You’re invited to the Feast!


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Matthew #77 Matthew 22:1-14

When we deal with texts that are longer than just a few verses, I don’t usually include them in the written version of the notes. I think it would help you if you opened your Bible and read the text yourself, and follow along as we go over it.

This chapter begins with some important words: “Once more, Jesus spoke to them in parables.” This is important because when we read the Bible, we need to pay attention to the genre of what we are reading; Matthew tells us it is a parable. A parable is a story that is told to illustrate just a few main points. The story is not meant to correspond to reality in every detail, and we can misinterpret a parable if we try to find meaning in each small detail. For instance, we may read verse six and say: “That’s not realistic. They would never mistreat or kill the king’s messengers, just because they were invited to a wedding they didn’t want to attend.”

Of course it isn’t realistic: it is a parable. The story is told to illustrate spiritual truths. It is not intended to be understood literally. On the other hand, this over-the-top treatment of the messengers is meant to illustrate something: that the behavior of those who reject God’s invitation is outrageous, as offensive as the behavior of the people in the story.

This is the third parable in a row in this part of Matthew. Like the other two, it is aimed at those who claim to be God’s people but do not act like it. In the parable of the two sons, the main point was the difference between saying you will do what God wants, and actually doing it. In the parable of the vineyard tenants, it was similar: God gives his people all that is necessary to produce good fruit, and expects to see that fruit. Here, Jesus addresses the relationship between God and his people.

He says the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a King throwing a wedding feast for his son. I think he has in mind God the Father inviting his people to the great celebration of the redemption accomplished by Jesus Christ, who is the Son.

First, the original guests were invited. Here, I believe Jesus was speaking to his immediate audience: the religious leadership. He has been doing so all along, and there is no indication that his audience has changed. So, he is illustrating the fact that the people of Israel were chosen by God. They were the first to be invited to the feast. But they rejected the invitation. Many of them simply weren’t interested – they had other things they wanted to do. Some of them were offensive about it – they mistreated, and even killed the messengers sent by the King. I think Jesus wants to remind his listeners of the many prophets who were rejected by God’s people. Most certainly, he is pointing out that they have rejected the Son of the king.

In the next part of the parable, the king sends messengers to invite “everyone you find.” Jesus says they gathered everyone they found: “both evil and good.” In other words, this invitation is open to everyone.

However, the fact that the invitation is open to all does not mean that there are no standards for the wedding feast. The expectation is that the guests should be wearing clothing that is appropriate to the occasion.

The great Christian thinker, Augustine, suggested that on such an occasion, the host of the wedding feast would provide a “wedding garment.” Therefore, if someone was not wearing “wedding clothes,” they had overtly and deliberately rejected what was provided by the host. Unfortunately, Augustine lived about 300 years after the time of Jesus, and does not tell us how he knows that this was the case during the time of Jesus. I myself could not find any reliable evidence one way or another about whether the clothing was supposed to be provided by the host or the guests.

Even so, I don’t think it matters much either way. Remember, we are dealing with a parable. I don’t think we need to get bogged down in details like where the appropriate clothes were supposed to come from. I think it is safe to assume that one way or another, the person who was not wearing the right clothing had made a deliberate choice about what to wear.

I think even today we can see how offensive this would be. Imagine you are invited to a Royal wedding, like the wedding of Prince William of England to Kate. Would you show up to such an event wearing ratty old jeans with holes in them, and a dirty T-shirt? Of course you wouldn’t; and the reason is that you know it would be disrespectful. Wouldn’t the royal family have every right to turn you away if you showed up to the wedding in those types of clothes? After all, it is their private family occasion; you are there by invitation, not because you have a right to be there.

Or, suppose one of the movie stars from Star Wars decided to hold a party. Anyone is welcome, however, everyone must be dressed like one of the characters from the movies. The rich and famous are going to be at that party. You might meet any number of movie stars. The food and drink will be awesome; the evening will be one to remember for your whole life. Is it too much to ask that you dress as the host requested? Would it not be ungrateful to show up in ordinary clothes? Wouldn’t the host have every right to kick you out if you made no effort to comply with his wishes?

So, it seems to me that the parable is making these three main points:

  • The Jewish people, God’s chosen ones, did not respond to him, and in some cases, even violently rejected his messengers.
  • God is seeking out those who will respond to him. The invitation is open to everyone.
  • Though the invitation is open to everyone (“both good and evil”), it is still required that we accept it on God’s terms.

I think it is hard for us today to understand how radical it was for Jewish people in the first century to accept that God now wanted to treat even non-Jews as his chosen people. The religious leaders at that time felt secure in that they had the temple; they also felt secure as God’s specially chosen people. However, as in the previous two parables, Jesus is saying: “None of that matters if you actually reject God. And not only that, the time has come when God is going to welcome anyone who will receive Me in faith.”

Now, of course this is not particularly radical to modern Christians. So how does the first part of this parable apply to us today? Just as in Israel during Jesus time, today there are many people who feel secure because they are religious in one way or another; however, in spite of their religion (or perhaps because of it), they have rejected God’s will and purposes for their lives. Jesus’ words were offensive to the religious leaders of his day. My next words may be offensive to some of you. I’m not setting out to be offensive, I only want to make sure that we get the full impact of the teaching of Jesus in our lives today.

Just as in Jesus’ time, some people today feel spiritually safe and self-satisfied for all of the wrong reasons. Some of them say things like: “I go to church pretty regularly. All in all, I’m a pretty decent person. I’ve done the best I can.”

Others might say: “Well, at least I’m not a hypocrite. I’ve never pretended to be a better person than I am. And I try to do right. The Bible says God is loving, and people who follow him are supposed to be loving; well, I am loving. I’m probably better off than a lot of those hypocritical church-goers.”

Still others might say: “I got saved when I was 13 years old. I prayed the prayer, and I got baptized. I know I haven’t been perfect since then but praise God, when I die I’m going to heaven.” Now, someone like this might indeed be going to heaven. But if their lives show no evidence at all that Jesus is living in them, and leading them into greater holiness, then I’m concerned for them. “Getting saved” is not a ticket that you buy, after which you can live however you want. If you are really saved, it means that Jesus owns your life.

The problem with each one of these things, is that while the people may trust in one form or another of religion, or right-living, they’re rejecting the life of faith and obedience in Jesus Christ.

Some of the people in Jesus’ parable chose not to come to the wedding because they were busy with their lives. Everyday things interfered with them accepting the King’s gracious invitation. At one level, they were supposed to be the friends and guests of the King. But when it came to actually doing something with the King, they preferred other things. This part of the parable concerns me greatly. Everywhere I look, I see people who say they are Christians, but their lives are really no different from others who say they aren’t Christians. They are still living essentially for their own goals and purposes. Sometimes those goals and purposes are not bad. They want a good family, and a stable, secure life. God is fine, as long as he is merely an accessory to that life, or perhaps as a means to getting that life. But they don’t want a King who has the right to tell them to change that life in any way he pleases. They don’t actually want a regular, meaningful relationship with the King.

I think the very last part of the parable goes along with the first. The man who went to the feast without any concern or respect for the King is also someone that we can learn from. Too many people today talk and act as if God must accept us based upon our standards, rather than his own. We think the deal is that Jesus died for our sins, and now we can live however we please. We think that receiving salvation from Jesus does not have to involve any change in our lives. The last part of the parable shows us that this is not true. Trusting Jesus should change us. The change may be slow, it may come in fits and starts, but if we truly trust Jesus, if we have truly allowed him to be our king, it will make a difference in our lives. And if our faith makes no difference in our lives, it is a warning sign.

There are two types of people who read this blog, who might misunderstand what I’m saying here. Some of you are dear, beloved Jesus-followers, but you are afraid that you are not. Every time you hear a sermon like this one you think: “Is that me? Has Jesus really changed me at all?” Let me remind you that Jesus has already reached the perfect standard on our behalf. You don’t have to be perfect. In addition, it is often hard for us to see, from within, what Jesus is doing in our lives. We often are not the best judges of whether or not we are bearing fruit.

Others who read this blog may be very inclined to excuse themselves. Their reaction might be: “At first I thought maybe that was me. But then I remembered the basic thing is just that God loves me, so I’m fine as I am.” These are people who either justify, or blow off the fact that they live in a regular pattern of ongoing sin.

The apostle Paul has some words for both types of people.

