LIVING CRUCIFIED #7: SIN and GRACE

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Being a Christian is not primarily about sinning less, or sinning less grievously. Being a Christian is about being immersed into the love, grace, beauty, truth and joy that are found in Jesus Christ alone. When we are deeply connected to the love of God through Jesus Christ, when we truly trust that he has crucified our old person, and resurrected a new, holy spirit in place of the old, one result is that we will begin to sin less often, and less grievously. But reducing sin is a side effect of being in Jesus. Let’s talk about how all this looks.

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 Living Crucified Part 7

I want to add a few more brief thoughts about fighting sin. The first is this: being a Christian is not primarily about sinning less, or sinning less grievously. Being a Christian is about being immersed into the love, grace, beauty, truth and joy that are found in Jesus Christ alone. When we are deeply connected to the love of God through Jesus Christ, when we truly trust that he has crucified our old person, and resurrected a new, holy spirit in place of the old, one result is that we will begin to sin less often, and less grievously. But reducing sin is a side effect of being in Jesus.

It is easy to get confused about this, for a couple of different reasons. First, it is our sin that separates us from God. Our sin is the problem that keeps us apart from ultimate joy, which is found only in the presence of God. It is also sin that makes the world such a terrible place at times. All war is caused by sin. All violence grows out of sin. Selfish actions, abuse of children, rapacious greed, exploitation, racism, sexism, and hatred are all outgrowths of the root of sin. Depression, self-loathing, self-centeredness, apathy, lack of love – all this proceeds from sin. Even disease and accidents are the result of the fact that sin is embedded in the world.

Since sin is the major problem, it is natural to make the mistake of believing that the solution is to commit fewer sins. And that leads to the second thing that confuses us: many churches do indeed seem to be teaching that the whole point of being a Christian is to control sin. Now, if we could, in fact, control our own sin, that would be a good thing to do. But, if you have tried very hard to do it, you realize that doesn’t get you very far. Even if you can control your behavior (and some people are quite good at that) when you look into your heart honestly, you recognize a deep commitment to get your own needs met, no matter what it takes.

Some people don’t realize what a problem this is, because they can get their needs met through things that are outwardly righteous. But even if the means are righteous, the heart that uses them is not. So maybe you go around helping people and quoting Bible verses in all circumstances. Both of those things are good to do. But it might be that you do them because it makes you feel secure, and good about yourself. It makes you feel like no one can find fault with you. So, even though the activities aren’t wrong, you are doing them for the wrong reasons. It is wrong to get your sense of security, or self-worth, from anywhere but God Himself. It is wrong to believe you can be justified by your own actions.

The bottom line is that every one of us is committed to ourselves, and to making sure that we get our own needs met, no matter what it takes. That is the essence of what the bible calls “flesh,” and we all have it.

As we have been learning through this series, God has dealt with human sin through Jesus. In a spiritual way, God crucified our own sinful hearts on the cross with Jesus. We died with him, and so now we are dead to sin. The way to “control” sin is not to think about it all the time, but rather, to immerse ourselves into the love and joy and grace that are found in Jesus Christ. We trust what the bible says: that we are new creations in Christ Jesus, holy, and blameless. We let Jesus live his life through us. The more we trust him to do that, the more we turn toward him, the less we are controlled by sin.

I want to use Romans chapter 7 to help us understand all this. Please take the time to read all of Romans 7:4 – 8:17. It is about the length of one chapter of scripture. Please do stop reading this right now, and open your Bible and read that. Seriously. Please stop reading this, and go read the scripture passage. Please?

Thanks for reading that. This is a section of scripture that is often misunderstood. In the first place, we ought to read the section I just gave you as one unit. The verse and chapter markings we find in our modern bibles are not part of the original. In other words, they were added to make it convenient for us to quickly find places in the Bible, but they were not inspired by God. So, if I were the one dividing up the book of Romans, I would have the section I just gave you as all belonging together. It would be a mistake to read chapter 7, and then stop without reading any of chapter 8.

In the first part of chapter 7, Paul is making two main points. First, that law is good. It was given by God to show us what sin is. Second, though the law is good, it shows us that we are not good, and the law cannot help us to become any better.

Next comes a section with which we are all familiar:

14 So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. 15 I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. 16 But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. 17 So I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
18 And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. 19 I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. 20 But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.
21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. (Romans 7:14-23, NLT)

We usually read this and think: “Yup. That’s me. I want to do the right thing, but I just can’t get it together. I keep sinning and sinning.” So far so good. But many people miss the main point Paul is making. He repeats it over and over again. The point is not that he sins all the time. The point is this: he wants to do what is right.

I had friend once who was not a Christian. After a lot of time and people praying for him, and some long conversations, he gave his heart to Jesus. Afterward, we started to meet together to pray and talk about the Bible and generally encourage each other in faith. One time the subject of lust came up. He said, “You know, before I became a Christian, I did not struggle with lust. Now I struggle with it all the time.”

I was shocked. What had we done wrong? I asked him to explain.

“Well, before I was a Christian,” he said, “there wasn’t any struggle. I lusted, and it didn’t bother me. But since I came to Jesus, it bothers me when I lust because I don’t want to do that now.”

You see the fact that he didn’t want to sin any more was proof that he had died to sin. In his deepest heart, he knew that he didn’t desire sin. In his inner being, he delighted in God’s perfect standard and holiness.

So, in Romans 7, Paul’s main point is not that he sins all the time. The main point is that now, he does not want to sin all the time. That fact shows that he has died to sin, and has been raised to be with Christ. He has a new heart, a new Spirit, and his new self does not want to sin.

Now, it is natural to ask: “If I am already dead to sin, if I’m already a new creation, freed from sin, why do I keep sinning? If I don’t want to sin, why do I do it anyway? Doesn’t this prove I am half-sinner, half-redeemed?”

No. Although I like the New Living Translation (used above) it does have a major drawback. In verse eighteen, the right translation is this: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh (Romans 7:18, ESV; formatting added for emphasis). In the original Greek it never, anywhere in the New Testament, uses a term like “sinful nature.” The problem is not that we have “bad self,” along with a “redeemed self.” What we have is a part of us that is that vulnerable to sin, called flesh. I mentioned in the beginning that one characteristic of what the bible calls “flesh” is that it is utterly committed to getting our needs (and wants) met, even if it means going against what God says. We all inherited this kind “flesh” from Adam and Eve. Before we became Christians, we all lived according to the flesh. We all found ways to do what it takes to feel better. We all depended upon ourselves, rather than God, to get our needs met. Sometimes we did that in ways that didn’t look so bad (like being a good student to gain approval from adults). Sometimes we did it ways that were clearly wrong (like getting drunk to numb our emotional pain, feel good, and gain acceptance from our peers). But both the good student, and the drinker, were looking to something other than God to meet their needs, and lead them to a satisfying life.

In addition to the word “flesh” Paul also says sin is located in his “members.” The Greek word is usually used as a generic term for “body parts.” In Matthew 5, when Jesus said it is better to lose an eye than to be thrown into hell, he calls the eye a “member.” He also calls a right hand a “member.” James calls the tongue a member of the body.

So, sin does not live any more in what we call our “(figurative) hearts”. It certainly does not live in our spirit. It camps out in our bodies. Let’s not forget that the brain is part of the body. Our brains are usually the main problem. So the problem is not that we have two natures. The problem is that we inhabit sinful bodies, with sinful brains. In fact, Paul makes this quite clear in Romans 7:24 (which you just read):

24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:24, ESV)

What are some important things we know about bodies? First, we know that human beings are more than our bodies. Our physical appearance is not the real us. It is, in fact, one of the most shallow things about the true people that we are in our hearts. And that is where sin is located. Sin is not part of your nature anymore than your hair is a part of your nature. Sometimes you have to deal with your hair (or lack thereof). In interacting with others, it is good to maintain a decent appearance. You might fail to get the job you are supposed to if you show up to the interview with your hair wild and askew. But your hair does not really say anything about the real you.

Now you might be tempted to say: “Well, if I have sin in my brain, that is a real problem, because my brain directs everything I do.” That’s not exactly true. This is a little bit complex, but the truth is often complex. There is a difference between your brain, and your mind. Your brain is a physical organ that operates on electrical-chemical systems. Your mind is your sense of self-awareness. Your mind uses your brain, and is linked to it, but your mind is greater than the physical electrical-chemical processes that occur in the brain. The ideas you have are more than electro-chemical processes. Your thoughts and ideas have existence apart from the physical processes that created them. In addition, your will – your capacity to make decisions and follow through on them – is part of your mind, but not your brain. Yes, your brain does exert influence on your mind (and will). But your mind, and your will are greater than your brain. They will live on when your brain (along with the rest of your body) dies. If you don’t believe that, you are an atheist. Therefore, says our text today, we set our minds upon the Spirit, not the flesh.

5 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. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 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. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 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. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.( Romans 8:5-11, ESV)

Notice that Paul, also, distinguishes between mind and brain (because our brains are part of our flesh).

When we are in Jesus, the sin that was in our souls and spirits has been crucified – killed and done away with. Our minds, too, have been awakened to God. The only sin left in us is found in our physical bodies. When our bodies die, what remains of sin will die with them. Then we will be raised again with new bodies, uncorrupted by sin. But we already have spiritual life, spiritual holiness, as a kind of down-payment of what is coming. The most important part of you – the part of you that you think of as “yourself” has already been crucified with Christ, and raised again in holiness. There is no connection between the “essential you” and sin. If there was, the Holy Spirit could not live in you without destroying you (Since the presence of God destroys sin).

So, let’s find some practical suggestions for setting your mind on the spirit, not the flesh. When you are tempted to sin, try having a little conversation with yourself.

“This is not what the real me wants to do. This is what my corrupted brain and body think will make me happy. But they are wrong. I don’t need to do this, because in Jesus, I am already whole and complete. This sin will not actually help me.”

Or: “You – my sinful body – are dying already, and everything you want leads to death. But the real me doesn’t want to do this. The fact that I don’t want to do this is proof that the most important part of me is already holy in Christ. I am going to act like I am already holy in Christ.”

Remember this: you don’t have to feel like this is true. You merely need to believe that it is true, and then act according to what you believe. We are talking about a mindset, not an emotion. We are talking about continually trusting that what the scripture says is true. You will not feel that continually, but your feelings can go jump in a lake.

Think about it like this. Have you ever met someone who felt things that are not true? Of course. Many people feel unloved even when they are deeply loved by others. Many people feel worthless when their friends and family value them greatly. Feelings are not a reliable guide to reality. God’s Word is. When you believe what God has done for you, it ultimately changes everything.  We will talk more specifics next time.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #6. TRULY FREE TO LOVE.

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God’s grace is so outrageous that we are totally freed from sin. Often, we think we are in a cycle that goes something like this: God makes us clean, and then we get dirty again, and so God makes us clean again, and then we get dirty again…and so on. But that is not what the Bible describes at all. We have been made clean once and for all. The sins we commit now don’t “count” against us at all.
This naturally leads to a question: Does this mean we can sin all we want with no consequence?  Not exactly. After we become Christians, the consequence of sinning is that we injure our relationship with God. It drives a wedge between us. Sin is not a problem of breaking laws any more, but it does reveal that we haven’t fully loved God, or fully trusted what he has done for us. The more we believe that God has truly separated us from our sins, and the more we learn to love God, the less we will want to sin, and the less sinning we will actually do.

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 Living Crucified Part 6

Living Crucified #6. Romans 6:1 – 7:6

Let’s recap what we have been learning so far in this sermon series. We began by revisiting what it means to be a Christian in the first place: we repent (that is, turn away) from our sins, and trust God (not our own efforts) to save us through Jesus Christ. Next we looked at the nature of reality: there is our visible, physical reality. In this visible reality, things change. Some things begin, and then later end. People grow older. Everything, sooner or later, decays. Time moves from beginning to end. There is also another part to reality that is harder to grasp. This is the spiritual realm, which we cannot physically see. The spiritual realm is a powerful part of reality, and there, the glory and power of God is fully present. The spiritual realm does not break-down, or end. It lasts eternally. What exists in the spiritual realm is more lasting, more potent, than what occurs in the physical.

After learning about the two realms, we looked at the example of  Elijah, who learned that true, lasting life could only be found in the spiritual realm. Life in the physical has ups and downs. Sometimes it is good, sometimes it is not, but Elijah could not rely on what happens in the physical. God spoke to him in the spiritual realm, and he learned to draw life from there. Then we saw Leah, who learned the practical lesson of how to draw on that spiritual, eternal life: by putting what God says after the “but.”

After that, we considered something specific that God says: and that is the we (who have trusted Jesus) have been crucified with Christ. That means we are dead to sin, and dead in the eyes of any law that would condemn us. Through this death, which is accomplished through the death of Jesus, we have been set free from sin and the law. (Romans 6:7,14,18; Romans 7:4,6) Last time I shared no less than one dozen scriptures that teach explicitly that in Christ we have died.

The picture Paul gives us at the beginning of Romans 7:2-3 is of marriage. When two people are married in the eyes of the law, they are married. It would be a sin to marry someone else at the same time. But if the husband dies, the laws regarding marriage no longer apply. Because of the death, the law doesn’t apply any more. It would no longer be sinful or illegal for the woman to marry someone else. The law was made irrelevant by death.

In the same way, the power of sin to bring us condemnation through the law has been destroyed by the death of Jesus, and by our death which happened in Jesus, as we have trusted him. We can’t be condemned as sinners anymore, because as Paul writes:

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4, ESV)

Imagine I was serving a life-sentence for murder. When I die, the life-sentence is over. That’s all the law can require. If I were to somehow be raised to life again, I wouldn’t have to be in prison any more, because I am dead in relationship to the law that once applied to me. In fact, according to the law (which does not recognize the possibility of resurrection) I remain dead. So whatever I do now has no relationship to any laws. In fact, if I died, and then returned, I could do anything I want, without fear from any laws, because laws do not apply to dead people.

