REVELATION #43: GOD HIMSELF

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If you have the treasure, you don’t need anything else, because the treasure will provide you with everything. And that is the promise of Revelation 21:3 – that we will have the Ultimate Treasure – God Himself. Anyone is welcome to receive this treasure, by walking through the Door – Jesus Christ.

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Revelation #43  Revelation 21:3-7

Last time, we looked in depth at the first two verses of this passage. Because the New Heavens and the New Earth are such a precious gift, I want to take a bit more time to meditate on what we are promised in this passage. Let’s look at verse three:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.

This is a very ancient promise, one which was given through Moses to the people of Israel:

6 Say therefore to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. 7 I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’” (Exodus 6:6-8, ESV)

In Revelation 21:3, we are witnessing the ultimate fulfillment of that promise. God will be our God, and he will bring us into the perfect New Creation that has been promised to us. However, the center-point of this promise is not the land, but rather, God himself. God is the best, highest good in the entire cosmos. There is nothing better than Him. And so, he gives us the best thing in existence: Himself. Earlier, he said to Abram:

​Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward. ” (Genesis 15:1, NIV. This translation is, in my opinion, the most literal rendering of the Hebrew in this particular verse. It implies that the great reward is God himself.)

When we read the promises in scripture, all of the stuff we really want, deep down – like  love, peace, joy, meaningfulness, fulfillment, adventure – these are given to us as by-products of having God himself. When we have God, we have love, joy, peace, adventure, fulfilment, and so on. When we don’t have God, our experience of those things is doomed to be both temporary, and corrupted. When we have God, we have everything. If we think we have something, but we have it apart from God, we really don’t have it. That is why Jesus told these two little parables:

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (ESV, Matthew 13:44-46)

If you have the treasure, you don’t need anything else, because the treasure will provide you with everything. And that is the promise of Revelation 21:3 – that we will have the Ultimate Treasure – God Himself.

The next several passages in Revelation are describing what it means for God to be our God, and us to be His people in the New Creation. This is what we hope for. This is what makes our present sufferings bearable. This is why we can have joy in even the hardest situations.

Verse 4 tells us that God Himself “will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” In the New Creation, we will have New Bodies which never get sick, never feel pain. Our new bodies can’t get hurt, or be killed. Death itself will be “dead.” We will have no reason to cry or mourn.

Some people may have questions about that last part. What if some of our loved ones are not there? What if they reject Jesus, and so go into the lake of fire? Won’t we cry and mourn for them?

I think we are dealing with matters that we cannot fully understand. I think that’s why we have verse 5, where God says, “The former things have passed away. Behold I making everything new!” Things won’t operate the same way they do here. We will live in an entirely new and different “system,” one which we cannot understand fully at this present time. In present terms, yes, the loss of loved ones to the lake fire would make us grieve. But the New Creation is entirely new. The old ways of looking at things may not apply there.

I have an additional thought about that question, also. I imagine that when we are fully engaged with God, with no sin in the way of our experience of Him, His Joy will fill us so completely that there simply isn’t room for grief. Everything will be so “right,” that even things that might have made us grieve cannot touch us, because then we will fully accept all that God does, and be able to wholeheartedly affirm it as right and good.

Verses 7 and 8 do not seem so positive. I am quite sure that this is referring back to the judgment before the throne in 20:11-15. The Lord is reminding us that these promises are not universal. The only way into the New Creation is through Jesus (John 14:1-6).

Many people say that Christians believe in a mean, narrow-minded God, who only saves those who believe in Him specifically. But the truth is narrow minded. The answer to 2+2 is 4, nothing else, not even 4.0001. Truth, by definition, excludes everything that is not true. That means truth is always “narrow.”

However, actually, everyone who wants to enter the New Creation may do so. The Bible says there is a door in, and that door is Jesus Christ. Anyone is welcome to use that door. But there is no other door, no other way. If someone refuses to come through the only door, then, yes, they will be kept out, because there is no other way for them to get in.

5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (ESV, John 14:5-7).

40 For this is the will of My Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (HCSB, John 6:40)

10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (ESV, 1 John 5:10-12)

7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture (ESV, John 10:7-9)

No one is kept out because God is mean, they are kept out because they don’t want to come through the door. It humbling to come through the door. We have to admit that we are sinful, and we cannot save ourselves (1 John 1:7-9). We have to turn away from our sins, and from living for ourselves. We have to die to ourselves, and to our own sinful impulses, so that Jesus can live through us (Galatians 2:20).

