REVELATION #28: THE BEAST

Shadow Person Hat

To our suffering brothers and sisters today, and to future generations, this passage contains a powerful message. No matter how strong the Beast is, no matter how absolute his authority appears to be, his time is limited. We need to know that there may indeed be terrible consequences to being a Christian. But our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. The long-term future that is coming far surpasses any suffering that comes before it. If you are in the midst of suffering understand this: God has not forgotten you. What you are experiencing will only bring you closer to the New Heavens and New Earth. It may seem for a time as if Evil has conquered, but it has not; it cannot!

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Download Revelation Part 28

There is a lot of biblical prophecy that seems to be “now, but not yet.” What I mean is, sometimes prophecies include information about the near future, the far future, and the end of time, all jumbled up together. For instance, the prophet Isaiah prophesied about the return of God’s people from captivity in Babylon. That return actually happened. But in the same prophecies about the return from exile, Isaiah also prophesies about the coming of the Messiah. Of course, that also happened when Jesus came to earth, but it was several hundred years after the return from exile. And in those same texts which speak of the return from captivity in Babylon, and the coming of the Messiah, there are also images and ideas that seem to be about the end of the world, and the New Heavens & New Earth.

I think this sort of jumbling of different time frames also occurs in the book of Revelation. John’s visions include information about what is happening while John himself is still alive. They also include information about things to come, possibly things that will happen, and go on happening, before the end of the world. And, of course, there are some things that are unmistakably about the very end of the world.

I believe that John’s vision of “the beast” in Revelation chapter 13 contains elements of all three time frames. Some parts of this vision were already happening when John first wrote it down. Other parts likely refer to the very end of time. There are still other aspects of this vision that I think have been going on throughout history, and are still happening today.

Now, I want to say that a certain amount of focus on the future is a good thing. If the people of Israel had never considered the promises about the coming of the Messiah, no one would have followed Jesus when he came. Those promises also gave them hope in hard times. So, prophetic promises are meant to keep us alert, looking for God’s work in the world. They are in the scripture also to give us hope about the future, and comfort when we experience difficult times.

However, too much focus on the future is not good. Time and time again, I have met Christians who study Daniel and Revelation and pore over timelines and charts; they listen to endless podcasts from speakers who claim to know, in detail, what will happen at the end of the world. Very often, these Christians use their obsession with the end times as a way to avoid actually living as disciples of Jesus Christ. It can be a way of “being into” the Bible without actually obeying the Bible. Let’s apply that in a general way to our passage today: It is helpful to know that we are in a spiritual war, and that at times, it may seem like everything is against us; and yet, God is still in control. It is not nearly so helpful to “know” the specific details of who the beast is ahead of time. Theorizing that he will come from the area around the Black Sea, and that he will institute a one-world government doesn’t actually help very much in your day-to-day walk with Jesus. The first sort of attitude helps us cling to Jesus, the second sort of thing is not true Biblical prophecy at all, and it does not help us in our walk with Jesus.

Here’s another for instance. In our passage today, one of the heads of the beast looks as if it had been killed, but was not. Now for decades, the Soviet Union was considered by the West to be the biggest threat to world peace and individual liberty. President Regan called it “an evil empire.” Many Christians thought that the end of the world would probably involve the Soviet Union. In the late 1980s, the new premier of the USSR appeared: Mikhail Gorbachev. He had a huge birth mark on his head, and many Christians wondered if he was part of the Beast: the Head that “seemed to have a mortal wound, but its mortal wound was healed.” This speculation did not help us grow closer to Jesus. Instead, we wasted a lot of time and emotional energy speculating about something that turned out to be nothing. This is what I’m trying to avoid as we go through the Book of Revelation.

So, let’s briefly consider the strange description of the Beast from a spiritual standpoint. Remember that the dragon, with seven heads was imitating the sevenfold spirit of God, and with ten horns, God’s mighty power, and the crowns, God’s ruler-ship and majesty? Well, the Beast is the representative of the Dragon. He has seven heads, again imitating God’s “sevenfold spirit.” Like the dragon, he imitates the majesty and power of God with ten horns, and ten crowns. The wounded/recovered head appears to be a mocking representation of Jesus, the lamb who was slain. Let us remember how John first described Jesus as the Lamb of God:

6And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. (Rev 5:6, ESV2011)

So this Beast, as Satan’s representative, tries to imitate the Lamb, to take his place, and lead people astray. In the book of Daniel, Daniel has a vision of four different beasts: one Like a lion, another like a bear, a third like a leopard, and a fourth with massive teeth. Many commentators believe that what Daniel saw was a prediction of future empires; many scholars agree that Daniel’s prediction was largely fulfilled by the time of Jesus. Here in Revelation, John seems to be borrowing from the same imagery, however, it is all mashed together into one beast, not four different ones. Perhaps then, this one beast represents all of the empires throughout human history that set themselves up in opposition to God, or in place of God.

With these things in mind, let us once more ground ourselves by understanding how our text would have sounded to those who lived in the time of John. These Christians were faced with a culture that was hostile to them. There was tremendous pressure in some of the seven churches to conform to the culture’s immoral sexuality. There was pressure to compromise “just a little bit,” and worship idols, so that they could have certain careers. Above all, there was the Roman Emperor, Domitian. He was the ruler of the entire world, as far as anyone knew. He required that everyone worship him as a god, by offering a pinch of incense at altars dedicated to him. This worship was compulsory, and those who refused were severely persecuted. They lost property, homes, freedom, and sometimes, their very lives.

Now, does that sound like anything we just read…like our text, perhaps? The beast is fearsome and powerful, and everyone was saying: “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The whole earth worships the beast. The Beast has authority over the whole world, and even to make war upon the saints and conquer them.

I am quite certain that John’s first readers would see the beast as the Roman Emperor. This passage, for the original readers of Revelation, explained what was going on. In real life, for those believers, the emperor Domitian had set himself up to be worshiped as a God. In real life, their friends and family had been arrested, imprisoned, sometimes even killed. In their actual lives, the whole world went along with emperor-worship, and rejected Jesus and his followers.

This passage explains what they are going through as part of the ongoing, cosmic, spiritual war between the Dragon (Satan) and the followers of Jesus. Those first readers would have read this, and thought, “Ah, so that is what is happening. We are in the middle of a great spiritual war. God knows we are being conquered physically. It isn’t random. This vision (Revelation) shows us that God is aware of what is happening, and that even this hardship is part of his plan to bring about the end of evil, and to make everything right.

The beast is given authority for “42 months.” Remember 42 months =1,260 days=3.5 years. This isn’t a literal amount of time. It represents half of seven years, that is, half of God’s perfect timing to accomplish his purposes. So, for half of God’s time, it seems that his people are protected. The witnesses prophesy without hindrance for this amount of time (chapter 11). The woman is protected in the wilderness for that amount of time (chapter 12). But there is another “half of God’s perfect time,” and during that time, it appears as if Satan and his minions are winning. We are told that time frame, however, to assure us that the evil days will not go on forever. God is still in control, and there is a limit to the time allowed to the devil.

So, John’s first readers would understand that what they were facing would not be the fate of God’s people forever. But in the meantime they might be imprisoned, or even killed. They must endure with faith and patience. Above all, they must remember that their names have been written in the Lamb’s book of Life since the foundation of the world.

I think there is no doubt that the Holy Spirit inspired John to write this vision to communicate to those first believers in the way I just explained. So, then, how does the Spirit want to apply this passage to us?