Now, when you really get this, there is a natural question that arises. Does this mean I can sin all I want, because the law no longer applies to me? One way you can know that we are interpreting these scriptures correctly is that Paul, also, anticipates that this question will arise (Romans 6:1, and 6;15). Stick with me here. I am going to give you an answer that may surprise you, but you need to follow through the ENTIRE message I am about to give.

Technically, the answer is: Yes. Yes, you can sin all you want. If you are in Jesus, your sins don’t “count” anymore. In the eyes of the law, you are dead, so the law cannot be used to condemn you for anything you do now.

Imagine I steal something. Someone comes to me and says: “That’s against God’s moral law.”

I could rightly reply: “But I’m dead to that law. That law applied to the old Tom. The old Tom is dead. Punish that dead Tom, if you can, but the law doesn’t apply to me.” Technically, I would be correct.

Now, that is a shocking answer. It isn’t the whole story yet, and I want you to stick with me as I give some further explanation in a moment. But just pause here for a moment. Do you see how outrageous the grace of God is? He has made it so that if you simply continue to trust Him, you cannot fail. Even when you do fail, it isn’t counted as you anymore. If you sin, it is counted against the old you, the dead you. That “you” has already been punished for sin – in fact that “you” was executed for sin. Sin has no relationship with the new you. The law has no relationship with the new you.

 That’s why we see all those passages in the New Testament saying that when we are in Christ we are New Creations, we are holy, we are blameless in God’s sight, and so on.

I think a lot of people misunderstand this concept. They think of it like this: “God wiped away all my sins, and gave me a clean slate, a chance to start again. Now, I messed up the clean slate already, so he has to wipe it clean again, and I’ll try harder this time.” This cycle gets repeated over and over again. Listen carefully, brothers and sisters: that is not how it is.

All of the sins you commit now don’t count against the new you. There is only one clean slate, and it always stays clean. The sinful you has been crucified. The sins you commit now don’t count against you. They’ve already been nailed to the cross (even the ones you will do tomorrow).

You see it isn’t our job to work ourselves into a state of holiness. God has already put us into a state of holiness, in our spirits. Our only job is to keep believing that he has done this, and through that faith, He will continue to work the holiness deeper and deeper into our soul and body life.

I use the expression keep believing quite deliberately. It is a daily (sometimes hourly) habit of continuing to believe who Jesus is, what he has done for us, how he feels about us, and continuing to rest upon it. This is not a one shot deal. Although our salvation is accomplished once, for all, our trusting is an ongoing process.

This is a process of continually putting our trust in Jesus, day by day. That is what it means to be “in Jesus” and all these things are ours, only in Jesus. I’m not saying that you have to work hard and live the Christian life on your own strength in order to be in Jesus. But I am saying that to be in Jesus, you need to continually rest in Him with trust in what his Word says, and in what he has done for us. It’s not working hard. It is trusting; it is putting what God says over the many “buts” that arise throughout each day. It is putting God’s word above outward appearances. It is trusting that what God did in the spiritual realm will work its way out into the physical.

Last week I spent some time talking about how what we believe profoundly shapes what we do. So the next part of the answer comes here. Technically, you can sin all you want, and it doesn’t count against you. But if you really believe that God has freed you from sin, that you have already been made holy, you will be far less inclined to sin than if you believe you are still fundamentally a sinner. You act as you believe. When you really believe what the scripture says: that in Christ, you have been made holy – you will begin to act holy. Holiness, by the way, is not at all like “holier-than-thou.” When you meet someone living out of the holiness of Christ, they are kind, and humble and loving, and somehow also pure and good. Not perfect, but they look a lot like Jesus.

If you believe you are half sinner, and half saint, then it is only natural for you to go through life sinning half the time. If you believe that, and you sin less than half the time, I commend you for your great will power, though it is misguided. The bible does not say you are half sinner, half saint. It says that if you are in Jesus, then in the most essential part of your being, the part that doesn’t change, the part that already has a solid connection to eternity – your spirit – you are entirely holy. You are completely separated from sin and the law.

When you believe what the Bible says – that there is no relationship between you and sin, that you have died to sin and to the law, that you are free – you will sin less, not more, because action follows belief. If you find that you are sinning a lot, what you need is not to try harder to stop, but to believe more fully what God says about you.

Now, there is another thing that will eventually restrain our sinful actions. There is a movie from the 1990s called Groundhog Day. In it, a weather reporter named Phil gets trapped in an endlessly repeating day – February 2 1993, to be precise. Only Phil is trapped in this day. Every day, the other people he meets are living the day as if it is their first February 2, 1993. The only thing that carries over from day to day is Phil’s memory. Naturally, at first he is depressed. One night he is drowning his sorrows in drink, and he says out loud: “What if nothing you did mattered. What if you woke up every morning as if the previous day had never happened?”

One of the other drinkers in the bar said, “That would mean there would be no consequences. You could do anything you like.”

Phil catches on to this idea, and at first, he abuses the fact that there are no consequences for his actions. He gets drunk, commits crimes, and does many morally reprehensible things. After a while all that loses its luster, because he realizes there is no life there. Even though he was free to be selfish without consequences, he found it is all meaningless and useless. So he tries to commit suicide. He kills himself dozens of times, but always wakes up the next morning at 6:00am on February 2, 1993.

But finally, truly knowing there are no consequences, he begins to live for love. Repeating this day endlessly with one of his co-workers, he falls in love with her. And knowing it doesn’t matter what he does, he finally chooses, because of love, to do what is good and right and noble. He devotes himself to literature and music. He tries as much as possible to help others. Every day he saves the same boy from breaking his leg, and the same man from choking. Every day, he tries to save the life of the same old bum who dies on February 2, 1993. Day after day, he tries to bless the people that he is stuck with.

I suggest that if you are really in Jesus, and you really know you are free from sin, you will discover quickly that there is no real life in sin, and the pleasure you get from it is false and always disappoints you. When you really know you are free from sin and law, you will find yourself more often drawn to the Lord and REAL life, than the shallow, brief and bitter pleasures of sin. And when we learn to love God, we find that living for love naturally moves us away from what would hurt our loved ones, and toward things that are good and right and noble.

Here’s another analogy. I am married to Kari. We have a legal marriage license from the state of Illinois. Suppose we went to a marriage counselor and I said: “Kari committed to be my wife, ’till death do us part. We are legally married, and there is no part of the legal document that specifies what I must do, or what I may not do. So does that mean I can stay out until 3 AM every night and party all I want? Can I stop working, and let her provide all of our finances? Can I spend all our money however I want, without talking to her about it? Can I leave dirty dishes and smelly laundry all over the house?” I could go on, but you get the picture.

Marriage is not about a legal contract in which I fulfill my duties or else face the consequences. I could technically do all those things and remain legally married to Kari. But what kind of relationship is that? I refrain from those things because I love Kari. Now there are times when either Kari or I do things that hurt each other. When that happens, we have to talk about it, and ask forgiveness, and give forgiveness, and heal the relationship. But we don’t say sorry because we have rules about saying sorry. I don’t clean up after myself because there is a rule that I have to. But I know it is helpful for our relationship if I do. I am motivated by love.

This is the picture the New Testament gives us of our relationship with God. Truly, if you are in Jesus Christ, sin is irrelevant. But what is relevant is your relationship with him, your love for him.

Paul describes it almost exactly this way. He uses the analogy of a woman whose husband dies, and then she is free to marry someone else. Paul says:

 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom 7:4, ESV)

We died to sin and to the law so that we could be raised into relationship.

If you are looking to find out how much sin you can get away with, then you are still trying to live by rules. You are looking for a rule about how many rules you can break. You are still living by law, not by grace. If this message leads you to be happy that you can get away with sinning all the time, then I think your relationship with God is on rocky ground.

So, to go back to the sin question, since you are free from sin, dead to it, is there a problem if you sin? Well, is there a problem in your marriage if you cheat on your spouse? Of course there is. But it isn’t a law problem, it’s a love problem. Cheating on your spouse shows that you don’t love him/her enough to die to your own temptations and desires.

So, when we sin, it isn’t a law problem, it is a love problem, and a trust problem. We sin because we don’t really believe God when he says he has crucified us with Christ, and made us holy, and alive for Him. We sin because we want what we want more than we love God. But we need to understand that it isn’t about performing correctly for God or reforming ourselves or making ourselves holy. It is about believing Him and loving him. The answer is not “obey better.” The answer is “trust more,” and when we trust Him, we learn to love him more, and when we love him more, our behavior changes.

I don’t like it when I hurt Kari’s feelings. I hate the feeling when we are fighting and our relationship isn’t right. I feel the same way with the Lord. And the truth is this. If I say something hurtful to Kari, and I never say sorry and seek her forgiveness, it puts a barrier in our relationship. The more I hurt her and refuse to resolve the hurt I’ve done or acknowledge my mistake, the more distant our relationship will become. Eventually all the hurts and barriers and distance add up, and if we let it go, we might end up divorced. But you can’t divorced without signing papers. It can’t happen without you knowing about it and agreeing to it.

In the same way, if we continue to live in such a way as to hurt our relationship with God, we will become more and more distant from him. Eventually, we may be so distant that we get no benefit from our relationship with Him. The prodigal son left his father. The father still loved his son, and called him his son, but the son got no benefit from it. Even though he was the son of a loving, kind and generous father, he was living with pigs and eating pig food to survive. He might have died that way, and so, through his neglect of the relationship, never received anything more from his father.

Some of you reading this believe you can never lose your salvation. Some of you believe you can. Wherever you come down, the Bible is very clear that it is a very serious thing to be distant from God. The bible exhorts us to continue to have a daily relationship with Him, through faith.

But once more, I want to emphasize that if you truly believe how outrageous God’s grace is, when you truly know that He really has freed you from sin, you will not be motivated to sin nearly as often as before. The more you believe, the less you want to injure that relationship with God, and the more quickly you will seek healing and resolution when you do hurt that relationship.

We don’t fight sin by trying to be good with our own willpower. We don’t conquer temptation by gritting our teeth and getting over it. We start by believing that we are already holy, that in fact, we don’t have any relationship to sin any more. We live now in relationship to God, a relationship of faith that is based upon unconditional love, not rules.

Now, there is another question we need to address. If we are already holy, and already free from sin, why do we sin anymore at all? I apologize, but this message is getting long, and so I will answer that question next time.

LIVING CRUCIFIED #1: THE PATH TO JOY BEGINS WITH BAD NEWS.

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The beginning of the Christian life is turning away from sin and toward God (this is called “repentance”). Sometimes we fail to receive the wonder and joy of God’s grace because we have not actually repented. We are called to despair of our own efforts to make ourselves (or the world) better, and turn to God alone for hope and salvation. Only then can we be changed. When we do that, and only then, we can begin to receive the stunning riches of God’s grace given to us in Jesus Christ. This is the gate, through which we all must walk, the lifeboat that is our only hope of being saved from drowning.

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 Living Crucified Part 1

During the past year or so, I have noticed that many people in our house-churches seem to be struggling with a deep tension in the life of following Jesus. We are told that everything is by God’s grace. And yet we are told that we shouldn’t sin. We are told that we are new creatures, created in Christ Jesus – and yet we still act like the old creatures, frequently sinning and failing.

The tension that this creates is actually very important. We need to pay attention to it, because it will lead us to some wonderful, amazing truths that will affect every area of our lives.

Our new sermon series is about all that.

As we revisit the riches of the gospel, you may (or may not) recognize some ideas, stories and concepts that I introduced more than ten years ago now, in the sermon series: Living Life in Reverse. Those truths are powerful and practical. I think it is worth revisiting them. So, in a way, this is an updated and expanded version of the original “Living Life in Reverse.” If you want a series title, we could try: “Living Life in Reverse – Again.”

When I did the series the first time, there were a few things which I left out. So, I want to start with very beginning of the Christian life, which is, repentance and trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sin.

It has been on my mind lately that Christians, in the 21st century Western world, have a very different way of reaching people for Jesus than the Christians of the New Testament. We typically reach out to non-believers with the following basic message:

“God loves you, so much. He really wants you to experience his grace and joy. He is the missing piece of your life. He heals your brokenness and forgives your failures. Come and experience his love.”

Now, that message is good, but it is only half the message that was preached by most Christians throughout history. Here’s the way Jesus himself preached. He taught his disciples to do the same.

17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17, ESV)

14 Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:14-15, ESV)

45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. (Luke 24:45-47, ESV)

30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. (Acts 5:30-31, ESV)

20 I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. (Acts 20:20-21, ESV)

In the verses above, I have italicized the word repentance so you see my point more quickly. You do see it, right? Repentance is an essential part of the gospel. It is the beginning, and it is necessary if we are to receive the gospel.

You see, I believe many people think the gospel is essentially just: “God loves you.” And they hear this, and look up, and think, “Oh, that’s cool. How sweet of him.” And then they go back to whatever they were doing.

Maybe some churches put it a little more forcefully. “God loves you. But if you want to benefit from this love, you need to walk down in front here, say a prayer, and then get baptized.” This is a bit more inconvenient, so not as many people respond positively. And yet, after all, it’s just something you need to do, like going to the DMV, or paying taxes. So, a lot of people take the time out of their lives to go to church for a while, take the deep breath, and then do the God-transaction. Then, they can get back to their lives. Maybe they think it’s like joining a political party. They are now “registered Christians.”

Think about it for a moment. “God loves you,” is not that big of a deal until and unless you feel in need of that love. Scripture tells us that we are desperately in need of his love and mercy. Without the love and grace of God you are utterly lost. You are already dead, spiritually. You are in the process of dying physically; every second brings you closer to the moment of your death. And your soul (where “you” are) is slowly withering, utterly committed to self above all. Even when you do “unselfish” things, it is to benefit your own sense of self-esteem. At the same time, we find ways to justify so many of our selfish desires and actions. (By the way, if I just made you mad with all that, think about why). Yes, your soul, too, is on a long slow decline to eternal frustration and self-hatred.

