should help them, regardless of their religious faith, or lack thereof.

But even so, Christians are called to have a special kind of love for fellow Christians. Listen to what Jesus says:

34“I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you must also love one another. 35By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, HCSB)

Jesus told his disciples to love one another. Jesus says that “all people” will know that we follow Him when they see the love that we have for one another. It is this special love – among Christians – that will show everyone else that we follow Jesus. It isn’t that we are supposed to hate everyone else, but there should be a commitment to love fellow Christians at a deeper level than “loving all mankind.”

There is no escaping the fact that dozens and dozens of verses in the New Testament tell us to love fellow Christians specifically, and how to go about doing that. Jesus repeats himself in John 15:11-12

11“I have spoken these things to you so that My joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. 12This is My command: Love one another as I have loved you

Jesus is talking to his disciples here, not the world in general. Shortly after, he tells them the world will hate them, but they are to love each other. The rest of the New Testament was written specifically to Christians. Paul often writes about how Christians should treat each other:

12Therefore, God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 13accepting one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a complaint against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must also forgive. 14Above all, put on love — the perfect bond of unity. 15And let the peace of the Messiah, to which you were also called in one body, control your hearts. Be thankful. 16Let the message about the Messiah dwell richly among you, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, and singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Col 3:12-16, HCSB)

“Therefore, as God’s chosen ones…” In other words: “Since you are followers of Jesus, this is how you are treat each other.” He adds that they are “one body,” which is a metaphor for the church. These verses are similar to dozens of other places in the New Testament. After God’s love for us, the strongest emphasis about love in the New Testament is on love among fellow-believers.

Let’s consider why it is so important for us to love fellow Christians in a special way.

First, because it shows Jesus to the world in a special way. When the world sees real Christian community in action, they will notice it. They will see that there is something different about how we deal with one another. This was the reason Jesus himself gave for his command that Christians love other Christians (see John 13:34-35, above). One of the most attractive things about real Christianity is the genuine, loving relationships between Christians. When those aren’t present, churches become very un-attractive.

Second, Christians are supposed to love each other because love is supposed to be a commitment that has real-life consequences. We are to show the love of God to the world by how we relate to each other (see #1, above) and that love needs to be demonstrated in genuine, life-changing ways. The New Testament is full of exhortations to put love into practice. Here are just a few examples:

14And we exhort you, brothers: warn those who are irresponsible, comfort the discouraged, help the weak, be patient with everyone. 15See to it that no one repays evil for evil to anyone, but always pursue what is good for one another and for all. (1Thess 5:14-15, HCSB)

24And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, 25not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25, HCSB)

 31All bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander must be removed from you, along with all malice. 32And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ. (Eph 4:31-32, HCSB)

8But now you must also put away all the following: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth. 9Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old self with its practices 10and have put on the new self. You are being renewed in knowledge according to the image of your Creator. 11In Christ there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all. (Col 3:8-11, HCSB)

1Therefore I, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, accepting one another in love, 3diligently keeping the unity of the Spirit with the peace that binds us. 4There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope at your calling — 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6, HCSB)

You can’t love “the whole world” like this. This sort of love only develops when there is real community, when people actually know each other, and “do life” together. This is one reason it is so important for every Christian to be a part of a small Christian community – a group of 5-20 other Christians with whom you meet regularly, and with whom you also socialize and spend time with. That is the context of the New Testament church, and so that is the context for true Christian love.

You cannot truly love 1,000 people at once, not in a way that matters. You may genuinely care for that many people, and be concerned about what happens to them, but when you are dealing with that many people, love is mostly an abstraction – something that takes place primarily in your head and emotions; but it doesn’t make much of an actual difference to how you live, or to those you claim to love. It reminds of the old Peanuts cartoon at the top of the post.

Real love, love that makes a difference, can only grow out of genuine relationships in relatively small communities; in other words: in a New Testament type of church.

The idea of loving “the whole world” is a way to shirk the responsibility of loving that dear Christian brother who has an annoying habit of interrupting everyone, and talking too much. If you “love the homeless” you can go serve in a soup kitchen once a month (or less!), spending a couple hours with people that you will never truly share your life with. Then you can go back to church, secure in your “love credentials” and ignore the lonely, social awkward bachelor there who makes you cringe.

Loving each other in the church forces us to actually have relationships with each other. It forces us to confront our own issues and conflicts, and work through them under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Third, we can’t love from the outside in. Love starts within, and grows. Loving fellow Christians provides us with a solid base from which to spread the love. Genuine love-in-action normally spreads – the nature of love is a desire to include others in the joy we have.. But if we don’t have real love going on in our local body of Christ, it will be very hard for us as a group to love anyone else either. In other words, if you want to love “the world” it has to start with loving your fellow believers. If you can’t love them, you won’t be able to truly love the world either, not in any meaningful or helpful way.