In the first place, let’s not forget that we Christians are part of a 2,000 year old global movement. In our history as a people there have always been places where this sort of terrible persecution has happened. In some cases, the persecution even came from those who claimed to be Christians. Martin Luther was more than half-convinced that Pope Leo the Tenth was the antichrist, or the beast, since he had worldwide authority, and used it to blaspheme against the truth of God. For German Christians in the 1930’s and ‘40’s, Hitler would have been the obvious choice for the Beast. And like those first Christians in the Roman empire, many believers were imprisoned and executed for defying Hitler. In the 1920s-1990s, many people lived under the terrible, Beast-like authority of Soviet communism. Millions upon millions are still in a similar situation in China, even today. Millions more live under the cruel oppression of radical Islam, where the culture around them demands that they worship a false and distorted image of the One True God; the consequences of refusing are catastrophic. It is happening to Christians also in India. In fact, apart from a few places like Korea and Brazil, the only places where Christians don’t face a clear “Beast” are in the Western world. We live in a unique bubble, but the bubble is very near to bursting. Our culture is changing rapidly, and it won’t be long, historically speaking, before we begin to face severe negative consequences for faithfully following Jesus. I expect in my lifetime to suffer hardship simply for being a Christian. I think it is best if we are forewarned:

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. (ESV)
1 Peter 4:12-14

But let us not make the mistake of thinking if this comes to America or Europe, that it must mean the end of the world. Millions of Christian brothers and sisters have lived under Beast-like conditions throughout history. This passage is far more about encouragement and endurance than speculation about the future.

To our suffering brothers and sisters today, and to future generations, this passage contains a powerful message. No matter how strong the Beast is, no matter how absolute his authority appears to be, his time is limited. We need to know that there may indeed be terrible consequences to being a Christian. But our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. The long-term future that is coming far surpasses any suffering that comes before it. If you are in the midst of suffering understand this: God has not forgotten you. What you are experiencing will only bring you closer to the New Heavens and New Earth. It may seem for a time as if Evil has conquered, but it has not; it cannot!

One thing this passage should do for us who are not under persecution is to remind us to pray for our brothers and sisters around the world who are. I strongly encourage you to visit the website of Voice of the Martyrs, and use the information there to pray for those who live under persecution.

Let the Spirit Speak to you today.

Revelation #8 SUFFERING FOR A CROWN

suffering - woman against wall

Suffering is a normal part of the Christian life. We are never given an absolute promise that God will spare us. But we are given the wonderful promises that Jesus is with us in the midst of it, and that, when we follow him, no suffering is meaningless. Suffering on earth accomplishes something wonderful in eternity. Ultimately, because our Lord suffered and triumphed before us, we are people of hope.

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Download Revelation Part 8

Revelation #8. Revelation 2:8-11

 The church in Smyrna at the end of the first century AD was facing tremendous persecution. I have mentioned the general persecution situation before. Domitian was the Roman Emperor at the time Revelation was written. Unlike some of his predecessors, Domitian took the title “Emperor and God, and insisted that everyone prove their loyalty by swearing an oath to the “genius of the Emperor,” and offer a pinch of incense at shrines dedicated to himself. Though Rome did not seek to especially persecute Christians, these requirements are impossible to fulfill for a true Christian, so the result was that many Christians were persecuted because they wouldn’t worship the Emperor. We know that by AD 116, the typical punishment for not worshiping the Emperor was death. It isn’t certain that such was the case at the time of Revelation, but at the very least they would be imprisoned, and since Jesus says “be faithful unto death,” it is likely that some of them were also executed.

Frequently the enemies of Christian people would rat them out to the authorities, hoping to gain the property owned by the Christians, or to eliminate them as business competition. In the case of Smyrna, the city addressed in this letter, Jewish people, angry at what they thought was the blasphemy of Christians, told the Roman authorities about the Christians who wouldn’t worship the Emperor. This was a very big deal in Smyrna, because it was actually the first city to build a temple (not just a shrine) to the Roman Emperor. Smyrna was entirely intolerant of people who didn’t worship the Emperor.

So, what does Jesus say to these believers who are being imprisoned and killed? What does he say about their poverty, and hardship? I want to make sure we understand this: He does not say, “Just have enough faith, and everything will work out well in this life.” He doesn’t say, “if you pray hard enough, you can change this.”

He starts with this: “I am the first and last, the one who was dead who came to life.” Christians in Smyrna were being imprisoned and killed. This is a very, very big deal. I remember when some missionary friends of ours had colleagues who were killed by Muslims on the Philippine island of Mindanao. It was shocking. It can shake you. Jesus is reminding them that he went through it before them, and he is now alive. He has already blazed this trail. On the other side of death, for Christians, is Jesus, who went through it and came out victorious.

Next, he says, “I know what you are going through. I know your affliction. I know your poverty.” Nothing has happened to them of which Jesus is unaware. He isn’t absent, off somewhere, wondering what every became of the church at Smyrna. No, he is watching. He is aware. He is with them.

There is something else. He says, “I know your poverty, yet you are rich.” This is in stark contrast to the church of Laodicea, which we will study later on. While he still walked the earth Jesus urged his followers to store up treasures in heaven rather than on earth. The Christians at Smyrna must have been doing that, and Jesus, speaking from heaven, is reminding them of the eternal fortune that that they have laid up for themselves. He can see it, their fortune is the same place where he is, and he is encouraging them that they have resources where it really matters, and they have wealth that can never fade or spoil, wealth that they will take into eternity. In spite of their temporary poverty on earth, they are rich! He is helping them to remain focused on the eternal goal, rather than the temporary trouble.

The church at Smyrna is one of only two churches which Jesus does not rebuke for anything. He is not displeased with them, and so in this letter we find no section of reprimand like there is for most of the other churches.

He also says this: “Don’t be afraid of what you are about the suffer.”

Suffering, hardship and affliction are a normal part of the Christian life. This is one of those terrifying truths in the Bible. The New Testament is chock-full of verses that make this clear. However, in every place where it warns of suffering, there are also promises of God’s presence, peace and joy in the middle of it. It almost always encourages us to not fear. Here are just a few out of many examples (I will italicize the parts about not fearing, and God’s presence in the middle of hardship, etc.):

1Now this is what the LORD says — the One who created you, Jacob, and the One who formed you, Israel — “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; you are Mine. 2I will be with you when you pass through the waters, and when you pass through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you. You will not be scorched when you walk through the fire, and the flame will not burn you. (Isa 43:1-2, HCSB)

These verses make it clear that God’s people will pass through flame and flood.  But the Holy Spirit also says, “Do not fear,” and “I will be with you in the midst of these trials.” He says these trials will not overwhelm them. Jesus said this to his disciples:

I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33, HCSB)

Paul writes to the Thessalonians:

And we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you concerning your faith, so that no one will be shaken by these persecutions. For you yourselves know that we are appointed to this. In fact, when we were with you, we told you previously that we were going to suffer persecution, and as you know, it happened. (1 Thessalonians 3:2-4)

Peter writes:

But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled (1 Peter  3:14)

Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. (1 Peter 4:12-13)

This is only a small sampling of all the verses about suffering in the New Testament. Almost all such verses contain promises that if we endure suffering with steadfastness and faith, it will result in joy, blessings and glory later on. They all tells us that Jesus is with us in the middle of hardship and suffering. Jesus, speaking to the Christians at Smyrna, says the same thing:

“Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Anyone who has an ear should listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. The victor will never be harmed by the second death.”