16I say then, walk by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. 17For the flesh desires what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit desires what is against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you don’t do what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

The desires of the Spirit and flesh are opposed to each other. So if you desire what the Spirit desires, your heart can be at rest. If, when you fail and engage in works of the flesh, you are upset, and think, “I didn’t want to do that,” then you know that the Spirit is at work in you, making you desire what is right. Paul goes on:

19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, 20idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar. I tell you about these things in advance — as I told you before — that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

We don’t have to wonder – the works of the flesh are obvious. Many of them are listed right here. If you practice such things – that is, if they are a regular part of your life – then you should be concerned. Next, Paul describes the life that is surrendered to Jesus:

22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, 23gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law.

24Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, we must also follow the Spirit (Gal 5:16-25, HCSB)

The basic point is that the works of the Holy Spirit, and the works of the flesh, are obvious. If the fruit of the Spirit are increasing in you – even in small amounts – that’s a very good sign. If you desire to be better than you are – more like the Spirit, less like the flesh, then that is also a very good sign.

But if you are practicing (verse 21) – that is, repeated engaging in, living in a pattern of – the works of the flesh, then in all honesty, you ought to be concerned.

The point is, it should be pretty obvious whether the fruit of the Spirit is gradually increasing in you, or whether the works of the flesh are present in the regular pattern of your life. Even your reaction when you sin can guide you. If you think “Rats, I really wish I hadn’t done that. I really want to be better,” the Spirit of God is at work in you. But if you think “No big deal. Everyone does it,” then you are in spiritual danger.

But this parable can be good news, very, very good news for us. The party is open to everyone. Everyone. Jesus even says: “both evil and good.” Your sin, your failures do not disqualify you, if you are willing to come on God’s terms. Of course, if we come, he will change us from evil into good, but we don’t have to make that change ahead of time. Instead, we come as we are, and allow him to make those changes in our lives. Those who are willing to come, and come on his terms, are welcomed into his joy.

WHY DON’T GOOD PEOPLE GO TO HEAVEN?

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The Old Testament commands concerning relationship with God are all fulfilled in trusting and obeying Jesus. What the rich young ruler lacks is not outward behavior, but an internal commitment to the Lord as his one and only true God. Even so, in Jesus, we don’t have to be perfect – we trust that he meets that standard for us. This isn’t license to sin, rather, it is a comfort to sinners who want to do right, but fail sometimes. It is reassurance that our only “goodness” comes from the only One who is good.

 

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 67

 

Matthew #67 Matthew 19:13-22

Verses 13 through 15 record an incident with little children. This is similar to what came previously, in chapter 18, and we spoke about it then. Again, Jesus states that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like children. In addition, we can see that Jesus does indeed value and love actual little children.

After this, Matthew records an incident that is also covered by Mark and Luke. I want to point out that we have here one of the “contradictions” that skeptics are always talking about. Matthew remembers that the young man asks “Teacher, what good must I do to inherit eternal life?” One the other hand, Mark and Luke record the shocking difference that the young man says: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” You talk about a contradiction. Wow. People often say “the bible is full of contradictions.” They usually can’t give many specific examples (that is, they really don’t know what they are talking about), but this is one them. As you can see, the contradiction makes no difference. In fact, Matthew does not claim that the young man never called Jesus “good teacher,” so actually there is no necessary contradiction.

I believe that this is an incredibly relevant passage of Scripture, precisely because the discussion is about “goodness.” Goodness is at the heart of the point of this passage, and is also at the heart of the divide between Christianity and all other religions. It isn’t so much that we disagree about what goodness is (although there is a certain amount of disagreement there), but Christianity has a fundamentally different understanding of how to achieve goodness, and the role that goodness plays in our relationship to God.

I want to pause for a moment, and thank those of you who are praying for the ministry of Clear Bible and supporting us financially also. It’s easy to skip the piece I usually put in at the end about prayer and support, but we really do need your prayers, and we really do appreciate them. It’s not that we are in crisis, but we are in spiritual work, and spiritual work needs spiritual support – that is prayers. I am being honest when I say that we also need material support – that is, financial support. But I believe that if you join us in praying for that, as well as for the ministry in general, the Lord will provide what we need. If he leads you to be a part of that provision, you can use the donate button here on the blog, or you can send a check to New Joy Fellowship; 917 Canyon Creek Drive; Lebanon, TN 37087. Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

All right, let’s get back to the text. Virtually every other religion on earth besides Christianity has this basic proposition: “Your behavior will determine your eternal destiny. Behave well, and you will reach the goal you are seeking; behave badly, and you will fail.” What many people don’t notice about this, is that it means you are in control. If you just do certain things, you win the prize. Religion is humans trying, through their own efforts to become good, and then immortal (though in the case of Buddhism, humans are trying to become immortally nothing). It is about human effort and human goodness.

This is the attitude of the young man who approaches Jesus. His question is “What [good] must I do to enter eternal life?” In other words, his underlying assumption is that he is able to control his eternal future, if he just does the right things. Jesus’ response is very interesting.

17“Why do you ask Me about what is good? ” He said to him. “There is only One who is good.

Right away, Jesus is confronting the man’s assumption. The implication of what he is saying is that the young man can’t be good, since there is only One who is good – and that would be God. In other words, Jesus is already hinting that it isn’t about doing good, but rather, knowing the One who is good and giving your allegiance to Him. But Jesus’ next words seem almost like a contradiction, not only to his first sentence, but also to what Christians have believed and taught for 2000 years:

If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

It sounds like what Jesus is saying here is that you have to obey the commandments in order to get eternal life. However, I think Jesus is answering the young man’s question on the young man’s terms. In other words, he is saying: “If you wanted to get into heaven by being good, you have to obey all the commandments.” I don’t think Jesus means that we really can achieve eternal life that way. Paul talks about this in the book of Galatians:

1Christ has liberated us to be free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.2Take note! I, Paul, tell you that if you get yourselves circumcised, Christ will not benefit you at all.3Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to keep the entire law.4You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace. (Gal 5:1-5, HCSB)

In other words, theoretically, you could reach eternal life by being perfect. However, if you are going to go the route of trying to earn your salvation through your own goodness, then you must keep the law perfectly. I think that is what Jesus is saying to this young man.

But, as Paul points out in numerous places, nobody can actually do it in practice. Here are two references:

9What then? Are we any better? Not at all! For we have previously charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin,10as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one.11There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.12All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. (Rom 3:9-12, HCSB)

 

15We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners”16know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. (Gal 2:15-16, HCSB)

So, it is clear that Jesus is engaging with this young man on a more or less theoretical level; but that is where the man starts the conversation, so Jesus meets him where he is. Next, the man asks a very interesting question: “which commandments do I have to follow?” This question is not as hypocritical as it might sound at first. By the time of Jesus, the Jews had developed a huge body of rules and regulations that they claimed needed to be followed. I’ve mentioned this in a number of sermons on the book of Matthew. So the Jewish religion was no longer simply based upon the Old Testament, but also on the collected teachings of various rabbis, and numerous traditions and regulations that have been handed down. Modern Jewish rabbis will readily admit that no one could possibly follow all of these things consistently. So the young man is probably thinking of many things besides simply the 10 Commandments. Jesus, as he always does in such situations, brings it back to God’s word as it was given in the Old Testament:

1 Jesus answered: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness;19honor your father and your mother; and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt 19:17-19, HCSB)

There is a fascinating subtext here. Do you notice anything missing? Jesus has left out every command that pertains to following, loving and obeying God. In the 10 Commandments, God told the people to have no other gods besides him; to neither create nor worship idols (things that represent God to us, but are not him); to honor, and not misuse the name of the Lord; and to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. These are the first four Commandments, and they all have to do with our relationship with God, and Jesus says nothing about them.

Why?

The commandments that Jesus told the young man to follow are quite similar to the basic moral code for Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, and of course, Jews. Apart from the second one that he named, almost anyone in Western culture today, Christian or not, would be happy to agree with Jesus’ response. Even atheists are generally against murder, stealing, and lying for gain; and they are generally for being good to your family and loving others. This is the type of thing that leads people to ask: “Aren’t all religions the same?”

