Revelation #34. The Dangerous, Good God.

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The first readers of Revelation would have seen this judgment as a good thing, precisely because it is a God thing. I’m reminded of a concept from the beloved books, The Chronicles of Narnia. The children discover that the King of the World is a lion. They are shocked. “But is he safe?” they ask.

“Of course he isn’t safe,” reply the citizens of Narnia. “He’s the King. But he is good.”

Our passage today shows us that God is not safe, and that God is good.

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Revelation #34. Revelation 16:1-21

There is a strong parallelism between the third section of Revelation (the trumpets) and where we are this time, the fifth section: the bowls of wrath. Let me draw it out for you:

  • Trumpet 1: Hail fire and blood fall on the earth. One third of the earth is burned.
  • Bowl 1: It is poured on the earth. Painful sores break out on those who followed the beast.
  • Trumpet 2: A third of the sea-life is killed.
  • Bowl 2: Poured on the sea. It turns to blood and everything in it is killed.
  • Trumpet 3: A great star falls on the fresh water. One third of it is spoiled.
  • Bowl 3: The bowl is poured on the fresh water, turning all of into blood.
  • Trumpet 4: A third of the sun, moon and stars is struck.
  • Bowl 4: Poured onto the sun. Its power burns those who worship the beast. They refuse to repent, however.
  • Trumpet 5: The bottomless pit is opened. The destroyer is released. The smoke of the abyss darkens the sun, and demonic creatures are given authority to inflict pain on those who reject Jesus.
  • Bowl 5: Poured onto the throne of the beast, plunging his kingdom into darkness and pain. But people continue to reject Jesus.
  • Trumpet 6: The four demons bound at the “great river Euphrates” are released. Their armies kill one third of the earth. The people refuse to repent.
  • Bowl 6: Is poured on “the great river Euphrates” It is dried up, in preparation for a coming invasion. The great battle, Armageddon, is set up by demonic deception.
  • Part 7 of the trumpets (but not a trumpet itself)*: the seven thunders, and God’s promise that there will be no delay.
  • Bowl 7: Great destruction through storms, earthquakes and 100-pound hailstones. The people still blaspheme God.

*(The seventh trumpet is actually the revelation of the seven bowls of wrath).

Now, the natural question is “What does this mean? Why is there such parallelism?” I have spoken before about a way of writing and thinking called “chiastic structure.” What I have just showed you is a clear example of it. In the overall, big-picture of Revelation, part 3 (the trumpets) is connected to part 5 (the bowls). Each individual subsection of part 3 has a matching subsection in part five.

Many, many commentators believe that Revelation is written with chiastic structure in mind, yet so many disagree with each other on the details of which parts are parallel to each other. The reason I favor my own outline of Revelation is precisely because the bowls and the trumpets are clearly related to each other as chiasms. From there, we can build out to understand the whole picture. If you don’t remember about chiastic structure, I strongly encourage you to go skim Revelation Part 2, for a refresher.

The meaning of Chiastic structure is difficult for us to grasp, because it really is a different way of presenting ideas; we aren’t used to it. You might even say, it is a different way of thinking, or of organizing thoughts. I will freely confess to you, that specifically in Revelation, my own understanding  of how John uses chiastic structure is limited. However, it is clear that he is doing so.

It is tempting to think that John is simply repeating the same information in a different way, but that is not how chiastic structure usually works. In part chiastic is used to repeat ideas, but at the same time, it is used to add new information to ideas already presented. What I mean is, we should not think that the trumpets and the bowls are the same; only, that they are related to each other.

In fact, I believe that the bowls are a completion of what was started with the trumpets. Judgment began with the seals, and only one quarter of the earth was affected. Then came the trumpets, and one third of the world was affected. In the bowls of wrath (sometimes called “the plagues”) the entire earth is affected.

With the trumpets, God allowed, for a limited time, and in limited ways, demonic powers to have authority to affect things. Now, with the bowls, he brings judgment down on those demonic powers, and on those who welcome them.

There is one important theme repeated in both sections. It is that some people, in spite of everything, refuse to repent. Their response to God’s glory and wrath is not repentance, but defiant rebellion. In our chapter today, three times, the people explicitly reject God (verses 9, 11 & 20).

So they blasphemed the name of God, who had the power over these plagues, and they did not repent and give Him glory.
10 The fifth poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues because of their pain 11 and blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, yet they did not repent of their actions. (Revelation 16:9-11, HCSB)

God is showing everyone that his judgments are right and reflect true justice. In fact, verses 5-7 explicitly tell us that this is part of what is going on:

5 I heard the angel of the waters say:
You are righteous,
who is and who was, the Holy One,
for You have decided these things.
6 Because they poured out
the blood of the saints and the prophets,
You also gave them blood to drink;
they deserve it!
7 Then I heard someone from the altar say:
Yes, Lord God, the Almighty,
true and righteous are Your judgments. (Revelation 16:5-7 HCSB)

Many years before, one who did repent of his sins, King David, said something similar:

4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge. (Psalms 51:4, NIV)

Paul writes in Romans:

Now we know that whatever the law says speaks to those who are subject to the law, so that every mouth may be shut and the whole world may become subject to God’s judgment. (Rom 3:19, HCSB)

This is one of the big themes for the book of Revelation: that God is justified in the way he will judge the world. He will make everything right. Child-molesters will get what is coming to them. Hitler, Stalin, Mao – any such monstrous people, will receive their due. Now, at the same time, anyone who repents and throws themselves on God’s mercy will be saved. But those who reject God, and reject the free, loving gracious salvation he offers, will find themselves crushed by his unchanging holiness. God has given them every opportunity to repent and be saved. Again and again, he delays. He starts by offering kindness to all people. When that time is over, he still does not give up, but tries to bring people to Himself through hardship. Even in this section of  Revelation, where the judgment of God is being executed, he is looking for repentance, though he doesn’t find it.

So, what do we do with all of this? Because of the chiastic structure of Revelation, we often revisit the major themes. I think one thing the Lord may be saying to his people today is to remember his holiness and righteousness. We live in a culture where the ultimate sin is to “judge” someone else. It is absolutely true and right that we humans do not have the right to condemn anyone. But God does have the right, both to judge that someone is wrong, and also to either save or condemn them. We don’t have to decide whom is going to heaven, and whom to hell. However, we should recognize that God does decide that. Though God is love, he is also holiness. Though he forgives, he also judges those who reject his forgiveness. There are some things that are right, and some that are wrong. We are playing with a toxic poison when act as if sin is no big deal, as if God is just a big, warm teddy bear.

The first readers of Revelation would have seen this judgment as a good thing, precisely because it is a God thing. May we do the same. I’m reminded of a concept from the beloved books, The Chronicles of Narnia. The children discover that the King of the World is a lion. They are shocked. “But is he safe?” they ask.