Jesus also makes it clear that there will be a limit to their suffering, in this case, “ten days.” This could be a literal ten days, but I suspect it is meant to be a word-picture, not a literal number of days. The number ten in the Book of Revelation is mentioned seven different times. Every other time it is mentioned, it appears to be a representation of the power of the devil, or of one his servants. Those other times the number ten appears, it certainly looks like it is a figurative number, not  a literal representation. So, my best guess for “ten days” in this passage is that it means that the Christians in Smyrna are going to feel like the devil has won, and that he is powerful and strong – but only for a limited amount of time, a time set by the Lord. When that time is up, the suffering will end.

Now, let’s be honest, it looks like for some of the Christians at Smyrna, the end of the suffering comes by death. But that is why Jesus promises that those who endure will have a crown of life. There is resurrection for those who remain faithful. Death robs the devil of his prey, if they are Christians. That is why Jesus says:

28Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt 10:28, HCSB)

When we trust Jesus, the devil’s power to hurt is ended by the death of our mortal bodies. But the promise of Jesus isn’t only about being raised from the dead: it is being raised from the dead with a crown. I think that means that when they are raised, they will receive honor and respect, like royalty does on earth. Their hardship is not wasted, or pointless. It means something. Their faithfulness accomplishes something.

Jesus also says that they will not be hurt by “the second death.” Revelation chapter 20 talks about this more extensively. It describes a scene when the dead are raised, and they have to stand before the judgement throne of God. Those who have their names written in the Lamb’s book of life, go on to eternal life in the new heavens and the new earth. Their names are in the book because they trusted Jesus. Those that did not surrender their lives to Jesus have a different fate:

13Then the sea gave up its dead, and Death and Hades gave up their dead; all were judged according to their works. 14Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15And anyone not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev 20:13-15, HCSB)

Therefore, Jesus is promising the Christians at Smyrna that if they endure, their names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. Their resurrection will last for eternity; they don’t have to fear death, hell or the lake of fire.

So then, what does all this mean for us today?

Hard times might be coming. Perhaps it will be through persecution, perhaps through something else. I know Christian people who would rebuke me for saying that. They would say that I will bring the hard times upon myself by speaking it. However, that attitude is barely more than superstition, almost a belief in the magic of saying the correct words. I ask, however, whose words are more powerful: yours or God’s? In ancient times, people criticized the prophets who prophesied difficult times ahead, and sometimes even imprisoned them for saying it, but the prophets were right, and the “word of faith” superstitious people were wrong. John said it. Peter said it in his two letters. Paul said it. James said it. The author of Hebrews said it. Jesus said it: and that, my friends, covers the entire New Testament. People who are afraid of saying bad things in case they come true neglect all those verses in the New Testament that teach us that Jesus is with us in times of hardship and suffering.

There are some disturbing similarities between our culture, and that of 1st century  Roman Empire. The Emperors insisted on being worshiped, in part, in order to unify the culture. The Roman authorities did not care if the Christians worshipped Jesus Christ, as long as they also worshipped the Emperor. Rome wasn’t trying to reject the central teachings of Christianity – they just wanted to force everyone (including Christians) to go along with a certain cultural practice for the sake of unity, and to strengthen the government. It wasn’t that the culture hated Christians particularly. It was that, in the eyes of the rest of the culture, Christians wouldn’t play along. Christians were divisive, they were trouble-makers. By their refusal to worship the Emperor, they threatened the narrative created by the status quo.

This is why I am almost positive that unless something changes radically within the next generation or so, Christians will be persecuted in the United States. People already see us in the same way that the Romans viewed the first Christians. It isn’t that Western culture is out to destroy Christianity, but it sees Christians as divisive for not affirming the new status quo. If we refuse to toe the line, there could be trouble. Yet to affirm the status quo in our culture today is to contradict some of the teachings of the Bible.

For the most part, right now, the culture does not have the governmental power to persecute Christians for resisting. However, all of the same attitudes are in place. Even today, we can experience the emotional shame and humiliation of being on the losing side of the cultural war. And already, there are some jobs in which you can be fired for affirming some of the things the Bible teaches. As with the Christians at Smyrna, following Jesus can have real, negative financial consequences. Increasingly, we need to focus on the eternal perspective, and realize that there is more than money at stake.

As I consider all this, I have often wondered if there is anything I can do about it, or any way I can prepare for it. These words of Jesus set my mind at rest. What he wants from me is simply to trust him. He does not want us to be afraid of what the future holds, even when he is telling us that it holds persecutions.

It might seem for a while like the devil has won, like evil people have won. But take heart: don’t be afraid of suffering! Endure. You will find that God has placed a time limit upon the victory of evil. This is a theme repeated several times in Revelation.

Suffering is a normal part of the Christian life. We are never given an absolute promise that God will spare us. But we are given the wonderful promises that Jesus is with us in the midst of it, and that, when we follow him, no suffering is meaningless. Suffering on earth accomplishes something wonderful in eternity. Ultimately, because our Lord suffered and triumphed before us, we are people of hope.

So today, I encourage you to live not for the moment, but for eternity. There is a crown of life waiting for us. There is a resurrection that will not be taken away if we remain faithful. We have a loving Lord who has already suffered and died, and has opened the way for us into an eternal kingdom of joy.

JOHN PIPER ON THE “FIERY TRIALS”

I begin my Sabbatical this week; I won’t be posting my own sermons for the next six weeks or so. In the meantime, continuing on the theme of suffering, I want to direct you to one of the great Bible Teachers of this generation: John Piper. This is one of Piper’s sermons on suffering.

John Piper’s Sermon on the Fiery Trials.

A few notes:

  1. The link above will take you to a page where you can listen to the audio only, or watch the video, or download either one, or read a shorter, written, version of Piper’s sermon.
  2. If you choose to listen, be warned: it is an hour long. All of it is very good. If an hour is just too much, then I suggest that you to start at the sixteen minute mark. The first sixteen minutes are very good, but they are mostly introductory. They cover the cultural changes that have altered the role of Christianity in our society. The main sermon starts right at about 16 minutes.
  3. Though the written version is good, I think the spoken sermon is a bit better.

 

Grace and Peace to you all. I may post some other sermons by other people (or perhaps Piper again) but in the meantime, I’ll see you in May!

FACING TRIALS

The Bible

We are all capable of being very self-righteous and very blind – you aren’t safe from it just because all your friends tell you that you are open minded. A whole set of things that is called “open minded” is, in fact, just a new set of beliefs that is actually closed to alternative views. That leads me to the other application. This passage may be an encouragement to you when you are unfairly judged and insulted by our culture, and people who have bought into the new cultural values.

 

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To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Matthew Part 95

Matthew #95.  Matthew 26:57-66

We are continuing with the last night of Jesus life before the crucifixion.

None of this happened quite the way the enemies of Jesus had planned. Originally, they did not want to kill Jesus during the festival of unleavened bread, which started that very day, with the Passover (Matthew 26:5). Judas surprised them by delivering Jesus to them on Thursday night. It wasn’t ideal, but they decided to go with it. However, the timing forced them to have their trial that very night, because they wanted Jesus to be sentenced to death by the Romans before the Sabbath began, on Friday night. Otherwise, they would have violated the Sabbath by doing business with the Romans.