This is the beginning of the gospel: you are dead in your sins, slave to self, and the things that tempt you, manipulated by spiritual forces of evil, though you don’t realize it. You are infected with a deadly disease that is gradually destroying every part of you. The Bible calls that disease “sin,” and it really means “all that is in conflict with the character of God.”

The human race, in all recorded history, has improved technologically, but not much morally. Thousands of years ago, human beings were greedy, cheating each other, lying, hurting one another, oppressing the weak, and engaging in bloody wars and violence. Isn’t it good that we’re so much better now? Oh, wait. Never mind. Just read a few news sites, and you’ll be convinced that there is something deeply flawed and wrong with humanity in general. The same thing that is wrong with humanity is also wrong with you and me.

Now, a lot of people look at themselves, and think “Gee, I don’t think I’m that bad. I’ve never stolen anything, for instance.” The bible asks: But have you ever been greedy? Ever wanted something that wasn’t yours to want? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

We might say, “Well, I’ve never committed adultery.” But have you ever imagined it? Have you ever wanted to? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

“I’ve never lied.” But have you ever gossiped? Ever said hurtful words, or malicious things? Ever been hurtfully sarcastic? You see, there is a problem in your heart, your soul.

If you have the courage to be honest with yourself, you know that within you is a deep well of awful muck, of self-centeredness and arrogance and the desire to have what you want, no matter the consequences.

The beauty, truth and goodness we experience in this world are echoes of the profound presence of God

Now, let’s put this together. Everything that is good, awe-inspiring, encouraging, beautiful, glorious, true and loving originates with God. Some things may come directly from God, like a sense of his love, or the words of scripture. Other things may be several generations “removed” from their origin in God, like, for instance, beautiful music, or a lovely painting, or awe-inspiring landscape, but it all begins with him. The beauty, truth and goodness we experience in this world are echoes of the profound presence of God. Even people who do not know him are affected by him nonetheless, and anyone at all might be used, even unknowingly, to reflect a small piece of God to the world.

But God is so profoundly good, so holy, and so completely powerful, that his very presence destroys anything that is not perfectly good. Bring the tiniest bit of sin into the presence of God, and it is destroyed.

When you combine pure sodium with water, the result is a spectacularly violent reaction. Google it sometime, and watch the video results. There is a similar reaction when sin comes into the presence of God. Sin cannot exist in God’s presence. It is violently destroyed.

18 Then Moses said, “Please, let me see Your glory.”
19 He said, “I will cause all My goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim the name Yahweh before you. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” 20 But He answered, “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live.” 21 The LORD said, “Here is a place near Me. You are to stand on the rock, 22 and when My glory passes by, I will put you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take My hand away, and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen.” (Exodus 33:18-23, HCSB)

God was pleased with Moses, and very gracious to him. But he could not allow Moses to “see his face,” which means, in that culture, to be fully in his presence. Later on, when Moses was reminding the people of their first encounter with God on Mount Sinai, he said this:

4 And you said, ‘Behold, the LORD our God has shown us his glory and greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire. This day we have seen God speak with man, and man still live. 25 Now therefore why should we die? For this great fire will consume us. If we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that has heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of fire as we have, and has still lived? 27 Go near and hear all that the LORD our God will say, and speak to us all that the LORD our God will speak to you, and we will hear and do it.’
28 “And the LORD heard your words, when you spoke to me. And the LORD said to me, ‘I have heard the words of this people, which they have spoken to you. They are right in all that they have spoken. (Deuteronomy 5:24-28, ESV)

The people did not see God’s face, but they were close enough to him to be terrified that his holiness would destroy them. And God said, “That’s right. No one can come too close.”

Now, if God is the source of all goodness, truth and beauty, and if the presence of God destroys all that is not perfectly aligned with God’s character, and we are infected with sin (the antithesis of God’s character) we have a problem. If we come into God’s presence we will be annihilated. If we don’t come to him, eventually, we will be further and further separated from all truth, beauty, joy and goodness. We will end up gnawing away at our own souls, bitter, withered, pathetic, hating ourselves, but utterly alone. Complete separation from God is sometimes called “hell,” and that is where we are all headed, and there is nothing we can do about it. Our efforts to stop the slide into self-destruction are pathetic, and in fact, they end up being nothing more than additional manifestations of our twisted and flawed natures.

This is the starting point. Until we face this reality, we have not begun. Until we recognize this reality, there is no hope for us.

You might say, “But Tom, I thought you just said there was no hope anyway. You said an essential thing to recognize is we cannot do anything about it.”

I did, and it is. There is no hope from within humanity in general, or from your friends and family. There is no hope from within your own corrupted body or soul. No hope from your dead spirit.

That is why Jesus entered the world. When he came, he said two things. First: Repent! That means recognizing the truth I just told about our own sin and the pointlessness of our own efforts. To repent means to earnestly desire to turn away from sin, and toward God. It means also that we genuinely give up on the idea that we can help ourselves. We have no hope within ourselves, but we turn toward God in our need, recognizing our own helplessness and hopelessness. In a way, we cannot even do this on our own. The Spirit of God has to empower us to repent. That’s why I’m giving this message: to allow you to hear the Word, and through the Holy Spirit, believe it and repent.

The second part of what Jesus said was: “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” In some ways, he was being a little bit coy, since he hadn’t yet completed his mission. But after he had died and risen, he gave his apostles the full message. Peter put it like this:

“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” (Acts 2:38-40, ESV)

Being baptized does mean the physical act, but the literal meaning of the word is immersed. We are to be immersed in Christ. Baptism also means you are leaving one realm, and entering a new one. You are leaving behind the world, the devil and your sinful flesh, and entering the kingdom of God. Paul described it in terms of repentance toward God (that is, turning away from sin, and self, and toward God) and faith in Jesus Christ (Acts 20:20-21, quoted earlier).

You might wonder, “But if I am a sinner, and God’s presence destroys sin, how does this help?” That’s a great question. In some ways, the answer takes a lifetime to unpack, but here’s the short version:

God’s intention is to destroy all sin. In doing that, it will be necessary to destroy all sinners, also. So he chose to find a way to make sinners into “not sinners.” He sent Jesus into the world to combine his God-nature with human-nature. Jesus was perfect, because of his God-nature. Because of his human-nature, he became an appropriate vessel to do the job. All sin was placed upon Jesus (which could be done, because of his human nature), and destroyed by his suffering on earth, death on the cross, and descent into hell. Only Jesus, with his eternal God-nature, could survive this. So now, all sin – even the sins of those who lived before Jesus, and sins yet to be committed – has now been punished, and paid for:

1 But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. 22 We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.
23 For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. 24 Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. 25 For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. This sacrifice shows that God was being fair when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past, 26 for he was looking ahead and including them in what he would do in this present time. God did this to demonstrate his righteousness, for he himself is fair and just, and he makes sinners right in his sight when they believe in Jesus.
27 Can we boast, then, that we have done anything to be accepted by God? No, because our acquittal is not based on obeying the law. It is based on faith. 28 So we are made right with God through faith and not by obeying the law. (Romans 3:21-28, NLT)

The way to take hold of this forgiveness, this cleansing of sin, is through faith in Jesus Christ. We trust him, and what he has done. And we entrust our entire lives into his care. We immerse ourselves in Jesus, and in his kingdom. Those who reject this are, in essence, saying, “No, we want to continue to sin.” Or, if not: “We believe we can get our salvation some other way.” Those who reject Jesus, who do not trust in him, have rejected the only lifeboat in the ocean. They would be welcome on board, but if they want to wait for some other boat they like better, they will drown.

 But faith turns away from sin, receives what God has done, and entrusts all of life into the hands of God through Jesus Christ. When we do that, God makes our spirit, which was dead to him because of sin, come alive. Through the spirit, he pours grace, love, truth, beauty, goodness and joy into our souls.

This is the starting gate. Everyone must enter through this gate, or remain separated from God forever. Jesus put it like this:

6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6, ESV)

If you have never done so, I invite you to believe God’s Word. Repent of your sins, turning away from them, and to God. Entrust your entire life to Jesus. Come alive to God in the spiritual realm.

Now, I am sure that many of you who follow this blog have already entered through this gate. But if you have, you understand how important it is that everyone recognizes these truths, repents, and enters through Jesus.

I myself am using this message to renew my repentance from sins. It can become easy, once we have trusted Jesus and received the grace of God, to forget the deadly and awful nature of sin. Let this message remind you to never make peace with sin. Let it also remind you of the incredible truth, love, joy, beauty and goodness of God, and remind you that all of that is available to us through Jesus Christ.

Let the Spirit keep speaking to you now!

JONAH #5: THE GRACE OF HARD WORDS

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We all need to recognize some hard truths before we can truly know God’s grace. We truly need God more than anything else in the universe. We are truly morally corrupt, unable to be with God. We are separated from Him, yet, we will perish apart from Him. And there is nothing we can do about these things.

Once we accept these hard words, we can receive a flood of God’s forgiveness, mercy and grace.

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 Jonah Part 5

JONAH #5. JONAH 3:1-10

Let’s remember where we are in Jonah’s book. In case I haven’t said it before, I believe Jonah himself wrote this book. He almost goes out of his way to avoid making himself look good. He seems to be trying to take us, the readers, through the same lessons that he himself had to learn.

Remember that before this, Jonah was a national hero, a patriot, who, after helping his country become great again, was called to go and preach God’s word to the enemies of his country. Instead, he ran, trying to escape God. God sent a storm, which did not relent until Jonah was thrown overboard, and he began to drown. Before he died, however, God sent a fish, and the fish swallowed Jonah, saving him from drowning. Inside the fish, Jonah repented of his sins, and praised God. Three days later, God made the fish spit Jonah out onto dry land.

Next comes our passage for today. God spoke once more, saying the same thing that he said at first: “Arise. Go to Nineveh – a great city of the Assyrians, who were enemies of Israel – and preach to them.” This time, Jonah got up and went.

Now, it would be easy for us to chuckle at this and say, “Yeah, I just bet he went, after that experience.” We think, “If I was nearly killed by a storm, then nearly drowned, and then swallowed by a fish, and then ended up on the beach lying in fish-vomit, I’d do what God said, too.” In other words,  we think that Jonah went because God forced him to.

However, I think that is a massive misunderstanding of what actually happened with Jonah. When he was drowning, literally dying, Jonah cried to the Lord. He knew that he was in that hard place precisely because he had cut himself off from God, precisely because he was rebellious and sinful. And yet, when Jonah had done nothing but rebel, God saved him anyway. So Jonah says:

9 But I with the voice of thanksgiving
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (Jonah 2:9, ESV)

He said that while he was still in the fish. He says he will worship God, ‘sacrifice’ to him, and ‘pay what he has vowed,’ because “salvation is from the Lord. (2:9).” That is, Jonah experienced God’s grace and forgiveness, and that changed him into someone who wanted to be on the same page with God, someone who wanted to do what God asked.

It is really important for us to recognize this; it is one the major themes not only of Jonah, but of the whole Bible. Jonah knew he could not save himself, or redeem himself. He knew that salvation comes from God alone; he said as much.

In the sea, and in the fish, Jonah recognized three things:

1. His separation from God (“Then I said, ‘O LORD, you have driven me from your presence,” 2:4).

2. His need of God (“As my life was slipping away, I remembered the LORD,” 2:7, and many other sentences like that).

3. His utter inability to help himself (“I sank down to the very roots of the mountains. I was imprisoned in the earth, whose gates lock shut forever.” 2:6, among other verses).

He cried out for help and mercy, and God answered him. It is because God saved him that he gets up and does what God asks. Jonah wants to do God’s will after this. Later on we will deal with the fact that although he is saved, and he wants to obey God, he still holds sinful thoughts and attitudes. For now, understand that Jonah is not motivated by law and fear, but rather, by grace and by love.

Now, let’s go to Nineveh with Jonah. I’m going to give you “Tom’s Literal-Ish” Translation (TLIT?): “Now Nineveh was a city great to God, of three days’ travel.”

The second half of verse three has been used by some skeptics to show that the bible is inaccurate. They point out that (as far as we know from archaeology) the city of Nineveh was not three days’ journey across at that point in history (three days walking would be about sixty miles). I bring this up in case you ever encounter arguments like these. There are several reasonable answers to this objection. First of all, though there is a lack of evidence showing a walled city that large at that time, a lack of evidence cannot actually prove anything. The evidence could be yet to be discovered. Or, it may have once existed, but now be lost for all time.

Second, in a crowded city, a person is extremely unlikely to average twenty miles a day walking. In ancient cities, the streets were narrow, crooked, and choked with traffic of all sorts: donkeys, donkey-carts, camels, caravans, cattle, street-vendors, beggars and business-people of all sorts. If you have ever been in a third-world city in modern times you realize that most of the residents spend their time outside, in the streets. It would be even more so in ancient times. So you would be lucky to go even ten miles a day through a populous city, which would shrink the size of Nineveh by at least half. In my opinion, it would be impossible to go even ten miles in a day, so that makes it even smaller.

There are other possible answers to this objection. Although Nineveh “proper” (say, the walled portion) may not have been three days journey across, there were three other cities (as well as a few smaller towns) close by, and these were sometimes included when people spoke of Nineveh. If you include these, and outlying “suburbs,” you have a “Greater Nineveh Area” that certainly would take three days to travel through. (See Genesis 10:11-12, if this topic interests you)

But I think these solutions, while possible, are unnecessary. First, as you see from my TLIT, the Hebrew leaves things open to interpretation. It could mean Nineveh was so large it took three days to journey from one side to the other – but that’s not exactly what it says. It might also mean that it took three days to see all the important parts of Nineveh. However, if we simply pay attention to the context, it is clear what the author is getting at. The NLT puts it most clearly.

