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.

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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.”

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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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WHICH IS MORE IMPORTANT: LOVE OR TRUTH?

 

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The fact is this: Love and Truth are equally important. We need to hold on to both. Love without truth is just meaningless and ineffective sentiment. Truth without love is arrogant and cruel.

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Matthew #26 . Matthew 8:5-13

When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible agony! ”

“I will come and heal him,” He told him.

“Lord,” the centurion replied, “I am not worthy to have You come under my roof. But only say the word, and my servant will be cured. For I too am a man under authority, having soldiers under my command. I say to this one, ‘Go! ’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come! ’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this! ’ and he does it.”

Hearing this, Jesus was amazed and said to those following Him, “I assure you: I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith! I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus told the centurion, “Go. As you have believed, let it be done for you.” And his servant was cured that very moment. (Matt 8:5-13, HCSB)

Last time we saw how Jesus reached out and physically and spiritually touched someone who was literally untouchable – a leper. Now Matthew records another incident where Jesus interacted with someone whom the Jewish culture of his time saw as unacceptable. The man in question is a centurion – an army officer. Automatically, this means two things. First, he was not Jewish. The Jews at the time were an occupied people, a people under the oppression of Rome and Rome’s vassals. The Jews were not permitted to have their own army, so any army officer would certainly be a Gentile.

Second, because he was an army officer, not only was this centurion a non-Jew, but he was also one of the oppressors. Part of his job was to enforce laws that the Jewish people had not made, and to keep them from rebelling. He was part of the conquering and occupying army that was kept in the Jewish homeland. He would have been viewed by the Jews much the same way patriotic Frenchmen would have viewed a German officer in the army that occupied France during the Second World War. To put it another way – he was the enemy.

So here is Jesus, heading home with his Jewish disciples, and along comes the enemy. I think it is worthwhile to look both at how the man approached Jesus, and what Jesus said to him and about him.

Let’s begin with the centurion. He was probably in charge of the local garrison of soldiers. Jesus was a young, homeless, Jewish Rabbi with no official standing. The centurion could have come to Jesus and said, “Look, I’m the law in the town. Some officials might consider you a troublemaker. But I could make things easier for you if you take care of me, too.”

Instead, he came to Jesus and called him “Lord.” We’ve already talked about what this word means in Greek. It could mean “sir,” or it could mean “The Lord” as in, God. Even for a Gentile army officer to call a homeless Jewish Rabbit “Sir” is startling. But I think as we go through the text, we’ll see that this Centurion meant not only “Sir” but also “Lord” in the sense that he personally believed that Jesus was The Lord.

Let’s continue to look at the humility of this man. He doesn’t even actually make a request of Jesus. He simply tells him the problem. He says, “My servant is paralyzed with pain.” He doesn’t tell Jesus what to do about it – he just brings his burden to the Lord. I think this is very useful to us when we come to God in prayer. So often I am tempted to tell the Lord how to deal my prayer request: “Sally has leukemia, Lord, would you please touch her bone-marrow and remove the problem, and let those white and red blood cells come into balance?” But this Centurion shows us the way of simple trust. He simply says, “Lord, my servant is ill and in pain.” He figures that Jesus will know exactly what to do about it. He seems to think that simply just bringing the problem to Jesus will be enough. I can learn a lot from this.

Jesus, confronted by this enemy soldier, by a man who enforces the oppression of his people and who, by his cooperation, keeps them in crushing poverty, responds immediately: “I will come and heal him.”

The Centurion again displays both humility and faith. First, he knows that if Jesus enters his house, it will cause trouble for Jesus. Jews were not supposed to go into the houses of Gentiles. In those days, that would make them ceremonially unclean, and they would have to go through a cleansing ritual before they could worship again, or even eat with other Jews.

So the Centurion demurs. He could have said, “My servant is not worth all that trouble,” but what he actually said was, “I am not worthy, and besides, there is no need.” This is where he reveals that he already sees Jesus as the “The Lord.” He describes his own command. He is in Palestine under the orders of the Roman Caesar, and so he has authority to tell his soldiers what to do. He recognizes that Jesus is on earth under the orders of God the Father, and so Jesus has the authority to tell the very creation what to do. He only needs to give the order, and the sickness will leave.