I want to pause and absorb this. In putting an innocent man to death, they were very concerned that they not break any of their man-made rules about the Sabbath. It gets even worse. It is almost fascinating to see how far the Jewish religious rulers were willing to go to keep pretending that what they did was righteous. It was wrong, by Jewish law, to hold a trial at night. But their desire to be done before the Sabbath forced them to do so. Even so, in order to maintain their sense of personal righteousness, they waited until after daybreak to pronounce the verdict, so they could claim that technically, it was not done at night (Mark 15:1).

Another rule of Jewish law was that everything had to be established by two or more witnesses:

15“One witness cannot establish any wrongdoing or sin against a person, whatever that person has done. A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Deut 19:15, HCSB)

But the trial of Jesus was assembled so hastily that no one had time to brief the witnesses and coordinate their testimony. After several came forward with various accusations that did not match each other, finally two came forward who claimed that Jesus said something about tearing down the temple, and rebuilding it in three days. Mark records that even these two did not fully agree with one another (Mark 14:59). Jesus did, in fact, say something much like this, though the “temple” he was referring to was his body.

18So the Jews replied to Him, “What sign of authority will You show us for doing these things? ” 19Jesus answered, “Destroy this sanctuary, and I will raise it up in three days.”

20Therefore the Jews said, “This sanctuary took 46 years to build, and will You raise it up in three days? ” 21But He was speaking about the sanctuary of His body. 22So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this. And they believed the Scripture and the statement Jesus had made. (John 2:18-22, HCSB)

During his trial, his accusers took this to be a statement by Jesus that he was God, since only God could accomplish a feat like destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days. In other words, they thought it was blasphemy.

In all of this, Jesus did not defend himself. This fulfilled Isaiah 53:7

7He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, He did not open His mouth. 8He was taken away because of oppression and judgment; and who considered His fate? For He was cut off from the land of the living; He was struck because of my people’s rebellion. (Isa 53:7-8, HCSB)

Apparently there was still some question about whether or not the testimony of these two was good enough, therefore the High Priest asks Jesus directly if he is the Messiah. Jesus’ reply is quite clear:

64“You have said it,” Jesus told him. “But I tell you, in the future you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

 65Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? Look, now you’ve heard the blasphemy! (Matt 26:64-65, HCSB)

You can see that up to this point, the High Priest was a bit concerned about the quality of the evidence. But now he says: “Why do we still need witnesses?” In other words, everyone present (which was certainly more than two or three) heard Jesus’ words, giving them the required number of witnesses that would agree.

Here’s an interesting thought though: Jesus’ words would have been blasphemy only if they were not true. It’s only blasphemy to claim to be the Messiah if you are not the Messiah. It’s only blasphemy to claim to be God if you are not God. There’s no doubt that Jesus’ words would have been shocking and offensive to the Jewish people of time. But neither the  High Priest, nor any of the Sanhedrin (religious ruling council), bothered to investigate whether or not the statement of Jesus was true. They didn’t review the evidence of his miracles, or consider the record of his teachings. They simply pronounced him guilty because he threatened their world view. Their self-righteousness blinded them to the truth.

When I seek application from this passage, it runs in two different directions. First, how often are we like these religious leaders? How often do we refuse to let Jesus threaten our world-view? How often are we so self-righteous that we are blinded to the truth right in front of us?

Whenever we begin to be more concerned with our way of doing things, or our particular rules, than we are about God himself, we are in danger of becoming like the Sanhedrin. For instance some religious people might be so against dancing that they forget that some kinds of dancing might honor the Lord (as David did, when he danced in worship). Some of us might get so wrapped up in “honoring the Sabbath,” that we make Sundays the most burdensome day of the week. We might hold such strong views about baptism or communion, or worship styles, that we forget the very purpose of those things. Sometimes we mix up cultural conservatism and Christianity. The two share some (but not all) values, however they aren’t the same thing. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that to be a Christian, you must vote a certain way, or belong to a certain political party. To be a Christian, Jesus alone commands all your allegiance.

By the way, blind self-righteousness is not the exclusive domain of those who go to church. Our culture is in the midst of a transition to a new set of values, and many who embrace the new values are just as self-righteous and blind as traditionally religious people; sometimes, maybe more so.

After the Presidential election of 2016, a friend of mine made an angry post on Facebook, accusing all Trump supporters of being racist, misogynistic, dishonest and greedy. She then said, in the very next sentence, that she wanted to live in a world where people respected and cared for each other, regardless of how different they were, completely missing the irony that she herself disrespected, made assumptions about, and judged, those who voted differently than her.

The point I’m making is that we are all capable of being very self-righteous and very blind – you aren’t safe from it just because all your friends tell you that you are open minded. A whole set of things that is called “open minded” is, in fact, just a new set of beliefs that is actually closed to alternative views. That leads me to the other application. This passage may be an encouragement to you when you are unfairly judged and insulted by our culture, and people who have bought into the new cultural values. Bible-believing Christians have been mocked for many years in most areas of popular culture. If you bring this up with non-Christians, however, you are likely to be insulted as a whiner, and told you are the one in power, and you are the one oppressing others.

The truth is, our culture has begun a radical shift away from Biblical values and morals. Christian thinking and Christian values are increasingly being pushed to the fringes of society. It is becoming more and more acceptable to mock and insult Christians. We are accused of being “haters” for simply believing what the Bible says about sexual morality. We are accused of being sexist and racist and homophobic and narrow minded. Examples of sexist and racist Christians can be found, of course, but in general, our culture is becoming inclined to believe those things of all of us, whether or not it is true.

I believe this will get only worse for some time to come in Western Culture. There is a vast temptation to join with this cultural shift so that the people around us don’t think badly of us. Many Christians have already given up the Bible as a significant source of truth, because they don’t want to look bad in our current culture.

It is helpful for us to remember Jesus, who was accused utterly unfairly. The accusations against him, and against first Century Christians, were exactly the reverse of the truth. But they came anyway. How will we handle such things when they come to us? I believe the example of Jesus should be a comfort to us. The accusations against him were unfair and unjust. They were lying. But Jesus did not fight back. As Peter writes:

21For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in His steps. 22He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth; 23when He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He was suffering, He did not threaten but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly. 24He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; you have been healed by His wounds. 25For you were like sheep going astray, but you have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (1Pet 2:21-25, HCSB)

Peter encourages his fellow believers repeatedly as they face the ridicule and slander of those who reject Christian truth:

1Therefore, since Christ suffered in the flesh, equip yourselves also with the same resolve — because the one who suffered in the flesh has finished with sin — 2in order to live the remaining time in the flesh, no longer for human desires, but for God’s will. 3For there has already been enough time spent in doing what the pagans choose to do: carrying on in unrestrained behavior, evil desires, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, and lawless idolatry. 4So they are surprised that you don’t plunge with them into the same flood of wild living — and they slander you. 5They will give an account to the One who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. (1Pet 4:1-5, HCSB)

Once more:

12Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. 13Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. 14If you are ridiculed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1Pet 4:12-14, HCSB)

Let the Holy Spirit apply his Word to your life today.

DYING IN ORDER TO LIVE

follow Jesus to cross

The yoke and the burden of Christ are his cross. To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul, it is the highest joy. Then we do not walk under our self-made laws and burdens, but under the yoke of him who knows us and walks under the yoke with us. Under his yoke we are certain of his nearness and communion. It is he whom the disciple finds as he lifts up his cross. – Dietrich Bohnhoeffer

 

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 56

 

Matthew #56 . Matthew 16:20-27

Last time we began to talk about the call of Jesus to take up the cross and follow him. Let’s review his words:

Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.”