4 On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: “Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” 5 The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow. (Jonah 3:4-5, NLT, italic formatting added for emphasis)

Nineveh was a big city, and it was going to take Jonah three days to complete his work of preaching, in order to make sure everyone had a chance to hear. Even so, on the very first day, the people responded to God’s word. The point is this: the people listened to God immediately, even before Jonah had completed his assignment. That is the point of the three-day comment. It is about Jonah’s mission, and it is there to show us that the people repented even before Jonah was halfway done.

It may surprise some people to read that every single person in the city responded with fasting. Some cultural information is helpful here. In those days, the community was much more important than the individual. In matters of religion the people decided together which gods they would worship, and how they would do so. In these decisions, the community leaders had the most important voices. Therefore, I think verse 5 describes the outcome (everyone gets on board with fasting), while verses 6-9 are an explanation, showing exactly how this came about. Basically, the king and his nobles led the entire community into repentance for their sins.

I want to take a moment and think about what provoked this immediate and drastic response. We are not told exactly what Jonah said in his preaching, other than this: ““Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!” (NLT). It is safe to assume that Jonah said more than that, and that this is just a kind of summary. I think we can read between the lines here, and, with a knowledge of the rest of the Bible, get a sense for Jonah’s main message.

Remember Jonah’s background. He was a hero to his own people, an Israeli patriot. Now, God has called him to go preach to Israel’s enemies. Although Jonah has experienced God’s grace and forgiveness, it has not yet filtered down to change all of his thinking and attitudes. So, he doesn’t like the people of Nineveh. He doesn’t understand why God is concerned about them. He doesn’t care that they experience God’s grace and forgiveness and salvation. In fact, he doesn’t want them to. Therefore, he states God word as unappealingly as possible. Basically I think he said this:

  • You all are full of sin and evil. Your actions, and your very lives, are offensive to the one, true, living God. (Jonah might also have preached about the specific kinds of sins that they were committing.)
  • Because your sins have separated you from that one true God, you will be destroyed in forty days’ time.

Jonah did not expect this sort of preaching to be effective. I don’t think he wanted it to be. But two things were going on of which Jonah was unaware. In the first place, before anyone can truly experience God’s grace, they must come face to face with their own sin and evil, and their own helplessness to be better. This is exactly what happened to Jonah in the ocean and fish, but he still didn’t realize that God loves all people, not just Israelites.

If you think you can make yourself into a better person, you cannot experience the grace of God. If you think you aren’t so bad, or that God compares you to other, more sinful people and says, “She’s not so bad, compared to _____,” you cannot be saved. In order to be saved, we must both admit that we are hopelessly sinful, and that we deserve nothing good from God, and that we cannot do anything about this predicament. Jonah helped the people of Nineveh by bringing them face to face with their own depravity. They heard his preaching, and thought, “We need God’s forgiveness, but we have separated ourselves from Him! We cannot do anything to fix it!”

So the fact that Jonah was so harsh and clear about their doom was actually very good and helpful. (Again, however, I don’t think he actually wanted them to repent).

The second thing Jonah didn’t think about was this: God is loving, gracious and forgiving. And so, even though Jonah was trying to simply condemn his enemies, the Ninevites, even though he thought maybe he had succeeded in doing it, God will make his grace known to anyone who is willing to listen. Think about it for a moment. How in the world did God’s grace come through Jonah’s harsh preaching? Hint: in the New Living Translation it is four words. In the ESV, it is three words.

Here are the words of grace, from the NLT: “Forty days from now.”

These words may not sound that amazing to you, but imagine the people of Nineveh. They heard God’s word, and they believed it. They believed that their souls were riddled through with sin. They accepted that they were evil, and deserved to be destroyed. Most importantly, they accepted that there was nothing they could do about it. Put yourself in that position and then ask: “Why forty days from now? Why not destroy us immediately?”

There’s only one logical answer: “Because God doesn’t want to destroy us.”

So they responded with earnest and true repentance.

6 When word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he issued a decree in Nineveh:
“By order of the king and his nobles: No man or beast, herd or flock, is to taste anything at all. They must not eat or drink water. 8 Furthermore, both man and beast must be covered with sackcloth, and everyone must call out earnestly to God. Each must turn from his evil ways and from the violence he is doing. 9 Who knows? God may turn and relent; He may turn from His burning anger so that we will not perish.” ( Jonah 3:6-9, HCSB)

Sackcloth was basically the cheapest, ugliest, most humiliating and uncomfortable thing you could wear. It was usually very roughly made out of goat-hair. Goat hair clothing is smelly and itchy, and they deliberately made it utterly unstylish. People wore it in order to show that they were full of extreme grief, remorse and repentance. Ashes were dumped on the head for the same purpose. To wear sackcloth and sit in ashes was to humiliate yourself, to show extreme sorrow and shame and regret.

When they heard that God was going to give them forty days, they believed that meant he might forgive them after all. Since his forgiveness was their only hope, they turned to him. In short, they turned away from the path of sin, and they put all of their hope in God alone. Once more, we find the gospel – the good news – even in the Old Testament, even from a prophet who didn’t want to preach it.

Let’s begin to apply this to our lives right now.

First, think again about why Jonah now obeyed God. It would be easy to think that God forced him to go. Certainly, there was still work to be done in Jonah’s heart, but I think the evidence we have is that he went as a response to God’s grace. I wonder if sometimes we almost have an attitude toward God that is like this: “If you want me to do this (or stop doing that) so bad, why don’t you just make me?” When we think this way, it shows that we don’t understand God’s grace. We may not truly believe that we would be cut off and without hope if it wasn’t for His love and forgiveness. Maybe we think we’re not such bad people, and God’s love is only a small favor that he does for us. If you are having trouble with your behavior, try meditating on God’s incredible love and grace.

Second, let’s not miss the big message. In our natural state, we, like all other humans, have sin wrapped up in our bodies and minds. It cuts us off from God, and there is nothing – nothing – we can do to fix this problem. Yet God says this:

Let the wicked one abandon his way
and the sinful one his thoughts;
let him return to the LORD,
so He may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for He will freely forgive. (Isaiah 55:7, HCSB)

Listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit today!

JONAH #3: IN THE BELLY OF THE WHALE

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So, we too have been saved from our sin and evil by Jesus. Yet we are not yet in the “dry land” of the New Creation. Our salvation is not yet complete. However, like Jonah, we can trust that what God has begun, he will carry through to completion. We can, and should praise God for our salvation. Even when we don’t understand everything he is up to, we know we can trust God’s compassion, love and grace.

We are in a situation much like Jonah. He was saved from drowning, but he was still in the ocean, in the belly of the whale, not yet on dry land. Even so, he trusted what God was doing. He praised and thanked God for salvation even before he was completely safe.

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 Jonah Part 3

JONAH #3. JONAH 1;17-2:9. PART A

We ended last time with a fish swallowing Jonah. The Hebrew word for “fish” really just means: “really big sea creature,” so it might have been a grouper, or a whale shark, or a sperm whale, or some other creature that has since become extinct, or one that humans have yet to discover. It doesn’t really matter, because the Bible is not asking us to believe that this incident conforms to the normal laws of the physical world that God put in place long ago. It is clearly portrayed as a miracle.

I have pointed out before that when God said “get up!” Jonah started “getting down.” He went down from the mountains to the coast. He went down from the wharf onto the ship. He went down into the lower parts of the ship. Last time, he went from there, down into the sea, and now, down into the belly of the sea creature. Finally, Jonah has hit bottom.

In many ways, chapter 2 is the heart of the book of Jonah. It is the beginning of Jonah’s journey back “up.” Verses 1-9 are a psalm – that is a prayer, or song of worship – composed by Jonah. Judging from the psalm, especially verses 3-5, Jonah started to drown after he was thrown overboard. It was quite possible, perhaps even likely, that he didn’t know how to swim, since there were no swimmable bodies of water near his hometown. If he did know how to swim, the storm was drowning him anyway. From the descriptions in those verses, he was not keeping his head above water, but instead was sinking down, and all but certain he was about to die.

But the fish, by swallowing him, saved him. There, inside the fish, Jonah composes the psalm, which, no doubt, he perfected and memorized and wrote down later. I can’t imagine there is much else to do inside of a sea creature. It is interesting to me to notice that once he is inside the fish, he already feels that he is as good as saved. If it had been me, I would have been thinking, “OK, at least I didn’t drown, but what am I supposed to do now? How am I going to get out? Won’t I die of thirst, with no fresh water?”

I think there are two reasons that Jonah praised God before his deliverance was complete. I mentioned last time that he had probably absorbed some of the beliefs of the worldwide culture, and, while he officially believed that God was God of all things, practically speaking, he acted like God was just a territorial god from whom Jonah could run away. In the middle of the storm, his eyes are opened, and his faith was taken to a new level. Remember, he acted courageously and selflessly, telling the sailors to throw him overboard. I think during those moments, Jonah was almost like a new convert. He was in awe of God’s power. Even inside the fish, he was probably thinking: “Oh my word! It’s all true! Everything I’ve heard about God is actually true!”

Therefore, when he was swallowed by the fish he understood that to be God’s miraculous way of saving him. If he was able to think logically, it was a million-to-one that he would be swallowed by a sea creature and live, so God must have sent the fish. And since God sent the fish when he was drowning, obviously, he didn’t want Jonah to die yet.

One of the major themes of the book of Jonah is that God is in control of all things. He sent the storm. He stopped the storm exactly at the moment Jonah was swallowed by the fish. He sent the fish. Later we will see he directed the fish to the coast and caused it to vomit Jonah out. We will also see that he caused a plant to grow, a worm to eat the plant and a hot wind to bother Jonah. God is not “out there somewhere” doing his thing. He is intricately involved in nature, and in the lives of human beings. Verse three reiterates that God is in control: “For you cast me into the deep,// into the heart of the seas, // and the flood surrounded me; //all your waves and your billows // passed over me. [By the way I am using this: “//” to indicate a new line. It saves space here in the written version of the message.]

So, pay attention to what Jonah was saying. Even though it was Jonah’s own decision to flee by ship, and even though it was actually the sailors, with Jonah’s own encouragement, who threw him overboard, Jonah declares that it was God who cast him into the deep. He recognizes that behind even his own decisions, and the actions of others, God was at work.

God allowed Jonah to choose his own path, and yet, at the same time, God was completely in control. He allowed the sailors to make their own choices, and yet those choices were the outworking of God’s purposes acting in human affairs. Jonah’s choice to run resulted in God’s purpose, which was that the sailors come to know Him, and that Jonah’s faith be revived. So understand this: The Bible does teach us that we are free to make our own choices. It also teaches us that God is completely in control of everything. However, (listen carefully now): The Bible does not teach us how to reconcile those two truths with one another. It is true that I am fully responsible for the consequences of my actions. It is also true that God is in control, no matter what I do. Jonah understood this, and it did not lead him to blame God for that, but rather to praise him for being in control of the whole world. That is what it supposed to do for us also. We can have peace knowing that God is in control. We can praise him, knowing that we do not have the power to thwart the purposes of God. That is freeing and wonderful knowledge.

I realize, however, that if we were to accept that God is so completely in control, it causes problems for the way we think. If God is so involved, what about when storms or droughts destroy lives? What about when people are doing their best to follow him, and tragedy strikes?

 The book of Jonah does not try to answer all of those sorts of questions, though, we will see at the very end, it does provide one sort of response. However, I don’t want to raise the issue and leave it completely alone, so I’ll point out three main ideas to consider.

In the first place, we often conveniently forget our real position before the Lord. Think of it this way: Joseph Stalin was a communist dictator who ordered the brutal torture and murder of millions of people. If a storm came and destroyed his house, would we say that it isn’t fair, that God is unjust? No, in the case of Stalin, we might say, “fair enough,” or even, “God should have done even worse to him.” But the same thing that was inside of Stalin, the thing that caused him to perpetrate such injustice and cruelty, is also inside of me. It is called sin, and it is like cancer. Perhaps I have reigned it in better than Stalin did, but maybe, if I had as much power as he did, I would not have controlled myself, and maybe I would have been even worse than him. And frankly, in my case, the only thing that has caused me to fight against that sin inside me is the Holy Spirit given to me by Jesus. In other words, the only true good inside of me comes through Jesus, not myself. This is true of every single human being on the planet. Any good in this world originated with God, and this is true even for those who don’t know it. Therefore, no one – no one – no, seriously, no onedeserves any good from God. Maybe the cancer doesn’t grow as large in some as in others, but we all have it.

1LORD, hear my prayer. In Your faithfulness listen to my plea, and in Your righteousness answer me.2Do not bring Your servant into judgment, for no one alive is righteous in Your sight. (Ps 143:1-2, HCSB, formatting added for emphasis)

20There is certainly no righteous man on the earth who does good and never sins. (Eccl 7:20, HCSB, women are also intended as part of this statement ;-/)

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)

If you think I don’t have sin in me, that is only because you don’t know me well enough. If you think you don’t have sin inside yourself, that is only because you don’t know yourself well enough. There is some good inside of people, a remnant of the original intention of God when he made us. But it is not enough. If the standard is perfection (and it is) than all things that are imperfect fall short. There are no degrees of perfection. Either I am perfect, or I am not. And I am not. Being close doesn’t count.

What if you are 95% good? All right, imagine someone served you a hearty stew. You could see chunks of meat, and potatoes and carrots, and also little dark chunks of something else. The stew smells of good meat, but also of something else that seems repulsive to you. You ask your host, “What is the rest of this stuff?”

Your host says, “95% of the stew is good stuff like beef, and carrots and potatoes. Only 5% of it is dog feces.”

Would you eat it? 95% of it is good, why not eat it? Because even 5% spoils the entire thing.