So, what do we do with this message? First, we need to accept that when we become followers of Jesus, we join a family of other Jesus followers.

48But He replied to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers? ” 49And stretching out His hand toward His disciples, He said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! 50For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven, that person is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matt 12:48-50, HCSB)

Like a biological family, you don’t get to pick everyone who becomes part of your Christian fellowship. Even so, as in a biological family, we have an obligation to love each other.

8Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law (Romans 13:8)

Loving other Christians is part of what you sign up for when become a follower of Jesus. The idea of becoming a Christian, but not being a part of a Christian fellowship is absolute nonsense, and it is not supported anywhere in scripture. As John says elsewhere:

20If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. 21And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother. (1John 4:20-21, HCSB)

In this context, as in most of the New Testament, “brother” means “fellow Christian.” You can’t be much more clear than that. We need to accept that loving our Christian brothers and sisters, and having meaningful relationships with them, is a normal and vital part of following Jesus.

Second, many of us need to get serious about plugging in to real Christian community. It’s hard to develop real community – that is, real brotherly/sisterly love – without spending significant time and energy with other Christians. We need to find a small group of like-minded Christians, and commit to loving them. We need to make it a priority to spend time with them, do things together, worship together, hang out together. Again, this is a normal part of being a Christian.

Third, within our Christian community, we need to put love into action. We’ll discuss more about that next time. Let me just say this: when I first was confronted with the necessity of loving my Christian brothers and sisters, and opening my life to them, I was very uncomfortable. I’m an introvert. I like my nice little, quiet, orderly life. But when I did open my heart and life to include genuine Christian community, I found that in addition to the hassles, I received a real and lasting joy, and also the priceless gift of true, loving friendships in my Christian family. I have never wanted to go back to my compartmentalized Christianity.

I pray that you will  surrender to Jesus in this matter, and experience the joy and love that I have!

THE PROBLEM OF GOD’S LOVE

god's love

If God loves his people so much, what is the problem? Why can’t he just accept them as they are: sins and all, and just love them? If he cares so much, can’t he just overlook our sins? 

You cannot repeatedly ignore and hurt someone, and at the same time have a healthy, loving relationship with them. You cannot have self-respect, and also have a good relationship with someone who consistently treats you poorly. Therefore God’s love, far from making sin OK, is exactly what makes it a huge obstacle in our relationship with him. It is because he loves us that our sin and rebellion hurts him. When we also consider God’s righteous self-respect, we see that he cannot simply say: “It doesn’t matter if you are unfaithful to me. It doesn’t matter if you sin.”

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 83

Matthew #83  Matthew 23:37-39

 37“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! She who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing! 38See, your house is left to you desolate. 39For I tell you, you will never see Me again until you say, ‘He who comes in the name of the Lord is the blessed One’! ” (Matt 23:36-39, HCSB)

I believe that God inspired the entire Bible, and, aside from a few small copying errors, everything in the Bible was intended by Him, for our benefit. In other words, it is all God’s Word. Even so, there are some parts of the Bible that capture essential truths more clearly and succinctly than others. I believe our text for this time is one place where, in just a few lines, we have the heart of God’s relationship with humankind.

These words of Jesus provide an all-important context to what he has just said, and what he is about to say. He has just spoken very harshly to the religious leaders, in a last-ditch effort to bring them to repentance. After this, he will give them a glimpse of what is coming because of their lack of repentance. But he pauses here, and shows us his heart of love, and tenderness, and also shows us that repentance is not optional.

Jesus sounds like a number of Old Testament prophets at this point. He should, since he is God, and God inspired the prophets to speak. Listen to the appeal that the Holy Spirit makes to his people through the prophets. Hear his love and compassion, and also his unyielding will to make his people holy.

God said through Ezekiel:

11Tell them: As I live” — the declaration of the Lord GOD — “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked person should turn from his way and live. Repent, repent of your evil ways! Why will you die, house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)

Isaiah prophesied:

9  For they are a rebellious people, lying children,

children unwilling to hear the instruction of the LORD;
 10  who say to the seers, “Do not see,” and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right;

speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, 11 leave the way, turn aside from the path,

let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.”
 12 Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel,

“Because you despise this word

and trust in oppression and perverseness and rely on them,
 13 therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach in a high wall, bulging out, and about to collapse,

whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant;
 14 and its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel

that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a shard is found with which to take fire from the hearth, or to dip up water out of the cistern.”