Most of the New Testament was originally written on a paper-like material called “Papyrus.” It was much more rare and expensive than paper and ink today. So Matthew doesn’t take the time to give us this man’s back story. But clearly, he had spent some time around Jesus, and he believed absolutely that Jesus had all the authority of God.

The next line is worth analyzing a little bit. It says that Jesus was amazed. The Greek doesn’t have a direct English equivalent, but it might be best translated, “Hearing this, Jesus marveled at it, and said…” You almost get the sense that Jesus was surprised. But how could Jesus be at the same time the one true omniscient God, and yet also be surprised? I think this question is very important, so we’ll take it as a side-topic for a minute. When Jesus came to earth, though he came in the fullness of his God-nature (Colossians 1:16-20) he chose, for the entire time he was on earth, to set aside all the advantages of being God, and to remain every bit as dependent upon the Father as we are (Philippians 2:6-11). And so, every miracle He did, He did not from His own power as God the Son, but rather, as any human would do – by completely depending upon the Father:

Then Jesus replied, “I assure you: The Son is not able to do anything on His own, but only what He sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son also does these things in the same way. For the Father loves the Son and shows Him everything He is doing, and He will show Him greater works than these so that you will be amazed. (John 5:19-20, HCSB)

So Jesus was not using his divine omniscience when he spoke with the Centurion. He had chosen to set that aside, and not use it. Therefore, he did not know the future any more than you or I, except when the Father chose to reveal it to him. This was part of Jesus’ sacrifice for us – that he became like us, even to the extent of setting aside his Godly powers, and depending instead on the Father, just like any other human being must do. Remember the temptations of Satan in Matthew chapter four? They were aimed at trying to get Jesus to use his own power, rather than depending upon the Father. Jesus agreed to live a life that required trust in the Father, so that he was like us in every way.

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death — that is, the Devil — and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. For it is clear that He does not reach out to help angels, but to help Abraham’s offspring. Therefore, He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. (Heb 2:14-18, HCSB)

This business of being amazed at the Centurion is just one example of how Jesus made himself like us, dependent on the Father. He knows what it is like to not know what God is going to do. He knows what it is like to blindly trust that God will do the right thing, the best thing, even when he personally doesn’t know what that will be. He has truly “walked in our shoes.”

With that, let’s get back to the Centurion. Speaking (as always) what the Father leads him to speak, Jesus makes a statement that would have been startling, and even offensive, to many of the Jews around him.

First, Jesus unequivocally makes trust in Him the requirement for entering the Kingdom. Second, he adds, basically, “A lot of non-Jewish people will be there in the Final Kingdom of Heaven – and many Jewish people will not be there.”

Over the fifteen-hundred from Moses to Jesus, the Jewish people went through an difficult and tragic arc in their attitudes toward non-Jews. God’s promise to Abraham was designed to bless both Abraham’s descendants, and the nations around them. The laws given through Moses commanded the people of Israel to be different from those around them, in order to show the nations something of what God was like, and so encourage those pagan people to come into God’s blessing. But the Hebrew people did not really obey those laws. Instead, after they entered the promised land, they embraced the cultures around them and let go of the things that made them unique, the things that would show foreigners the truth of God. They let the cultures around them influence them, and ultimately, lead them astray into abandoning the One true God. They went through many cycles of repenting and coming back to God, and then straying away again. Finally, they were utterly destroyed as nation roughly 587 years before Jesus (587 BC). When the nation was re-formed seventy years later, it seemed they had finally learned their lesson. The Jews after that maintained a very distinct identity. They no longer seemed inclined to mix with the cultures around them, nor worship false gods. But now, they went too far in the opposite direction. Not only did they not mix with the non-Jews around them, but they no longer cared if those outsiders ever learned anything about the One true God. They became self-satisfied, and by the time of Jesus, felt that Heaven was the birthright of all Jews, and all those who were not born Jewish were generally out of luck. It is true, there were still converts to the Jewish religion from other nations, but as whole, at the time of Jesus, Jews did not pursue non-Jews or make much effort to tell them about God. If an outsider expressed a passionate interest in Judaism, he could probably find a Jewish person to help him convert, but in general Jewish folks were not very eager to spread the word, being content to have it to themselves.