Really a better analogy would be 5% of the stew is deadly poison. Only 0.0000001% is needed to kill whoever eats it. Any amount of deadly poison in your food is too much. It destroys the value of all the good parts.

So, to say, “Yes, I have some sin in me, but also a lot of good” is like saying, “yes, there is some deadly poison in the stew, but also a lot of good stuff.” Or, “there’s only a little bit of cancer in your liver.” Any amount changes everything. In the same way, any amount of sin separates us from God. Therefore, even though we may have some good within us, any amount of sin is too much, and separates us from God.

 Therefore, if a storm destroys my house, the truth is, I never deserved to have a house in the first place. Sin is a cancer, and God will destroy every last bit of it in the end. Without Jesus, we would have to be destroyed with it, since we cannot overcome it ourselves. Our only hope of escaping the destruction is through Jesus. His death provides the only effective treatment for sin. There is no such thing as a truly “good person” who actually, truly deserves good things. If you are honest, when you look inside yourself, you know, at the very least, that you are not a thoroughly good person. I know I am not.

Secondly, when we think about God being entirely in control, we need to remember that He is infinite, and we are not. He knows incredibly more than we do. The entire universe cannot contain his knowledge, while all of my knowledge is contained within my three-pound brain. Therefore, we do not know – we cannot know – that God is being unreasonable, or unjust or cruel when he allows bad things to happen to people. We simply don’t know enough to judge God’s actions (or lack of actions).

Third, even though we deserve nothing good, God still piles good things upon billions of human beings, daily, including you and I: life itself, and everything that sustains life, like food clothing, family. He allows us to inhabit this beautiful planet. Frankly, I think I’ve got more than my share of good things. And in addition to these “everyday good things,” he sent Jesus so that we can eventually live in a world where there will be no sorrow, mourning, or suffering.  Anyone who desires it can come through Jesus, who calls himself “the door,” and, “the way, the truth and the life.” He offers us far more than everything this mortal life has to give. In fact, He offers far more than we could possibly lose here and now. We cannot always understand God’s ways, but because Jesus died for us, we can understand that he is good, gracious, and loves us far more than we could ever deserve. We can know that what he offers us will more than compensate for anything we suffer in this life:

18For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is going to be revealed to us. (Rom 8:18, HCSB)

16Therefore we do not give up. Even though our outer person is being destroyed, our inner person is being renewed day by day.17For our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable eternal weight of glory.18So we do not focus on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2Cor 4:16-18, HCSB)

We are in a situation much like Jonah. He was saved from drowning, but he was still in the ocean, in the belly of the whale, not yet on dry land. Even so, he trusted what God was doing. He praised and thanked God for salvation even before he was completely safe.

So, we too have been saved from our sin and evil by Jesus. Yet we are not yet in the “dry land” of the New Creation. Our salvation is not yet complete. However, like Jonah, we can trust that what God has begun, he will carry through to completion. We can, and should praise God for our salvation. Even when we don’t understand everything he is up to, we know we can trust God’s compassion, love and grace.

Ask the Holy Spirit to speak to you now about his control of all things, and about your salvation.

COLOSSIANS #24: THE TRAP OF LAWLESSNESS AND THE SOLUTION OF LOVE

god's love

How can we avoid legalism, and trying to earn points with God, but also avoid lawlessness and sinning?

The answer is love. Love is at the heart of Christianity because love is at the heart of the Christian understanding of God, and what it means to have faith. Love not fear, nor selfishness, is what changes us and radically influences our behavior.

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Colossians #24. Colossians 3:5-7

 5 Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. 6 On account of these the wrath of God is coming. 7 In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. Colossians 3:5-7

We are taking things in small bites, but it is very important to remember our overall context. Paul started this section by saying: “In the same way you received Christ, now walk in him.” He reminded us that all the fullness of God dwells in Christ; and the fullness of Christ dwells in us. Through faith, by God’s grace, we were buried with Jesus by baptism, and raised to new life. Our old life, the sinful flesh, has been put to death. Paul then began to discuss one potential problem in the Christian life: the issue of legalism. Legalists don’t fully believe in the work of Jesus. They think perhaps that they can add to what Jesus has done. They want to be in control of their own fate, and they often want to control the behavior of others. But Paul demolishes legalism by reminding the Colossians that in Christ we have nothing left to prove. We can’t be righteous enough to please God. We don’t follow God according to the ways of the world.

Last time we talked about the amazing truth that our real life, our true life, is found not in external things, but in Jesus Christ. It is already there, waiting for us. It will be fully revealed in all its glory at the same time that Christ is revealed in all of his glory. This is because part of the glory of Christ is what he has done for us. Real life comes from God, into our spirits, and from our spirits into our souls, and from our souls, it influences how we behave.

So, while some of this might be hard for us to hear, let us not forget the message of grace and life that the scripture has been hammering into us for many weeks now. Context is everything.

With all this in mind, Paul now begins to address a second potential problem in the Christian life: lawlessness. Remember the picture of following Jesus as a road? On one side of the road is a deep and dangerous ditch called legalism. Now, Paul begins to address the deep and dangerous ditch on the other side of the road: Lawlessness. In many ways, lawlessness looks like the opposite of legalism. Instead of following rules, like legalism, lawlessness rejects any kind of standard for behavior at all. A lawless person might think like this: “Well, the Bible tells us that Jesus did everything for us. There’s nothing for us to do. Therefore, I can live in whatever way pleases me best. I know I’m not married to this person that I’m attracted to, but I can’t earn points with God anyway, so I’m going to go ahead and have sex with her. And with anyone else I feel like.” Lawlessness says: “Paul just wrote that restraint and self-discipline don’t help us in our relationship with God, so I’m not going to restrain myself at all. If I want to do something, I’ll do it. If I can get something I want, I’ll get it. If I don’t feel like doing something, I won’t do it.”

Lawlessness is lazy, and, above all, self-centered. Like legalism, the heart of lawlessness is being in control. Lawless people might think that they are the opposite of “in control,” but behind the “anything goes” behavior is an attitude that says: “No one can tell me what to do, or not do.” Like legalism, lawlessness says, “No one is the boss of me. I’m in charge of my own life, so I can do what I want.”

Unfortunately, most public schools in America, along with most universities, indoctrinate young people with the ideas of lawlessness. They tell people that the most important thing is to be true to yourself. In other words: “Make sure that you do what you really feel like doing. Don’t do anything that you don’t feel like doing. Do not accept any standard for behavior except what feels right to you. Don’t let anyone else impose any kind of standard on you.”

Legalism had a tiny bit of truth behind it. So does lawlessness. It is true that Jesus, and Jesus alone makes us right with God. If we trust Jesus, we are thoroughly forgiven, and we can’t add anything to what Jesus has done for us. In Jesus, our sins are not counted against us, and the righteousness of Jesus is counted for us.

But we need to understand something: if we truly believe this, our behavior will change. If we truly love Jesus, the most significant part of us will not want to sin at all. If we belong to Jesus, we have accepted him as our Lord and King, and we have given up the right to live for ourselves.

I’ve used this illustration before, because the Bible uses it in many places. Picture a marriage. Two people love each other, and they agree to give up their lives as single people, and from their wedding day forward, they make a new life together. Part of marriage means you give up some of the independence you had as a single person. Now, you organize your life not only to please yourself, but to please the two of you together. When you were single, you might have gone out with your friends, and stayed out late. But when you are married, you decide together what you will do with your time. You don’t stay out all night unless you have talked it over and agreed with your spouse. You don’t spend your money as if it was all your own. You prioritize together how you as a couple will allocate your resources. You do things for each other and with each other because you love one another. Sometimes, you do things you would rather not do because you love your spouse. At other times, you might refrain from doing something you would like to do, because you love your spouse. You don’t behave in these ways because there are laws about marriage. You do it because you love your spouse. And you behave in ways that are loving sometimes even when you don’t feel all sorts of loving feelings, because you have made a commitment to honor and value your spouse.

Now, if you were a legalist, you might say: “I must sit here and listen to my spouse talk, because if I don’t, I must not really be married.”

There is no love there, only fear and obligation.

If you were a lawless person, you might say: “I don’t feel like sitting here and listening to my spouse talk, because I’m not getting anything out of it. I’m going to go watch TV because that’s what I really want to do right now. Besides, even if I don’t listen to her, we’re still married, right?”

There is no love here, either, just self-centeredness.

This is why I say the good, true road of Christianity is love. Love eliminates both legalism and lawlessness. Being a Christian is all about receiving the love of Jesus, and loving him back. And because of his love, also loving our neighbors. Love changes us. It reorients us, reorients our lives, toward the one we love. Love affects how we live, and the choices we make. If it doesn’t, it isn’t really love.

This has to be really clear: we don’t change our behavior in order to become acceptable to God. Jesus, and Jesus alone makes us right with God. But once we trust Jesus, once we believe what the bible says, our behavior will change, because we grow in the love that Jesus has for us, and the love we have for him. If our behavior does not change at all, not even a little, perhaps we don’t really believe what the Bible says about Jesus.

When Paul was speaking about legalism, he talked about some of the things that we died to: false humility, working to get God to accept us, and so on. Now, Paul is telling us about a whole different category of things to which we have died: the things of the flesh. He starts with five. These five are all about things that we might wrongly desire: sexual immorality; moral impurity; evil passion; lust; and covetousness.

The word for “sexual immorality” is the very broad Greek term porneia. Porneia means “any sexual activity apart from that between a man and woman who are married to each other.” To be specific, it includes: sex between people who are not married at all; sex between people who are not married to each other; homosexual sex; prostitution; sex between more than two people, rape, etc.

Moral impurity catches pretty much anything left after porneia. Just in case you have someone (for instance, like former President Clinton) who wants to argue about what exactly “sex” means, this Greek word covers basically any other kind of immoral thought or behavior. We might throw pornography of all types into this category also.

The next term is “passion.” The Greek word used does not always mean something negative, but in this context, it is safe to assume that Paul means any kind of ungodly passion, and probably passion with immoral sexual overtones.

Following that, Paul mentions evil desire. Sometimes, this might be translated “lust.” This is desire for something more than, or in addition to, what you actually need, and it includes a demand that the desire be satisfied, even if it is wrong. You can lust, or have evil desire, for all sort of things, including (but not limited to) food, power, money, sex, control, or material things.

I want to pause before we move on. The problem with all of these things is that they are corruptions of things that would otherwise be good. The Bible teaches us that sex between married couples is a good thing, and in fact, it says very clearly that married couples should not withhold sex from one another (1 Corinthians 7:1-5). But Jesus teaches us to avoid corrupting and debasing God’s good gift of sex. Passion is often a good thing. But when the passion is directed to an object or person that it should not be, it becomes a sin. Desire is good. It is the same word used when Jesus said he eagerly desired to eat the Passover with his disciples. But evil desire is for something that should not be desired.

The final sin in this set of five is “covetousness.” The idea behind it is that you want something that is not yours to properly want. That could be money, it could be a relationship, it could be a certain status or possession. The ten commandments give us some examples of the ways we might covet:

17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” (ESV, Exodus 20:17)

I’ve never coveted a donkey in my life, though I may have come close with a cow or a goat. But the idea of house or spouse is helpful. Your neighbor’s spouse is not available for you to want. Neither is her house, or car. You want something that should not belong to you anyway. You wish you could take it away from someone else, and have it for yourself. That is covetousness.

In verse six we are told that the wrath of God is coming because of such things. This is important. Sometimes, the attitude of lawlessness is that sins are not such a big deal anymore, because Jesus has forgiven us. But Paul is telling us that these things are deadly. Those who do not turn to Jesus will be under the wrath of God for such things. They aren’t something to play around with.

Each of these five sins refer primarily to strong desires for things that we should not desire. Let’s make sure we put in this context. Last time, Paul said that our real life was in Christ. Right now it is hidden, but it is no less real for that, and one day it will be fully manifested. We learned that we should seek life in Christ, not in external things, not in things that will wither and die anyway, things that will never satisfy us. So, now Paul is saying, put to death your habit of seeking life in the wrong places. These five sins: sexual immorality, impurity, evil passion, lust, and covetousness, are all ways in which we seek to find life. When we engage in such things, we are seeking life in the flesh, in things where there is no life. Paul says, “put those habits to death, where they belong. They are dead ends; worse, they are roads leading to even more death. Seek your life in Christ, and be done with seeking it in things like that.”

Paul also says: “This is how you used to be. You used to do these things, but now, in Jesus, all of that is changing.” I don’t want to gloss over verse Sometimes after people become Christians, they feel bad about what they did in the past. But that is over. The new reality is Christ. A few verses later Paul writes:

You have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. (ESV, Colossians 3:9-10)

That reminds me of what Paul said to the Corinthians:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (ESV, 2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

Yes, I know we still sometimes fail and fall back into evil desires. But our real life is hidden with Christ in God. Our flesh (as it is right now) is destined for destruction – the part of us that wants to sin is as good as dead already. We need to remember that the part of us that wants to go on sinning is no longer who we really are. We are now holy and blameless in Christ. We are in a spiritual marriage with Jesus.

Meditate on these things right now. What does it mean to put to death the things of the flesh? One nuance of “put to death” in Greek is “deprive of strength or power.” I think this is a helpful thought. What gives these sorts of sins strength or power, and what takes power away from them? How will feed your desires for the things of God, and starve the desires of the flesh?

What does it mean to put off the old self, and put on the new? How will you do that in the coming days and weeks? How will you avoid both the trap of legalism, and the trap of lawlessness?

And finally, how will you help your brothers and sisters in Jesus to do the same?

COLOSSIANS #19: BAD NEWS, AND GOOD NEWS

person holding white ceramic mug on newspaper
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The gospel is made up of two parts: Bad news, and good news. The bad news is that there is something fundamentally wrong in every human heart. If you don’t believe this, just read or watch the news. The stuff that makes the world a scary and bad place is also inside of you and me. If we don’t believe this, we don’t believe the gospel.