Now, why should this be? Why is it that we must come through Jesus? Why is there no other way?

In the first place, only Jesus makes us truly holy, so that we can be in the presence of a Holy God without being destroyed. Every other religion says that you must make yourself holy, in one way or another. But  a flawed person cannot make themselves flawless. It is a logical impossibility. So, the Bible says, “Let Jesus take care of that, because it is not possible for a flawed person to be flawless.” The Flawless One is our only hope.

Second, this New Creation is described as perfect, and incorruptible. Nothing can go wrong here. No evil will be here, and none of the sorrow and pain that is brought about by evil. If there is to be no evil, there cannot be any person who is less than perfect. If there was, then the New Creation would be no better than this one. Therefore, if a person will not allow Jesus to change them, if they reject the forgiveness that brings holiness and the salvation that leads to perfection, then they cannot be in the New Creation without changing it back into the old creation.

Revelation 21:8 lists some specific kinds of people who refuse to come in through the door. The first is, cowards. Right before this, it says, “those who conquer, will have this heritage.” This refers to the battle of faith here on earth, before we stand in front of the judgment throne. The picture is that one the one hand, we have those who fight the battle of faith with courage and perseverance. Now, this doesn’t mean we fight our own way into heaven. But there is a lot of opposition to faith in this world. The attacks against Christianity are relentless. There is constant pressure to compromise, to give in, and even to give up. Jesus told us it would require that we surrender our very lives to him that we die to ourselves (Matthew 16:24-26). Now, it is his strength that works in us to persevere but there are some who will choose not to, because it is easier. Paul explains that we allow God to work, but it is His strength which works:

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (ESV, Philippians 2:12-13)

So, here in Revelation, those obey by allowing God to work in them, and by pursuing his work in them, these are recognized for their courage.

Cowards are the opposite of this. There are some people who may be tempted to say of the Christian faith: “This is hard. I’m not getting enough out of it.” This is a warning to those who are so tempted. In addition, I believe this refers to Christians who are pressured and persecuted by human culture. Particularly in John’s day, Christians may have been tempted to deny their faith in order to avoid persecution and being excluded from non-Christian social circles. God is reminding those that this is a coward’s choice. It is a rejection of Jesus himself. To do so is to refuse to come through the door, because the door costs us everything in earthly terms. But the reason we have to let go of earthly approval is so that we can receive everything through God’s approval.

I am troubled by this today. Many so called “Christian celebrities” seem unwilling, when asked, to make a public statement affirming what the Bible says about human sexuality. If they are afraid of speaking the truth because they might lose their popularity, how much more are they likely to deny Jesus when they might lose their freedom, or even their very lives? I believe this should warn us that being a Christian in a non-Christian culture is always difficult. Cowardice is easy.

I want us to circle back around. It is important to remember that we must come through Jesus, and those who refuse to do so cannot enter the New Creation. But anyone who is willing to come through Jesus is welcome. And the reason for that one door, is so that the New Creation will be a whole new order, with no death, no sorrow, no decay. Instead, we have God himself, and in Him, everything our hearts truly desire, all the treasure of the universe, and more.

Let us hear what the Spirit is saying to us today!

REVELATION #42: THE NEW CREATION

landscape photo of body of water with mountain as background
Photo by Ketan Kumawat on Pexels.com

We are promised a new world that contains the beauty, but not the fragility. It contains the excitement and wonder, but not the mortal danger. In our perfect bodies, exploring the wilderness will be a joy. In Earth 2.0, humans will not corrupt or threaten the environment. The New Creation will hold the people of God, but not their garbage, because garbage will no longer exist. These promises, and the hope they bring should affect how we live here and now.

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SERMON NOTES

Revelation #42. Revelation 21:1-8

 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

We are in the second-to-last major section of the book of Revelation, which I call “The Seven-Part Victory of Jesus.” The first part of his victory was the destruction of the beast and his followers. Next, came the thousand-year reign. The third victory was the ultimate destruction of Satan. The fourth part of his victory was the judgment of all people who have ever lived, where those whose names are in the book of life are invited into eternal life, while those who rejected Jesus are sent to the lake of fire. Today, we consider the fifth part of the Victory of Jesus, which is the creation of the  New Heavens and the New Earth. We have taken a great deal of time in other parts of the book of Revelation, in order to understand it better. We have come to some areas that are less difficult to understand, but they are wonderful, delightful promises. I want us to feast our soul on these promises today.