But Jesus is about to burst the bubble of the rich young man, and along with it, the bubble of those who think all religions are the same. He was a brilliant teacher, and part of his brilliance was helping people to come to the right conclusion through their own thought process. You can see it happening in this young man right before our eyes:

“I have kept all these,” the young man told Him. “What do I still lack? ” (Matt 19:20, HCSB)

I don’t think we need to criticize the young man for saying that he is kept all the commandments the Jesus named – millions of people think they do this, at least, externally. But I want us to see what Jesus has done to him. This guy knows that there is another shoe that hasn’t dropped yet. If he was a good Jew, he certainly knew that Jesus had left out the first four Commandments. By leaving them out, Jesus has called his attention to the fact that he is missing something, and so he asks “What do I still lack? What am I still missing?”

21“If you want to be perfect,” Jesus said to him, “go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” (Matt 19:21, HCSB)

What is Jesus saying? First, he is saying that in order to have eternal life, the young man must be perfect. He is spelling out what I mentioned before: if you want to try to get eternal life in this way, you must be perfect. Second, Jesus is telling him to obey, in a practical way, those first four commands that he omitted to mention before. This young man was rich, and his money was both a God to him, and an idol. For this man to obey: “you shall not worship an idol,” he had to sell all of his possessions. For this man to have no other gods, he had to get rid of his wealth. For this man to honor the name of the Lord, to trust him above all, he had to become poor so that his wealth would not tempt him. For this man to worship, to honor the Sabbath and rest, he had to give to others, and free himself from the cares and worry that came from being rich. And above all, Jesus is claiming his ultimate allegiance: “Come and follow me.” This is yet one more place where Jesus claims to be the Lord, the God of the Old Testament. He is telling this young man that the command: “I am the Lord, you have no other gods before you,” is practically fulfilled in following Jesus. The Old Testament commands concerning relationship with God are all fulfilled in trusting and obeying Jesus. Jesus makes that clear here.

What the rich young ruler lacks is not outward behavior, but an internal commitment to the Lord as his one and only true God. He needs to get rid of everything that is standing between him and following Jesus, and then follow.

This is an answer for those who ask: “What about the good Buddhist, who lives a moral life? How will he be kept from heaven?” First of all, if someone is a good Buddhist, he doesn’t want to go to heaven. He wants to eternally cease to exist. Seriously, that’s the goal, and when people ask that question, they are only revealing their ignorance of religion. But there is a valid point there, so let’s replace “a good Buddhist, with “a good Muslim.” I know Islam has a lot of negatives, but I have met many Muslim men who basically want to live good, moral lives. The commands that Jesus lists here not so different for Muslims. So, Jesus could be talking to a good Muslim in this passage. The one thing such a person lacks is total commitment to Jesus as Lord. And Jesus makes clear that that is the one thing necessary for eternal life.

So, to be clear, there are two answers in this text to the question: “Why can’t a good, moral person who does not believe in Jesus go to heaven?” The first, is that Jesus says only God himself can be good enough. If you want to get into heaven by your good works, the standard is perfection. I don’t care who you are, no “good moral person” is perfect, and Jesus says here that in fact no one is even good, except God.

Second, Jesus also makes it clear that the only way to eternal life is to give all of your allegiance to him. We must get rid of what comes in between us and following Jesus, and then follow him. When we do that, we are not judged based on our perfection, but rather on our faith in, and allegiance to, Jesus. This is the message of the entire New Testament, and in fact the entire Bible. Re-read Galatians 2:15-16 above. Here’s another from 1 John 5:10-13

10Whoever 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.11And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.12Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.13I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1John 5:10-13, ESV2011)

Though it isn’t spelled out in Matthew 19, the rest of the New Testament teaches true goodness is a gift from God that we receive when we trust Jesus Christ, and follow him. Trust in Jesus comes first, and what we call “morality,” or “doing good” comes about as a result of that faith. Doing good without faith will never be good enough, because, as Jesus said here “Only One is good.”

So, let’s makes this practical for us today. The rich young man was prepared to do good, but he was not prepared to give up his wealth in order to follow Jesus. He was not prepared to give his ultimate allegiance to Jesus. It isn’t a command for all Christians to be poor, rather, it is an example of how we might be called to give something up for Jesus. So, what is it in your life that keeps you from following Jesus? What are the things that tempt you not to give your ultimate allegiance to him?

For some, it may be a relationship. You are afraid you might lose your spouse, or your lover, or your group of friends if you really gave your whole life to Jesus. For others it might be a lifestyle choice. You’d have to give up whatever Jesus wanted you to give up, and there are some things that, frankly, you are not willing to let go of, even for the sake of Jesus Christ. It might be alcohol, or drugs, or sex outside of marriage. It might be that you want to remain master of you own destiny, and if you follow Jesus you are afraid your life might be boring, or you might not get to do what you want in terms of your career. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sin. Kristen Powers, an anchor for Fox News, had an intense struggle before becoming a Christian, in part because she, and everyone in her circles, despised Evangelicals. She had to be willing to give up her reputation to follow Jesus. Wealth, in and of itself, is not necessarily sinful, but that was what was keeping the young man in the text from following Jesus. Remember what Jesus said, at least twice already in the book of Matthew:

8If your hand or your foot causes your downfall, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire.9And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, rather than to have two eyes and be thrown into hellfire! (Matt 18:8-9, HCSB)

37The 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.38And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.39Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matt 10:37-39, HCSB)

In essence, he is making these word practical, specifically for the rich young man: “get rid of your wealth, because it is keeping you from following Me, keeping you from having no gods before Me.”

I want to make something clear here. When we do give our trust and ultimate allegiance to Jesus, he meets the standard of perfection on our behalf. I mentioned a number of things above that might keep us from following Jesus. Even after we trust him and start to follow, some of those things may still be a problem for us. But if we are following, after we fail and fall down, we get back up with the help of Jesus, and continue on following him. In Jesus, we don’t have to be perfect – we trust that he meets that standard for us. This isn’t license to sin, rather, it is a comfort to sinners who want to do right, but fail sometimes. It is reassurance that our only “goodness” comes from the only One who is good.

With that in mind, hear Jesus’ call to surrender everything to him, and follow him.

WHY SHOULD WE LISTEN TO THE BIBLE?

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The Bible is unique among religious books. We will start to learn why, with this post.

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 Understanding the Bible Part 1

UNDERSTANDING THE BIBLE #1

Someone recently liked this blog, and as I often do, I went over to his blog, to check out what he was writing about. I noticed a post with an eye-catching title, and I read it. What I found is similar to many blogs and Facebook posts that I have seen over the past few years. The basic argument went something like this:

  • Many Christians claim that, according to the bible, [enter something here that the bible says, which you don’t like].
  • But the bible also says lots of goofy things, like:
    • Rapists can pay their victims’ parents 50 shekels, and get off the hook (the writer mis-quoted Deuteronomy 21, but I think he was referring to chapter 22).
    • It’s OK to sell daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7)
    • It’s OK to marry multiple wives (21:10)
  • Since we don’t agree with these goofy things in the bible, we shouldn’t pay attention to what the bible says about sex before marriage.

I’ve seen this sort of argument before. Most commonly, it is made in order to justify sinning in whatever way you prefer to sin. But logically, if that argument was valid (it isn’t) there would be no reason to pay attention to any part of the bible at all. If that blogger is right, we ought to just ignore it altogether as irrelevant. If he’s right, we shouldn’t pay attention to what the bible says about Jesus, or  forgiveness, or love, either. To be fair, he wasn’t saying that in his blog, but it is the logical conclusion.

Here’s what I wonder: do you know why the blogger’s argument is invalid? Do you understand how to answer the questions of someone who has this attitude? Do you have a firm grasp on what the Bible is, how we got it, and how to understand it?

If you answered “no” to any of those questions, I think you’ll find this sermon series helpful, and even enjoy it. By the way, I have two helpful and reasonable answers to the guy who posted the blog entry I mentioned above. I could explain it in about five minutes. But rather than do that, what I want to do is help you learn enough about the Bible, and how to understand it, so that you can answer questions like that yourselves. You’ve heard the old proverb: “Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he’ll spend all his nights and weekends in the boat, and his family will never see him anymore.”

Actually, I think the second part is “teach a man to fish, and he’ll eat for the rest of his life.”

I want to teach you to “fish.” I could give you the answers the questions posed by the blog entry I mentioned above. But then, when you encounter new questions, you’ll be dependent upon me, or someone like me, to give you answers again. I’d rather help you understand enough so that you can do some digging, and find the answers for yourselves.

It might take a little while. I’ve been studying the bible seriously for more than twenty-five years. It won’t take you that long to get started and to begin finding answers yourself, but I do hope you look on the bible as a source that you can and should continue to study for the rest of your life. I think that over the course of the next few weeks, you can learn enough about the Bible to begin.