The good news is that Jesus Christ has made a way to take care of that deep and universal human problem. His actions, his death and resurrection, are the only way to bring evil to justice, and, at the same time, save those who want to be saved. If we don’t believe this, we don’t believe the gospel.

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Colossians #19. Colossians 2:13-15

 Colossians 2:13-15 provides a clearly laid out message. There are two pieces to it: 1. Our situation. 2. What God did about it. You could picture it like this:

US GOD
Dead Made us Alive with Christ
In trespasses (sins) Having forgiven our trespasses
In the uncircumcision of our flesh Canceled the written code with its requirements
Nailed our sins and the written code to the cross
Disarmed spiritual forces of evil
Put the evil spiritual forces to shame
Triumphed over evil through Jesus

This is the gospel in a nutshell. We need to trust the truth of both sides of the equation. We believe that we are dead apart from Christ, that we are sinners who have no way to make good with God. If you looked up the record of good and bad in our hearts (not just in our outward behavior) we would stand officially condemned. If everyone could see into our hearts, no one would call us truly good. If you still think that somehow you can please God yourself, then you don’t believe the gospel. If you think “I’m no worse than most people, so I’m probably OK,” you don’t believe the gospel. The power that makes some people serial killers and rapists lives inside of each human heart. We might control it better than criminals, but it is in there.

After WWII, the Allies held trials in order to bring to justice the Nazi’s who had done such horrific things to Jews and others. At one such trial they brought in a Jewish man named Yehiel Dinur to testify. He saw the Nazi Adolf Eichman sitting in the defendant’s chair, and broke down into uncontrollable sobs. Everyone thought that seeing the Nazi had brought back the terrible memories and losses suffered by Dinur. But Dinur explained. He said when saw Eichman sitting there, looking so ordinary, he realized that the same horrific evil that lived inside of Eichman lived also inside himself. He realized that all humans, given the right circumstances, were capable of such atrocity. In believing this, Dinur was right in line with both the Jewish and Christian faiths. The Old Testament teaches us that human evil is universal:

5 The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:5, ESV)

 9 Who can say, “I have made my heart pure;
I am clean from my sin”? (Proverbs 20:9, ESV)

9 The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV)

The New Testament affirms it as well. Romans 3:10-18, quoting several Psalms, says this:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
13 “Their throat is an open grave;
they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.”
14 “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
15 “Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known.”
18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:10-18, ESV)

Also from the same chapter of Romans:

23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3:23, ESV)

John puts it plainly several times in his first letter:

8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8, ESV)

10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:10, ESV)

So, if we believe that we are basically OK, we don’t believe the gospel. In this day and age, a lot of people like to focus on the aspects of the gospel that lead us to help others. That’s good, and we should look for ways to serve other people. But if we think that is all it’s about – just being kind, and helping out where we can – then we don’t believe the Bible and we don’t understand the gospel. The evil of sin lives inside of every human heart, and we are powerless to remove it for ourselves, though we often dress it up, and hide it well. If you don’t believe me, just go find any normal news site, and you will see how pervasive and universal and damaging and disgusting is human sinfulness.

In some ways, sin is like a virus. Take for example Coronavirus-19. Some people get it, and have very few symptoms. Others have it, and die from it. Even if you have few or no symptoms, you are a carrier of the disease, and you might pass it on to someone else, and that person will die from it. Though it may not affect you as much as someone else, it is the same disease. Sin is like that, but it is worse, because it might lie dormant within you for years, and then, if you relax your vigilance, suddenly rise up within you and lead you to ruin your life and those of others around you.

I’ve lived a pretty good life, outwardly. But I know that inside me are lust, and rage, and self-centeredness, and pride. I can hide them, but I can’t eliminate them by myself, and I know I am capable of doing some awful things, and capable of hurting those I love. If I gave myself permission to give in to my impulses, it wouldn’t be long before others could see more of the dirty muck of sin that lives inside of my flesh.

If you don’t believe that sin is real, and that it is a terrible problem for you personally, and for the world generally, than the good news about Jesus will not be particularly good news. Jesus came to save us. If we don’t believe we need to be saved, we might think it’s a nice gesture, but it really doesn’t mean that much to us. So we must understand and accept this first part of the gospel. We must recognize that we need to be saved from the sin that lives within us, and we must want to be saved from it. In addition, we need to recognize that we cannot save ourselves. Many people, both believers and unbelievers alike, have the mistaken impression that Christianity is all about behaving well so God loves us. That is absolutely false. True Christians know that they are sinful, and utterly lost without Jesus. True Christians know that they aren’t better than anyone else. They know that even if they are no worse than anyone else, that is not good enough. The sin and selfishness that live inside of us separate us from God and true goodness.

There is a second half to the gospel. Just as we don’t believe the true gospel unless we accept that sin is a huge problem that we cannot overcome, so we must also accept and trust the second part: Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has paid the price for our sins, and through that, has obtained eternal life for us. Jesus, and what he did for us, are the only way we can be made right with God and receive eternal life.

6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (ESV, John 14:6)

10 All who believe in the Son of God know in their hearts that this testimony is true. Those who don’t believe this are actually calling God a liar because they don’t believe what God has testified about his Son.
11 And this is what God has testified: He has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have God’s Son does not have life. (NTL, 1 John 5:10-12)

Some people say, “Why can’t God just sort of wave his hand, and say, “forget about it?” If no one is really capable of measuring up, why not just change the standard? Let’s start with this thought: Imagine someone raped you (guys can be raped, as well as women). Or maybe someone did that to a person that you love. Why can’t you just wave your hand, and say “forget about it?” Not so easy, is it? Instinctively, deeply, something inside of us cries out for consequences to evil, for justice.

Let me give you an analogy. Suppose your house is somewhat close to the street. One night a woman gets drunk, and rams her truck right into the middle of your living room. Your outside and inside walls are in shambles. You have three broken windows. Some of your furniture is trashed, and a piece of artwork is ruined. One of your pets was killed. And the drunk woman was driving without insurance. Now, you aren’t going to leave your house this way. It has to be fixed in order for you to live there. So somebody has to pay for the damage. You can wave your hand and say “forget about it,” but that doesn’t change the fact that the damage has to be repaired, and it costs a fair amount. That cost has to be covered by someone. If you were to truly forgive the woman for her drunken accident, it would mean you pay. Forgiveness says: “I will pay the cost for something that is your fault.”

This is exactly what God did for us in Jesus. The damage caused by the sin that lives in every one of us is death and hell. That is what it costs. By the way, that is one reason the world so often looks like it is going to hell – because it is. But Jesus stepped in and said “I will pay.” He suffered death, and he suffered the torment of hell, so that we don’t have to. He gave us life when our future was death. He paid the price that we were obligated to pay. In doing so, he triumphed over the forces of evil which encourage us in our sins and evil behavior.

If Jesus did all this for us, then why doesn’t the world look better than it is? There is a “catch,” if you want to call it that. We can’t hold on to our sins; we can’t keep living for ourselves, and also, at the same time, receive what God offers. One cancels out the other. So we need to turn away from living for our desires and pleasures, turn away from the sin that lives inside of us, and also the individual sins that we commit, and turn toward God. That is called “repenting.” By the way, this is a lifelong process, and no one does it perfectly. We fall down as go forward, but at least we are now moving forward toward God, not away from him.

Next, we receive what Jesus did for us – that is we trust that it is true, and we act like it is true. People generally act according to what they truly believe: that is why faith is so important. There are many ways our faith can be strengthened: First, by thanking God for what he has done for us. Next, reading the Bible, praying, listening to Bible teachers, “doing life” with other believers, listening to music that uplifts us, maybe even using ancient prayers and ceremonies written by other believers. I guarantee one thing: if we don’t take steps to maintain and strengthen our faith, it will most likely get weaker, because the world around us is mostly influenced by those who don’t believe.

One reason the world remains a crazy place is because many, many people reject the forgiveness and grace offered by Jesus. They would prefer to be the Lord of their own lives. When we do that, human beings generally make a mess of things, and so, things are a mess. If you want to go back to “the car-crash in the living room” analogy, imagine a very kind, very rich person stepped in and said: “I’ll pay to have this fixed. But I want you trust me. I made my first million as an architect, and if you let me pay for this, I’ll rebuild it better than it has ever been.” But many people are too proud to admit their need for help, or they don’t want someone else involved in designing their life, so instead, they live with a gaping hole in their living room, with broken glass and ruined furniture, because at least that way they remain in control. Though, of course, they aren’t really in control – that’s an illusion. There is an unimaginable number of things that we cannot control. As Jesus put it:

27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? (Matthew 6:27, ESV)

The whole paragraph of what Jesus says there is useful to our discussion:

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:25-33, ESV)

The key is at the very end: seek first the kingdom of God. In other words, don’t first seek what you want, or what you believe you need; instead, start with seeking God and his kingdom. When our priorities are straight in that way, everything else false into place.

We start that seeking journey with the process I have just described: repenting of our sins, and trusting in the incredible love and grace of God. We can know that God is loving and gracious toward us because of what Jesus did for us. If we learn to treasure Jesus above all else, no matter what life throws at us, we can be secure.

THE MOST IMPORTANT MOMENT IN HISTORY

centurion-at-cross

It is very important for us to understand that death of Jesus fundamentally changed forever the way human beings relate to God. We live after that world-changing event, after his death has broken every barrier between us and God.

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Matthew #98.  Matthew 27:51-61

Christianity is a faith deeply grounded in, and connected to history. The Bible is not a book of fairy tales. Scholars have confirmed, countless times, that the people in the Bible were real people, the places were real places and the events that are recorded actually happened.

According to our faith, the death and resurrection of Jesus were the pivotal moments in all history. Something happened at that time in Jerusalem that is unique in all of human existence. You might expect that a moment so special might look or feel different than other moments. All four gospel writers confirm that it did indeed.

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record a three hour darkness, leading up to the death of Jesus, from the sixth, to the ninth hour. (Matt 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44). This was not an eclipse: eclipses do not last that long. It may have been simply heavy cloud cover, but that’s not exactly what they say. Also, cloud cover that is that dark usually turns into a storm quickly, and passes quickly, but everyone agrees that this darkness lasted three hours. At the very least, we could say that it wasn’t coincidence that the clouds were so heavy that day that it felt like darkness.

At the moment of Jesus’ death, the curtain in the temple was torn into two (more on that in a moment) and there was an earthquake that split open rocks. Earthquakes are not unknown in Jerusalem, but it is interesting, to say the least, that one occurred the very moment of Jesus’ death. Also, in order to split rocks, it would have to be a very violent earthquake indeed. Matthew also says many dead people came alive from their tombs, but he also mentions that they showed up after the resurrection, not immediately after Jesus’ death.

He also writes this:

54When the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they were terrified and said, “This man really was God’s Son! ” (Matt 27:54, HCSB)

Luke and Mark also tell us about this centurion. A centurion in the Roman legions was something like a Master Sergeant in the Marines today. He had the primary responsibility for one-hundred, hard-bitten, violent, unruly legionnaires. It was up to him to make sure that his “century” (100 men) obeyed the orders of officers, kept their equipment maintained, marched in formation, and maintained discipline. He had to force these mean, angry, violent men to do what he told them to. He had probably seen men die, and certainly, he had seen men beaten and whipped. He’d probably been in some brawls and seen and done some nasty things. In other words, a centurion had to be one tough, no-nonsense son-of-gun.

Something about the way Jesus died touched this hard-bitten, cynical, violent man to the core. He makes what is in the New Testament, a basic declaration of faith: “Surely this man (Jesus) was really God’s Son!” We don’t know what all went into this man’s faith. I tend to believe it was a combination of the way Jesus handled himself on the cross, along with the physical signs of darkness and violent earthquake.

We don’t know a lot more about this centurion, but I have some speculations. John records one moment when he and Jesus’ mother were close enough to the cross to hear Jesus speak. Mathew, Mark and Luke tell us that most of the time, the women were all standing off, watching at a distance. So, how do the gospel-writers know what Jesus said and did on the cross? How do they know what he said and did at Pontius Pilate’s trial? I suspect that this centurion ended up as a member of the early church. He was certainly there, right at the foot of the cross. He was probably there at Roman headquarters, when Pilate questioned Jesus. He may be the source of some of that information. Of course, Jesus himself could also be the source of that information, after his resurrection. In any case, I think it is testimony to the uniqueness of Jesus’ death that a Roman centurion came to faith because he witnessed it.

Another one of the unique events was that the curtain in the temple sanctuary was torn in two (Luke 23:45; Matt 27:51; Mark 15:38). This is actually a tremendously significant event, but we need to understand more about the temple to know why.

The temple at the time of Jesus was actually a complex of buildings. There were two large courtyards which contained various covered porticos, and other rooms and smaller courts around the edges, but within the walls of the larger courtyards. One courtyard was generally for women and Gentiles, with a sub-court for lepers. A second, more exclusive courtyard was for only Israelite men. Within this inner courtyard was the “sanctuary” which we might think of as the “main building” of the temple. The sanctuary was also called ‘the holy place” (actually, the English word “sanctuary” comes directly from the Latin for “holy place.”) Only priests could enter the sanctuary, where they would change out bread on the altar of bread, and offer incense on the altar designated for that, and light candles. The priests were divided into divisions for these duties, and then chosen by lot. To enter the sanctuary was probably a once-in-a-lifetime event, even for priests. The sanctuary was a large rectangular room. One end of the sanctuary was curtained off, from wall to wall, and floor to ceiling. Behind that curtain was the “most holy place,” or “holy of holies” (sanctum santorum, in Latin – a phrase some people still use in different contexts). It was believed by the Israelites that the very presence of God dwelt in the most holy place of the temple. Only the high priest could enter the most holy place, and only once each year, to offer atonement for the sins of the people.