“Of course he isn’t safe,” reply the citizens of Narnia. “He’s the King. But he is good.”

Our passage today shows us that God is not safe, and that God is good. We are meant to read this and realize that we have no hope except to repent of our self-centeredness and sin, and throw ourselves upon His mercy and goodness.

Some of you have already done that, in the sense of becoming followers of Jesus. However, maybe there are ways in which we need to continue doing it. We need to remember that sin is a serious, toxic substance, and the future of those who blaspheme God is judgement. We don’t need to live in fear. Also, God often acts in ways that are hard to understand. In those times we need to remember his forgiveness and mercy are truly ours through Jesus, and that he has shown us the depth of his love for us through the Cross. We can know that even when it doesn’t feel safe, God is good.

Revelation #13 The Poor, Wealthy Church

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The point of repentance is not to get you to try harder. True Biblical repentance means you give up on yourself. You are saying, “I can’t do it, Lord. I don’t have what it takes. My only hope is your mercy.” You turn away from trying to fix things in your own strength, and throw yourself entirely on the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. You are abandoning all hope apart from Jesus, including the hope of making yourself better. If you are to become a better person, Jesus will have to make it happen within you. Your job is simply to trust him to do it.

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Revelation #13. Revelation 3:14-22

I bet this has happened to you. About a week ago, I got myself a cup of coffee, brought it to my office, and resumed work. I spent quite a while on the phone, and then got involved in some interesting study, and my coffee sat on my desk forgotten. While I was photocopying some materials, I remembered it, and reached down to my desk to take a sip. It was tepid and lukewarm, and as many of you know, lukewarm coffee is worse than no coffee at all. I could barely restrain myself from spraying it out of my mouth all over the room. I took the rest of the cup and dumped it out.

Unfortunately, this is how Jesus expresses the spiritual condition of the church at Laodicea. They are lukewarm. This picture stands in contrast to the outward appearance of the city. Laodicea was a very wealthy town, boasting an affluent society. It was a center of banking, and was also known for its fine black wool that was used to produce expensive clothing and carpets. There was a medical school in Laodicea that was famous for its “Phrygian powder” which was used to make a notoriously effective salve for healing people’s eyes. There appeared to be neither outward persecution nor inward strife in the church in Laodicea (in this way it was very similar to Sardis). All in all, those addressed by this letter were very comfortable and well off compared to many of the other cities  in this section of Revelation.

If I had to pick just one of the seven letters that most closely reflects the general state of Christianity in America today, it would be this letter, the message to Laodicea. Of course, I do not mean that all Christians in America today are like the Laodicean Christians. And not all churches are like the Laodicean church. But if we were to generalize about Christianity in the United States in the year 2017, it looks (in general) a lot more like the Laodicean church than any of the other churches found in the seven letters.

The Laodiceans were comfortable, in fact wealthy and well off. While some of us in America may not feel like we are well off compared to our friends and neighbors, the truth is that a poor American is wealthier than 85% of the rest of the world. If you are an American – no matter how your income compares to other Americans – you are among the richest 15% in the world. This is fact. If you were to take a trip to any third world country, and see how most of the people actually live, you would come back knowing beyond a shadow of doubt that you are comfortable. Also like Laodicea, our nation is famous for its wealth, its lifestyle and its achievements.

And unfortunately, also like the Laodiceans, our Christians and Churches tend to be comfortable, placid, and lukewarm. Many of us have settled into an easy routine of going about our own business, and doing the “God thing” once a week (twice a week for the really committed). We have our wealth, and we like it (though we don’t call it “wealth” – we call it “comfortable” or “normal”) and quite frankly, we do not need Jesus terribly much. Our faith is a nice part of our weekly routine, and it gives us a sort of satisfaction, but if we let it dominate our thinking, our decisions and our very lives – well it would be – uncomfortable. The truth is, for many who call themselves Christians, Christianity is not the thing, it is just one thing among many other things that need their attention. Rather than informing all their decisions and determining the direction of their lives, faith, for lukewarm Christians, is merely one aspect of a very full and busy life.

It’s interesting that new converts often find this surprising and disturbing about Christianity in America. Francis Chan is a well-known pastor in San Francisco. He tells about a young gang member who became a Christian. The young man seemed very excited about Jesus. After a few months, however, he quit coming to church. Chan went and found him, and asked why he quit. The former gang member said something like this: “When I was in the gang, all of life centered around the gang. We did everything together. Everything was about what was going on with the gang. I thought being a Christian was going to be like that. But people at your church just come on Sundays, and the rest of life they just go do their own thing.”

There are other converts with similar criticisms of American Churches, and I think they are spot-on. All of life is supposed to be centered around Jesus. Instead, many millions of people call themselves Christians, but, for the most part, Jesus occupies their time and attention for only part of one or two days each week.

This is precisely where the Laodicean Christians found themselves. Like the church in Sardis, they didn’t want to get all charged up about Jesus and cause a stir. Life was fine, and frankly there was so much else to do. Didn’t they need to balance their faith with their other priorities? They had Jesus and _____. Perhaps it was Jesus and the business. Or Jesus and the career. Or Jesus and entertainment. Simply fill in the blank with whatever seems appropriate. I’m sure Jesus was welcome, but he needed to remember to keep his place among all the other things that were going on in their lives.

And that made Jesus want to vomit. That is in fact the literal meaning of the term that is translated as “spit you out (verse 16)” – vomit. Just as the instinctive reaction to lukewarm coffee is to spit it out, so Jesus’ first reaction to lukewarm Christianity is to vomit. A person who has just enough of Christianity to be blasé about it is in the worst position possible, spiritually speaking. Such a person thinks he has the truth, and so will not continue to search, and yet he will not surrender to the truth to the point that it saves him. As with coffee, a lukewarm Christian is worse than one who is not a Christian at all. This is not a new concept in the Bible. Jesus told his disciples that they were to be the salt of the earth. Then he adds:

“But if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled by men.” (Matthew 5:13)

Another one I’ve quoted many times:

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)

Christianity in Laodicea was losing its “salty” flavor. It did not look, feel or sound any different from the culture around it. The Christians there were losing their ability to make an impact on the world around them because they were becoming just like the world around them. Oh, I believe they remained morally straight, and outwardly righteous. But their lives were slipping under the control of the same passions and drives that controlled every other person in Laodicea. They were living not for Jesus, but for the same things that the culture was living for – comfort, fame, riches and so on.

The good news is, their condition was not beyond hope. If they had already slipped past the point of no return, Jesus would not have sent this message to them. But he speaks in the strongest possible words in order to draw their attention to the fact that they are in imminent danger of spiritual death. They still have time, but not much, and that is why he uses such vivid language.