The best place to start, as is often the case, is at the beginning. What is the Bible? Where did it come from? Who wrote it, and what is its purpose?

The bible is not actually one book. It is a collection of books. That is one reason why I never recommend starting in Genesis (the first book), and trying to read it straight through all the way to Revelation (the last book). It won’t make sense that way, because it isn’t that kind of book.

The very earliest parts of the bible were handed down as oral traditions, and later were written down. Even today Hebrew scholars of very moderate learning can see linguistic evidence that much of the first five books of the Bible were originally memorized orally. We’ll talk about what that means, next time. The oral traditions, and some new material were first written down, probably by one man named Moses, sometime around 1400 B.C.

By the way, many scholars now prefer to note dates as “BCE” and “CE” (“Before Common Era,” and “Common Era,” respectively). However, BCE is exactly the same as “BC” and “Common Era” means the same thing as AD. It is downright silly to pretend that “common era” is defined by anything other than historical life of Jesus Christ. Whether or not you believe in him as anything other than a man, whether or not you like it, the world numbers history by the life of Jesus Christ.

Back to the Bible. More history and more oral tradition were recorded by another man, probably the prophet Samuel, sometime around 1000 B.C. Samuel also recorded many of the current events of his time. As the monarchy in Israel took shape, court historians kept records of happenings, and further unknown writers recorded more of we know call the Bible. Prophets spoke, and scribes wrote down what they said. Later, the New Testament was formed from letters and writings of those associated with Jesus Christ.

All in all, the Bible was written by several dozen different people. It was written in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). The people who wrote it were from all different walks of life: Farmers, shepherds, kings, court officials, prophets, fisherman, doctors, prisoners, church leaders and more. Some of them were rich, some were poor, some were in between. The writers came from different cultures, different countries and different continents. There is no sense in which one can say that the Bible was just made up by one person, or even one small group of people at one time. It does not claim that it was dictated in secret by angels.

These facts about the formation of the Bible have never been secret. Scholars have known these things for many centuries. Archeology has consistently confirmed all this. Manuscript study and comparisons also confirm it. These facts are not hidden away somewhere; they are not closely guarded secrets. They are well established.

Now, let’s look at the bible in comparison to some other ancient writings. This is not to “slam” anybody, but rather for the sake of knowledge, let’s compare the Bible to two other well-known Holy Books: The Koran, and the Book of Mormon. Hinduism and Buddhism do not have authoritative scriptures that they hold in the same way as do Christians, Jews, Muslims and Mormons. Therefore the Koran and the Book of Mormon are really the only other major books that claim the same sort of authority as the Bible.

The Koran was formed in this way: During the early 600s (AD), a man named Mohammed, a former resident of the city of Mecca in Arabia, went into a cave. He came out with the Koran, claiming that an angel had dictated it to him. Much of the Koran appears to be a copy of parts of the Old and New Testaments, although often distorted. Other parts of the Koran are quite different. It is not a very large book. Muslims also receive a lot of direction from the sayings of Mohammed (Hadith) and the biographies of Mohammed. As with the Koran, these all depend upon the words of a single man.

The Book of Mormon was “given” to Joseph Smith on golden tablets in 1823. Again, Mormonism uses Christianity as a jumping off point, but contains many things which contradict the Christian/Jewish bible.

No Muslim denies that the Koran came through just one man at one particular time in history. They do not deny that it was written in only one language, in one place and arose from one culture. The Book of Mormon is similar: by the admission of Mormons it was revealed to just one man in one time and in one place.

Now, you might ask, what difference does it make whether one person wrote the bible, or dozens did? Why does it matter if the bible was written over the course of 1500 years, or just in one lifetime? What is the significance of what we’ve just learned? Why does it matter?

Alexander McCall Smith is the author of many fiction novels set in Africa. In one of his novels, the main character has these reflections on morality (from Morality for Beautiful Girls page 77-78)

Most morality, thought Mma Ramotswe, was about doing the right thing because it had been identified as such by a long process of acceptance and observance. You simply could not create your own morality because your experience would never be enough to do so. What gives you the right to say that you know better than your ancestors? Morality is for everybody, and this means that the views of more than one person are needed to create it. That was what made the modern morality, with its emphasis on individuals, and the working out of an individual position, so weak.

If you gave people the chance to work out their morality, then they would work out the version which was easiest for them and which allowed them to do what suited them for as much of the time as possible. That, in Mma Ramotswe’s view was simple selfishness, whatever grand name one gave to it.

Mr. Smith gives us a tremendous and profound insight here. Moral authority cannot come from one person. No single human being, by himself or herself, has the breadth of experience, nor the wisdom, nor the character, to create morality. Yet in Islam, all moral and spiritual authority comes from one man. Likewise with Mormonism. The same thing is true of atheists, agnostics and secular humanists.

If you are agnostic or atheistic, in a very real way you are saying that you know better than everybody else. You, in your few years of life upon this earth, are claiming to have wisdom, experience and authority greater than that of the collective wisdom and experience of entire cultures of people whose lives spanned more than a millennium and a half, whose morality and wisdom still profoundly shape the world we live in.

When I was in high school, the teachers said to us kids that we needed to decide for ourselves what is right or wrong. We were told to create our own morality. The very thought of such a thing is nothing less than overwhelming, towering, ugly, arrogant pride. “Hubris” is another word for it. What, in all the universe, makes us think that we, in 16 years, could match the wisdom and experience that spanned 16 centuries and survived thousands of years? What makes us think even a 90 year old person could match all that? Only ugly pride.

Remember, just for today we are trying to evaluate this from a secular position, rather than a spiritual one. Does it seem rational to suppose that one person, in one lifetime, however varied her experience, however deep her wisdom, could match the wisdom and morality and experience contained in the Bible? Of course not. It’s simple logic. And in this same respect, the Bible is logically superior to those other “holy books” which were brought into the world by single individuals.

Now some folks may say, “well, I look at what’s in the Bible, and make use of all that experience, but I still decide what is right for me.” On the one hand, of course everybody does have to decide whether or not they will accept what is written in the Bible. But nonetheless, it seems awfully arrogant to say, “I know what the Bible says, but I still think I am wiser than Moses, Isaiah, Paul, Samuel, David, Peter, John, and Jesus (plus about two dozen more) all put together.”

You see, even from a secular standpoint, the Bible is unique in history. There is no other ancient document so well preserved, so thoroughly verified as genuine by legitimate scholarly work (more on that in in the near future). There is no other source of moral and spiritual authority that has so much objective logic to back up its claim. Here is a quote from it, which seems rather fitting:

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord

As the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts

than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

This book, this Bible, goes far beyond the thoughts or ways of any one human being. Next week we’ll begin to see how it goes beyond even collective human morality.

FRUIT, OR FLESH?

fruit

When you are facing a choice or considering whether or not something is from the Lord, ask yourself: “Does it look more like the flesh, or more like the fruit?” The fruits of Spirit are the manifestations of the character of Jesus in us.

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 Galatians Part 22

Galatians # 22 . Chapter 5:22

We’ll consider the other fruits of the Spirit this time, and possibly even wrap up chapter 5.

The next is patience. The New Testament uses this word in connection with two main things. The first, is to describe the patience of God, when he withholds judgment (Rom 2:4; 9:22; 1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 3:15). In that context, it has the idea of withholding punishment, putting up with us and forbearing.

This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” — and I am the worst of them. But I received mercy for this reason, so that in me, the worst of them, Christ Jesus might demonstrate His extraordinary patience as an example to those who would believe in Him for eternal life. (1Tim 1:15-16, HCSB)

There are many other verses using the same Greek word. Often it used just like it is here (2 Cor 6:6, Eph 4:2; Col 1:10-12).The Christian Life should be characterized by it:

Walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience, with joy giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. (Col 1:10-12, HCSB)

Patience is not the same as mere restraint. I think one key to understanding it is that there is waiting involved. Patience doesn’t give up – it waits with expectation, but it waits without agitation. You can’t manufacture Holy Spirit-patience. The only way to get it is to keep on getting closer to Jesus.

Kindness is an interesting Greek word: chrestotes. If you know any other languages, you know that sometimes a direct word-to-word translation is impossible. Some languages have words that others simply don’t have. I think chrestotes is probably one of those words. A few versions of the bible translate the word as “graciousness.” The word means something like “moral excellence, combined with compassionate intentions and actions.” In other words, it isn’t just blindly being nice to people. It is moral goodness combined with benevolent actions or intentions. The “moral excellence” is a very important part of this word.