So when Jesus states that many Gentiles (non-Jews) will be in heaven, and many Jews will not, this was a shocking and offensive idea. Many people may have felt that they would automatically be in Heaven, just because they were Jews by birth. By the same token, they felt that non-Jews would not be there, simply because they were born to the wrong kind of parents. But Jesus challenges their entire basis for salvation and heaven. He says it is about trusting Him.

There are so many applications to this passage. Let’s go back to the Centurion. He was a soldier in an especially brutal army in an especially brutal era of history. Sometimes we think, “I want to follow Jesus, but it’s really tough to do that in my profession. No one around me understands. It just doesn’t fit my circumstance.” But this man in the Roman Army found it possible to trust Jesus and follow him, even in his exceptionally brutal and profane circumstances. If you find yourself saying, “It’s hard to follow Jesus while I do _______ for a living,” I encourage you to pause and consider this Centurion.

Now let’s think about Jesus welcoming this enemy soldier, this oppressor, when he comes in faith. We Christians struggle with both of the same extremes with which the Jews had difficulties. When Jesus welcomes this outsider, this enemy, it reminds us of his words that we should love our enemies. It challenges us to welcome and accept people who are very different from us, people whom we might even tend to think of as enemies. Have we become self-satisfied and content to believe we are going to Heaven because we go to a Christian church, while meanwhile, we don’t care if our friends and neighbors and co-workers take the road to hell? Too many Christians seem to have this attitude. We think it is about organizational membership, rather than trust in the person, Jesus Christ.

We forget that Jesus Himself tells us to reach out and tell those who don’t know Him yet. Are you willing to tell Muslims about the grace of God that comes through Jesus Christ? What about black folks or white people? Are you ready to show God’s grace and love and forgiveness to gay people and Democrats? Or maybe your problem is with people who oppose gay marriage, or with Republicans, or members of the National Rifle Association – can you show them the love and truth of God?

But there is another side to all this, one that we must not forget. The Jewish people before 587 BC had a problem too, and it was the opposite problem. They welcomed all cultures, regardless of the Truth, regardless of their attitudes toward the One true God; and they let those cultures influence their own beliefs and their own relationship with God. This passage does not teach us that everyone is saved, regardless of their attitude to Jesus. It does not tell us to give up truth or give up the standards of the bible. Instead, it teaches us that we are all the same in our need for Jesus. The Centurion did not come to Jesus and say, “This is who I am and I’m not gonna change for you. You must accept me, but you may not change me or command me.” Instead, as we have seen, the Centurion came to Jesus in trust and humility.

Many Christians these days have difficulty accepting this. They can accept people who are different from them, and even embrace different cultures. But they have a hard time insisting that all people must repent of their sins and receive Jesus in trust. Jesus welcomed this Centurion precisely because he trusted Him in humility. If we welcome people regardless of their attitude toward Jesus, we are not helping them. If we tell people who are sinning that they are not sinning, we ourselves are distorting God’s Word and are endangering our own position of humbly trusting Jesus and what He says.

The fact is this: Love and Truth are equally important. We need to hold on to both. Love without truth is meaningless and ineffective sentiment. Truth without love is arrogant and cruel.

This incident with the Centurion challenges us to hold on to the truth that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we must trust Jesus and humbly receive Him and His truth. At the same time, it also challenges us to accept anyone in the world who wants to come to Jesus with faith and humility. It encourages us to bring our burdens to Jesus with humble faith.

Listen to the Holy Spirit today as He uses this passage to speak to you.

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

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

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

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

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FREEDOM, OR LICENSE?

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Loving others is another antidote for the flesh. The flesh is focused on itself, on getting what it wants. But love is focused on others, on serving, encouraging and honoring them.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

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Galatians #17 . Chapter 5:13-15

For you were called to be free, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another. (Gal 5:13-15, HCSB)

Picture a man who is addicted to drugs. He lives for the high that comes from the drugs. He hates the low that comes afterwards. But love it or hate it, he is a slave to it. He has to have it. Now, imagine that God came to this man, and set him free from his addiction. He doesn’t have to have it any more. He’s free from the need. He doesn’t have to have the high anymore. He’s free from the awful lows. He’s been saved and healed from a life of slavery to the drug. He didn’t do it, God did it for him. There’s nothing he could have done to earn it. His relationship with drugs has been broken. There is no more connection between this man and drugs.