First, he draws attention to their true condition. Their true spiritual condition is the opposite of their outward circumstances. They are not wealthy in Jesus – spiritually speaking, they are impoverished beggars (contrast this to those in Smyrna, chapter 2:8-11). They are not clothed in the rich black wool of their city – they are naked and painfully, humiliatingly exposed in the spiritual realm. While their city is famous for eye salve, they remain spiritually blind, in need of not their own salve, but of Jesus’ restorative salve to let them see the truth.

The remedies they need are all provided by Jesus. He has gold, refined in the fire – true spiritual riches that will not be destroyed when the world comes to an end. He has the white robe of righteousness to clothe them with; signifying that their sins are wiped away and they are new creations in him. He has the truth which will destroy their blindness to their own condition and to the things which are truly important.

And what they need to do to receive these remedies is repent.

This concept is absolutely vital for Christians today. The key to restoring spiritual fervor is repentance. In Psalm 51 King David recognized that the joy of salvation returns only with repentance. So with the Laodiceans, when he wants to “heat them up” (as opposed to leaving them lukewarm) Jesus commands that they repent. There are times when he also commands us to repent. He supplies the rest of what we need, but we need to open the door to him by turning away from the things that distract us – not only asking for forgiveness, but asking for the willingness and the power to never turn back to the things which come between us and Jesus.

The older I get, the more convinced I am that the key issue in repentance is to give up our own self. We need to forsake our right to rule our own lives, and let Jesus lead us. We need to surrender our need to control our own lives, or the lives of others. We need to submit our own hopes, dreams, desires and ‘rights’ to the control of Jesus. We need to seek only Jesus, and let him give us these other things as he chooses (or not). You might picture it as taking yourself off of the throne of your own life, and letting Jesus (and nothing else) have that throne. You are abdicating your own personal kingdom to him.

Now, I want to make sure we understand something vitally important. The point of repentance is not to get you to try harder. True Biblical repentance means you give up on yourself. You are saying, “I can’t do it, Lord. I don’t have what it takes. My only hope is your mercy.” You turn away from trying to fix things in your own strength, and throw yourself entirely on the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ. You are abandoning all hope apart from Jesus, including the hope of making yourself better. If you are to become a better person, Jesus will have to make it happen within you. Your job is simply to trust him to do it.

This command to repent begins a section where Jesus offers hope. He says “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline (v.19).” His harsh words were not simply because he was angry – he is worried about his people in Laodicea, and he comes to them with such strong correction because he loves them and does not want to see them fall away. In Hebrews, it says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” (Hebrews 12:6).

In addition to giving discipline, Jesus offers an invitation:

“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with me.” (3:20).

This verse is of course often used when making an appeal to those who don’t know Jesus. In context however, we see that it is call for those who are already Christians to repent. In the ancient world, dining together represented affection, warmth and intimacy – in short, a good relationship. This is the promise Jesus offers when we repent – he will restore our relationship with himself to a level of closeness and intimacy.

The essence of repentance, as I have said, is giving up self. It is taking self off of the throne of your own life. Jesus promises that the one who repents, paradoxically, will conquer, and once Jesus sits on the throne, he also grants that we will sit with him on his throne. In other words, though it is difficult and sometimes painful, ultimately, we do not lose by putting Jesus on the throne of our life.

What is the Spirit saying to you today? I encourage you to take time to listen, pray, and act on what He says.

Revelation #11 THE LAZY CHURCH

Lazy Church

Sardis was one of the two worst churches to which Revelation was written. Jesus literally has nothing good to say about them. What was their offense? Were they pursuing some particularly bad heresy? Were they pressured by the culture into some terrible compromise? No. In the eyes of Jesus, what made them so bad was that they simply didn’t care very much. Even though they looked good on the outside, on the inside, the truth was that the gospel meant very little to them, and they were spiritually dead.

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Revelation #11. Revelation 3:1-7

Just as Smyrna was one of only two churches whom Jesus does not rebuke, Sardis is one of only two churches whom Jesus does not praise for anything (Laodicea is the other one). Situated at the crossroads of five major highways, Sardis was a wealthy commercial center. Perhaps because of this easy wealth, the citizens of Sardis gained a reputation for a certain kind of laxity. The city itself was built on a hill so steep that it was considered by its residents to be an impregnable fortress. However, twice during its long history Sardis was captured by enemies (in 549 B.C. by Cyrus the Persian, and in 281 B.C. by the Greek ruler, Antiochus). Both times, enemy troops scaled the precipice by night and found that the lax Sardians had not even posted a guard. That it happened even once is amazing; that the Sardians failed to learn from history and allowed it to happen again, borders on the incredible. There was, it seemed, something about the culture of the city that lent itself to comfortable, luxurious lassitude.

This cultural characteristic of laxity had evidently penetrated the community of Christian believers in Sardis. There was a apparently no serious persecution of Christians in Sardis, by either Romans or Jews. While at one level this may sound like a good thing, perhaps the reason they were left alone is because they had become so much like the culture around them that there was no need to persecute them. Unlike the churches in Thyatira and Pergamum, there did not appear to be any particular cults leading them astray – they simply drifted through a mediocre faith. As one commentator puts it:

“Content with mediocrity, lacking both the enthusiasm to entertain a heresy and the depth of conviction which provokes intolerance, it was too innocuous to be worth persecuting.”

In other words, they weren’t interested enough in faith to be heretics, and they were so low-key about their convictions that the culture around them didn’t even notice them as particularly different.

Jesus wants to light a fire under these half-dead Christians. He reveals himself as “He who has the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars…” Remember that the number seven in Revelation represents the complete and full work of God. As I mentioned in the second message in this series, the “seven spirits of God” really means God’s perfect work, plan, and will accomplished by the Holy Spirit in this world. The church at Sardis is not perfect or complete. They are so incomplete that they are almost spiritually dead. So, by highlighting the “seven spirits of God,” Jesus is showing a contrast between this church, and the Holy Spirit. What they desperately need is the work of the sevenfold spirit of God.

So, without any kind of praise for them, Jesus starts in on the problems of the Sardian Christians. He minces no words. “You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of my God (v1-2).” The term used for “wake up” is actually “keep watch” or “be alert.” I believe Jesus chose this word carefully to call to mind for the Sardians what happened to their city in the past when those defending it were not alert. This parallel is drawn further when he adds, “If therefore you will not wake up I will come like a thief and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you (v. 3).” With the story of the city’s defeat so well-known and readily available, Jesus makes use of it to warn these straying Christians. On the outside they appear secure, like the fortress of Sardis. But inside they are vulnerable to death and destruction. What happened to the city physically will happen to them spiritually unless something changes.

It’s surprising to me that this is one of the two worst churches of the seven (only this, and the Laodicean church have nothing for which Jesus praises them). Their offense isn’t some great heresy. They aren’t pounded by persecution. They’re just…spiritually lazy. They don’t care that much. And that makes them one of the worst offenders in Jesus’ eyes.