 15 For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel,

“In returning and rest you shall be saved;

in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”

But you were unwilling, 16 and you said,

“No! We will flee upon horses” (Isaiah 30:9-16)

The prophet Hosea said it this way:

1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.
 2  The more they were called, the more they went away;

they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols.

 3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms,

but they did not know that I healed them.
 4  I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love,

and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws,

and I bent down to them and fed them.

 5 They shall not return to the land of Egypt, but Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.
 6  The sword shall rage against their cities, consume the bars of their gates, and devour them because of their own counsels.
 7 My people are bent on turning away from me,

and though they call out to the Most High,

he shall not raise them up at all.

8 How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?

How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim?

My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. (Hosea 11:1-8)

These days, many people are confused about the message of these verses. If God loves his people so much, what is the problem? Why can’t he just accept them as they are: sins and all, and just love them? If he cares so much, can’t he just overlook our sins?

In another place in Ezekiel, (chapter 16) the Lord speaks through the prophet in the form of an allegorical story. God comes along and finds Israel: rejected, abandoned, alone, and left to die. He saves her, and cares for her, and gives her his love and tenderness; he becomes a husband to her. Under his care, she grows beautiful. He clothes her in rich garments, and gives her wonderful shoes, earrings and jewelry. But now, healthy and beautiful, she ignores him, and instead seeks after other lovers. In fact, she has so many other lovers that she might as well be a prostitute, except that she demands no payment for her favors.

Let me ask you this: Do you think the wife has the right to say: “What’s the problem, Honey? You said you loved me, no matter what. Why can’t you just let it go, let me do what I feel like?” Do you think a husband in this situation should “just forgive?”

This woman owes everything she has and is to her husband. He loved her when no one else wanted her. He saved her, and he still loves her. Do you think the fact that he loves her should mean that her faithless behavior is no problem? Should he just overlook her sins, accept her as she is and “let love conquer?” For him, that would mean sitting at home every night, knowing his wife was out having sex with other men. Does that sound like love is “conquering?”

You know that isn’t how love works. It is the very fact that he does love her that makes her behavior a problem. If he didn’t love her, if he wasn’t her husband, it wouldn’t matter to him what she did. But because he does love her, and because she is his wife, her behavior is incredibly hurtful, and it is a huge problem in their relationship. They cannot have a healthy, loving relationship while she behaves in this manner.

You cannot repeatedly ignore and hurt someone, and at the same time have a good relationship with them. But that is what people seem to want to do with God. Some people say things like: “God is love. He loves us all, no matter what we do; therefore, it really doesn’t matter what I do. He’s still going to love me anyway.” In all these verses I shared from the prophets, God’s love is evident. He doesn’t stop loving his people when they sin.

But that does not mean that it is okay to sin. It does not mean that there are no consequences to your sin. It is like saying: “My wife loves me. Therefore, it is not a problem if I commit adultery. She’ll still love me.” In many cases, that is true. A wife does not stop loving her husband the moment she finds out that he has committed adultery. Even so, if he does not repent, change his ways, and try to be a good husband, her love will not be enough to fix the relationship. In spite of her love, if he persists in committing adultery, it will destroy the relationship. Therefore we find that in most of these verses, God’s judgment is also evident.

We would probably say that someone who unconditionally accepts an adulterous spouse has very little self-esteem, and certainly no self-respect. You cannot have self-respect, and also have a good relationship with someone who consistently treats you poorly. If you value yourself, you cannot allow another person to treat you like that. No one is more worthy of respect and esteem than God himself. You might say, in a way, that no one in the universe has more self-respect and self-esteem than God; and that is exactly as it should be, for One who is truly God.

Do you see now why sin is such a major problem? Can you understand that God’s love, far from making sin OK, is exactly what makes it a huge obstacle in our relationship with him? When we also consider God’s righteous self-respect, we see that it is impossible for him to simply say: “It doesn’t matter if you are unfaithful to me. It doesn’t matter if you sin.”

And so, through the prophets, and through Jesus here in this text today, the Lord says this: “I love you. I deeply desire to have a wonderful relationship with you. But you were not willing. Therefore, because you would not repent, you will be forever separated from me.”

That was the message of the prophets to the people Israel. That was the message of Jesus to the religious leaders of his day. “God loves you, but to receive any benefit from that love you must repent; you must stop hurting and rejecting him.”