Or do you despise the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Rom 2:3-4, HCSB)

Another way to describe kindness might be “righteousness combined with compassion.”

Goodness. “Good” is such a common word, both in Greek and English, that is sometimes hard to get a handle on it. What does it mean that goodness should be growing in us like a fruit? Moral “rightness” is part of goodness. A sense of being blessed is associated with what we call goodness. In this case, your goodness will give others a sense of being blessed through you. I know a few people that I would describe as good. You know, almost right away, that they are trustworthy. You know that they will do the right thing. You know you are safe around them.

Faith is the Greek word pistis, which I have often mentioned in the past. I contend that most often, it should be translated to mean “trust in Jesus.” In this context, however, we assume that you won’t have any fruit of the Spirit at all, unless you first trust Jesus. So here, I think Paul means a practical, daily trust, an entrusting of your everyday life to Jesus, his will and his purposes. It means you trust him with your problems and relationships, you trust his guidance and what he says through the Bible. You release control of your life to Jesus.

Gentleness. 1 Peter 3:16; 2 Timothy 2:25 and Galatians 6:1 all talk about gentleness in the context of correcting others. We are supposed to hold firmly to our beliefs. But we are not supposed to be harsh with those who are going astray.

Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. However, do this with gentleness and respect, keeping your conscience clear, so that when you are accused, those who denounce your Christian life will be put to shame. (1Pet 3:15-16, HCSB)

In other verses, gentleness is supposed to generally characterize how we treat each other.

Self-Control is not a compound word in Greek, as it is in English. It implies that you are master of your own desires. Remember, the flesh gratifies itself. But the Spirit exerts control over desires of the flesh. As the Spirit grows in you, you become more able to say “no” to the flesh and “no” to your immediate desires.

As I mentioned last week, all of these thing grow in us, if we remain in Jesus. I also suspect that the different kinds of fruit grow at different rates in each person. I know people who seem to exude peace, but they don’t have much self-control. I know others who have a lot of self-control, but joy is still a very small and immature fruit in their lives. That’s probably normal. We do want all the fruit of the Spirit to keep growing in us, but I think it is OK to accept that some kinds will grow faster than others, and that other people will have different strengths and weaknesses.

Let’s back up and remember the context for all of this. Paul has said we do not live any more by law. This isn’t an excuse to gratify or indulge the flesh. Instead, now, free from the law, we walk by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit, working through our spirits, leads us. More than that, the Holy Spirit is putting the character of Jesus into our lives.

Remember what Paul said in Galatians 2:20

For through the law I have died to the law, so that I might live for God. 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. Italic formatting added for emphasis)

To put it another way, the fruits of Spirit are the manifestations of the character of Jesus in us. That character is being formed in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is important for several reasons.

First, this gives us a little bit of help in knowing where we stand with Jesus. The law can’t help us, but the evidence of Jesus’ character in us can. Paul says the works of the flesh are obvious. If we see those having power in our lives, we know that there is problem. Jesus, living in us, does not do the works of the flesh. On the other hand, when we see the fruit of the Spirit growing – even if it is small and unripe – we know that Jesus is at work in us. The point here is not how much you have, but rather, how much it is growing. The question is not, “How much peace do you have?” Rather, the appropriate thing to ask is “Do you have more peace now than you did last time you faced this kind of situation?”

It is helpful to remember the fruit of the Spirit when you are looking for guidance. I actually knew a Christian once who claimed that God led him to have an affair. He was out of a job, and we prayed for him to find a new job. He did, and he felt like God gave him that job. The first person he met at the new job was a woman, and they really connected. So, he reasoned that God wanted them to meet, and to have an affair. But if he had been willing to pay attention, this passage would have showed immediately that God was not leading him to sin. That is clearly listed as one of the works of the flesh. It was his flesh, not the character of Jesus, which led him.

Say you have to make a decision, and you want to walk by the Spirit, not by the flesh. If you think you are being led, make sure, first of all that your choice will not result in the works of the flesh. Then, look at the fruits of the Spirit. Is there joy associated with one choice? Joy is a fruit of the spirit, so the Spirit may be leading you in that direction. Is what you want to do motivated by self-sacrificing love, love that puts the welfare of others before your own? If so, it may be the work of the Spirit. Do you have peace as you move forward in this direction? True peace comes from the Spirit, so it may be him. Are your desires, and the desires of the flesh, under control, or is this about self-gratification? Does your choice involve moral excellence or kindness or gentleness? We can learn to recognize Jesus at work in us, showing his character, to point us in the right direction. To sum it up, when you are facing a choice or considering whether or not something is from the Lord, ask yourself: “Does it look more like the flesh, or more like the fruit?”

There is another place where knowing about the fruit of the Spirit can be helpful. True Christian maturity is measured in terms of the fruit of the Spirit. A lot of folks like to measure it by the gifts the Spirit, or even by outward appearances. But the Lord gives different gifts and abilities and looks. A mature Christian may or not be a dynamic preacher. A mature Christian may or may not be gifted in making people comfortable. He might not have a gift of making others feel good about themselves. A mature Christian may or may not have the gift of tongues, or the gift of healing. A mature Christian might not be outwardly successful. She might be fit, or might be a little bit overweight. She might be plain, or beautiful. None of these things have to do with maturity.

And just because someone does have the gift of healing, or does have a successful ministry, does not make them mature. I know of two different individuals who have a proven gift of healing. When they pray for people, those people are genuinely healed of real physical ailments and diseases. It’s amazing. And yet, both of these individuals are significantly immature in the fruit of the Spirit.

We don’t measure Christian maturity in terms of gifts, skills or talents or success. We don’t measure it by outward appearances. We measure Christian maturity by these things right here: the fruits of Spirit. That is because these fruits are manifestations of the life of Jesus inside of us.

Paul finishes with this thought:

Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, we must also follow the Spirit. We must not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Gal 5:24-26, HCSB)

In many ways, this verse reiterates what Paul said in Galatians 2:20. We are dead to the law. Our flesh is also dead to us. As I’ve said before in this series, our flesh is actually physically dying. Let its passions and desires die with it. Now, I know that all sounds fine and noble, but the truth is, Paul describes it as a crucifixion. Our flesh is crucified with Jesus. But when deny our flesh, it does hurt. It is hard. Crucifixion is painful. So, I’m not saying it is easy. But it is a matter of focusing on who you truly are, in Jesus.

Paul said something very similar in Romans:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. (Rom 8:5-10, ESV2011)

We need to set our minds on the things of the Spirit. We need to focus on who we really are, in Jesus. What are those things? Well, a great place to start is right here in Galatians 5:22, with the fruit of Spirit.

Ask the Lord to speak to you about this today.

Do you have a Sense of Blessedness?

blessed

The sense of being blessed is one of the key differences between living by law and living by grace. If you think it is up to you live the Christian life, up to you to please God, it will be hard to feel blessed.

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 Galatians Part 12

Galatians # 12. Chapter 4:12-16

This next little section of Galatians is a very personal appeal from Paul, and it contains a kind of buffet of several different spiritual truths. Please ask the Holy Spirit to show you what he wants to show you here, and then we’ll dig in.

Up until this point, Paul has been pretty stern with the Galatians. Here is a sampling of his tone so far:

As we have said before, I now say again: If anyone preaches to you a gospel contrary to what you received, a curse be on him! For am I now trying to win the favor of people, or God? Or am I striving to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a slave of Christ. (Gal 1:9-10, HCSB)

Now from those recognized as important (what they really were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism) — they added nothing to me. (Gal 2:6, HCSB)

You foolish Galatians! Who has hypnotized you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified? I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? (Gal 3:1-3, HCSB)

Paul was clearly upset about what was happening in the Galatian churches. He wasted no time in telling them how wrong and foolish they were. But at this point, (4:11 and following) he moderates his tone a little bit. First, he says, “Become like me, for I became like you.”

I think Paul is referring to the fact that although he was a Jew and Pharisee, he lived with, ate with and associated with the non-Jewish Galatians. He became like them, living as if we were not Jewish. Through Christ, he had the freedom to do this. Now, he urges them to do the same. Remember, certain leaders in these Churches were telling them they had to obey all the Jewish laws to be a Christian. Paul reminds them, that was not how he behaved. He was like them. He is saying, “Look, I was Jewish, and I became like a Gentile. Now you, who have been trying to be Jewish, become like Gentiles again!”