The Christians at Sardis were the ultimate hypocrites. They had a reputation for life, but were in reality dead. What was seen on the outside did not reflect the truth of the inside. I believe that their condition, and Jesus’ response to it, demonstrate an important truth of the Christian life. God wants us to be real with him (and as a result, real with each other also). True relationship has to be based on truth. To whatever extent that we put out false fronts or facades, we are not in real relationship with God and others. Although God knows everything and can see through our “fronts,” a right relationship with him is not possible until we are honest with ourselves and with him about who we really are. David writes in Psalm 51:

“Surely you desire truth in the inner parts; you teach me wisdom in the inmost place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow. (Psalm 51:6-7)”

Sometimes we do not want to deal with what is in our “inner parts” but if we are secretly holding on to sin there, we need to own up to it so Jesus can cleanse it. Jesus refers to the Sardians who were not honest about the state of their “inner parts” as those who have “soiled their garments (v 4).” God wants our heart, and he knows when he does not have it. No matter how good we may look to others, God knows the truth about our hearts. No matter how hard we try to keep up appearances, God wants honesty about the real state of our souls. No true cleansing or healing can come without it. Many people desire health and wholeness without going through the pain of owning up honestly to the state of their hearts. Jesus knows better. It is only when we acknowledge brokenness that it can be cleansed and healed.

So he says to these superficial Christians at Sardis: “Remember therefore what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent.” What is it that they had seen and heard? Nothing less than the good news:

“If we claim to have fellowship with him, yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth…If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:6, 8-9).”

He wants them to remember that salvation is based on truth, that everyone is helpless without Jesus – that no one is righteous apart from him. They need to be refilled with the joy of salvation. He also wants them to remember the words of James:

“What good is it brothers if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? …In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. …Show me your faith without deeds and I will show you my faith by what I do. (James 2:14,17,18)”

Good deeds cannot earn salvation of course, but the genuineness of salvation is tested in actions. If a person is truly connected to God, good deeds will result. True salvation does not excuse us from good deeds – instead it motivates us to do them in response to God’s love. The Sardian Christians needed to remember this, and to therefore “keep” it as well. If we truly know the word of God, and believe it, it will change how we live. If it doesn’t, we are in danger of spiritual death.

Finally, Jesus calls the Christians at Sardis to repent. Repentance goes beyond mere confession. In confession, we acknowledge our sin. In repentance, we turn away from it. Of course we cannot turn aside from sin without the help of the Holy Spirit, but repentance is simply the expression of our desire and will – with God’s help – to change course from our sinful ways. As always, God simply needs our willingness and he will supply the power.

The church is nearly dead. It’s interesting that this isn’t about the number of people worshipping. It is about the fact that most of those who claim to be in the church are spiritually in a coma, almost dead. But Jesus makes a promise to those who are alive, and who have not “defiled their clothes.” He says that these believers who have remained faithful will “walk with me in White.” I think this might be more clearly translated as “Walk with me, the one who wears white,” because he adds: “in the same way, the victor will be dressed in white clothes.” The white clothes symbolized holiness and purity. Even though these believers are in the midst of people who have defiled themselves, Jesus knows that these few have remained faithful, and they have been given His own purity and holiness.

He also says, “I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowledge his name before My Father  and before His angels.” The book of life is found in Revelation chapter 21. If your name is in the book, you receive eternal life in the New Heavens and New Earth. If not, you go into the lake of fire.

I think it is probably that many of the so-called Christians in Sardis were shy about publicly acknowledging Jesus. They weren’t persecuted, but perhaps being open about Jesus meant that you would lose social respect and standing. Talking about Jesus in public might be equivalent to talking about certain bodily functions in public. But to those few that publicly claimed Jesus, Jesus would publicly claim them.

Where does all this hit you? I don’t have a pre-conceived notion, because I don’t even know all of you who read this blog. I’ll just offer some possible applications.

Do you need to wake up spiritually? Are you sort of drifting along, so spiritually innocuous that you don’t offend anyone, so spiritually asleep that you hardly even care? Jesus is offering you a chance to wake up before it is too late. Otherwise, when he returns, it will be too late to have your name written in the book of life, too late to claim Jesus.

Perhaps you are more like me. I don’t think I’m spiritually asleep. But sometimes I get concerned that maybe I am too hard on those I am spiritually concerned about. Jesus is very harsh with these lazy Christians, because he doesn’t want them to be eternally destroyed. The way we respond to Jesus is eternally important. In fact, there is nothing more important on this earth than that. Don’t get lulled into thinking otherwise. You cannot place too much importance on how you and your loved ones respond to Jesus.

This is a church that experienced a long period of peace and prosperity – and it almost destroyed them spiritually. Perhaps we need to remember that sometimes the danger is not in persecution, or even heresy, but rather in peace and prosperity, leading us to become lazy, to feel that we don’t really need the Lord in any significant way.

Let those who have ears hear what the Spirit says today!

THE PROBLEM OF GOD’S LOVE

god's love

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

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

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Download Matthew Part 83

Matthew #83  Matthew 23:37-39

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

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

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

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

God said through Ezekiel:

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

Isaiah prophesied:

9  For they are a rebellious people, lying children,

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

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

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

“Because you despise this word

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

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

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

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

“In returning and rest you shall be saved;

in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”

But you were unwilling, 16 and you said,

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

The prophet Hosea said it this way:

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

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

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

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

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

and I bent down to them and fed them.

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

and though they call out to the Most High,

he shall not raise them up at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“In returning and rest you shall be saved;

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

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

THE GOOD NEWS INVOLVES REPENTANCE

repentance-cross2

To hear many churches, the message of the gospel is this: “Jesus loves you. Now you are free to do whatever you want, as long as admit that you are a sinner, counting on Jesus to forgive you.” Brothers and sisters, that is not the message of the Gospel of Grace. That is not what Jesus preached, and it not what the apostles preached. Jesus and the apostles preached repentance and faith.

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Download Matthew Part 76

Matthew #76  Matthew 21:28-45

I want to remind all of you that we most certainly depend upon your prayers for us, in very real and practical ways. Right now we could use prayers for guidance, encouragement and for the Lord to continue to use these messages as he wants. We would also appreciate it if you would pray for financial provision for us as we move into the summer months, which are always harder, financially. If you would like to partner with us financially, please click the “donate” tab, above to learn how. Thank you for your prayers!

I want us to remember that the verses today are continuation of Jesus’ conversation with the religious leaders about John the Baptist, and whether or not he (and Jesus) preached with the authority of God.

Jesus continues that discussion by laying out an allegory; sometimes we call it the parable of the two sons. He makes it clear how that parable applies to the religious leaders. Next, he tells another parable. There are two important themes running throughout all of Jesus’ words today: Repentance and Faith.