Last time, I speculated that when we die, it is possible that our spirits (or souls?) go to be with Jesus for a temporary period. Some people call that “heaven.” But the real “heaven” is actually a physical place. John explains it:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

God’s plan is to destroy this mortal world, and then to remake it in perfection. Some scholars would say that God will not absolutely destroy it, but will transform it, much in the same way that our earthly bodies will be transformed into resurrection bodies. Either way, this idea of new Creation (brand new, or transformed) is found in many places in the bible.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. (2 Peter 3:10-13, ESV)

17 “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind. 18 But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness.19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. 20 No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, (Isaiah 65:17-20, ESV)

22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. 23 From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord. (Isaiah 66:22-23, ESV)

Our eternal future will be spent in physical bodies, living in a physical place – the New Creation. The New Creation, will be perfect, even as our new bodies will be perfect. It will not be subject to frustration because of our sin:

18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it — in the hope 21 that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. 23 And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits — we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 Now in this hope we were saved. (Romans 8:18-24, HCSB)

I love this world we live in. I love the ocean, and the mountains, the forests and the plains. Being in places with beautiful scenery moves me deeply and powerfully. But our amazing planet is indeed “subject to frustration” in various ways. Many of the most beautiful places on this world are also the most dangerous. A one-thousand-foot cliff is wonderful to look at, and to stand on top of one is awe-inspiring. But one miss-step, one ill-placed falling rock, and that beauty will end your life. The mountains are gorgeous. But it takes a great deal of physical effort and stamina to go into the mountains and explore, and if you go unprepared, there are seventy-three easy ways to die there. So, our beautiful world is also very harsh and difficult.

Not only that, but it is fragile. Human activity seems to be reducing the forests of the world in a significant way. In places like Europe, where humans have lived for many thousands of years, most of the wild animals are gone. Even the most remote shores of islands far from civilization contain garbage washed up from the sea, where millions upon millions of people throw it.

However, we are promised a new world that contains the beauty, but not the fragility. It contains the excitement and wonder, but not the mortal danger. In our perfect bodies, exploring the wilderness will be a joy. In Earth 2.0, humans will not corrupt or threaten the environment. The New Creation will hold the people of God, but not their garbage, because garbage will no longer exist.

Some of you may wonder about the fact that there will be no sea. That would disappoint me, because I love the ocean. Actually, if you remember, the beast came from “the sea” (Revelation 13:1). The prophet Daniel also had visions involving evil beasts, and these too, came from the sea (Daniel 7:3). So, here, “the sea” doesn’t mean “the ocean”  or anything like that. Instead, “the sea” represents the source of rebellion against God, the place from which comes chaos and evil. What John means to say is that the New Creation will have no place from which evil can come. It will not be threatened by rebellion or spiritual darkness.

Folks, that’s just the first verse! Here’s the next:

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

The city is “as a bride, adorned for her husband.” Many scholars take this to mean that Jerusalem represents the people of God, made perfect by Jesus, coming to meet him in the New Creation. That might indeed be the correct interpretation of this verse. It might also be that God’s people will have a new, wonderful, absolutely perfect home. I think, however, there are layers of meaning we might get from this.

Look at it this way: John was a Jew, who grew up thinking of Jerusalem as the spiritual center of the universe. Before he met Jesus, he probably believed that God made his home in the temple in Jerusalem. You might say that Jerusalem was the home of his heart, though he had never lived there permanently. In 70 A.D., the Romans brutally crushed a Jewish rebellion, and utterly destroyed both the temple, and the city, and caused the deaths of an estimated one million people. The Jewish historian Josephus, who was there at the time, records that the Romans left part of one wall standing, to provide  shelter for the soldiers, and to show how big were the other walls that they destroyed. But he records that the rest of the city was absolutely annihilated:

…But for all the rest of the wall [surrounding Jerusalem], it was so thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation, that there was left nothing to make those that came thither believe it [Jerusalem] had ever been inhabited. This was the end which Jerusalem came to by the madness of those that were for innovations; a city otherwise of great magnificence, and of mighty fame among all mankind.