Now, most of us have already become like Paul, in the sense that we don’t strictly follow Jewish regulations. But I think there are two places where this might possibly to speak to us. First, I think it says something about reaching out to others. People do not have to act like us, look like us, talk like us or dress like us before they can become part of our church. They didn’t have to become like Paul – that is, Jewish – in order to receive Jesus. If anything, Paul became more like them. There are, of course some bottom-line aspects to Christianity. To be a Christian, you have to trust Jesus, and surrender your life to him. But once a person does that, we can trust the Holy Spirit to begin manifesting the life of Jesus in that person. We can trust the Holy Spirit to lead that person away from sin. But it doesn’t say anything in the Bible about us all looking the same. The life of Jesus is available to anyone who is willing to surrender control of his or her own life to Him.

Second, it is a reiteration of our freedom in Christ. Some Christians try to put rules on silly things. For instance, you must dress a certain way at church (or all the time); you cannot drink, even in moderation without getting drunk; you can’t watch certain movies, or listen to certain types of music, or dance, or….you fill in the blank. These things are not essential to faith in Jesus Christ. They are external rules. Paul says in Colossians that these rules have little value, spiritually speaking:

If you died with the Messiah to the elemental forces of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”? All these regulations refer to what is destroyed by being used up; they are commands and doctrines of men. Although these have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence. (Col 2:20-23, HCSB)

Next, Paul makes this statement:

You have not wronged me; you know that previously I preached the gospel to you because of a physical illness. You did not despise or reject me though my physical condition was a trial for you.

Bible scholars debate what exactly Paul’s physical ailment was. Martin Luther believes that when Paul came to the Galatians, he was suffering from the effects of physical persecution. We know that many times Paul was beaten up by mobs. Sometimes he was arrested and whipped. Several times he was imprisoned, and we can assume during some of those incidents, he suffered at the hands of the jailers and the other prisoners. In the Galatian area, in one place he was stoned and left for dead (Acts 14:19).

Other people thought that Paul had a recurring illness. In 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul speaks of a “thorn in the flesh,” that sounds like it might be a recurring physical problem. Many people suspect that he had some disease of the eyes. We know that on the road to Damascus, Paul was blinded for three days. Here in this passage, he says the Galatians would have torn out their own eyes to give to him. At the end of the letter, he writes this:

Look at what large letters I use as I write to you in my own handwriting. (Gal 6:11, HCSB)

Most of Paul’s letters were actually written down by other people (often, his friend and colleague, Silas). Usually, he just signed them personally at the end. 2 Thessalonians 3:17 is typical of the end of many of his letters:

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

All this suggests that maybe Paul’s vision was not very good, and perhaps he had a condition that flared up and worsened at times. In any case, far from coming to them as strong and having it all together, he first came to them in weakness and in need. This again, is a helpful thing for us as we consider how to reach out to people who don’t know Jesus yet. We don’t have to have it all put together. In fact, sometimes, when we have some kind of need, it opens a door to relationship with others, and opens a door for us to share Jesus with those who help us.

Paul’s other point here is that in spite of all of his rebukes and strong language, he is not upset about their personal interactions. His intensity is not about personality conflicts. It is about the truth of the good news of Jesus Christ. He is saying, “Look, this isn’t personal. I know how you cared for me.” He is reminding them of the joy and friendship that existed between them when they were together. He doesn’t want them to think he is angry for some offense against himself. It is about the truth, not personal conflict. In verse sixteen He says, “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?”

I have to say, I have very strong feelings about this subject. Paul is making a distinction here that is absolutely critical for Christians in the world today. In essence, he is saying this: “I love you and appreciate you as people. We have a wonderful friendship. I am even indebted to you. What I say to you does not negate that. You do need to know, however, that your belief, and the direction that your life is going, is wrong.”

The fact that he calls them wrong, takes nothing away from his love for them. In his mind, at least, it doesn’t affect their friendship and the close feelings that existed between Paul and the Galatian Christians. It is simply that, because he loves them, he must make sure that they know the truth. The world rarely understands this. Rick Warren, author of the Purpose Driven Life puts it like this:

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

That is exactly what Paul is saying here to the Galatians. He is saying, “I love you and appreciate you. This letter isn’t about that. But this letter is about the truth of what we believe and how we live.” The world usually doesn’t understand this attitude. But it is something that we Christians need to keep practicing anyway. Perhaps you have friends or family members who claim to be Christians and are living together, but are not married. The truth is, according to the Bible, that is a sin. But there is no sense in which we should hate someone who does this. There is no way in which we should ever treat them badly, or speak to them hurtfully. If the subject comes up, or if the Holy Spirit leads you to bring it up, we do need to tell the truth. But the fact that we believe as we do does NOT mean that we hate everyone who disagrees with us, or who lives according to different moral standards.

The big moral issue of our present time, of course, is homosexuality. Genesis 19; Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Romans 1:27-29; 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Jude 1:9 all teach that homosexual sex is sinful. The bible doesn’t say it is wrong to be tempted, or to consider oneself gay, but it does teach that rather than engage in gay sex, people should remain celibate. Now, many people who call themselves Christian disagree with me. They either ignore some or all of those verses, or they have a different way of interpreting them. For many reasons, I think their bible scholarship and interpretation is very poorly done; and of course, they don’t like my way of understanding the Bible.

But I don’t think acting on gay feelings is worse than any other sin. We are all saved only through Jesus, and I am no better than anyone else. I do not hate gay people. No Christian should. I do not fear them, or what they represent. We shouldn’t mock or hurt gay folks, or deprive them of any civil right. In a free society, everyone ought to have the right to live as they see fit. I have gay people in my family, and I love, respect, and accept them as they are. And we should not hate people who disagree with us about this issue. I certainly don’t.

I’m sure many people have difficulty understanding this, but disagreement is not the same thing as hate or bigotry. If it was, everybody would have to hate billions of people for millions of reasons. If you think you have to agree fully with someone before you can love them or they you, you are in a sad, sad situation. The world is a very big, very diverse place. There are very few people in any group in the world who agree upon everything. If you threatened by people who disagree with you, maybe you need to get out more, and spend more time around such folks. We don’t have to be enemies. In fact, for our part, Christians should not think of anyone besides the devil and his cohorts as the enemy.

Let me give you one more example, as long as I’m in the middle of such controversy. In the course of my life, I have had many friendships with Muslim people. They honestly believe I am going to hell for believing that Jesus is in nature, God. I believe they are going to hell for refusing to receive God’s grace and forgiveness through Jesus. I have discussed these things openly with every Muslim friend I have had. And it has never been a problem for those friendships. I know there are Muslim extremists out there, obviously. But I am telling you, in my personal experience with Muslim people, this is how it has been.

If Muslims and Christians can disagree so fundamentally, and still accept each other, and get along and be friends, certainly we Christians ought to be able to do that with people who are more similar to us. Actually, we are supposed to do that with everyone.

I want to look at one more thing in this passage. In Galatians 4:15 Paul says to the Galatians:

What happened to this sense of being blessed that you had?

This is an important part of the entire message of the book of Galatians. The sense of being blessed is one of the key differences between living by law and living by grace. If you think it is up to you live the Christian life, up to you to please God, it will be hard to feel blessed. If it is up to you to get God to act on your behalf, you might feel obligation. You probably, at some point, feel fear, guilt and especially shame that you aren’t good enough. Sometimes, maybe, you manage to do pretty well, or at least to think you are doing pretty well. Then you might feel self-satisfied; you might even fall into sinful pride. Even so, you’ll feel the pressure to keep doing well. But either way, you probably won’t feel blessed.

We feel blessed when we know – truly know – that we are loved. We feel blessed when we know we have received far more than we could ever earn or deserve, and that it is all given freely, with no thought that we could, or even should, try to repay it. We feel blessed when we are secure in the love and grace and approval of God. All this comes only through Jesus; we get it when we trust him and surrender control of our life to him.

Do you have a sense of being blessed? Or is your life all obligation, shame and fear, or self-satisfaction and pride? At times we lose the sense of being blessed because Jesus is not a very big deal in our lives. We sweep him off into a corner of our lives that we call “religion” or “church.” If he doesn’t have much room to be in your life, naturally, there is not a large sense of being blessed.