In the story about the two sons, the key thing about the first son is that he changed his mind (verse 29). Jesus then reminds the people that when John came along, preaching repentance, the tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. They repented and they believed. But the religious leaders did not believe John, and they did not change their minds.

I want us to be clear on this. A number of people are fatally confused about the attitude of Jesus towards sinners on the one hand, and Pharisees and religious leaders on the other. The sinners to whom Jesus refers here are not entering the kingdom of God because they are sinners. They are entering because they repented and believed. The religious leaders are not excluded because they are religious. They are excluded because they will not repent and trust Jesus.

Too often, people take this attitude: “Well, Jesus really didn’t like religious people, but he liked sinners. I’m a sinner, so I’m probably better off than all those church goers.” But that misses the point. No one is better off without repentance and faith. Being religious does not help you. Being a sinner does not help you. Your only hope is repentance and faith.

The vineyard story is also all about repentance, and the lack thereof. The vineyard Owner sends two groups of servants. Each time the tenants of the vineyard, who owe a debt to the owner, mistreat and reject them. Finally, the Owner sends his son. Not only do they reject him, but they kill him.

The Owner was very kind and patient. He gave the tenants many opportunities to repent – but they reject every single change they were given. As a result, the Owner destroys them, and seeks new tenants.

We in the Western world have become confused about Jesus and his teaching. To hear many churches, the message of the gospel is this: Jesus loves you. Now you are free to do whatever you want, as long as admit that you are a sinner, counting on Jesus to forgive you.

Brothers and sisters, that is not the message of the Gospel of Grace. That is not what Jesus preached, and it not what the apostles preached. Jesus and the apostles preached repentance and faith. They call us to turn away from our sins and from living for ourselves, and to put all of our hope and trust in Jesus Christ alone, and to live for Him. That is the message Jesus is giving to the religious leaders here. He is pointing out how they have failed to repent, and how they have failed to trust Him. In case this passage alone does not convince you, let me remind you of a few others. Jesus himself consistently calls people to repentance:

31 Jesus replied to them, “The healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do. 32I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. (Luke 5:31-32, HCSB)

 20 Then He proceeded to denounce the towns where most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent (Matt 11:20, HCSB)

17 From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, because the kingdom of heaven has come near! ” (Matt 4:17, HCSB)

At that time, some people came and reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2And He responded to them, “Do you think that these Galileans were more sinful than all Galileans because they suffered these things? 3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well! 4Or those 18 that the tower in Siloam fell on and killed — do you think they were more sinful than all the people who live in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well! (Luke 13:1-5, HCSB)

Jesus also taught his disciples to teach others to repent. He did this both before and after his resurrection:

 12 So they went out and preached that people should repent. (Mark 6:12, HCSB)

44 Then He told them, “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. 46He also said to them, “This is what is written: The Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead the third day, 47and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:44-48, HCSB)

Repentance was a key part of the message that the apostles consistently taught after the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit:

38Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you and for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” 40And with many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, “Be saved from this corrupt generation! ” (Acts 2:38-40, HCSB)

19 Therefore repent and turn back, so that your sins may be wiped out, that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19, HCSB)

30 “Therefore, having overlooked the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because He has set a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31, HCSB)

20 Instead, I preached to those in Damascus first, and to those in Jerusalem and in all the region of Judea, and to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works worthy of repentance. (Acts 26:20, HCSB)

Repentance is not a work we do to earn our way into heaven. It the humbling of ourselves, giving up both our pride and efforts to be self-righteous, and also giving up our sins. To repent means to turn back, to go a completely different way. If you can read these words, it is not too late for you to repent. Jesus can handle whatever horrible thing you’ve done, whatever you’ve left undone, and even whatever terrible thing was done to you. But you need to drop it, to turn away from it, and turn to Him. To repent is to fully own the fact that you have been wrong, with no excuses, and then to turn away from it, for all intents, forever.

Now, our turning away forever almost never happens perfectly. But it does mean that you are going a different direction now. You may fall down sometimes as you walk in the new direction. You probably won’t walk it perfectly. But after you repent, your direction is different than it was before. Once in a while, perhaps, you fall back into the same actions as before. But your overall direction is new, oriented toward God, not away from him.

Let me give you an example. Suppose there is a Christian man who wants more of Jesus in his marriage. He is not happy with his marriage. He is unhappy with his wife. Now, the Holy Spirit, working in this man, shows him that he often makes cutting remarks to and about his wife. The Holy Spirit is calling him to repent. Repentance is not saying “Yeah, I know that’s wrong. It’s just hard because she never does what I want. Sorry.” It is isn’t even saying “I admit that I do that, and I admit that it’s wrong.” I repeat: To repent is to fully own the fact that you have been wrong, with no excuses, and then to turn away from it, for all intents, forever.

Again this doesn’t happen perfectly at first. In the case of the man with the unhappy marriage, he commits to turning away from cutting down his wife. Suppose normally he makes an average of six cutting remarks each day. When he first repents, he is so sincere that for a week, he makes none. But after a while, he loses some of his focus, and he goes back to making some cutting remarks, but maybe now only three each day. The Holy Spirit reminds him again, and he renews his repentance and consciously relies on the Holy Spirit to help him, and he gets it down to two cutting remarks each day. He realizes he needs help, and so he asks a Christian friend to pray for him about this, and to hold him accountable by asking him about it regularly. Now, the man usually does not make any cutting remarks to or about his wife at all. As time goes on, prompted by the life of Jesus inside him, he begins to actually compliment and encourage his wife. From time to time, he still slips and makes a nasty comment, but it is no longer a habit, and for the most part, he has become kind and encouraging to his wife. Within a year or two, his attitude is transformed, and he and his wife are closer than they have been for years.

I think that is a realistic picture of what the fruit of repentance looks like. Sometimes Jesus transforms us dramatically in a single moment. But a lot of the time, what is actually happening is that  he starts the process all, in one moment, and then for a period of time we are “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12).

A lot of people admit their sins, but do not really repent of them. Many people feel, in the heat of a moment, that they want to do better next time, and even resolve to do so, but they do not fundamentally commit to going a different way forever. If you are a Christian, and have struggled with the same thing over and over again, and you don’t seem to make any progress, ask the Lord to show you if you have truly repented in that area of your life. If the Bible says you need to repent, or if the Holy Spirit shows that you need to repent, then make a decision to turn back from that (action, habit, attitude) forever. Don’t worry about whether you will fail again at times: make the commitment to turn away from it forever, and invite the Holy Spirit to give you the strength to keep that commitment.

Let me add one more thing. What Jesus and the apostles preached was repentance accompanied by faith. Truly repenting of our sins is impossible without the help of the Holy Spirit. We repent away from sin, and toward Jesus. This is why Jesus quoted Psalm 118 to the religious leaders. Here’s the quote, in context:

19 Open the gates of righteousness for me;

I will enter through them

and give thanks to the LORD.