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?

For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.

Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matt 16:20-28, ESV2011)

I admit, I was deliberately vague about what exactly it means to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.” Instead, last time we considered that this is indeed the call of Jesus, and in general it contradicts the values of the world around us. We also considered that the cross can bring us unexpected joy.

So this time I want to dwell on what, more specifically, is the call of the cross? What does it mean to follow Jesus by taking up our cross?

Before we do that, once again I want to thank you for listening, and remind you that we deeply appreciate your prayers for this ministry. I believe in the power of prayer, and I’m grateful for you asking our Father in heaven to use this ministry, to bless it, and to supply all our needs. I don’t want you think I’m requesting prayer as a covert way of asking for money. We really do value your prayers most of all. It is possible, of course, that as you pray, Lord leads you to give us some financial support. Obviously, if he does, 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 please do continue to pray for us, regardless.

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Now, back to the text. Let me start by clarifying what it does not mean. It is not ordinary human suffering. You may have heard the expression: “That’s just my own cross to bear.” That saying is almost always used wrongly, at least in the sense of what Jesus meant here. For instance, suppose someone with arthritis says, “This arthritis is my cross to bear.” That is not at all the kind of thing Jesus is talking about here. How do I know that Jesus didn’t mean things like arthritis? To put it bluntly, arthritis is painful and difficult, but is not a consequence of following Jesus. Jesus clearly tells us here that the cross is all about following him.

Not everyone has arthritis, but most people suffer in some way. This is true of people who follow Jesus and true of those who do not. Obviously, not all suffering is a consequence of being his disciple. Also it is important to realize Jesus doesn’t call us to have arthritis – sometimes things like that just happen because we live in a fallen world.

On the other hand, the cross is always about Jesus. So what does the call of the cross involve?

First, death to self. Jesus says we must deny ourselves and not seek to save our own lives, but lose our lives for his sake. This is not a call to suicide. But it is a call to make Jesus even more important than everything, including (perhaps especially) yourself. Ordinary flesh rebels at this thought. I mean, let’s be honest. For most us, the default “most important thing” is ourselves.

What could possibly motivate us to be willing to put the needs of someone else above our own? What could possibly induce us to be willing to even die for someone else? A few remarkable individuals might die for another for the sake of duty or honor. But I think for most of us the answer to those questions is: love. We can put the needs of another above our own needs as an act of love. We can die for another, say a spouse or child, motivated by love.

I think we need to understand the call of Jesus in this light. I think for most of us, the only way to do this is to love Jesus more than anything else.

Obviously, I am not talking about romantic/erotic love. I’m talking about making a choice and a commitment to value and honor Jesus above all else. The better we know him, the easier it is to do this. This is one reason it is so important for us to have regular habits of Bible reading, prayer, fellowship with other Christians, and regular, solid Bible teaching. These things help us to know Jesus better which help us also to love him better. They lay the only reasonable groundwork for being able to deny ourselves and follow him, even when it involves dying to our own desires, and perhaps even martyrdom. Matthew records that Jesus already said this once before:

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt 10:37-39, ESV2011)

To sum up this point: the cross means that I love Jesus so much that I am truly willing to give up anything for his sake. This isn’t about feeling guilty when we fail to do so, but we need to live with an ongoing recognition that the focal point of the universe is Jesus, not ourselves, and not anyone else.

Another aspect of “taking up your cross” is that it means accepting shame and rejection and even sometimes persecution. It involves following in the footsteps of Jesus, who was (and is still) rejected and scorned by many people.

“If the world hates you, understand that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own. However, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it, the world hates you. Remember the word I spoke to you: ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will also keep yours. But they will do all these things to you on account of My name, because they don’t know the One who sent me. (John 15:18-21, HCSB)

This is part of the cross we take up to follow Jesus – that the people around will not understand, and in many cases will even hate us. I think sometimes it surprises us that Christians are considered by many to be hateful and bigoted. But if people slandered Jesus, why should we be surprised when we are slandered today?

For me, it has been a perplexing thing to have others who call themselves Christians speaking mockingly and hatefully about those of us who seem to be serious about following Jesus and believing the bible. However, it may be helpful for us to remember that those who first persecuted Jesus and his followers were religious people who claimed to be of the same faith as Jesus and the disciples. Saul (who later became Paul, the apostle) viciously persecuted the followers of Jesus in the name of God. I think today, more than ever for the past 500 years, we have a large number of people who are willing to call themselves Christian, but who also willfully ignore what the Bible teaches. It isn’t right, and it isn’t fair, but it is part of the cross of Jesus to be misunderstood, criticized, and ostracized even by others who claim to follow the same God.

Paul, who was both persecutor, and persecuted, notes this in many places. Here is a small sample:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but it is God’s power to us who are being saved. (1Cor 1:18, HCSB)

But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. (Gal 5:11, ESV2011)

But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles. Yet to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom, because God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1Cor 1:23-25, HCSB)

The cross of Christ means, among other things, that we will be considered foolish, dangerous, evil and offensive. This is happening more and more even in historically Christian-friendly societies. However, we in the West have not even begun to suffer when you consider how Christians are persecuted in other places around the world. Many countries have laws limiting the expression of Christian faith. Others include laws that make Christians “second class citizens.” From North Africa, east to Indonesia and north to China, there are Christians being imprisoned, physically assaulted and even killed for following Jesus. As far as I know, since Jesus was crucified and for two-thousand years since, at least some of his followers have been persecuted in at least some places in the world. Jesus said to expect it. This part of what it means to take up our crosses.

Not everything about taking up the cross is hard and negative. One thing that it means is that we are dead to sin. That should be positive and encouraging for us.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Rom 6:3-8, ESV2011)

Taking up our cross means that we recognize that in regard to sin, our flesh is as good as dead. The old sinner, Tom, has been killed with Jesus on the cross. I need to remember this, and trust that it is true, every day. I’m dead to sin. Sin has no relationship with a dead body, and sin has no relationship to me. Now, I am not claiming that I never commit sins, but the disease of sin has been killed in me, though some symptoms might linger. In the eyes of God, the sin problem is over. And so every day I need to take up my cross, and trust again that I am dead to sin, and live accordingly.

To sum it all up, when I take up my cross, I die to myself in order to live for Jesus. Paul says this so eloquently in Galatians 2:19-20

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2:19-20, HCSB)

I think it is important to understand that what many churches market as “Christianity” is really woefully lacking compared to what Jesus actually calls us to. Being a Christian is so much more than merely subscribing to a certain set of truths – though those truths are important. Instead, it is about selling out completely for Jesus Christ – loving Him with heart, mind, soul and strength, and dying to ourselves, dying to sin and being willing to undergo anything for His sake.

All this is not simply so that we can learn more about discipleship, instead, I want us to hear the invitation of the Lord here. All he needs from us is our willingness – he will take care of the rest. Martin Luther frames the call of Jesus to discipleship in this way:

Discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend – it must transcend all comprehension. Plunge into the deep waters beyond your own comprehension, and I will help you to comprehend even as I do… You cannot find it yourself, so you must let me lead you as though you were blind men. Wherefore it is not you, no man, no living creature, but I myself, who instruct you by my Word and Spirit in the way you should go.