And truly, the very view itself was a melancholy thing; for those places which were adorned with trees and pleasant gardens, were now become desolate country every way, and its trees were all cut down. Nor could any foreigner that had formerly seen Judaea and the most beautiful suburbs of the city, and now saw it as a desert, but lament and mourn sadly at so great a change. For the war had laid all signs of beauty quite waste. Nor had anyone who had known the place before, had come on a sudden to it now, would he have known it again. But though he [a foreigner] were at the city itself, yet would he have inquired for it.

(Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, as quoted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(70_CE) Accessed, 3/23/19)

That was Jerusalem at the time John recorded the book of Revelation: unrecognizable even to those who had once lived there, not even recognizable as having once been a city. Jerusalem, as John knew it, was no more; it was lost forever. It was a mark on a map, and a pile of rubble in reality. But now, John sees the New Jerusalem, the city of God, coming down from heaven.

Here is what I hear from this verse today: Whatever is good that seems to have been lost forever will be made perfect, and restored to us. Something in your heart might seem utterly destroyed. You may have no hope of ever recovering it. Yet, in the New Creation, it will be made new, and even better than before. Just as the creation is made new; just as we ourselves remade, new and better; so our hopes and aspirations are renewed and fulfilled, but even better than before.

Now, you may be tempted to say, “But I want my hope to be fulfilled in this life. I want all this now.” I understand that sentiment. But, that is a bit like a child who wants to go to a McDonald’s playland area today, rather than waiting a week, and then going to Disneyland. Any hope that we have fulfilled in this life is temporary, and it is infected with that same corruption that sours everything in this life. If your hope is only for this life in the first place, then perhaps it needs to be refined and purified. If what you really want cannot be found in heaven, perhaps what you are hoping for is not good. Our hopes in the New Heavens and New Earth are far better than anything we could imagine here and now.

These promises, and this hope should affect how we live here and now. Peter says that, in the verses I quoted above (2 Peter 3:11-12). Because we have this hope, we can be patient here on earth. Because we have this coming treasure in heaven, we can give of ourselves to others here and now. We know that the best is yet to come, so we can endure suffering in the meantime. That’s what Paul meant when he said this present suffering is not worth mentioning compared to the glory that is coming. I am reminded again of one of my favorite verses:

Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is wasting away, our inner person is being renewed day by day. For our momentary, light, affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory. So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary. But what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Meditate on these two hopes right now: the New Creation, and the Great Restoration. Let the Holy Spirit speak to your heart.

WHAT DO YOU GET WHEN YOU FOLLOW YOUR HEART?

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Jesus says our hearts are full of “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies and blasphemies.” Jeremiah calls the human heart “deceitful” and “desperately sick.”  If this is true, is it really a good idea to follow your heart?

All this is pointing towards one important thing. Jesus doesn’t say in these verses, but I read ahead, and it says that Jesus came to give us new hearts.

 

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Matthew #48 . Matthew 15:1-20

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~

Now to the text. In order to understand Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 15, we need to remember a few things about the Jewish religion at the time of Jesus. Let’s start by comparing it to Christianity. Properly speaking, Christianity is based upon understanding and applying the Bible to daily life. Many traditions have grown up during the history of Christianity, but these traditions do not carry the same sort of authority that Christians claim for the Bible alone. For instance, many Christians celebrate Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. This can be a meaningful way for believers to reconnect with the need to live in humility and repentance. However, Ash Wednesday and Lent are entirely optional for true Christians; one can observe them and be a good Christian, or one can ignore them and still be a good Christian. This is because Ash Wednesday and Lent are neither commanded nor taught by the Bible. If they help us in following Jesus, that’s great, on the other hand, it is not necessary to observe them.

What is necessary for followers of Jesus is to learn what the Bible says and to learn how to apply it to our daily lives. So for instance, it says in Hebrews chapter 10

Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:22-25, ESV2011)

This teaches us to hold on to the truth we have learned about Jesus, and to continue to meet regularly with other believers for worship and encouragement. Reasonable interpretation leads us to conclude that it is talking about regular involvement in a church community. This is a passage directly from the New Testament, and it is something that all Christians should practice, and most Christians agree that according to the Bible we should be regularly involved in some sort of Christian church.