The message of all this was that the presence God was separated from the vast majority of the people at all times. Women, gentiles and lepers could not even enter the courtyard that surrounded the sanctuary. Israelite men couldn’t enter the sanctuary. Even priests almost never got to go into the sanctuary, and inside the sanctuary, the curtain kept them from the most holy place.

It is very important for us to understand that death of Jesus fundamentally changed forever the way human beings relate to God. We live after that world-changing event, so we can’t really conceive of what it was like before. But the Old Testament gives us glimpses of it. Before the death of Jesus, some tribes of people were so beyond redemption that they had to be entirely wiped out (Deuteronomy 7:1-6). Before Jesus’ crucifixion, God’s holiness could kill you if you simply worshipped at the wrong time, or in the wrong way (Leviticus 10:1-3). Before Jesus, God’s holiness could kill if you simply reached out to prevent a holy artifact from falling off a cart (2 Samuel 6:1-7). Before the death of Jesus, more than half of those who wanted to worship could not even enter the courtyard where the sanctuary was built. Almost all of the remaining half could not enter the sanctuary itself. The message was this: “We need God, but his holiness destroys us, because of our sin. We have to stay separated from him in order to be safe.”

But Jesus, by his death, ripped down the barrier between us and God. The physical tearing of the curtain in the sanctuary was a manifestation of the spiritual reality that Jesus accomplished by his death. He has definitely destroyed the barriers between us and God.

Now, let’s make this real in our own lives. What are the barriers that you feel between you and God? What keeps you distant from him? I want you to pause and think about this. Let the Holy Spirit bring things to mind.

After you have thought about that for a moment, ask yourself this question: “Did the death of Jesus remove this barrier?” (Hint: the answer is “yes.”)

The next question is this: if the death of Jesus removed the barriers between me and God, how do I “take hold” of that? What I mean is, it’s fine to say the barrier was removed, but what if I feel like it is still there? How do I live in the truth that it is gone?

The centurion shows us the way: repentance and faith. If you hold on to your sin – that is, you do not repent, and turn away (however imperfectly), then  you yourself are holding the barrier in place. Repentance drops that barrier. Faith – as the centurion shows us – is simply trusting it is true. Yes, Jesus is the son of God. Yes, his death did remove the barrier between me and God. I am going to act and feel as if this was really true. The more you do so as an act of will, the more real it becomes in your life.

The death of Jesus changed history. It changed everything. Will you let it change you?

WOE, IS ME!

woe

The Pharisees and religious leaders. They are bad and wrong, and by pointing out exactly how so, Jesus is warning us about other leaders like them. He is also warning us about becoming like them ourselves. In other words, Jesus, as God-the-Son, is expressing his very real, and thoroughly righteous anger against sin. Let’s consider how the Holy Spirit might want to speak to us through these ‘woes.’
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Matthew #82.  Matthew 23:13-36

We are in the middle of a long rant that Jesus makes against the religious leaders of his time. Frankly, when I just read through quickly, I don’t get a lot out of this portion of Matthew. The Pharisees are bad, Jesus is mad, end of story, right?

Whenever I encounter a piece of scripture that leaves me cold, like this, I often find it useful to pause and ask some questions. Why exactly does Jesus rant and rave like this? Is he just angry? Is he just venting? What is the purpose of this section of scripture – why did the Holy Spirit preserve these words of Jesus for Christians throughout the ages?

As I do that with this particular passage, I think the Spirit can show us several things.

First, there is the straightforward issue of the behavior of the Pharisees and religious leaders. They are bad and wrong, and by pointing out exactly how so, Jesus is warning us about other leaders like them. He is also warning us about becoming like them ourselves. In other words, Jesus, as God-the-Son, is expressing his very real, and thoroughly righteous anger against sin. Let’s consider how these woes might affect us as well.

Jesus points out seven or eight areas where the religious leaders are in deep trouble. He begins each one with the phrase: “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”

First, let’s talk about the word “woe.” It can mean: “trouble, sorrow and distress.” There is often an element of sorrow associated with this word, both in Greek and in English; it can be a lament, like “Alas!” So, in Matthew 24:19, Jesus says:

“Woe to pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days! Pray that your escape may not be in winter or on a Sabbath.”

But I think here, in this passage, Jesus is adding a sense of warning and judgment with it. The “woe” upon the pregnant women and nursing mothers was not because of anything they did. But here, Jesus clearly connects each woe to the behavior of the religious leaders. I still think he speaks with sorrow; I don’t think he is happy about it. Even so, clearly, he is enumerating their sins, and pronouncing that they will experience trouble and sorrow as judgement for them.

The first woe and sorrow (in verse 13) is because they refuse to enter the kingdom of heaven, and stop others from entering in. This is Jesus’ core issue with the Pharisees. They warned people against the only way of salvation, which is Jesus himself. Instead, they believed that they did not need him. Specifically, they taught (and obviously believed) that they could earn their salvation by behaving well. In a more general sense, this woe applies to anyone who leads others to believe that they can be saved by any other path than repentance from sin, and trust in Jesus. So Paul reiterates this woe in the first chapter of Galatians:

6I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from Him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — 7not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to change the good news about the Messiah. 8But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than what we have preached to you, a curse be on him! 9As 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! (Gal 1:6-9, HCSB)

Make no mistake. Christianity has always insisted that Jesus Christ is the only way to forgiveness, reconciliation with God, and eternal life:

5“Lord,” Thomas said, “we don’t know where You’re going. How can we know the way? ” 6Jesus told him, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me. 7“If you know Me, you will also know My Father. From now on you do know Him and have seen Him.” (John 14:5-7, HCSB)

 11And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. 13I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1John 5:11-13, HCSB)

11This Jesus is the stone rejected by you builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to people, and we must be saved by it.” (Acts 4:11-12, HCSB)

The Pharisees and Scribes rejected Jesus, and therefore rejected salvation, and led others to do so as well. Today, Christians must remember that our core belief is grace, forgiveness and salvation through Jesus Christ alone. We don’t have forgiveness or life because “God is love, and just wouldn’t send anyone to hell.” That lie is just as bad as anything the Pharisees taught: Woe to anyone who tells it! We are not saved because we “have lived a good life, and tried to do the right thing.” We are not forgiven because we “aren’t worse than anyone else.” Sin is much more serious than that. We aren’t forgiven because we make sacrifices, or take mission trips, or because we “speak the words of truth.” We are saved through Jesus Christ alone, and we receive that salvation by grace when we repent and trust him. Woe to anyone else who teaches otherwise!

The second woe is found in verse 15. Some of you may not have verse 14 in your Bibles: it will skip from 13 to 15. Verse 14 is actually one of those places where there is a dispute about the original manuscript of the New Testament. The oldest and best manuscripts do not contain it. The textus receptus (which is the source for the King James version of the Bible), does contain it, as do some other later manuscripts. I think the best evidence suggests that this was not originally part of the book of Matthew. This is one example of why I am not a fan of the King James version. Even so, I’d like to point out that whether you leave verse 15 in, or take it out, it does not change very much at all; certainly it changes no Christian doctrine. This is considered a major variant, and once again we see that even major variants are actually extremely minor. We can have great confidence that the New Testament we read today is, in fact, what was written by the apostles.

In any case, I will move on to verse 15, where Jesus pronounces judgment upon the religious leaders for converting even non-Jews to the belief that they can earn their way into God’s favor, and eternal life. This is very much like the first woe, the main difference being who gets led astray: Jews, or non-Jews. For our purposes, it is a warning that if we get people to join our church, but do not teach them that forgiveness, life and salvation are found only in Jesus, given to us by grace through faith, we would be better off not bringing the new people in the first place.

The third woe is described in verses 16 through 22. Basically, Jesus is giving an example of how the teachers of the law, and Pharisees twist and undermine God’s word. Many times I have given you the example of the Sabbath, and how they added their own laws on top of the commands of God. Here, Jesus is referring to the way that they do mental gymnastics in order to benefit themselves in the matter of taking oaths. They argued that certain kinds of vows were not binding, and made fine distinctions that sounded intellectual, but were completely against all common sense.

These days, we don’t often make vows, particularly not religious vows. I made vows when I was married, and when I was ordained as a pastor. However, even in those cases, I did not swear by or on anything; I simply said: “I will, and I ask God to help me.” So the practice of swearing by (or on) something is no longer a big issue, at least not in Western culture. True, some folks might say something like: “I swear by my mother’s grave.” I don’t think anyone takes them seriously. Even so, I think we can learn something from this particular woe. The underlying issue is that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees were playing games with the truth. As Jesus points out, clearly, if you swear by the altar in the temple, really, you are swearing by God. But the religious leaders came up with all sorts of obscure reasoning to avoid that obvious, common-sense conclusion.

I think that today this woe could refer to the way some people treat the Bible. Unfortunately, I have many times read Bible commentaries that tried to say that certain verses mean the exact opposite of what they clearly say. Now, you know that I’m all for thoughtful, scholarly Bible interpretation. Not all Bible verses are obvious in meaning. Even so, there are many people today, whom I can only call false teachers, who twist the words of the Bible, play games with the truth, and do mental gymnastics in order to eliminate the plain, common sense meaning of God’s Word. What they are doing is not careful interpretation, but rather, twisting the obvious truth. I think Jesus would say to them: “Woe to you!”

The fourth woe is essentially captured by Jesus’ words in verse 24:

24Blind guides! You strain out a gnat, yet gulp down a camel! (Matt 23:24, HCSB)

The religious leaders spent a great deal of energy on relatively trivial matters, while ignoring the more important things. Notice that Jesus says that the trivial things are, in fact, good to do; but the important things should have first priority. I want to try and finish the woes in this sermon, so I won’t go into this one in great depth, but there are many, obvious applications for it. Woe to the church that is more concerned about the color of their carpet than about the homeless population all around it. Woe to the leaders who police the kinds of clothes people wear, and ignore the lust in their own hearts. I could spend all day on this one, but I believe you will be able to think of your own examples without too much effort. I do want to point out that this particular woe contains much of what really turns people off about churches and Christians. I think it’s good to know that Jesus hates it when people focus on minor things, while neglecting the things that are most important to true faith.

The fifth woe, found in verses 25-26, is much like the one before it. The religious leaders are concerned about looking good. They are focused on outward appearances, while they ignore the filth inside of their own hearts. Probably, Jesus is referring to the Jewish tradition of ceremonially washing cups. Mark records a different instance, where Jesus spoke about this at greater length. After discussion about ceremonial washing with the religious leaders, Jesus said this to his disciples:

18And He said to them, “Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him? 19For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated.” (As a result, He made all foods clean.) 20Then He said, “What comes out of a person — that defiles him. 21For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, 22adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. 23All these evil things come from within and defile a person.” (Mark 7:18-23, HCSB)

The sixth woe, is also similar. This time, Jesus describes them as whitewashed tombs, which look good on the outside, but inside are filled with rotten flesh and bone. I’m going to get personal for a moment. I don’t want to be offensive, but I do want us to get the full impact of the words of Jesus here. Here in the Southeastern USA, we have a somewhat religious culture. Even in areas where the culture at large is not particularly Christian, some churches can have a religious culture within their community. I personally know many people who are like these whitewashed tombs. They go to church and they talk a good talk. As far as the people that they go to church with know, these are wonderful Christian folks. But during the week they have affairs, they do drugs, they get drunk, they run businesses that are dishonest, they cheat people, and they are stingy and miserly. Of course, everyone struggles with sin. I’m not talking about Christians who have surrendered their lives to Jesus, but who sometimes fail and fall. I’m talking about people who pretend; people who talk the talk, but do not let Jesus have any real influence in their lives. Jesus says to such people: “Woe to you!”

Finally, Jesus says: “Woe to you who reject God’s messengers!” (verses 29-34). That is what this seventh woe is all about: rejecting those whom God has sent, and rejecting his message through them. In the Western world, thankfully, people do not kill, crucify, or whip Christian teachers and preachers. However, I think it is important for us to remember that this still happens regularly in other places in the world. And even in the Western world, often times those who seek to be vocal about their faith in Jesus are treated with contempt and derision. As one small, and relatively insignificant example, I offer Tim Tebow, former NFL quarterback. Tebow had a year or two as a starting quarterback in the NFL. It was his habit to kneel down as a sign of humility, and praise to the Lord, whenever his team scored. That may or may not be a silly thing; but it was relatively harmless. However, Tebow received a huge amount of criticism for this, and for his outspoken faith. In fact, he received more negative media coverage than many NFL stars at the time who were accused of things like drunk driving, drug possession, assault and rape. Woe to a culture that is more concerned about a public expression of Christian faith than about crimes that deeply hurt others!

Let me say another thing about mistreating God’s messengers. I will admit that this one feels a little personal with me, but that does not make it untrue. I also want to say that I am not complaining, and for the most part I have been very blessed to not experience too much of what I’m about to share with you. Even so, it is shameful – I can think of no better word – the way that many Christians and churches treat their pastors and teachers. Of course there are some bad pastors, and bad leaders, just as there are bad bartenders, truck drivers and school teachers. Even so, many of the pastors who are mistreated by their congregations have good hearts, pure motives, and have done no wrong. Sometimes people direct hateful and hurtful words towards them for doing and saying what they believe God wants them to do and say. Sometimes people slander them. Sometimes people try to run them out of a job, for no reason other than that the pastor has threatened their sense of personal power within the congregation. Sometimes pastors are threatened after teaching something unpopular that the word of God says. Quite often, pastors are underpaid, and it is unusual to find anyone who cares, in most churches, whether or not a pastor is being appropriately compensated. Almost all the time at least some people are critical of their pastor, without doing the least thing to help him.

When I look at these seven woes spoken by Jesus, I think of it as an extreme measure he is taking in order to bring the religious leaders to repentance.