Now, I realize that all of this might sound a little bit “heavy.” But remember what we talked about last time: when we accept the cross we enter a life of joy. It is not the pleasure or comfort that the world seeks, but it is true joy. When we give up on ourselves, and accept the will of Jesus for our lives, we find a peace and grace and the joy that cannot be found any other way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about this in his excellent book, The Cost of Discipleship. But Bonhoeffer did not just write about it, he lived it. Ultimately, he gave his life for the sake of Jesus; he was executed in Nazi Germany because his Christian faith was a threat to Hitler’s regime. When he speaks of the cross, and the cost of discipleship, he has authority, because he lived it. So, I think we can trust him when he shares about the strange joy that comes through accepting the cross of Jesus.

But Jesus invites all who travail and are heavy laden to throw off their own yoke and take his yoke upon them – and his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. The yoke and the burden of Christ are his cross. To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul, it is the highest joy. Then we do not walk under our self-made laws and burdens, but under the yoke of him who knows us and walks under the yoke with us. Under his yoke we are certain of his nearness and communion. It is he whom the disciple finds as he lifts up his cross.

SUFFERING, GRIEF AND HOPE

hope

The truth is earthly suffering is intolerable unless there is a glorious, loving, sorrow-free eternity. We Christians are a people of hope. But our hope is not primarily in this temporary life. Everyone dies, sooner or later. All hopes – for this life – come to an end. Jesus, as usual said it best: “You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.”

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 45

 

 

Matthew #45 . Matthew 14:1-12

The first part of Matthew 14 relates the details of how John the Baptist was killed. It’s important for us to remember that the life and teachings of John the Baptist continued to influence a large number of Jews for at least a generation after he was killed. I think this is one reason Matthew describes this incident in detail – it would have been important to the readers he had in mind when he was writing.

Matthew has already told us that John was in prison. I want to spend a moment dwelling on the reason for that, and the thing that got him killed, because it may surprise us. The short version is, John was imprisoned, and then killed, for publicly supporting biblical sexual morality. He publicly said that Herod was wrong for having sexual relations with his brother’s wife, Herodias.

I point this out because I think it is very relevant today. Our culture is extremely intolerant of people who insist that sex has any moral significance in and of itself.

If you say that sex has intrinsic moral significance, then you set it within a larger moral framework and set limits to the legitimate use of sex. In doing so, you declare certain sexual acts illegitimate, something which is now considered hate speech…

By divesting sex of intrinsic moral significance [an activist] has helped to create a world where those who attempt to set limits to the legitimacy of sexual activity are seen as the moral equivalent of racists and the intellectual equivalent of flat-earthers: Irrational bigots who have no place in the public square. (Carl R Trueman, First Things, 2-23-15 http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/02/congratulating-wesleyan).

There are many people who call themselves Christians who either don’t know, or don’t believe what the bible says about sex. There are many more who don’t like it, and refuse to adhere to it. A lot of people think that it gives Christians a bad name if we go around saying what the bible says about sex. Even more suggest that sexual morality is a “secondary issue” and we Christians should stay out of it for the sake of the gospel.

But John the Baptist died for it.

He could have said, “Well what Herod does in his own bedroom is Herod’s own business.” It’s likely that he could have made a public apology to Herod and Herodias, and at least have been spared execution. But he didn’t. He insisted upon telling the truth, and doing so publicly, and not retracting it. It got him killed.

Someday, a sermon like this may lead to my own imprisonment. It is no longer a question of disagreement in our culture. The power-brokers in the media, academe and government, as well as millions of narrow-minded citizens, want people like John the Baptist to be silenced. They don’t want to hear something they disagree with.

We have not yet come to executions for saying that adultery is a sin. But our government is already considering laws that make it a hate-crime to say in a public speech that homosexual behavior is a sin. In October of 2014, the city of Houston demanded in a subpoena that pastors turn over any sermon or communication with their congregation that mentions homosexuality, the lesbian mayor or transgender issues. To refuse to turn over the sermons would have been contempt of court, punishable by imprisonment. The government’s position is that pastors were using their religious positions to campaign politically, since there was law on the ballot about gay and transgender issues. But the fact remains, when the pastors spoke about the law (if they did) they did so because the issues raised by it are of biblical concern, and it is manifest that the city government wanted to silence and punish them for it.

Now, please understand me clearly. I am not saying that we should go around investigating everyone’s sex life, looking for something to criticize. But I do think sometimes we Jesus-followers avoid the topic because we don’t like getting flack for calling sin “sin.” I simply want to point out that perhaps this passage shows us that the issue of sexual morality is more important than we want to think, and I do suspect that it is with that issue that the persecution of Christians will begin in the Western world. Lest we think it is a secondary issue, remember that John the Baptist died for speaking the truth about morality. I think we Christians should consider this very carefully before we decide to keep silent about it.

~

After John was killed, his disciples buried his body, and then they did something very important: they went to Jesus. There is no doubt that they were full of grief and sorrow. There is no doubt that some of them wondered why Jesus didn’t do anything to save John. But they went to him anyway.

Jesus’ reaction is also important:

When Jesus heard about it, He withdrew from there by boat to a remote place to be alone. (Matt 14:13)

Obviously, the news of John’s death had an impact on Jesus. He wanted to be alone to process it. Jesus and John were relatives, and they had known each other all their lives. John had worked hard to prepare people for the ministry of Jesus, and he had unfailingly pointed people toward him. In short, they were family, friends and ministry partners. And now John is gone. Jesus knew his eternal home was heaven. He knew he would see John there again. But that didn’t change the fact that just like us, Jesus experienced pain and suffering in the world, and it hit him hard at times.

I think it’s important for us to dwell on this for a minute. We human beings have a very difficult time with pain and suffering. How can a good and loving God let these things happen? The answers to this are only partial, and sometimes complex. But I take comfort from the example of Jesus here. On the one hand, he knows everything is going to be all right. In fact, he knows that in eternity, everything is better than all right. John’s suffering on earth is over. He himself will be with John again in just a few short years. On the other hand, in the present moment, he grieves.

The truth is earthly suffering is intolerable unless there is a glorious, loving, sorrow-free eternity. About a year ago, I spoke at the funeral of a twenty-one year old who died unexpectedly and tragically. I said then that of course it was good and right to grieve. I said that we Christians are also people of hope. But our hope is not primarily in this temporary life. Everyone dies, sooner or later. All hopes – for this life – come to an end. Paul writes:

If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at His coming, those who belong to Christ. (1Cor 15:19-23, HCSB)

Jesus shows us that it is good and appropriate to grieve the tragedies of this life. But he also gives us a better hope, an eternal hope. I am reminded of the old song, Wayfarin’ Stranger:

I’m just a poor, wayfarin’ stranger

Travelin’ through this world of woe

But there’s no sickness, no toil or danger

In that bright world to which I go.

 

I’m goin’ there to see my Father

I’m goin’ there no more to roam

I’m just a goin’ over Jordan

I’m just a goin’ over home.

Jesus, preparing his disciples for his own death, said this:

I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33, HCSB)

We will have trouble and suffering in the world. Hope which cannot apply equally to the free man with the possibility of making his life better, and also the man doomed to suffer and die in prison, is not hope at all. Jesus offers us real hope, eternal hope. There is a time for grief, and Jesus himself grieved for his dear friend and cousin John. If this was the experience of Jesus, we should not think that we will be exempt from it. But even in grief, there is hope, hope not based on everything coming out right here and now, but on something greater and more lasting than anything in this life.

Like John’s disciples, and Jesus himself, it is often appropriate to mourn. But also like John’s disciples, let us bring our grief to Jesus, and receive from him the eternal hope we so desperately need.