You see the difference? Ash Wednesday and Lent are traditions that may or may not be useful. They are optional. Regular meeting together with other Christians for the purpose of encouraging and equipping each other in faith is not a tradition, but a biblical command. Churches have not always been completely successful in distinguishing traditions from essential biblical teaching, but officially speaking, true Christianity is based upon Scripture alone.

The Jews in the days of Jesus were little bit different. Jews, of course, share common Scriptures with Christians: the Old Testament. But even by the time of Jesus, Jewish religion involved more than simply understanding and applying the Old Testament. Over time, various Jewish teachers had taught and written about different Old Testament texts, and various traditions had developed. In the time of Jesus, the Pharisees insisted that these traditions were just as important as the Old Testament itself.

So, when some Pharisees came from Jerusalem to see Jesus, they notice that he is not observing all of the traditions taught by rabbis. In this particular instance, they see that Jesus does not engage in the ceremonial hand washing that most Jews thought was proper.

It would be a little bit like someone coming to me and saying, “How can you call yourself a Christian? You don’t even celebrate Lent!” Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking Lent. It can be a very useful season for entering into true repentance and humility. In the same way, I don’t think Jesus was completely against ceremonial hand washing. But what did bother him was the fact that the Jews found such things more important than the essential truths of Scripture, and in fact, had replaced scripture with traditions.

To go back to our Lent analogy, it would be as if there were some people who felt like if you went to Ash Wednesday service and got smeared with ashes, and then avoided meat on Fridays, that’s all you had to do to be truly repentant and humble. You could act and think arrogantly, you could continue in a pattern of willful and deliberate sin, but as long as you observed Ash Wednesday and Lent, you were all good. That was more or less the attitude of the Pharisees – if you dipped your fingers in water in the proper ceremonial fashion, then it didn’t matter what happened in your heart. You were clean.

So, essentially, these Pharisees, who came from Jerusalem to check out Jesus, said, “Look, you and your disciples are not following the traditions, therefore you are not spiritually clean.”

One very important thing that we get from Jesus’ response is the understanding that the Bible trumps our own desires, as well as tradition. The Pharisees had a way of twisting biblical texts. Jesus points this out in the example of “honor your father and mother.” The Pharisees had found a “greater principle” in Scripture, namely, honoring God. And so they created a tradition that said if you are “honoring God,” you do not have to honor your father and mother. Jesus calls them hypocrites, whose hearts were far from God.

I think that this is very important for Christians today, because we have modern-day Pharisees who do the same thing, albeit with different topics. For instance, there are people who teach that the overall point of Jesus’ message was to love one another. Therefore, they say, you can do whatever you like in terms of sexual activity, as long as you are acting in a loving manner. In fact, some of these folks would say that anyone like me, (and also Jesus, truth be told) who repeats what the Bible says, that sex outside of marriage is a sin, is not acting in a loving manner, and therefore we are the ones who are sinning. In the same way as the Pharisees, these people are completely distorting the message of Scripture. They have replaced what the Scripture actually says with their own tradition, and their own desire. Jesus’ rebuke falls upon them just as surely as it did the Pharisees.

Jesus said something very important to his disciples:

But what comes out of the mouth comes from the heart, and this defiles a man. For from the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies. These are the things that defile a man, but eating with unwashed hands does not defile a man.” (Matt 15:18-20, HCSB)

Part of my responsibility as a teacher of the bible is to point out and rebuke errors and false teachings. This is more important than ever in these days of the Internet when all kinds of false ideas about Jesus and his teachings are easily spread. I have read some theologians who use this verse to say that your external behavior does not matter – all that matters is what is in your heart. In other words, for example, you can commit sexual immorality as long as your heart is pure (!). You can lie or steal, as long as you do it for the right reason. They do not say it, but if they are right, it also means that you could commit murder without sinning, as long as you were not angry or hateful about it. But clearly, that is not what Jesus means here. Jesus is saying that the heart is the source of sinful actions, and fixing the outside won’t fix the heart. His point is not that external things do not matter; it is that external things come from the heart, and to deal with them we have to address the heart.

This may be surprising to some people. One of the persistent messages in our culture is “follow your heart.” I love how Rich Mullins captured this in a song:

They said boy you just follow your heart; But my heart just led me into my chest;

They said follow your nose, But the direction changed every time I went and turned my head.