 20 This is the gate of the LORD;

the righteous will enter through it.

 21 I will give thanks to You

because You have answered me

and have become my salvation.

 22 The stone that the builders rejected

has become the cornerstone.

 23 This came from the LORD;

it is wonderful in our eyes. (Psalm 118:19-23, HCSB)

Jesus quotes this to show them quite clearly that he is the gate through which everyone enters. He is salvation. He is the cornerstone, which, though rejected by many, is the object of true faith and salvation. Matthew records that the religious leaders understood what he was saying, and hated him for it (Matt 21:45-46).

But the fact remains that we are called not only to repentance, but also to faith. The Greek New Testament generally uses the same word for belief, trust and faith. Theologically speaking, when we are talking about Jesus, I think the most appropriate word is trust. When we trust someone, we are giving them power over our lives.

For example, if we trust a bank with our money, that means that the bank, not us, keeps our money on our behalf. When we trust a friend to drive us someplace, that means the friend has control of the car, and where it goes. When we trust someone to run and errand for us, we have given that person the power to take care of whatever that errand is.

So Jesus invites us to turn away from our sins, and turn toward him in trust. Paul describes his experience of doing this as follows:

I have been crucified with Christ 20 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)

Paul is “crucified with Christ” – that is repentance, a complete turning away from his old life where he was in charge. Now he lives by faith – trust – in the Son of God. Jesus has control of his life.

You may wonder, “how can I get that for myself?” The Holy Spirit grants us both repentance and faith. If you want them, ask for them! I promise you, that is a prayer he will answer.

WELCOMING JESUS

002-john-baptist

The kingdom of Heaven is still at hand. The Lord still wants to work more fully in your life. We can still help prepare the way and welcome him in by repentance. The Holy Spirit does the work, all he needs is our willingness.

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To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 5

Matthew #5 . Chapter 3:1-10

I want to remind you that when I preach, I am really trying to do two things. First, I want to make sure we understand the basic background of passage, and the basic meaning of it. Second, I am always “listening” to see what the Holy Spirit might want to say to us through it. Sometimes I focus more on the first thing, and sometimes more on the latter. I guess my point is, I doubt that any single thirty-minute-teaching can capture everything there is to capture about a bible passage. So, I assume that in some ways I am leaving some things out that might be said about any bible passage. Just keep it mind – there’s always more to learn, even from bible passages you know pretty well.

At this point, Matthew skips from the early childhood of Jesus directly to his adulthood. Luke tells us that John the Baptist was the son of Zechariah the priest and his wife Elizabeth. Elizabeth was related to Jesus’ mother, Mary, and in fact, Mary spent some months with her while they were both pregnant. According to Luke, John responded to Jesus, even when they were both unborn babies.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. (Luke 1:39-44, ESV2011)

Because their mothers obviously had a close relationship, it is almost certain that John and Jesus knew each other as children. Certainly, by the time they were adults, before John began to preach, John knew Jesus personally (Matt 3:14), and believed he was the Messiah.

John’s father was a priest, descended from Aaron. This meant that John would have been technically eligible to serve as the high priest. Instead, however, he went into the wilderness of Judea and began to preach. It’s hard to pin down exactly where he was. In the Old Testament, “the wilderness of Judea” referred to an area south and east of Jerusalem, in the vicinity of the Dead Sea. However, it records that John baptized people in the Jordan river, which is north of the Dead sea. Most likely, John wandered around for a little bit.

Not much is said here, but John’s ministry was very remarkable in many ways. The journey from Jerusalem to the Jordan river where John preached was extremely rough. To go from Jerusalem to listen to John would have involved a round trip of several days, and it included very hard travel and the danger of bandits along the way. And yet, his preaching was so compelling that many people made the trip to hear him. Jewish historian Josephus records that John began a significant movement that lasted even into the 100’s AD. Obviously, many of his followers missed his message about Jesus as the Messiah, and started their own sect of Judaism. John the Baptist was a very big deal. Matthew’s concern, however, is not with John himself, but his role in preparing people for the Messiah, Jesus.

Matthew says:

3 For he is the one spoken of through the prophet Isaiah, who said:

A voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

Prepare the way for the Lord;

make His paths straight!

This is the eighth fulfilled prophecy that Matthew refers to. Besides reinforcing his theme of fulfilled prophecy, Matthew shares this to explain that John’s remarkable ministry was all aimed at preparing people to receive the Messiah when he arrived.

How, exactly, did John prepare people to receive Jesus? Matthew says the basic message was: “Repent, because the Kingdom of Heaven has come near” (3:1). That’s a very brief summary, of course. I think the idea was that John preached that God wanted to do something for people personally, that he was drawing near to His people. The appropriate response to the presence of God is realize how we’ve strayed away from him, and turn back to him, away from our sins and wanderings.

The people responded by confessing their sins, and being baptized to show that they were repenting. By the way, the New Testament makes a distinction between the baptism of John, which was for repentance, and baptism into Jesus (see Matthew 3:11; Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38; Acts 19:4; Romans 6:3).

When the religious leaders came to see John, and to be baptized by him, he had some harsh words for them. As I mentioned earlier, John was enormously influential and popular with ordinary Jewish people. Most likely, the religious leaders came to be baptized by him in order to gain popularity with the “regular folks.” But John saw through that, and castigated them for it.

His response to them made two basic points. First, he told them to “produce fruit consistent with repentance. (verse 8).” In other words, “if you are truly repentant, act like it.” Second, he warned them not rely on their ancestry as Jews to do them any good with God (verse 9).

Let’s stop here for this time, and try and unpack what the Lord might say to us through this text.

First, is the Kingdom of Heaven near? I believe since the coming of the Holy Spirit in about 30 AD, the Kingdom of Heaven has always been near to anyone willing to receive it. If you are reading this and you have never turned your life over to Jesus, he is coming to you right now. He wants to shower you with his own real presence, with grace, joy and a new start on life. The way to receive that is the same way shown in this text: to repent. To repent means to turn back, to go a completely different way. If you can read these words, it is not too late for you to repent. Jesus can handle whatever horrible thing you’ve done, whatever you’ve left undone, and even whatever terrible thing was done to you. But you need to drop it, to turn away from it, and turn to Him.

Many of you reading this blog have already repented and turned to Jesus, and received him as your Lord and your salvation. That’s wonderful. But for us who have done that, Jesus is still at hand. He still wants to show up in our lives in greater and more profound ways. He wants to give us even more grace, more joy, more peace, a more abundant life in Him. To receive these things from him, our path is the same: repent!