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JESUS CLAIMS #1 SPOT FOR HIS FOLLOWERS

carryingthecross-2

At some point, anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian is faced with a call to daily deny himself or herself, die to self, be willing to actually die, and follow Jesus. This isn’t just theoretical. It will affect the way we relate to other people. It will affect what kind of jobs we take, and when and where we take them. It should make an impact on how much we indulge ourselves. It may even at some point cost us our lives.

 

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 35

 

 

Matthew #35. Matthew 10:32-42

Remember, Matthew chapter 10 begins with Jesus sending his disciples out on a training mission. He gave them certain instructions, from which we can gain certain principles, and we looked at those already. Last time, we looked at the words of warning that Jesus gave his disciples. He told them to expect persecution and trouble. But he also gave them (and, by extension, us) many wonderful words of comfort and promise, words which we can hold on to in times of trouble.

After these comforting promises, Jesus begins with this: “Therefore…” One of my old Bible school teachers always used to say “What is that therefore there for?” It’s a useful little question. In this case, it is to remind us that what Jesus is going to say next is connected with what he has already said. In other words, because we have these warnings, and especially because we have these promises, Jesus says this:

“Therefore, everyone who will acknowledge Me before men, I will also acknowledge him before My Father in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father in heaven. (Matt 10:32-33, HCSB)

Jesus doesn’t simply say, “Acknowledge me before men.” He first gives us instructions, and a sure and beautiful promise of his presence and his grace to us in the middle of hard times. Considering those things, he now says, “All these promises are connected to me. To receive them, you must confess me. You must put me before all things.”

The Greek word that is here translated “acknowledge,” might also be “confess.” The two root words of the Greek term, put together, really mean “to say the same thing as,” or “to speak with.” Some translations make it “confess.” I like this better than “acknowledge.” We are to confess Jesus. Confession means not only to admit something, but also to agree with something or someone. We are to say the same things that Jesus says, to agree with him. Jesus makes it clear that we are to do so not only privately, but also in public.

Jesus goes on. He makes reference to a verse in the book of Micah, implying that it is a messianic verse and he is fulfilling it:

Surely a son considers his father a fool, a daughter opposes her mother, and a daughter-in-law is against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own household. But I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation. My God will hear me. Do not rejoice over me, my enemy! Though I have fallen, I will stand up; though I sit in darkness, the LORD will be my light. (Mic 7:6-8, HCSB)

He also says “Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” This is one of those things Jesus said that many people don’t seem to know about. You don’t have to go far to hear Christians and non-Christians alike saying, “Why do conservative Christians have to stir up so much trouble? Christians are supposed to get along with everybody. It isn’t Christian to cause controversy.” In light of these verses, I guess maybe Jesus wasn’t a Christian. He is quite clear: He is a polarizing personality; those who follow him will find themselves at times embroiled in conflict, even within their own families. This isn’t an endorsement of violence in any way, shape or form. It isn’t a license to be rude, or to bully. But Jesus does want us to recognize that following him can lead to controversy and difficult relationships.

I don’t believe I’ve ever heard this preached by anyone else before. But obviously, it is right here in the text. If Jesus said anything at all, he said this as well. We can’t ignore it. These days, when we agree with (that is, confess) the things that Jesus said, or the things that his Holy Spirit inspired his apostles to write, it is easy to draw flak. If we agree with the Bible about what the Holy Spirit calls “sin,” we are called hatemongers. If we agree with what Jesus actually said about himself, we are called narrow-minded and intolerant. Following Jesus does indeed lead us to be peaceful and loving. But it does not mean that others will see us that way, or even that our lives will be free from conflict with those who do not follow Jesus or his word.

Now, Jesus ratchets it up a notch. Not only does he suggest that following him can lead us into conflict, but he demands that when there is a conflict, we choose him above anything and anybody else.

The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. (Matt 10:37, HCSB)

It’s easy to breeze through these words of Jesus. But hold on a minute: we are supposed to choose Jesus even above our own children? That is what He says here. Now obviously, much of the time we are not faced with choices like this. Following Jesus is usually compatible with loving our children. But Jesus is saying, flat out, that we should always love him more than we love our own children, or anyone else for that matter.

Let’s step back a minute and look at this message. This is not merely a great moral teaching about loving other people. It is, in fact, a demand that we love Jesus, and that we do so at a higher level than we love anyone else. Unless Jesus is God, this teaching is either nonsense or pure evil. There is no sense in which Jesus is saying “Follow your own path to enlightenment.” He is not saying, “Follow me, follow Buddha, it makes no difference as long as you are sincere.” He is not saying, “Just love everybody else and you’ll be fine.” Instead, he is clearly saying: “Everything comes down to how you relate to me. I am the basis upon which you must prioritize your life and make your decisions.” To put it another way, the central teachings of Jesus are about himself. No wonder he was such a polarizing figure.

Next he says this:

And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matt 10:38-39, HCSB)

Over the years, this little part of what Jesus said has morphed into this: “I have my own cross to bear.” But this is not at all the meaning that Jesus had in mind. It’s true, each person has their own unique struggles in life; I think it’s fine to recognize that. But when Jesus was talking about taking up our cross, he wasn’t talking about that. This was the period in history when the Romans used crucifixion as a method of execution. Typically, if the condemned person was healthy enough, he had to carry the instrument of his own death to the place of execution. In other words, condemned people could be seen from time to time carrying the crosses upon which they were to be killed. To carry a cross was to be on your way to death. So when Jesus tells us that we must pick up our crosses and follow him, he is saying that we must follow in his example of dying.

I think it is appropriate to understand that Jesus means, among other things, that we must die to our own ambitions, comforts, and goals. Jesus actually repeats this teaching again later on in his ministry. Luke records that the second time Jesus said it, it was “let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” I think this definitely captures the meaning. Taking up our cross means that we deny ourselves. We don’t deny ourselves just to show that we are self-disciplined, but we put Jesus’ goals and ambitions and desires for us ahead of our own. I think it’s useful that Luke says this needs to happen “daily.” But even more than dying to our own desires, right here, Jesus is telling us that in order to follow him we need to be willing to go as far as actual physical death. Throughout the past 2000 years, many Christians have been faced with the choice to either deny Jesus or give up their physical lives. I live in a time and a place where that is unlikely to happen, even so, Jesus wants my willingness. Not even continuing to live should be more important to me than Jesus Christ. As Jesus says, if you save your own life, by compromising your relationship with him, you have actually lost it.

In the next few verses Jesus’ claim is emphasized once more. He says that he is so central to everything, that when people offer respect, regard, or even a cup of water, to his followers, because they are his followers, they will be rewarded. The point here is not the reward, it is the fact of people recognizing who Jesus is and honoring that in the way they relate to his followers. It is about honoring Jesus.

I hope you understand that these words of Jesus are confrontational. He is presenting us with a choice: does he have the preeminent place in our lives? Do we love him more than we love anyone else? Is Jesus our number one priority? He is claiming here that he should be. This isn’t about following a moral code, it isn’t about living according to some sort of principle. It is about making Jesus Christ, the person, number one in our lives.

When controversy comes because you confess Jesus Christ, or you agree with what he says, what is your response? It isn’t wrong to seek peace with those with whom you disagree. But when peace is impossible, when agreement cannot be reached, Jesus unequivocally calls us to side with him.