And they said boy you just follow your dreams, But my dreams were only misty notions.

But the Father of hearts and the Maker of noses And the Giver of dreams He’s the one I have chosen

And I will follow Him.– Rich Mullins, “The Maker of Noses”

Jesus says here that your heart is the source of all kinds of sin; it is the center of your separation from God. Jeremiah wrote:

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? ​

“I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jer 17:9-10, ESV2011)

If your heart is deceitful and desperately sick, is it really a good idea to follow it? If our hearts are full of “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, sexual immoralities, thefts, false testimonies and blasphemies,” then maybe we should not simply “follow our hearts.”

All this is pointing towards one important thing. Jesus doesn’t say in these verses, but I read ahead, and it says that Jesus came to give us new hearts. We can’t fix our hearts by washing our hands, like the Pharisees. We can’t fix our hearts by attending Ash Wednesday services, or giving up meat for Lent. We can’t make sin go away by creating new traditions that change what the Scripture says in order to make it easier on us. Not even open-heart surgery can help us – we need an entirely new heart – a transplant. Jesus came to kill our sinful hearts, to bury them. And in that same transaction, he replaces those old sin-filled hearts with new, redeemed, holy ones.

But it all starts with the understanding and acceptance that our old hearts are indeed filled with the things that Jesus says they are filled with, here in this passage. Without the work of Jesus, our hearts are full of sin; our hearts are the problem, they are deceitful and desperately sick. I can’t follow my heart, and I can’t even reform it. Instead, I have to let Jesus kill it.

Once we let Jesus crucify our old hearts, he replaces them with new ones, hearts like his. That heart trusts the Father, and obeys. With that heart, I can follow not myself, but Jesus.

For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him, because we know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, will not die again. Death no longer rules over Him. For in light of the fact that He died, He died to sin once for all; but in light of the fact that He lives, He lives to God. So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:6-11, HCSB)

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come. (2Cor 5:17, HCSB)

True purity starts in the heart. External behavior is important, but it starts with a new heart. There are several places to go with this. First, have you agreed with God that your natural heart is full of deceit, wickedness and rebellion against God? If not, that is where to begin. Next, have you asked Jesus to take that old heart and crucify it along with him? That’s the next step. Third, we need to agree with Jesus that we need a new heart, and receive the one he gives us. And with that new heart, we can (and should) trust the Lord, listen to him, and follow him.

Maybe you’ve been through the whole transaction with Jesus, but you feel like you are still full of sin and evil. To pursue the analogy, after we get our new hearts, we still have some blood left in our veins that is used to doing what the old heart wanted to do. Our bodies and minds are still sometimes influenced by the way we were with that old, wicked heart. We still sometimes fail to trust and obey. But our sins and failings are no longer central to who we are. We don’t have to live like that anymore. It is no longer who you are.

The bottom line? Jesus Christ came to clean us from the inside out. Actually, not just to clean, but to replace what was wrong. To receive it, we simply need to trust him, to believe it is true. Sometimes we have to believe in spite of what seems to be evidence to the contrary. In such cases, we make a deliberate choice to trust God’s word over our own experience. Over time, we will act more and more in accordance with what we believe.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now.

GOD’S CHOSEN ONES

chosen people

God had us in mind, all throughout history. You are specially chosen by God. Jew or not, circumcised or not, regardless of what kind of ancestors you had, you are one God’s specially chosen people, if you trust Jesus.

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Galatians #25 . Chapter 6:11-17

Look at what large letters I use as I write to you in my own handwriting. Those who want to make a good impression in the flesh are the ones who would compel you to be circumcised — but only to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even the circumcised don’t keep the law themselves; however, they want you to be circumcised in order to boast about your flesh. (Galatians 6:11-13)

I’ve mentioned verse 11 before. I think it is evidence that Paul had some sort of vision problem, and that he was slightly self-conscious about it. In most of his letters he has something like this:

This greeting is in my own hand — Paul. This is a sign in every letter; this is how I write. (2Thess 3:17, HCSB)

So his handwriting was somewhat distinctive, and perhaps not very good. That’s one of the blessing of our modern times – most of you will never know what my handwriting looks like! In any case, Paul may have a reason for referring to his handwriting here. It was, as I have said, apparently awkward and not very skillful. He is saying, “Look at my handwriting – it looks childish! I’m not trying to impress anyone. Those who want to impress you are the ones you need to watch out for!” He is referring, of course, to the false teachers who are trying to make the Galatians believe that they must not only trust Jesus, but also keep the Jewish law.