For others, sometimes, even after we receive Jesus, he needs to work healing in us, to deal with shame and guilt that is left from our past. But through him, we can receive that sense of being blessed.

Take a minute now, to let God show you that because of Jesus, he approves of you. That’s right, through Jesus, we have God’s approval. Let that sink in, and receive again that sense of being blessed.

HOW DO WE LIVE BY THE PROMISE?

lighthouse

The law is still right. It is still good. It still reflects the character of God. But it is no longer something external to us. When we trust Jesus, The character of Jesus is being formed inside us. We learn to rely on the Spirit within us to guide us; we learn to listen and respond obediently to his prompting. We no longer consult a rule-book. We consult a person.

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GALATIANS #9

The Law shows the absolute necessity of the promise. The law shows us our need for the promise. If we didn’t have the law, we wouldn’t understand the holy character of God. If we didn’t have the law, we would not realize that sin is a problem, and one we cannot overcome. The Law isn’t wrong. The problem is, we can’t do it.

The Law is not in contradiction to the promise. It was given as complement, to show that the promise was needed. God gave the promise first, to invite his people to live by faith. But he gave the law later, to help them understand why they needed to live by faith.

In Galatians 3:24 it says that the law was our guardian. Although the Greek word sounds like “pedagogue,” (which in English means “instructor of children,” or “teacher”) it has a different meaning here. The best English translation might be chaperone.

In the culture of New Testament times, the guardian, or chaperone, was there to make sure that boys who were intended to be great and noble did not “go bad.” They were there to keep them from making stupid mistakes, or compromising moral character. They protected them from both physical harm and moral harm.

That was the purpose of the law, and in some ways, is the continuing purpose of the law. Sometimes we view the law as a restriction – it seems to be a fence, keeping us in, restricting our freedom. But what there is a cliff on the other side? What if the wall is actually preventing us from great harm?

We considered the first commandment last time. Let’s look at it again. “You shall have no other Gods besides me.” This means that God is supposed to be the most important thing in our lives. He is to be number one, to have precedence over everything. Now, we could look at this and say, “Hey, that’s not fair. What if I want to make sports my number one priority – at least for a period of time? What if I want to make money, or my career or my spouse or my pleasure to be first priority? What’s wrong with going for it? Didn’t God make me with certain desires? Why shouldn’t I embrace them to the fullest?”

All right, let’s say you did make sports your number one priority. What happens when you get too old to compete with younger, fitter people? Your whole life crumbles. You are still alive, but you can’t live for sports anymore. The command protects you from this.

Suppose I decide that being a pastor should be the most important thing for me. That sounds good and reasonable, doesn’t it? But if I put that in front of my relationship with God, look at what happens. If the church does well, I am doing well. But if someone complains, or people start leaving, it destroys my whole world. I have nothing left if I can’t succeed as a pastor. The first commandment protects me from that. If God is the first thing, the most important thing, than no matter what else in the world crumbles, I am ultimately OK.

The other commandments protect us in similar ways. I am sure that adultery must be pleasurable and exciting. But ultimately it destroys marriages, it handicaps the lives of the children conceived by it, and the lives of the children whose parents divorce because of it. It often spreads diseases. Eventually, it destroys society as a whole, and we are even now starting to see the unraveling of Western culture because so many people have run away from the protection of the commandment against adultery. Now, let’s be clear that God forgives it, and works in the lives of those who have failed to obey it, and brings healing and redemption. But my point is that the commandment is to protect us, not to spoil our fun.

So Paul says, the law was a chaperone, a protector. In Greek and Roman culture, the chaperone’s job ended when the child became a man. The idea was that by that time, the young man had internalized good moral character. He knew right from wrong, and was willing to do right. He was strong enough to protect himself from physical harm also. It isn’t that he should no longer live morally or safely. The idea was that now those attitudes were inside of him; he would behave that way because of the character that been formed in him.

The law is still right. It is still good. It still reflects the character of God. Our lives should still look more and more like the character of God as shown in the law. But it is no longer something external to us. When we trust Jesus, The character of Jesus is being formed inside us. We learn to rely on the Spirit within us to guide us; we learn to listen and respond obediently to his prompting. We no longer consult a rule-book. We consult a person. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied about this new relationship to the law:

“Look, the days are coming” — this is the LORD’s declaration — “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant they broke even though I had married them” — the LORD’s declaration. “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days” — the LORD’s declaration. “I will put My teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them” — this is the LORD’s declaration. “For I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sin.” (Jer 31:31-34, HCSB)

In the case of the noble Greek and Roman families, the chaperone/guardian did not take a child and turn him into a nobleman. No, the child was born a nobleman. They did not become noble by following the guidance of the guardian; rather, they were made noble by their birth. Something preceded the guardian, and that was noble birth.

So with Christians, following the guardian (that is, the law) is not what makes us Christians. It is our spiritual re-birth into Jesus –what we call “being born again.” We are born according to God’s promise to save and transform all who trust in Jesus Christ. The law is good and right. But the promise is greater. The law serves the promise, not vice versa.

Paul puts it this way:

The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:24-29, HCSB)

In the Greco-Roman culture of the Galatians, the sons in the family were the ones who inherited everything and carried the family name. But they did not have the rights and privileges of sons until they reached adulthood Until then, they were still under the authority of their chaperone. So Paul says – we are all “sons.” I think he means sons who have come into adulthood. We are no longer under the chaperone of the law, but in the trust-relationship of the promise. When he says were are “sons,” he doesn’t mean we are all male, he means that all of us – whether male or female, Jewish or not, slave or free – are inheriting the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We are all counted as legitimate and free, we all carry God’s family name, through faith in Jesus Christ. The Jews in Galatia have been telling the Christians that being Jewish is necessary and important, that anyone who is not Jewish is, in a sense, “illegitimate.” But Paul says, “No. We are all the same in Jesus Christ. We are all legitimate in Jesus Christ. Jews aren’t better than Gentiles. Free people aren’t better than slaves. Men aren’t better than women. The only thing that counts is Jesus Christ. In him, we are all legitimate inheritors, legitimate bearers of the family name of God.”

Paul wraps it up by saying that if you are in Christ (that is, if you trust Jesus) you are a true Jew – you are a “descendant” of Abraham. You stand in the true tradition of Abraham, which is salvation by trust in God’s promises, especially trust in the promises that were fulfilled in Jesus.

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

First, it is important to realize that the law is good and right. But we don’t become righteous through it, because we cannot do it all, or consistently. We don’t live by a set of rules. We live by a relationship of trust in Jesus, and reliance upon the Holy Spirit. He has already fulfilled the law for us. We are already completely righteous through him. He will guide us so that our lives do reflect the character of God as expressed in the law. But that character and that behavior forms in us not through our strenuous efforts, but through listening to the Holy Spirit and obeying his guidance.

How does this work? Some things are quite obvious. It’s silly to pray, “Jesus, do you want me to commit adultery?” Of course he does not. Although the law can’t save us, it is still true and right and good. A better prayer might be “Jesus, prevent me from even having the opportunity to commit adultery.” Or, “Jesus I give you my will and my body, to use as you want. Keep me from sinning.” Remember and recognize that through Jesus, you are already holy in spirit. Keep up that conversational prayer. It’s hard to be talking to Jesus, while at the very same time you are doing something unrighteous and unholy. His character within you doesn’t want to do it. If you feel a strong desire to sin, be honest with him about that, and keep up that conversational prayer.

Second, as I read these verses, I have a strong sense that some of you need to hear this: you are legitimate. You aren’t second class. You are a full heir of God, you carry His family name. No one who trusts Jesus is any worse – or any better – than you. There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Your failures are irrelevant. Your socio-economic position is irrelevant. Your gender is irrelevant. Your ethnicity is irrelevant. Through Jesus, you have become one of God’s Chosen Ones.

RELIGIOUS RULES ARE USELESS

Religious-Circumcision

Following rules and regulations cannot make us close to God. Only Jesus can do that.

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Galatians #4 . Chapter 2:1-5

 

Last time we considered Paul’s claim that he received the gospel from Jesus alone, not from any human being.

He makes three basic points. 1. If he got it from a human source, it hasn’t resulted in him pleasing other human beings (1:10). 2. The message that he preaches was revealed to him directly by Jesus, in his experience on the way to Damascus. He began preaching immediately after that, before receiving any instruction from humans. 3. He didn’t consult with anyone right away. Three years after his conversion, and after he began preaching, he did meet with the apostle Peter privately. But he remained unknown by and unconnected to the other apostles and the Jewish churches in Judea.