Let me give you an example. Suppose there is a Christian man who wants more of Jesus in his marriage. He is not happy with his marriage. He is unhappy with his wife. Jesus wants to come into this part of his life – the kingdom of heaven is near. Now, the Holy Spirit, working in this man, shows him that he often makes cutting remarks to and about his wife. The Holy Spirit is calling him to repent. Repentance is not saying “Yeah, I know that’s wrong. It’s just hard because she never does what I want. Sorry.” It is isn’t even saying “I admit that I do that, and I admit that it’s wrong.” To repent is to fully own the fact that you have been wrong, with no excuses, and then to turn away from it, for all intents, forever.

Now, our turning away forever almost never happens perfectly. In the case of the man with the unhappy marriage, he commits to turning away from cutting down his wife. Suppose normally he makes an average of six cutting remarks each day. When he first repents, he is so sincere that for a week, he makes none. But after a while, he loses some of his focus, and he goes back to making some cutting remarks, but maybe now only three each day. The Holy Spirit reminds him again, and he renews his repentance and consciously relies on the Holy Spirit to help him, and he gets it down to two cutting remarks each day. He realizes he needs help, and so he asks a Christian friend to pray for him about this, and to hold him accountable by asking him about it regularly. Now, the man usually does not make any cutting remarks to or about his wife at all. As time goes on, prompted by the life of Jesus inside him, he begins to actually compliment and encourage his wife. From time to time, he still slips and makes a nasty comment, but it is no longer a habit, and for the most part, he has become kind and encouraging to his wife. Within a year or two, his attitude is transformed, and he and his wife are closer than they have been for years.

I think that is a realistic picture of what the fruit of repentance looks like. Sometimes Jesus transforms us dramatically in a single moment. But a lot of the time, what is actually happening is that we are “working out our salvation” (Philippians 2:12). What I mean is, the Lord uses gradual transformation like this to strengthen our hearts and minds and to make us more like him. When you repent you are on a new path. You may not walk the path perfectly, but you are no longer going the old direction. Your your progress, however slow, however often you might fall down, is in the new direction, toward Jesus.

I want to make something clear however. A lot of people admit their sins, but do not really repent of them. A lot of people feel, in the heat of a moment, that they want to do better next time, and even resolve to do so, but they do not fundamentally commit to going a different way forever. If you are a Christian, and have struggled with the same thing over and over again, and you don’t seem to make any progress, ask the Lord to show you if you have truly repented in that area of your life. If the bible says you need to repent, or if the Holy Spirit shows that you need to repent, then make a decision to turn back from that (action, habit, attitude) forever. Don’t worry about whether you will fail again at times: make the commitment to turn away from it forever, and invite the Holy Spirit to give you the strength to keep that commitment.

John the Baptist had some very harsh words for religious people who did not really want to repent, but only wanted to pretend to do so to look good to other people. Unfortunately, there are still a number of people who take this approach. Let me say with John the Baptist: Give it up. Pretending to repent without really doing it is pointless, and it will not save you or help you in any way.

I will add that people who pretend are the ones that typically give Christians a bad reputation. So you are hurting not only yourself, but others too.

The good news, it is never too late to truly repent, not as long as you are still alive. Jesus wants to come to us; some of you for the first time, others in new and deeper ways. How do you need to prepare for him? Where can you make the way more straight for him through repentance?

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I want to briefly make you aware of our situation. This ministry (Clear Bible) until recently was supported by our local church. However, we have had some changes there, and we are now a house church. Today, we have about 8 families. Our church cannot fully support me financially any longer.

 In contrast, about 430 people subscribe to this blog, and an additional 300 or so each week come and visit the site. In other words, by far, most of the people who benefit from this ministry are not part of our little church.

 I’m asking you internet readers/listeners to pray for us. Seriously, before you give any financial support, please give us some prayer support. I value that more than anything else. Pray for this ministry to touch lives. Pray also for financial provision for my family and me.

But then, as you pray, do ask the Lord if he wants you to give financially as well. Be assured, after a small fee to Paypal, 100% of your donations will go to help support my family and me in ministry. In turn, supporting this blog means that you are helping to bless more than 15,000 people each year who visit this blog.

 Some of you may have noticed that I am also a novelist. Often, people have misconceptions about authors. Most of us, including me, make a part-time income through writing, and no more. In other words, we aren’t “raking it in” somewhere else. Now, we trust the Lord to provide, and I don’t want you to give out of guilt or fear. I just don’t want you to get the idea that your donations will only be an “extra” for us somehow.

 If most of our subscribers gave just five or ten dollars each month, (or even less, if everyone pitched in) we would be in good shape. It’s easy to set up a recurring donation when you click the Paypal donate button that is located on the right hand side of this page, down just a little ways.

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 Thank for your prayers, and your support!

FORGIVENESS WITHOUT REPENTANCE

absalom2

If God is so loving, why can’t He just forgive us, no matter what? Why do we have to repent? Why does he require us to believe and to trust him? Absalom shows us the answer to that question.

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 2 Samuel Part 15

2 SAMUEL #15. CHAPTER 14.

The next five chapters of 2 Samuel all relate to David’s son, Absalom. In some ways, even the last chapter (13) was the beginning of his story. If you remember, Absalom’s half-brother, Amnon raped Tamar, who was Absalom’s full sister. Absalom waited, and plotted, and then had Amnon killed – thus taking revenge, and at the same time, becoming the next heir to the throne. However, when it was done, Absalom fled in fear to Geshur, the kingdom of his grandfather Talmai (his mother’s father).

After three years, David finally came to terms with the death of his firstborn son, Amnon. Then he began to realize that he had also lost his next son, Absalom, because of his crime. The scripture says that his heart went out to his son Absalom. Chapter fourteen tells the story of how Absalom was restored to David. But it also shows us that the restoration was not complete on Absalom’s part.

The commander of David’s army’s was Joab. He was also David’s nephew, and companion through most of David’s life. The text says that he observed how David’s heart went out to Absalom. Joab resolved to do something about this. Joab is a complex character, and it is hard to say what his true motivation might have been. He might have been trying get back into David’s good graces. If you remember, since Joab murdered Saul’s old general, Abner, David had distanced himself from him. On the other hand, maybe Joab thought, “David is getting old, and it would be a good idea if the next king felt indebted to me.” Finally, Joab probably had known Absalom since he was a baby, and perhaps the old warrior had a soft spot for the charismatic young prince. Joab had a history of deceptive, manipulative behavior, and perhaps he was even proud of Absalom for murdering his brother Amnon like he did. Finally, it is possible that somehow Absalom contacted Joab in secret and asked for his assistance. In any case, Joab decided to help Absalom.

Notice right away that Joab did not approach David directly. This suggests that the relationship between he and David was indeed under strain. So Joab found a woman who was clever and a good actress, and they set up a scenario. Their approach is actually very similar to that of Nathan the prophet. The woman told David a story about how one of her sons killed the other. Now, everyone wanted to put the living son to death, which would leave her twice bereaved. David, unsuspecting, pronounced judgment, declaring that the surviving son should be protected. The woman even got him to swear by the Lord that he would stand by his judgment. Immediately afterwards, prompted by Joab, she asks David why then, he has not dealt with his own son in the same way. Here, she says something very perceptive.