Let me try and illustrate what I mean. About a year ago, I began to have constant pain in one of my kidneys, like I was having a kidney stone. After a long and difficult time, doctors finally determined that some of my nerves have been damaged by frequent kidney stones. I sat down with a pain specialist, and he outlined a number of steps to help me deal with the pain that I still have.

First, we will try a very safe, well-tested, inexpensive medication that has very few side effects. If that works, great! If not the next step is to try a second medication. The second drug is more expensive, and has not been tested for as long as the first. It has more side effects and risk factors. If the second drug works, great! However, if not, there is another step, involving directly stimulating the nerve. This is a more invasive procedure, with greater risks. There is another step after that, and another. Each new step is more drastic, increasingly invasive, and carries greater and greater risk. The final step involves “killing” the nerve that serves my kidney.

When Jesus confronts the religious leaders during these last few days of his life, he is taking the final and most drastic step in trying to bring them to repentance, faith, and salvation. He lived among them, letting his life be a testimony, but that was not enough. He gave them his preaching and his teaching, but they did not respond. He showed them miracles, and the power of God, but they turned away. And so now, he is directly confronting them with their sin. It is their last chance, and he says that if they do not take it, judgment will come upon them. He will “kill” the problem, if it can’t be fixed any other way.

In fact, he says: “I assure you, all these things will come on this generation.” I want to point out two things about this. First, it was literally fulfilled among those who heard Jesus say these words. Jesus was crucified sometime around 30-35 AD. In 70 AD, while that generation still lived, the Romans utterly crushed the Jewish people, slaughtering huge numbers, destroying the temple, and sending the Jews that survived into an exile that lasted almost 2000 years. That generation of unbelieving Jews was indeed judged.

Second, because of how Jesus said it, these words are also for us. Whether or not we are judged as a group, when it comes to the end of our life, when our “generation” passes, we will stand before the judgment seat of God. This is true of every generation that reads Jesus’ words. Let his words sink in. They are drastic, yes. But they are spoken in order to ultimately lead is into the grace of God by driving us to Jesus as our hope, life and salvation.

 

 

JESUS INVADES YOUR “SACRED SPACE”


Sometimes, I think we forget this side of Jesus. In Jesus, both God’s judgement, and also his grace, are perfectly in harmony. Jesus’ actions weren’t reasonable. They weren’t nuanced. But they were righteous

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Download Matthew Part 73

Matthew #73 Matthew 21:12-17

As often happens, there is more than one layer to what Jesus was doing and saying in this passage. The first layer is that Jesus is setting the political wheels in motion which will lead to his crucifixion. He is now becoming much more public and noticeable in his ministry, for the very deliberate purpose of provoking the religious leaders. He is getting in their faces, beginning the process that will force them to make a choice about him. It began with his ostentatious entry into Jerusalem. He continues it now by challenging the institution that was at the very heart of the religious elite in his day – the temple. He is actively pursuing the path that leads to crucifixion.

The second layer is that while he is doing this so that he can suffer and die as he was meant to, he is also doing it in a way that is completely righteous. Everything he says and does here is right and good and legitimate. He is not taking the attitude of “the ends justify the means.” He isn’t doing something wrong when he confronts the religious leaders in this way. His “means” of speaking truth to the leaders are just as good and righteous as his goal of dying for the sin of the world.

Sometimes, I think we forget this side of Jesus. In Jesus, both God’s judgement, and also his grace, are perfectly in harmony. Most Christians tend toward one or the other. Some of us focus on what we’re doing wrong, and how we need to fix that, and we lose sight of God’s incredible grace, forgiveness and love. Other Christians focus on the love and forgiveness so much that we lose sight of God’s holiness and the seriousness of our sin. We end up watering it down so much that we are in danger of losing sight of the truth.

Though Jesus is headed towards the cross in order to make his grace and love freely available, during this last week of his life, he often reminds us of why the cross is necessary; of how serious our sin is, and how absolute God’s holiness is. That is true in the incident we are looking at today.

Let’s start by understanding what was going on in the temple in those days.

The Old Testament commands God’s people to make animal sacrifices as a reminder of how serious their sin is, and how holy God is. The people were commanded to bring various types of animals for sacrifice, depending on the type of sacrifice, and the financial means of those coming to worship. Normally, you would sacrifice a goat or sheep at the temple. However, not everyone could afford that, so poor families were allowed to bring a pair of doves or pigeons, as it says in Leviticus:

7“But if he cannot afford an animal from the flock, then he may bring to the LORD two turtledoves or two young pigeons as restitution for his sin — one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering. (Lev 5:7, HCSB)

First, the animal brought for sacrifice had to be inspected by a priest to make sure it was without blemish, as was commanded in the law of Moses. However, by the time of Jesus, this system had become corrupt. Some of the priests turned away perfectly good animals, and then recommended that the family buy a different animal from one of the livestock merchants on the temple grounds. The priests would get a financial reward, or “kickback” from the merchants for every sale that was made in this way. In this way, the merchants and the priests were using the laws of Moses to extort people.

A second thing was also offensive. Since the Passover drew so many people to Jerusalem, it was the normal time when people paid their half-shekel temple tax. The specific wording of this law comes from Exodus 30:13

13Everyone who is registered must pay half a shekel according to the sanctuary shekel (20 gerahs to the shekel). This half shekel is a contribution to the LORD. (Exod 30:13, HCSB)

Over time, “the sanctuary shekel” became its own unit of currency. People couldn’t pay the tax with the money they made in everyday life. They had to have their money converted to “sanctuary shekels” in order to pay. Eventually money changers set up on the temple grounds and they charged a fee to convert the real money into “sanctuary money.” Sanctuary money was no good for anything but the temple tax, so the money changers made out like, well, thieves.

The third thing that was generally offensive was that the temple became a marketplace. Some people did not bother to bring animals at all, but planned to buy them at the temple. And who could blame them, since the priests were likely to rip them off if they brought their own animal? Merchants hawked doves to the poorer families, and doubtless everyone paid much more for “temple animals” then they would have anywhere else in the country. God’s holy place of worship became one of the busiest marketplaces in Jerusalem during the Passover season.

I’d like to point something out here. All four gospels make it clear that Jesus substantially interfered with all of this sort of “temple business” that was going on that day. He overturned the tables of the money changers, spilling their coins everywhere. He knocked over the stalls of those who sold pigeons and doves. He made them leave the temple complex. John records that Jesus even drove out the sheep and oxen. It would only be natural for these merchants and money changers to resist him, to try and stop him. For one man to do all this, it must have taken a great deal of physical strength, and even violence. In fact, it was a remarkable feat of physical power. I think a lot of people picture Jesus as a sort of wimpy, sensitive guy, but this gives us convincing evidence that he was capable of great strength when he wanted to be.

Now, I want us to see Jesus’ actions for what they are: extremism. God’s holiness is extreme, and uncompromising. We don’t like to remember this. I think if Jesus did something equivalent in the church today, it would meet with widespread disapproval. Let’s start with an obvious one. Jesus drove out those who sold doves, and doves were the sacrifice of choice for poor people. I can see someone saying: “Where are the lower income folks supposed to get their doves now? How could this be a loving action? It hurts the poor! What about all those who traveled from home without animals, expecting to be able to buy one at the temple? How were they supposed to make a sacrifice if they couldn’t buy their animals? You have to be reasonable. Your response has to take all the nuances into account.”

I can see other people saying, “Look, I know having a marketplace in the outer courts isn’t ideal, but ultimately it allows a greater number of people to come and worship here. It makes it easier on worshipers; it makes us more seeker friendly.”

I can see yet others saying, “Yes, I know that some of the merchants, and even some of the priests, are over-charging people. That’s deplorable, and I condemn it. But we can’t expect a perfect system in this imperfect world. It is what it is, and really, it isn’t that bad. We have to be reasonable.”

Jesus’ actions weren’t reasonable. They weren’t nuanced. But they were righteous. This was about the holiness of God. Holiness isn’t nuanced. It isn’t reasonable. It is absolute.

Jesus quoted to them from Jeremiah. Matthew records only the tail end of the passage in Jeremiah, but I want to share the beginning of it with you here:

9“Do you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and follow other gods that you have not known? 10Then do you come and stand before Me in this house called by My name and say, ‘We are delivered, so we can continue doing all these detestable acts’? 11Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your view? Yes, I too have seen it.” This is the LORD‘s declaration. (Jer 7:9-11, HCSB)

Today, we do not have a temple where we worship. We don’t have money changers who charge to turn real money into “church money.” But we have different ways in which we degrade the holiness of God through our worship. Let me suggest a few of them.

Here where I live in the Southeastern USA, a lot of people still go to church because it is considered the right thing to do. Many of those same church-goers spend the rest of the week living as if they were not Christians at all: They get drunk, they have sex outside of marriage, they make shady business deals, they treat people badly, they gossip and slander. These verses from Jeremiah are for people like that:

10Then do you come and stand before Me in this house called by My name and say, ‘We are delivered, so we can continue doing all these detestable acts’?

Going to worship will not save you if you have not humbly repented and submitted your life to Jesus Christ. You cannot be a Christian, and at the same time, live however you please. When you submit your life to Jesus Christ, you will, however slowly and imperfectly, be led to change. Don’t think you can come to church, and then say “We are delivered!” when he has no say whatsoever in how you actually live. If your faith doesn’t change you, it isn’t real faith. Jesus drove such people out of the temple.

Before some of us start feeling smug, let me speak to another group of people. To set it up, let me give you an analogy. Imagine I meet someone who tells me that he is in the United States Marine Corps.

“Wow!” I say. “Where are you stationed?”

“Well, I’m not really a part of any organized unit at the moment.”

“Oh,” I say, puzzled. “How does that work?”

“Well, the actual organization of the Marine Corps does a lot of stupid things. I don’t like to salute. I think it’s stupid. Saluting has nothing to do with actually being a Marine. On the battlefield, that stuff doesn’t matter.”

“Go on.”

“Also, when you join the Marines, they force you to make your bed perfectly, and iron your clothes perfectly, and shine your shoes and boots. None of that has anything to do with being a real Marine. Your boots aren’t going to be polished in the middle of a battle. I think it’s fake and hypocritical.”

“So you are a Marine, but you don’t actually belong to the Marine Corps.”

“That’s another stupid thing. Why should I have to sign up, and complete boot camp and do all that? I don’t enjoy all the rigid structure. That’s not the essence of being a Marine.”

“So what makes you a Marine?”

“I believe in the mission of the Corps, to protect and defend America. Sometimes I do some pushups, you know, to keep in shape.”

“So, if the Marines go into battle, they can’t count on you.”

“Oh they can count on me. I’ll fight the battles too. In my own way.”

“But not alongside them.”

“No. Because they would make me jump through all those stupid hoops.”

You get the idea. This guy is not a Marine, and never will be. It doesn’t matter how much breath he wastes claiming that he is. There are a large number of people in our Western culture who are just like him, only they apply it to being a Christian. They say something like this : “I’m a Christian, but I don’t go to church. I don’t want to be a part of all that hypocrisy, and all those politics.” So they live their own lives, giving nothing of value to the church, which the Holy Spirit calls “the body of Christ.” They think they can claim Christ while having nothing to do with his mission or his followers; his very Body. They deceive themselves, like my hypothetical “Marine Corps” solider. Again, the words of Jeremiah are chilling:

10Then do you come and stand before Me in this house called by My name and say, ‘We are delivered, so we can continue doing all these detestable acts’?

A Christian who is not connected to other Christians in regular fellowship and worship won’t be a real Christian for very long.

Let me give you one more general thought about Jesus’ actions here. By doing this, he was challenging the heart of the religious leadership. This was their sacred place, and he came busting in, acting like he had the right do whatever he pleased there – and indeed, he did have that right. So I want us to consider this question: Where is Jesus challenging your “sacred place” and asserting his right to be true God, truly in charge of your entire life? Maybe it is in one of the things already mentioned here. Maybe it is in some other area. But the big question is this: will you recognize that Jesus has the right to come and upset your world, just as he turned over the tables in the temple? Will you receive what he wants to do in your life?

In Jesus we have both God’s holiness – which brings judgement upon the entire world – and also his grace and forgiveness. We need to be reminded from this passage that our sin is nothing less than evil. You are not “OK,” you are not graded on a curve, and you are (on your own) separated from a Holy and Righteous God. If you don’t want to trust Jesus and submit to him as ruler of your life, you are like those people he drove out of the temple. Not everyone goes to heaven, Jesus made that very clear:

13“Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it. 14How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it. (Matt 7:13-14, HCSB)

Just let that sink in for a moment.

Now, I’m not a fan of just saying “You’re going to hell,” because you don’t have to. In Jesus, your sin is not excused, or explained away, or ignored – it is punished by crucifixion. In Jesus death, righteousness is satisfied so that you are now free to live in the grace, forgiveness and righteousness that Jesus obtained for you. It is simple to receive. What I mean is, it is not complicated – though it usually involves a battle of surrendering your will and your desires. All we need to do is repent, surrender our will to Jesus, and trust that through his work, we are indeed make right with God, and given eternal life. We don’t have to be perfect – Jesus was perfect on our behalf. But our faith in Him, and our surrender to him, will lead us to live lives that are increasingly more holy, more in line with what the Bible teaches, more in accordance with our Holy God. It happens very slowly at times, and we often fall down, or even take steps backward, but when we truly trust Jesus, it does happen – the speed at which it happens is not the important thing, but rather, that it is happening.

Many of you reading have already repented and given your lives to Jesus. If you haven’t, I encourage you to do so right now.

For those of us who have already done so, we may still need to repent of certain sins or certain areas where we have been holding out on God. Let’s do that now. Let’s allow Jesus to come into our “sacred place” and challenge even the things we hold very dear. He has the right. Let’s receive what he is doing in us.

And let’s all of us trust and receive that grace that came through Jesus so that the Holiness of God is no longer a problem for us, but rather, part of our own inheritance now and in the future.