That is in fact the essence of the gospel. God does love us. His love is unconditional. But because of his love, and because of his Godly self-respect, our sins separate us from him. Jesus, by his death and resurrection, has made a way for our sins to be nullified. If we turn from our sins, trusting Jesus, God is delighted to welcome us back into relationship with himself. John put it this way:

5Now this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him. 6If we say, “We have fellowship with Him,” yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth. 7But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1John 1:5-9, HCSB)

I have spoken about repentance many times. Repentance is not perfection. Through Jesus we can be forgiven again and again. But repentance does mean that the direction of our lives is now toward Jesus. It means that we do not usually ignore him, and that we care about pleasing him, because our relationship with him is more important to us than anything else.

Have you experienced this kind of repentance? If you have not, and you want to, let me suggest that you pray for God to give you the gift of repentance. The alternative is not simply a life without God, lived on your own terms. According to Jesus and the prophets, the alternative is that ultimately you will be separated from God, and destroyed by his holiness. I know that people these days don’t like fire and brimstone sermons. But I can’t help believing that it would be extremely unloving of me, if I believe you might spend eternity in hell, to keep silent about it and affirm you as you are. So I say: Repentance is not optional. It is the very love of God that means he cannot simply ignore our sin.

Many of us have repented and received forgiveness through Jesus. But we may get afraid when we fail and fall, and we start to question whether or not we have truly repented. If that sounds like you, my counsel is that you ask God about it. Ask him to show you where you really stand. And then, read the Bible to see what he says about it. For my part, I know that though I fail, I am, however weakly and imperfectly, moving towards God, and not away from him. I know that I’m not holding back some part of myself from him. In short, I know that I am His. And I believe anyone who wants to can also have that same assurance. You don’t have to live in fear, always questioning whether or not you have truly repented. [If you cannot seem to get that assurance, please feel free to email or message me; I’d be happy to help.] As Isaiah said:

15 For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel,

“In returning and rest you shall be saved;

in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15)

Let’s allow all of this to sink in now. Let the Holy Spirit continue to speak to you

LOVE IS THE ANSWER. BUT WHAT WAS THE QUESTION?

Love concept

We are to love God with all of our being. According to Jesus, nothing is more important than this. If we love God with our entire being and put him first in our lives, everything else will flow out of that in a way that fulfills what God wants. If we don’t love him, we are just a clanging gong; nothing. We are not to act religious for the sake of being religious. It is meaningless to follow Christian morality unless we do it out of love for God.

If you truly love God, and also your neighbor, you will fulfill, not ignore, the moral teachings of the Bible. 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Matthew Part 80

Matthew #80  Matthew 22:34-45

The third question with which the religious leaders tried to trap Jesus was about the law. Among Jews in those days, it was legitimate to discuss which commands were harder to keep than others, or which ones were more “weighty,” but most Jews felt that all of the commands of the Old Testament were equally valid. Jesus had to watch his answer carefully. If he suggested that one command was more important than another, he might be accused of heresy.

37He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38This is the greatest and most important command. 39The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 40All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matt 22:37-40, HCSB)

We need to understand what Jesus did here. He says, “There is a command that is most important, and a second one also. But the reason they are more important is because all of the other commands are contained in these two.” In other words, he answered their trick question in a way that they cannot criticize; but in so doing he also teaches us something very important.

Loving God and loving your neighbor: all of the commands are summed up in love. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write this:

1If I speak human or angelic languages but do not have love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. 3And if I donate all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not conceited, 5does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs. 6Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. (1Cor 13:1-7, HCSB)

The attitude and choices of our hearts toward God and toward our neighbor are very important. We can do the right things with the wrong motives. The goal of all that God asks of us is love. We don’t try to live good, moral lives so that we can boast about it. The reason to live as the Bible tells us to is because that is the best way to love God, and to love those around us.

Even so, I think a large number of people in Western culture are very confused about what Jesus taught about love. I think that over the past several decades, the message of the Bible about love has been misunderstood and distorted.

First, I think we must remember that the most important command – as Jesus himself said – is to love the Lord with all your heart and all your soul and with all your mind. A lot of people these days sort of skip that part, and jump right into loving our neighbor. But Jesus said we need to love God with our entire being, and put him above all things in our lives. We are to love him emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. The word for “soul” is the Greek “psuche,” which has developed into the modern English word “psyche.” It means all of what makes you, you. This means we are to love God with all of our being. According to Jesus, nothing is more important than this. If we love God with our entire being and put him first in our lives, everything else will flow out of that in a way that fulfills what God wants. If we don’t love him, we are just a clanging gong; nothing. We are not to act religious for the sake of being religious. It is meaningless to follow Christian morality unless we do it out of love for God.