Paul makes three claims about the Galatian false teachers. First, he says that they want to make a good impression in the flesh, in order to avoid persecution. In the early days of Christianity, most of the persecution of Christians was instigated by Jews. Many Jewish people felt that the teaching about salvation through Jesus was a corruption of Judaism, a blasphemous heresy. They didn’t see it as a separate religion (and to be fair, neither did the Christians, at first). Christianity is based upon the Jewish Bible (which we call the Old Testament), as well as the teachings of the apostles (which we call the New Testament). So the Jews thought they needed to stamp out this Jewish blasphemy. They were frequently directly violent toward Christians. In places where Roman law was strongly in place, they used Roman regulations to get the Christians imprisoned, whipped and punished. Paul himself had once been a Jew whose life mission was to persecute and destroy Christianity.

Paul claims that the real motivation of the Galatian false teachers is to prove that they are good Jews, and thus avoid being persecuted. So they were willing to trust Jesus, as long as it didn’t cost them anything. But when society started moving against them, they compromised the message of grace in order to avoid the difficulties of being opposed to the Jews.

I have never been seriously persecuted for the message of grace in Jesus. I have, however, seen people who share my faith mocked and derided, and even called “dangerous” in the media. They often make fun of us in films and television. I have been called names and had people swear at me because of my faith, but nothing more serious than that. But even at that level of social pressure, there is temptation to compromise. The true message of the gospel is that there is no other way to be saved, except through Jesus. That sounds narrow-minded and ignorant to our culture today. I would feel a lot less pressure if I didn’t insist on that part of my doctrine.

The bible says we all sin, and that is a problem that can only be fixed by Jesus. But there are several things that the Bible calls “sin” that our society likes to practice and approve: sexual sins of all types, drunkenness, to name a few. I’m not trying to get non-Christians to live out Christian morality, but Christians at least, need to know what the bible says, and we should do our best to live by it. However, even many Christians do not want to acknowledge the truth of the Bible when it calls certain behaviors sinful. When I insist that we need the forgiveness and salvation of Jesus because of such things, I get a lot of angry push back. It would be a lot easier for me if I quit believing that some of those things are sinful. But Paul has harsh words for those who compromise or cave in to pressure and persecution.

Paul also says that the Galatian false teachers are hypocrites. They don’t actually keep the Jewish law, they just pretend enough to avoid persecution. Third, he says that they simply want to boast about the Galatians. Specifically, they want to boast to Jews that they caused the Galatians to become circumcised.

Now, as I’ve said many times throughout this series, we don’t have a big problem anymore with Christians insisting that we follow the Jewish Talmud and ceremonial laws. But we still have false teachers. One example of false teaching is what I call the “prosperity gospel.” I pick on this one often, because it is one of the most influential false teachings within the Christian church in America today.

As a sort of practice run for identifying false teaching, let’s look at the prosperity gospel according to these three things that Paul says about false teachers.

How does the prosperity gospel relate to persecution? Well, the main message is that if you follow God, things will go well for you. They talk a little bit about Jesus, as the Galatian false teachers did. But the main message is not the inner transformation of your spirit through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Sin, isn’t presented as a moral issue, as much as it is something that prevents you from getting the life you want, here and now. In other words, the things that offend people and draw persecution: the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the problem of sin – are not central to the prosperity gospel. The message of grace in Jesus Christ is not the main thing. Instead the main thing is improving your life here and now. Most people are already seeking a better life here and now. Most people want to find a good way to health, wealth and general prosperity. There is nothing offensive about that. There is nothing to persecute, because the goal of the prosperity gospel is the same as the goal of most secular Americans: to be prosperous and have a good life here and now.

What about hypocrisy? I suggest that you find out what you can about the regular lives of the people you listen to. If they aren’t open and honest, I would be wary of their teachings. One very popular teacher who tends to give the prosperity message was recently asked about his marriage. He said, on camera, with a straight face, that he and his wife had never had any struggles in their marriage. The interviewer questioned him, asking “Not ever?” He repeated, “never.” Now, I don’t know the details of his marriage, so theoretically, that could be true. But I know human nature, and if it is true of any married couple, they are the rarest people in the history of the world. I’m not willing to say he’s lying, but I wouldn’t trust a man who says that. As it turns out, this same man has made statements about what the bible says that are completely false, so my distrust has been justified. I suspect that this man felt compelled to say he had never experienced difficulty in his marriage because his overall message is that if you follow God, you will not have trouble here on earth. False messages breed false living.