At some point, anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian is faced with a call to daily deny himself or herself, die to self, be willing to actually die, and follow Jesus. This isn’t just theoretical. It will affect the way we relate to other people. It will affect what kind of jobs we take, and when and where we take them. It should make an impact on how much we indulge ourselves. It may even at some point cost us our lives.

Now of course, we can’t be perfect in putting Jesus first. I know I fail to do that in many ways. I believe Jesus offers me grace and forgiveness when I fail. But I do think he wants me to make the choice to put him above everything, even if at times I fail in following through. It is good to know, that my failures are not the final word.

Once again, we do not have the comfortable choice of viewing Jesus as a kind, harmless moral teacher. In some ways, he has been at the center of controversy for the past 2000 years. We can reject what he has said here, and call him a lunatic, or a megalomaniac. Or, we can receive him as our Lord, take up our crosses, and follow him.

DO NOT FEAR! YOU ARE WORTH MORE THAN MANY SPARROWS!

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Sorry, there is no audio for this message at this time. As of the post date, I am battling a cold and severe laryngitis.

 

Matthew #34 . Matthew 10:16-31

Last time we began to look at this passage, where Jesus is essentially training his disciples for mission work. He is sending them out immediately after he finishes speaking, and so much of what he says applies to their immediate mission. However, it is clear that there is much within these verses that also applies to the ongoing mission that the disciples will have after he dies, is resurrected, and ascends to heaven. In fact, it applies to us also as we engage in the ongoing mission of Jesus in this world.

So for instance, when Jesus tells the disciples to go only to the towns of Israel, and to avoid Gentiles, those instructions are limited to this first training mission. On the other hand, there is no evidence that the disciples were particularly persecuted while Jesus was still on earth, and so his warnings about persecutions were given to prepare them for the future, for the time after he had returned to heaven and sent the Holy Spirit.

The point is, most of Matthew chapter 10 is still relevant for us today. As we learned last time, we are called to engage in Jesus’ mission just as those first disciples were. Jesus’ words here are therefore also for our training.

Jesus says that those who follow him can expect to be taken to court. We can us expect public floggings; public trials where everyone would like to see us convicted; ridicule; struggle and strife. Our persecutors may be religious people. They may be people of great worldly power. Following Jesus might even bring strife into our family relationships. It could cost us our lives.

I don’t want to minimize these things. Jesus said them, and he clearly meant them. In fact, these things have been coming true since the day he sent his Holy Spirit to his disciples. From that time on the historical record is filled with evidence that those who followed Jesus are persecuted. For the past 2000 years there have always been places in the world where Christians are persecuted. And it continues even today. Just this week, I have been reading about the severe persecutions of Christians in Iraq and Syria. One Christian couple sat down with their children and explained to them that they might be threatened, even physically harmed, even killed. But they told their kids to hang on, that was only temporary, that soon all of them would be together with Jesus. This happened just this past month; it isn’t just something from long ago.

So why does Jesus tell his disciples these things? Why is it here for us? I think in this day and age, it is very important for us to understand that following Jesus is not necessarily a path to an easy life here on earth. This whole chapter portrays a life that could be hard. If and when persecutions come we should not be surprised, or even dismayed.

In some small degree, I have even felt little bits of adversity myself. Someone in my extended family compared me to an Islamic terrorist for holding to my conviction that the Bible is the word of God. Twice, in my ministry as a pastor, I have been called “David Koresh.” Koresh was a depraved, wicked cult leader, whose actions led to the destruction of many lives. Those who said it obviously meant that I am controlling, wicked and depraved. I’m not perfect, obviously, but I know I’m certainly nothing like either a terrorist or David Koresh. I remember these words of Jesus:

A disciple is not above his teacher, or a slave above his master. It is enough for a disciple to become like his teacher and a slave like his master. If they called the head of the house ‘Beelzebul,’ how much more the members of his household! (Matt 10:24-25, HCSB)

“Beelzebul” was a common name for “ruler of the demons.” Some people said Jesus did miracles because he was in league with the devil (we read that in 9:34), and I think that is what he is referring to. He is reminding all of us that if we are ridiculed and insulted and slandered, we are in good company – his company. These words are a comfort to me.

And in fact, there is a lot more comfort here too. These words are not meant to scare us or depress us – they are meant to encourage us when hardship comes along, especially when the world seems against us for our faith in Jesus Christ. Listen to Jesus:

“Therefore, don’t be afraid of them, since there is nothing covered that won’t be uncovered and nothing hidden that won’t be made known. What I tell you in the dark, speak in the light. What you hear in a whisper, proclaim on the housetops. Don’t fear those who kill the body but are not able to kill the soul; rather, fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. But even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So don’t be afraid therefore; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matt 10:26-31, HCSB)

I think this is a good place to stop and “camp” for a while. What I mean is, let’s give some attention and meditation to these particular verses. In the Greek, verse 29 says, literally: “Are not two sparrows sold for one penny? And yet not one of them falls to earth without your father.” Some English versions say “without your Father’s will” or “consent” or “knowledge” but the Greek is just “without your Father.” The picture here is that even when common a little bird dies, our Heavenly Father is there. To put it a different way: not even a sparrow dies alone. Sparrows do die sometimes. In fact, all them do die, eventually. The same is true of human beings. But the Father is there. He is with us, in every circumstance, even death. He isn’t distant, unaware of what is happening with you. He is right here with you. Not only does he know what is happening with you, he is right there with you in the middle of it. Paul understood this when he wrote this:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He did not even spare His own Son but offered Him up for us all; how will He not also with Him grant us everything? Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? God is the One who justifies. Who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is the One who died, but even more, has been raised; He also is at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: Because of You we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord! (Rom 8:31-39, HCSB)

You may look back on your life and remember times of trouble and say “where was God in that?” I encourage you to turn that into a prayer. Instead of complaining, come to him humbly, honestly in your hurt and say, “That was awful. Where were you in the middle of that, Lord? Will you show me?” If you are presently in the midst of trouble or suffering, I encourage you to ask him the same question, only about the present time.

I know someone who was not a Christian until she was fifteen years old. Her childhood before that included some tragedies – the kinds of things that can mess up a person for a long time. In her middle twenties, the Lord began to bring up her memories of the very hard things she had been through. Only this time, she could see Him there in the memories. Obviously, the Lord hadn’t prevented the tragedies, most of which were due to the choices of other people. But he showed her that he had been right there with her in the middle of those things; he offered her comfort in those moments in her memories, and when she was able to see that, she experienced a great deal of peace and healing.

One of my favorite fantasy fiction book series is The Riddle Master of Hed by Patricia A. McKilip. In the story, the main character, Morgon goes through many exciting and terrible struggles as he searches for answers to questions that will change the fate of the world. He suffers pain, loss and fear. He loves his friends, but loses some of them in his quest. Among his other questions, he wonders why he must suffer so much. And then, when he first finds the answer, this is what happens:

[Morgon] closed his eyes. His heart beat suddenly, painfully in his throat. He wanted to speak, but he could not. The harpist’s silence circled him with the peace he had found deep within living things all over the realm. It eased through his thoughts into his heart, so that he could not even think. He only knew that something he had searched for so long and so hopelessly had never, even his most desperate moments, been far from his side.

Even as I write this, Christians in the Middle East are suffering terrible persecutions, like the ones Jesus describes here. But none of it happens without the presence of the Father with them. If you live very long, you will experience hardship and suffering of one sort or another. The Lord is never, even in your most desperate moments, far from your side. Though Jesus warns of this, he also says, “Do not Fear!”

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.

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