Look at it this way. My motivation to be a good husband to Kari is not out of fear that she will punish me. It isn’t just because it is a good moral way to behave, in the abstract. Most of my positive behavior as a husband is because I love my wife. No doubt, there are times when I don’t feel particularly loving, but even in those times I motivated by the fact that my love is more than just feelings; it is also a lifetime commitment to honor and value her. So, even when I don’t feel like it, my loving behavior proceeds from true love. When I am a bad husband, it is usually because I am not behaving in a loving way. The key to my behavior is love. In the same way, the key to my behavior as a follower of Jesus is love for the Lord.

When it comes to the second most important command, love for our neighbor, I think we have become confused about what love means. For many people influenced by popular culture, love means unconditional affirmation. In other words, a lot of folks think that if you love someone, it means that you must endorse everything they do, no matter what. I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard that it is not loving, or even that it is hateful, to tell someone that I cannot endorse all of their lifestyle choices as good and righteous.

But both common sense and the scriptures tell us very clearly that real love for neighbor is not the same thing as unconditional affirmation. The verses above state that love finds no joy in unrighteousness, but that it rejoices in truth. That means that true love cannot approve falsehood, and it cannot approve that which it believes to be unrighteous. It would not be real love if it did approve those things.

Consider this example: I have four children, all of whom I deeply love. Suppose one of my kids becomes a drug addict. Would it be loving for me to affirm her lifestyle as a drug addict? Of course not. The loving thing to do would be to help her confront her addiction and get free from it. The hateful thing to do would be to affirm her choices, and encourage her to continue on a path that I believe will ultimately destroy her. It would be hateful to affirm the lies in her life that tell her that addiction is not a problem. Affirmation and encouragement are not always loving. Love is not always affirming or endorsing.

As author Rick Warren says:

“Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense”

In addition, when I really love someone or something, it often means that I want them to change. When I don’t mind if someone changes or not, it often means that I don’t care about them. To illustrate this, Let me offer another analogy. I know this is somewhat frivolous, but please bear with me and I think you’ll understand my main point.

Somehow, years ago, I became a fan of the Minnesota Vikings NFL team. You might say I love the Vikings (I know this is silly, but stay with me). I don’t love them because they are so great. No one would love them for that, because, frankly, they aren’t. But I care about the Vikings, and because I do, I want them to be better than they are. I don’t require them to change before I will love them, but rather, because I already love them, I want them to improve.

The Cleveland Browns is another NFL team that hasn’t won very often over the years. However, I don’t mind if the Browns never change. Is that because I love the Browns unconditionally, in a way that I don’t love the Vikings? No, it is exactly the opposite. It is because I don’t care about the Browns that I don’t mind if they never change (apologies to my many readers in NE Ohio, it’s nothing personal). I don’t necessarily want the best for the Browns, and so I can affirm how they are, with no desire to see them become different.

You see, love often seeks change, precisely because love seeks the best for the beloved. So I repeat: loving your neighbor does not always mean affirmation and endorsement; these are not always loving.

I feel the need to explain a little bit more. I am not giving you a license to nag your loved ones, or to be cruel to anyone who lives in such a way that you disapprove. Some people are harsh and judgmental, and even if their words contain truth, they do not speak them out of love, but rather out of fear or anger. Do not use what I say here as an excuse to be that way. Love genuinely wants change, because love genuinely wants the best for the beloved. But love is also patient, gentle, and kind (see the verses quoted from 1 Corinthians 13, above).

So our culture when it hears “Love your neighbor,” often misunderstands this to mean “affirm and endorse whatever your neighbor chooses to do.” However, this is not what it means.

There is another way in which our culture misunderstands what Jesus said here. Many people think that when Jesus says “The law is summed up by ‘love God and love your neighbor,’” it means that this cancels out the specific moral guidelines of the Bible. In other words, people think Jesus was saying, “Forget all that stuff about traditional morality. Just love.”

If this was the case, we wouldn’t have to worry about it when the Bible says, “don’t bear false witness,” as long as we tell lies only for reasons that are loving. Or, it wouldn’t matter whom we have sex with, or even whether or not they are married to us (or another person) as long as we simply love them. Or, we wouldn’t have to worry about foul language coming from us, as long as we love God. Or, it wouldn’t matter if we stole something, as long as we did it with a loving heart.

But this is not what Jesus meant at all. He said all of the law “hangs” on these two commands. It is not that love replaces the other commandments, it is that if you truly love God and your neighbor, you will fulfill those commandments. For instance, if you love your neighbor and God, you won’t steal from your neighbor. Or, if you truly love God, you will put him first, above all things in your life.