And finally, the message of the prosperity gospel directs people to focus on themselves, rather than the cross of Jesus Christ. The ultimate goal is for my life to be better. The true gospel glorifies Jesus, glories in him and his suffering, as Paul did. The prosperity gospel glorifies what happens in my life. They praise God, certainly, but the praise him because of how he makes their lives better (sometimes). The focus on my life, not Jesus’ death. The boasting is in the details of my life, not in the cross of Christ.

I think these three things: avoiding hard parts of the gospel message, dishonesty or hypocrisy and focus on something other than Jesus, are helpful markers for us to identify false teaching. The bottom line is, we should watch out for things that pander to our flesh.

Paul goes on:

But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through the cross, and I to the world. (Gal 6:14, HCSB)

Paul says to the world, “you’re dead to me. I’m dead to you.” I don’t think he means nature or “the planet.” I think when he says “the world” here, he means all the ways and customs and habits of living for the flesh, for self-gratification. Money, power, status, security, comfort, self-indulgence, excess, focus on pleasure – all these are “the world.” These are the things that Paul says he is dead to. He says that the work of Jesus on the cross has separated him from such things. Paul is not supposed to be a super-Christian. If, through the cross, Paul was crucified to the world, than we too, can experience the same thing, but it happened for Paul, through Jesus Christ.

A lot of times I catch myself wanting power, status, security, comfort etc. But oh, what joy and peace I have when I am free from those desires! I believe I can have that freedom more and more, as I trust Jesus more and more, and let him be the dominant thing in my life. You can have that same freedom too, the same way as Paul. Paul’s point in saying that was to encourage the Galatians to have the same attitude.

Affirming that point, Paul says:

For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation. (Galatians 6:15)

What matters is what Jesus is doing to transform you from the inside out. Paul put it this way to the Corinthians:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2Cor 5:16-17, ESV2011)

Paul lived, believing that was true. Through his words, the Holy Spirit calls us to live that way also. Remember, the deepest, truest, most real you, is not your flesh, if you are in Jesus. The real you, if you are in Jesus, is a new creation in Him. That’s what matters.

Just as the real you is a new creation in Christ, so the real people of God are all those who trust Jesus Christ. Paul says:

May peace come to all those who follow this standard, and mercy to the Israel of God! (Galatians 6:16)

When Paul says “The Israel of God” he is making a distinction between the physical Israel and the spiritual one. The physical Israel are those who are physically descended through Abraham and Isaac. But the spiritual people Israel, the “Israel of God” are those who, like Abraham, have faith. Remember, Paul wrote earlier:

And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:29, HCSB)

Paul said the Romans:

This is why the promise is by faith, so that it may be according to grace, to guarantee it to all the descendants — not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of Abraham’s faith. He is the father of us all in God’s sight. (Rom 4:16-17, HCSB)

There are two reasons this is important today. The first is that it changes the way we look at the Old Testament. The promises given to the people of Israel are also given to all who trust Jesus. The Old Testament is relevant, because we are the chosen people of God.

And that brings us to the second reason this is important: God had us in mind, all throughout history. He didn’t choose merely the Israelites as his specially chosen people – he also chose you, if you trust Jesus. You are specially chosen by God. Jew or not, circumcised or not, regardless of what kind of ancestors you had, you are one God’s specially chosen people, if you trust Jesus.

Paul closes with finality:

From now on, let no one cause me trouble, because I bear on my body scars for the cause of Jesus. Brothers, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. (Gal 6:15-18, HCSB)

What is the Holy Spirit saying to you today? Have you been trying to make a good impression in the flesh? Perhaps you’ve been tempted to avoid ridicule by softening the message of Jesus. Or maybe you need to identify false teaching that has swayed you away from the central gospel message. Do you need to hear that you truly are a new creation in Jesus Christ? Do you need to hear that you are truly one of God’s chosen people? Maybe you need to live in the truth that you are dead to the world, or something else. Let the Spirit speak right now.