We will certainly die and be like water poured out on the ground, which can’t be recovered. But God would not take away a life; He would devise plans so that the one banished from Him does not remain banished. (2Sam 14:14, HCSB)

This is actually a kind of prophecy. The woman is right about the heart of God. God did indeed devise a plan to bring back the ones banished from him. As I said last time, this all helps us to understand why Jesus came and died. So, once more, this text is showing us Jesus. I won’t preach the same sermon again, but it is strongly represented again here in this text. Our own sin has cut us off from God. We are banished from his presence. Yet he deeply loves us. So he devised a way to be reconciled to us again. That Way, is Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately for him, the account of Absalom is all about what happens when someone ultimately rejects that reconciliation. David brought him back to Jerusalem. But David is not God. His heart goes out to his son, but he doesn’t know what to do with the sin in his son. So Absalom is allowed to live in Jerusalem, but he is not allowed into the royal presence.

Now, we start to see a little bit of the character of Absalom. There is no record of him ever repenting of his sin of murder. There is no record of him even acknowledging that it was wrong or even a mistake. He certainly did not plead his case with David, or anyone else. Instead the text reveals him as a man who was determined to get what he wanted out of life, and to achieve his own ambitions.

Being allowed to return home was not enough for Absalom. He wanted to be back in David’s favor. Clearly, as we read on in the text, we see that his goal is not to be reconciled to his father, but rather to become the next heir to the throne. He wants to have David’s official approval, so that he can be king after him.

Absalom sends for Joab, to have him intercede on his behalf once more. But Joab stays away. There are several possibilities for Joab’s reaction. Absalom, being who he was, had probably never even thanked Joab for bringing him back from exile. Joab may be upset with him for that. Also, since David had distanced himself from Absalom, perhaps Joab thought it best if he stayed away too, considering the tension that already existed between himself and the king.

The prince (Absalom) had a few alternatives when Joab did not respond to his summons. He could have sent thanks and apologies to him. He could have sent him gifts. He could have at least humbly acknowledged his indebtedness and his ongoing need of Joab. Instead, he set fire to one of Joab’s fields. That tells you something about the character of Absalom. He is too proud to humble himself. He doesn’t care very much about the struggle and suffering of others. He is quick to action, perhaps even arrogant. He never even apologizes to Joab – in fact, he blames him, implying that is was Joab’s own failure to respond that got his barely field burned.

All he cares about is getting what he wants. He wanted Joab’s attention, so he got it – at Joab’s expense. Joab accedes to Absalom’s request, and gets him an audience with the king. David officially forgives his son and restores him to his princely position.

The text tells us something else about Absalom. We know from chapter 13 that his sister was exceptionally beautiful. Now we learn that he names his daughter after her, and she is also very beautiful. And Absalom himself is a flawless physical specimen. In other words, he is just like me. (For those of you who don’t know me well, that was a hilarious joke). Absalom is a beautiful person, from a family of beautiful people. He is rich and famous. The closest I could come with a modern-day analogy would be a member of the Kennedy family.

But like Saul before him, Absalom’s appearance is not a reflection of his inner character. As the subsequent chapters show, Absalom was all about Absalom. Being a “beautiful person” on the outside only hid the ugliness on the inside. For just a small insight into what he was really like, think about this. The text says he shaved his head every year. A year’s growth of his hair weighed five pounds, based on the royal standard (v.26). How did the writer know what it weighed? Because Absalom weighed it himself (same verse). This guy was full of himself.

Now, Absalom’s life was not over at this point. But, just as with Saul, there are some warning signs that he going the wrong direction. Think about it this way. He was not interested in a close relationship with his father. Instead, his main interest was what his father would do for him, and how he could use his father to get the life he wanted.

Sadly, this is how many people relate to God. We want him to forgive our sins so we can go to heaven, not hell. We want him to do certain things for us so that our lives go the way we want them to. We want to use him as a tool, an assistant to help us accomplish our goals. The goal of being close to God is way down the list, if it is even on the list. And we often assume that the best way for us to feel close to him, is for him to bless us.

Absalom could have made the case that what he wanted was good and right. After all, surely his brother Amnon – a rapist – should not have been allowed to become king. And regardless, now that Amnon is dead, it is Absalom’s right and privilege to become David’s heir, and the next king. But he did not trust his father to do what is right – he decided he knew better than the king. He chose to take care of things himself, to put himself in a position to be the crown-prince again, not to humbly wait and receive it as a gift. He was arranging his own life the way he wanted. In this, he was completely the opposite of David, who always waited patiently for God to use him however God wanted.

Sometimes we can be like Absalom. Maybe we feel that what we want for ourselves is good and righteous. Maybe, it even is! Even so, do we try to arrange for it ourselves, or do we put our trust the Lord to do in and through us what he wants to accomplish? Certainly, there is a time for action. But I think if we look inside ourselves, we can tell the difference between when we are responding to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, and when we are stressing and scheming and arranging things so that we get what we want.

There is something else here that is important for us to notice. Absalom’s father, the true king, forgave him for his horrible sin. He restored him to a place of honor. But pay attention – Absalom never did repent. When David was confronted with his sin, he confessed that what he did was wrong. He took responsibility for it. His heart was deeply moved with sorrow for what he had done. He humbly threw himself on the mercy of God and sought forgiveness. Absalom did none of these things.

I’ve often heard people ask something like this: “If God is so loving, why can’t He just forgive us, no matter what? Why do we have to repent? Why does he require us to believe and to trust him?” Absalom shows us the answer to that question. David forgave him, without requiring him to turn away from his sin. He forgave him without making Absalom return to a positive relationship with himself. Ultimately, it did Absalom no good, and in fact, it allowed him to hurt many others until he finally destroyed himself.

Absalom is a living illustration of the fact that when a person receives forgiveness without repenting and trusting, that forgiveness ultimately cannot help him. David’s forgiveness did not require Absalom to change. Certainly, David must have hoped that he would change, but he didn’t require it. As we will see when we read on, because Absalom did not repent and did not change, his relationship with his father remained broken. The forgiveness that David offered him could not save him from the brutal death that he deserved, and in fact, received.

It is the same with the Lord. As the wise woman prophesied, God has made a way to bring back his banished ones. In the person of Jesus, by his torturous death on the cross, God has reconciled both justice and love. Now, through Jesus, he offers that forgiveness to every human being. However, the forgiveness does not help those who refuse to repent. It won’t save those who refuse to admit their real need for forgiveness, who are unwilling to let God restore the broken relationship between them. When we insist upon our own way, as Absalom did, the father sadly allows us to have it, but it brings only destruction upon ourselves and those around us.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you today.