Chapter two continues Paul’s thoughts about these matters. He explains that fourteen years after his visit with Peter, (seventeen years altogether after his conversion) he went back to Jerusalem and met with the apostles.

I went up according to a revelation and presented to them the gospel I preach among the Gentiles — but privately to those recognized as leaders — so that I might not be running, or have run the race, in vain. (Gal 2:2, HCSB)

He says he did this because he had a revelation, or vision. He does not explain if he had a new revelation about the gospel, or if the Lord told him in a vision to go to Jerusalem. But in any case, at this point, seventeen years after he was converted and began preaching the gospel, he takes the opportunity to compare notes, to make sure that what he was preaching was in fact the true gospel. The apostles affirmed that Paul was called by God to the Gentiles, and that he was preaching the true gospel (2:6-10).

While Paul was in Jerusalem, the very issue that concerns the Galatians was brought up. Paul explains:

But not even Titus who was with me, though he was a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised. This issue arose because of false brothers smuggled in, who came in secretly to spy on the freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, in order to enslave us. But we did not give up and submit to these people for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would be preserved for you. (Gal 2:3-5, HCSB)

Since Paul talks about circumcision quite a bit, let’s clarify what it was all about. Circumcision was part of the Jewish law. It involves removing a little bit of extra skin from a body part that only males have. According to Jewish law, all men and boys had to be circumcised, or they could not be part of God’s people. Even if man ate according to kosher regulations, and followed all the Jewish rules, he would not considered Jewish, or capable of pleasing God, unless he was circumcised first.

Think of it like this. When I lived in Minnesota, there were a few times when I happened to go fishing the same day that a professional fishing tournament was held. Once, the next day, I picked up the newspaper and found out that I caught more and bigger fish than anyone in the tournament. But I didn’t get any prize money, because I was not officially part of the tournament. I had never registered. It didn’t matter how many fish I caught, or how big they were. It didn’t count, because I wasn’t part of the tournament in the first place. In this analogy, circumcision would be like registering for the tournament. Fishing afterwards would be like keeping the other Jewish regulations. You have to do the first thing before you can do the second. If you choose to fish without being part of the tournament, that’s fine – but in that case your fishing has no relationship to the contest. If you choose to be kosher, that’s fine. But if you aren’t circumcised, that has nothing to do with Jewish law.

The reason Paul uses circumcision to make his argument is because it is the most basic requirement of Jewish law (at least for men). So he says, “Look, not only did Titus not have to be kosher, he didn’t even have to be circumcised. The very first and most basic requirement of the law did not apply to him.” There was pressure by “false brothers” to make Titus get circumcised. But Paul did not bend to it, and neither did the other apostles in Jerusalem.

Undoubtedly, one of you bright readers will come across Acts 16:1-2, and find out that later on, Paul mentored a young man named from Galatia named Timothy, and he encouraged Timothy to get circumcised. So what does that mean? Did Paul change his mind after he wrote this letter to the Galatians?

In the case of Timothy, I believe that both Paul and Timothy felt that it would be helpful for his ministry if he was circumcised. They were sometimes staying with Jewish people who weren’t Christians. Good Jews could not allow a Gentile to spend the night in their home, or even eat with him. Circumcision gave Timothy greater flexibility in reaching out to those Jews who did not yet trust Jesus. So he was circumcised – not in order to be saved, nor to keep the law, but because the Holy Spirit led him to do it in order to be more effective in reaching people for Jesus.

Our family has celebrated Passover every year for the past seventeen years. We do it because we enjoy it and it encourages us a Christians. But we don’t think it is required. If we didn’t do it this year, we would miss it, but no one in our family would think that we’d be in trouble with God if we failed to do it.The point is this: You do not have to keep any part of the Jewish law in order be saved through faith in Jesus Christ. In fact, keeping the law won’t help you in the least. But you are allowed to follow some or all of Jewish law – if you want to, and if you do it for some other reason than because you think it is required in order to be saved.

We no longer have a law that says you must be circumcised. But neither do we have a law that says you cannot be circumcised. The important point here is that following rules and regulations cannot make us close to God. Only Jesus can do that. So when it was all about salvation and the true gospel, as it was in the case of Titus, Paul refused to budge. But when the Holy Spirit led Timothy to get circumcised in order to be more effective at reaching people for Jesus, Paul encouraged him to do it. You see, certain things are useful in our lives, to keep us close to Jesus. But only one thing is necessary: to trust Jesus. There is not law you can keep, no good deed you can do that will help you receive salvation. You can only trust Jesus, and trust that he did it all for you.

When we really understand this, I think there are two very common responses. The first is say, “OK, got it. I trust Jesus. I’m saved. Now I am going to go off live however I please, because I don’t get to heaven by being good anyway.”

A huge number of people who call themselves Christians seem to have that response. I have used the analogy before, but I’ll use it again because it is both helpful and biblical. That approach is like saying: “OK, I’m married now. Now, I’m going to go live my own life. I’m not really interested in spending time with my wife or being faithful to her and all that. She said ‘I do,’ and so we’re good. When it’s time to retire, she’ll be there for me to nurse me in my failing years. If I get into a crisis before then, I’ll call. But until I hit retirement or a crisis, I’ve got better things to do than hang around with this woman.”

The natural questions are: Do you really truly your wife? Do you really have a relationship with her? Can you honestly call that relationship “marriage” when you have no intention of making a life together?

In the same way, “Christians” who have nothing to do with Jesus probably don’t really trust him in the first place. I doubt very much if their faith is genuine when they treat him like that. This group of people is not focused on Jesus, but on their own selfish behavior. They are fixated on the things they want to do.

But there is another response that some Christians have. They look at the first group of people and say, correctly, “That’s wrong. I don’t want to be like that.” Their solution, however, is to create a list of things to do that ensure you don’t become one of the first group. Like circumcision was for Timothy, some of these things can be genuinely helpful in your relationship with Jesus. Others are actually a natural part of a real relationship of faith – like praying, and listening to God through the bible, and living in community with other Christians.

But we cannot make them into laws. This second group can also end up focused on behavior – in their case, it is good behavior. But it is not Jesus himself.

This is where trust comes in. We have to trust that as we fix our eyes on Jesus, rather than our own behavior, He will make things right. We trusted him to make things right for our past sins. We need to do the same for our present behavior as well. It is only common sense to do things that are helpful, like praying, and reading the bible and fellowshipping with other believers. But we can’t trust in those things to keep us in Jesus. We trust Jesus himself, not any part of our own behavior.

If you are truly focused on Jesus, not on how you want to behave, you will begin to sin less. Jesus will work from the inside out and your goals will come from him, not your selfish desires. If you are truly focused on Jesus, not your behavior, you will begin to find more joy and freedom. You won’t worry so much about how you’re doing, because you are full of Jesus, not your own performance.

I play tennis. There are certain stances and racquet positions that are important in that game. Good footwork is helpful. But if you keep looking at your feet and hands and racquet, you will absolutely fail at tennis. Once you learn the basics, you need to watch the ball, always. If you watch the ball, the other stuff kind of takes care of itself. That’s a simplification of the sport of course, but it holds an important true lesson. When we are fixed on Jesus, not our behavior, he takes care of the behavior.

Martin Luther describes a similar situation in his own lifetime:

“In the same way we today do not reject fasting and other pious practices as something damnable, but we do teach that by these practices we do not obtain the forgiveness of sins.”

Luther says, basically: Look fasting and prayer and so on can be very helpful for living in relationship with Jesus. But they do not get you that relationship; they do not help Jesus to forgive you. They don’t contribute to your salvation.

Remember the illustration I gave a few weeks ago. Jesus has come all the way; he has closed the entire gap between us and God. We can’t do any of it for ourselves, whether by fasting or by circumcision or by any other good work.

Paul’s hard-line approach is not about being confident in himself or sick of opposition. It is his confidence in Jesus, and the importance of this issue that lead him to come across this way.

But we did not give up and submit to these people for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would be preserved for you. (Gal 2:5, HCSB) emphasis added

Let’s understand the issue. It is that Jesus alone has done everything that is necessary to bring us into relationship with God. Our only “work” according to Jesus, (and to Paul) is to trust him (John 6:29). This isn’t about “being free” or “standing up for my rights.” It is nothing less than defending the truth of the Gospel.