These days, the cry of the new sexual ethics is “It’s all about love.” But Jesus is saying here that if you love God and your neighbor, you will lovingly, voluntarily, keep your sexual activity within marriage. “Love” does not mean “sleep with anyone with whom you fall in love.” What Jesus is saying is that real love for God and neighbor will result in keeping the command: “do not commit adultery.” Love for God and neighbor will result in keeping the commands: “Do not covet,” and “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”

If you truly love God, and also your neighbor, you will fulfill, not ignore, the moral teachings of the Bible. Paul explains this more fully in his letter to the Romans:

8Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments: Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet; and whatever other commandment — all are summed up by this: Love your neighbor as yourself. 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom 13:8-10, HCSB)

This helps me, because I realize that when I sin, one of the underlying things going on with me is that I am not loving God, or my neighbor, or sometimes, either one. It isn’t just that I need to behave better externally (though that is true) – it is also that I need to love God and my neighbor more. Over the course of my life, I have learned to see this problem, and to ask God not only to help me not to sin, but also to increase the love I have for Him and for my neighbor. I am convinced that is a prayer he is happy to answer.

Our love comes from the Lord in the first place, and so, if we ask him, we can trust him to give us the love that we need; for Him, and for our neighbor, to live as he wants us to.

ONE FLESH, PART II

One Flesh Part II

When you take those vows, God himself gets involved. To put it another way, it’s not just your marriage, it is God’s marriage: he is part of it; Jesus said so right here. So when you make decisions about marriage, you are not just deciding about your own life. Something bigger than yourself, bigger than your personal happiness or fulfilment is going on here.

If we take Jesus at his word, and trust him, we may have to learn that his blessings are found differently than we want, but we will receive grace and joy through them, nonetheless.

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 66

 

Matthew #66 Matthew 19:1-12

Let’s revisit what Jesus said about divorce and marriage in Matthew 19:1-12:

1When Jesus had finished this instruction, He departed from Galilee and went to the region of Judea across the Jordan.2Large crowds followed Him, and He healed them there.3Some Pharisees approached Him to test Him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife on any grounds? ”

4“Haven’t you read,” He replied, “that He who created them in the beginning made them male and female,”5and He also said: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh?6So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate.”

7“Why then,” they asked Him, “did Moses command us to give divorce papers and to send her away? ”

8He told them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of the hardness of your hearts. But it was not like that from the beginning.9And I tell you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

10His disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of a man with his wife is like this, it’s better not to marry! ”

11But He told them, “Not everyone can accept this saying, but only those it has been given to.12For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb, there are eunuchs who were made by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way because of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matt 19:1-12, HCSB)

Last week we considered what this means for divorce, and what to do in various situations involving divorce. But I want to move off of that topic now, because the real point here is not divorce, but marriage. In marriage God creates a one-flesh entity in the spiritual realm. We looked briefly at this last week, but I want to revisit it in depth now. So, to reiterate what Jesus said: First, marriage is part of God’s original plan and intention at creation. To put it plainly: God created marriage, and he has purposes for it. Second, marriage is made for “male and female.” If you don’t like it, don’t get angry at me – I am merely repeating Jesus’ words. Third, Jesus says that in marriage, God somehow mystically joins the man and the woman into one entity. The book of Genesis calls this “one flesh,” and so does Jesus. Finally, Jesus says that since God created marriage, and somehow joins the man and woman together into this one-flesh entity, that human beings should not undo it.

There is a lot here, so I’ll just jump in. Jesus claims that God established marriage at the same time he created human beings. From a logical standpoint, if this is true, we should find that virtually every culture in the history of the world has some sort of idea of marriage. In fact, this is exactly what we find. Some cultures have allowed men to have more than one wife at the same time, some tiny fraction have allowed women to have more than one husband at the same time. But every single culture in the world has some idea that men and women should be joined together in a lasting agreement, and that this joining is the basis for having children and creating stable families. It is only extremely recently that this idea has been questioned, and only then in one set of cultures that derives from Europe – what we might call “Western Culture.” In most cultures of the world even still, people believe that children should be born to married parents, and that marriage is an important thing that should be honored, and not looked upon casually. In short, history bears witness to Jesus’ claim that marriage is universal to human beings.

Now, I want us to take a close look at this business that in marriage, God creates a “one-flesh entity.” First, we cannot escape the fact that sex (between a married couple) is central to this idea. If you go back and read Genesis chapter two, there is no doubt that this was part of what it meant to become “one flesh.” Paul takes this for granted when he is writing about sexual morality in 1 Corinthians 6:15-20. Jesus also makes it clear here, because he says the one thing that destroys this “one fleshness” between husband and wife, is sexual immorality.