Now, picture the man, full of gratitude for his deliverance. He says, “I’ve been set free! I can do whatever I want now. The impact of drugs has been removed from me!”

After considering for a little bit, he says, “Since I’m free, I’m going to go celebrate by getting high!”

How foolish that would be! God delivered him from slavery to drugs, but he’s going right back to it. He’ll end up addicted again, enslaved again. He’s throwing away what God gave him. What’s the point of being freed from drugs if he’s just going go back and become enslaved all over again?

Paul is shifting his thoughts from explaining the freedom that Jesus got for us by dying, and moving to some ideas about how to live in that freedom.

His first concern is that the Galatians do not use their freedom in Christ as an “opportunity for the flesh.” We need to consider what Paul means by “flesh.” The Greek word is sarx and it just means, essentially, “meat” or “muscle.” The apostle John uses it as a neutral term, generally meaning physical body. Paul sometimes uses it that way also. But more often, and certainly in Galatians, Paul uses “flesh” as a special theological term. He usually means basically, an orientation that is based upon outward things, and is turned away from God. There are several important things to understand here. First, Paul sees that orientation as coming from your physical life; and from a focus on your physical life. He doesn’t mean that your body is evil. But he means that once you are in Jesus, the most common pathway for sin is through your body and your physical mind. We’ll get into this in greater depth in a week or two, but listen to what Paul says about the flesh a few verses later:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance — as I told you before — that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal 5:19-21, HCSB)

Obviously, these things are sinful. They drive a wedge between us and God. They hurt ourselves and others. Ultimately, they separate us from God completely – but we’ll talk about that next time. For now, we just need to understand that these are typical works of the flesh. They aren’t the flesh exactly, but they are results of allowing the flesh to have its way.

So, Paul is saying, “This freedom that we have in Jesus is not an excuse to indulge the flesh. Don’t let the flesh use this as an opportunity.” It’s like the drug addict who was freed from addiction. It makes no sense to use your freedom from drugs as an opportunity to take drugs. You are just entering into slavery to drugs again. You might as well not be free in the first place.

Now, sometimes, I understand, you don’t feel completely free from sin in the first place. Something in you still seems to want to sin. So are you really free? Listen carefully: that “something” inside you that still wants to sin is what Paul calls the flesh. If you are in Jesus, you are free from sin in your spirit. The deepest part of you doesn’t want to do it. The penalty has already been paid for it. You aren’t an addict anymore. Your deepest, most true identity is “New Creation in Christ.”

The flesh will say, “we must have this. We need it.” Paul recognizes that when we first hear that in Christ everything has already been accomplished for us, the flesh will say, “We are now free to satisfy ourselves however we want.” But it’s a trick. First it is a trick, because indulging the flesh never actually satisfies you. There may be a moment or two when you think you are satisfied, but it doesn’t last long, and there is always something missing.

Secondly it’s a trick, because if you follow that road, you will eventually end up enslaved to sin again. Note my words: “follow that road.” We all screw up from time to time. I’m not talking about that, and I don’t think Paul is either. What Paul is talking about is a deliberate, long-term pattern of indulging what the flesh wants, and choosing that consistently over what the Holy Spirit wants.

Paul wrote about this elsewhere. So did Peter and Jude:

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, so that you obey its desires. And do not offer any parts of it to sin as weapons for unrighteousness. But as those who are alive from the dead, offer yourselves to God, and all the parts of yourselves to God as weapons for righteousness. For sin will not rule over you, because you are not under law but under grace.

What then? Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Absolutely not! Don’t you know that if you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of that one you obey — either of sin leading to death or of obedience leading to righteousness? (Rom 6:12-16, HCSB)

Live as free people, not using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but as God’s slaves. (1Pet 2:16, NET)

For certain men have secretly slipped in among you – men who long ago were marked out for the condemnation I am about to describe – ungodly men who have turned the grace of our God into a license for evil and who deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 1:4, NET)

Fighting temptation is tough anyway. But don’t give the devil another weapon by saying, “Well, if I’m truly free in Christ, I can do whatever I want, can’t I? And what I really want, is to get drunk.” Fill in whatever temptation you have for “get drunk.” See that’s the thing: It’s your flesh that really wants to get drunk (or whatever your temptation is). It isn’t the deepest truest part of you. It isn’t your redeemed spirit. It isn’t Jesus living in you who wants that. So Paul says, “Deny your flesh. Don’t give it that excuse.” The trick is to listen to the truth of God’s word, and pay attention to that, while at the same time, ignoring the insistent loud cries and desires of the flesh. God’s word says now, you are holy.