Sex is God’s gift to seal and strengthen the one-flesh entity that He calls marriage. It isn’t just a bodily function, like eating or sleeping. It has the power to create and strengthen a spiritual union. That is what it is made to do. That’s why the bible talks so much about sexual issues. This all means two things: that sex belongs only in marriage, and also that sex does belong in marriage – in other words it should be a part of every marriage. It is powerful thing that can help your one-flesh union with your spouse if you make use of it in marriage. It can tear your marriage apart if you ignore it, or take it outside of marriage.

But the one-flesh unity is more than just sex. As I have said, Jesus describes it as a spiritual union. My wife Kari and I are not just individuals any more: we are part of something that God has got involved in; something bigger than just ourselves. This is tremendously important for Christians to remember. When you take those vows, God himself gets involved. To put it another way, it’s not just your marriage, it is God’s marriage: he is part of it; Jesus said so right here. So when you make decisions about marriage, you are not just deciding about your own life. Something bigger than yourself, bigger than your personal happiness or fulfilment is going on here.

Our culture suffers from a number of extremely powerful, extremely common, delusions about love and marriage. We believe that love is a feeling. We believe that this feeling of love cannot be resisted, nor (so we believe) can it be created where it is not already felt. We believe that love is about feeling complete and fulfilled with another person. We believe that the point of love and marriage is our own personal fulfillment and happiness. We believe that out there somewhere is “the one.” By this, we mean “the one person who was made for me, who will bring me that feeling of love and fulfillment.” Some people don’t get married for fear that they may not yet have found “the one.” Others get divorced, sure that they married “the wrong one.” Sometimes, the only reason couples stay together is that they are afraid of ending up alone, but they go through a lifetime doubting whether they married the right person.

Since Western culture has come to believe such things, marriages are no longer honored or valued, and divorce rates have risen to around 50%, while unwed parenthood has also risen dramatically. The result is children who do not have the emotional stability and security that comes with being in a home where both parents are married to each other. The result of that has been increased emotional distress, increased drug use, increased violent crime, and increased poverty. I am not making this up. Long term studies on divorce and parenthood have proved these things since at least the 1990s. Once again, I am not trying to make anyone who is divorced feel badly, and of course there are exceptions – obviously, not all children of divorce turn to drugs etc.. I am merely trying to make the case that perhaps Jesus knew what he was saying when he said “What God has joined together, let no one separate.” Our culture is falling apart in all kinds of ways, and the failure of marriage has a lot to do with it.

Let me point out something that 99% of Christians today seem to miss when they read this passage. When Jesus tells these people that marriage is a one-flesh entity created by God, something that should not be separated once joined, he is talking to people who are in arranged marriages. Very, very few people in the time of Jesus chose their own spouses. Even those few who had the opportunity usually made the choice mostly based upon financial considerations and social pressures, not love or attraction. I think it would be quite safe to say that fewer than 1% of the people at that time married “for love.” That’s correct: They didn’t even get to choose their own spouses, they never even got to seek “the one,” and yet Jesus says: “God has joined you together into a one-flesh entity; don’t separate it.” Let me put it this way “the one” for you is the one you are married to right now.

This is tremendously important. Marriage isn’t all about you. God has bigger things in mind. Frequently, God uses our marriages (if we let him) to help us grow, and growing is usually a painful process. If we let it, marriage can teach us true unselfishness. It can show us how to love someone even when they don’t deserve our love. It can teach us to serve another without reward. In marriage, we can learn patience, and self-sacrifice, and compassion and forgiveness, and communication, and endurance. In marriage we develop character.

There can be a lot of fun and reward in marriage, too. But the things I’ve just mentioned usually come with struggle, effort and sometimes pain. Both the fun and fulfilling, and also the struggle and pain, are part of God’s one-flesh plan.

For many centuries, people knew that even in arranged marriages, love could grow – even what we might call “romantic love.” There is song from the classic musical, “Fiddler On the Roof.” In it, the main character, Tevya, sings a song asking his wife, “Do you love me?” They were in an arranged marriage, and had never even met before their wedding day. The conclusion of this sweet song is that they learned to love each other.

I don’t care if you are in an arranged marriage, or if you made a mistake finding the “the one,” or even if you actually found “the one”: you still must learn to love each other, and you can learn to love each other. Part of God’s plan for your marriage is to make you more holy and loving, and this absolutely means that at times, you will be made also uncomfortable. But there is also great reward in learning to love your spouse, and building on the foundation of God’s one-flesh unity.