You still fight with the desires you used to give in to. You still fight with the ways you learned to sort of satisfy your flesh. But that truest, most authentic part of you is not your flesh – not anymore, if you are in Jesus Christ. So let the flesh whine, and ignore it as much as possible. Focus on the truth that in Christ you are a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Look at it this way: your flesh dying. That’s right. It’s your flesh that is doomed to die. If you are in Christ, your spirit and your soul will live on, and you’ll get a new body that is free from what we call “the flesh.” The flesh is dying, so let it go ahead and die. All that noise and temptation and activity is just the death throes of the flesh.

Now, we have been focused on one half one sentence: don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh. The second half says this: “but serve one another through love.”

Loving others is another antidote for the flesh. The flesh is focused on itself, on getting what it wants. But love is focused on others, on serving, encouraging and honoring them. Paul repeats something here that Jesus also said: “For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14). I spoke last week about how this is sometimes generalized to become almost meaningless. This isn’t some vague principle about “as long as what I do is loving, it is righteous.”

Love always honors and seeks the very best for the person that is loved.

Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not conceited, does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1Cor 13:4-7, HCSB)

In fact, let’s cut to the chase. The main thing everyone wants to be free to do, is to have sex with whomever they want. Isn’t sex loving? Doesn’t that make it OK?

Sex outside of marriage is not loving. Yes, I just wrote that. Why not? Because there is no permanent, unconditional commitment to the highest good of the other person. If there is no marriage involved, ultimately, the message is, “I am keeping my options open. I may be committed to you for now, but I’m not ready to commit to you in lifelong love.” Marriage is supposed to be the declaration of a lifelong, unconditional commitment. It is that decisive, unchanging commitment that is true love. Feelings are great, but they aren’t love. Love is commitment. Of course, our society has mostly ruined marriage, and it doesn’t really mean that to most people. But it should still mean that to people who are in Christ.

Sex in any other context is physical and emotional bond that falls short of true love. Because sex is so powerful, entering that bond without true love (commitment-love, that is marriage) ends up scarring people emotionally and making them harder; eventually it makes people less able to love in a commitment relationship.

Of course, Paul isn’t only talking about marriage when he talks about love. He is talking about Christian community. How about affirming others? Isn’t it always loving to affirm other people in whatever choices they make? Let’s go back to the drug addict. Which is more loving:

  • a. Telling the drug addict that he’s special to you, and you support whatever choices in life he wants to make, including destroying his life with drugs.
  • b. Telling the drug addict that he is wrong, and you will not encourage him or support him or give him comfort as he destroys himself.

It’s hard, but option b is almost always the more loving choice.

Loving others also means getting involved in their lives. It’s hard to love someone you don’t see very often. You can’t really have community with people you don’t know at all. Paul is saying, don’t focus on indulging yourself. Focus on valuing, honoring and blessing others. Be in community with them. Commit yourself to the good of those in your community.

Early Christians all correctly understood that one of the first places for this Christian love to play out was in their church community. Typically, they met in small churches in the homes of their members. They shared their lives and struggles with each other; their joys, hopes and disappointments. Their love for each other (which Jesus commanded) was supposed to spill out, and show the world what Jesus is like. Real love does that. But it started in the church community.

The call is to really love each other. This doesn’t mean we just endorse each other, or lie to each other that we think everything is great. It doesn’t mean everything is OK, as long as we can slap a “love” label on it. This is a commitment to honor and value one another; to keep the real best interests of others in your church community at heart.

If we can learn to love each other, I think we will naturally learn to love others outside of our community as well. In fact, that process is a reflection of the nature of God. God exists in three Persons: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They love each other. There is true loving community at the heart of God’s nature. But his love couldn’t be contained there. It spilled out to create and love the universe and all its creatures. If we welcome his love in our midst, it will spill out and bless others also.