Now, when the disciples hear Jesus’ words, and realize everything this means, their response is:

10His disciples said to Him, “If the relationship of a man with his wife is like this, it’s better not to marry! ”

11But He told them, “Not everyone can accept this saying, but only those it has been given to.12For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb, there are eunuchs who were made by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves that way because of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matt 19:1-12, HCSB)

I want to make sure and clarify something. When Jesus says “Not everyone can accept this saying” he means the statement “It is better not to marry.” I think this becomes obvious by what he says next, which is to discuss people who do not marry. The word “eunuch” here refers to a man who has been castrated – that is, his testicles have been removed. Some ancient cultures did this to certain boys because it made them unable to reproduce. They were sometimes used to guard important women (because there was no danger of rape or an affair). Eunuchs were also sometimes used as government officials, because they would not have a conflict of interest between their family and their duties.

Jesus says: “not everyone can live like a eunuch.” He means obviously, not everyone can voluntarily be unmarried and celibate. Jesus mentions three kinds of eunuchs Some, says Jesus, were born that way: meaning some people were born with less of a “drive,” and they can be content without getting married. He may here be also referring to homosexuals, who do not have a strong desire to marry the opposite sex. In any case, he is speaking of them figuratively as “eunuchs.” These people would still have all their “equipment” so to speak. Others, he says, have obviously been made that way by men. These are the typical eunuchs of Jesus’ times, the ones who (in those days) were taken and castrated. Third, he says, some have made themselves that way for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. These are people like the apostle Paul, or Jesus himself, who deliberately chose to remain single and celibate so that they could better serve God. When Jesus says “Let anyone accept this who can,” what he means is, if you can go through life celibate, than do so, and use your singleness for the kingdom of God. If you can’t, go ahead and get married. Paul reiterates this very thing in 1 Corinthians 7:

6I say the following as a concession, not as a command.7I wish that all people were just like me. But each has his own gift from God, one person in this way and another in that way.8I say to the unmarried and to widows: It is good for them if they remain as I am.9But if they do not have self-control, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with desire. (1Cor 7:6-9, HCSB)

 

25About virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I do give an opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.26Therefore I consider this to be good because of the present distress: It is fine for a man to remain as he is.27Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife.28However, if you do get married, you have not sinned, and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But such people will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you. (1Cor 7:25-28, HCSB)

Paul is saying that you have basically two options: You can get married and become one-flesh with your spouse, or you can remain single and celibate (for those who don’t know, “celibate” means “not having sex with anyone). He is basically reiterating what Jesus said in Matthew nineteen.

It used to be that Western Culture recognized the single-celibate lifestyle as legitimate and normal. There was a place in society for the forever-bachelor or the forever-spinster. Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth I, Clara Barton (founder of the Red Cross), Jane Austen, Susan B. Anthony and Florence Nightingale are a few famous women who remained single for a lifetime. Besides Jesus and the apostle Paul, famous “lifelong eunuchs” among men include Beethoven, Thomas Aquinas, Henry David Thoreau, Isaac Newton and both Orville and Wilbur Wright. In recent times, a very wise and insightful Christian thinker and writer was Henri Nouwen. Towards the end of his life, he admitted that he was a homosexual. However, he chose to remain “a eunuch” for the sake of Jesus, and did not regret the choice. As a single man, the time he put into reflection, study and writing was a great blessing for the kingdom of God.

In contrast to the teaching of the bible, I recently read an article on the Huffington Post that described “twelve [different] terms that are related to sexual and romantic identities.” We used to have just people. Then we had “Straight” and “Gay.” Then we went to LGBT. Now, according to the Huffington Post article, we are looking at LGBTALDPZ and several more. If I had read that article fifteen years ago, I would have thought it was humorous satire, something like an Onion piece. However it is not. Unfortunately, there is no way to reconcile this. The bible teaches us to aspire to either lifelong marriage, or lifelong celibacy. Of course there is forgiveness and grace and comfort for us when we fail, there is hope of healing and wholeness when are broken, but we need to remain clear about the standard.

I’ve focused a lot on the negatives here: marriage isn’t about your happiness; if you want to be single then you must also be celibate; we are going against the grain of the culture, and so on. But I am convinced that the Lord gives us these commands because he also has tremendous blessings for us when we live by them. If we take Jesus at his word, and trust him, we may have to learn that his blessings are found differently than we want, but we will receive grace and joy through them, nonetheless.

 

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