ARE YOU REALLY BLESSED IF YOU HAVE NOTHING?

poor

 

 

Jesus calls “blessed” what we usually call “NOT blessed.”

 

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Matthew #10 . Chapter 5:1-2

Chapter five is the beginning of what many people call “The Sermon on the Mount.” At the end of chapter four, we saw large crowds of people following Jesus around, mostly because he healed people. Matthew records that Jesus took his disciples aside, up a nearby mountain and spent some time teaching them. It isn’t spelled out, but it the picture seems to be of more than just the twelve apostles here. Instead, this teaching was for everyone who wanted to follow him. I think the main point Matthew was making was that there was a difference between “the crowds” and “Jesus disciples.” In other words, this teaching was given to people who trust Jesus and want to continue to trust him and be related to him. These are not standards we should try to apply to people who are not Christians. They are, however for all disciples of Jesus. Today, if you believe in Jesus and trust him, you are one of his disciples. This teaching is for you.

I’ve always heard Matthew 5:3-12, (the first part of the Sermon on the Mount) called “the beatitudes.” This never made any sense to me, because the word “beatitude” doesn’t appear anywhere in this passage in the English translations; it is a word of Latin/French origin anyway, not a Greek or Aramaic term. Besides that, until I looked it up in a dictionary, I didn’t know what “beatitude” meant.[1]

What Jesus is really teaching in this first section of the Sermon on the Mount are attitudes of the heart that ought to mark every person who is a Christian. Once again, we need to recall that He is speaking to people who are already in relationship with him. I don’t believe that the “blessings” which he pronounces over these heart-attitudes can be separated. In other words, he is not saying, “some of you are blessed because you are poor in spirit, and others are blessed because they are pure in heart…” No, the truth is one cannot be pure of heart unless one is also poor in Spirit. Likewise it may not be possible to be a peace-maker unless one is also gentle or meek. So the point is, Jesus wants all of his followers to be growing, and possessing all of these character traits in increasing measure. Certainly, some people may find it easier to be a peace-maker than to maintain a pure heart, while others have trouble with the idea of persecution, even while they desperately hunger for righteousness. Jesus certainly takes us just the way we are. It is also true that when we come into relationship with Jesus, he begins to change us by the power of the Holy Spirit, to help us to become more like the original blue-print he had when he made human beings, before Adam and Eve sinned. In other words, if we are tune with the Holy Spirit and with the Bible, we will continue to grow.

Before we look at what Jesus pronounces “blessed” I would like us to briefly consider what most of our culture might say about these same topics, if we were honest with ourselves. I am sad to say that many of us who are Christians often fall into the same patterns of thought, myself included. So an American version might read like this:

    • Blessed are the financially secure, for they have no worries, and money sets them free to pursue who they want to be.
    • Blessed are those who never experience any grief or pain, for life is easy for them.
    • Blessed are those with ambition, for they will get what they really “go for.”
    • Blessed are those who remain outwardly moral and upright, for they will be respected by all.
    • Blessed are those who are kind when it doesn’t really hurt them, for we think they are both good and smart.
    • Blessed are those who “seize the day” and are not encumbered by prudish moral distinctions, for they get to enjoy all things.
    • Blessed are those who can arrange circumstances to get what they want.
    • Blessed are those who never face persecution.

I honestly believe that most people in America, even many Christians, would find themselves agreeing with some, or even most, of the statements above. As I just mentioned, in unguarded moments I even find myself thinking this way, especially with regard to the first two and the last one. But this just one example of how Jesus’ thinking is so counter-cultural. Many of the blessings above are diametrically opposed to the statements Jesus makes in Matthew 5. And some of them, while not precisely opposite in meaning, completely miss the intentions of Jesus. So what does Jesus say? We will begin to look at that in detail right now.

The sermon on the mount continues through all of chapters five, six and seven. It includes the teaching that to lust is equal to the sin of adultery, that to hate or call someone a fool is the same as murder. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As we read these things, I think you will be continually struck by one recurring question: Who could actually live like this? Who is truly capable of living up to these holy standards?

We are meant to ask that question, and to struggle with it. The standards of the sermon on the mount show us our spiritual poverty. They make us hunger and thirst to be that righteous. This shows us clearly that we do not have the resources to be that Holy We are meant to realize that the answer is “not me.” In fact, only one person could possibly live up that standard: Jesus himself.

So where does that leave us? We need Jesus to live his holy live “inside” of our lives, through our lives. We need to recognize our deep spiritual poverty, our desperate need for Jesus.

And that is why Jesus begins his whole discourse with this sentence:

“The poor in spirit are blessed, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. (Matt 5:3, HCSB)

We begin to have the right attitude when we realize that we are utterly without resources. We cannot be perfect. We cannot attain to the standard of Jesus. Instead, we recognize that we are dependent upon Jesus to manifest his holy and perfect character in and through our lives.

To be poor in spirit means to realize our true position before God. Consider Revelation 3:17. This is part of the message Jesus gave to the church in Laodicea.

“You say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched, and miserable and poor and blind and naked…”

It is so easy to come before God thinking we have something of value to offer him. We think the fact that we live basically moral lives ought to count for something. We think that we are certainly not as bad as some people, and that ought to be a bargaining chip for dealings with God. Sometimes if we do something particularly noble or self-sacrificing, we suppose God has to recognize that. This is not the attitude of someone who is poor in spirit. The poor in spirit know that before God, we have nothing. They know that we are in fact wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked when it comes to spiritual things. Now, if this were our physical condition, I imagine we would be desperate. We would urgently seek help for our impoverished situation. In the same way, the mark of spiritual poverty is desperation for God. For the poor in spirit, all back-up plans have failed, all safety nets have broken, all contingency actions have been fruitless. The last drop of water is gone from the desert traveler’s broken canteen; the safety line of the rock climber has snapped in the fall; the last bullet is gone from the gun of the soldier, and the enemy is advancing.

Does this describe your spiritual life? Are you desperate for the Lord? Do you cling to his promises as a shipwrecked sailor clings to his life-ring? Do you truly believe that without the great mercy of God you have nothing, that without him you are utterly lost? And do you believe that you have no claim on him, that nothing you have or are can manipulate him to act on your behalf? Jesus once asked his disciples if they wanted to leave him. Peter said:

“Lord, to what person could we go? Your words give eternal life. Besides, we believe and know that you are the Holy one of God” (John 6:68-69)

Peter and the others were desperate. They knew that they had no where else to turn. And they knew also that they had no claim to make on God, no basis by which to demand deliverance. Desperate, they threw themselves on the mercy of God. The words of the old hymn, Rock of Ages put it very well:

Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to thy cross I cling

Naked come to thee for dress; Helpless, look to thee for grace;

Foul, I to the fountain fly; Wash me savior, or I die.

The Kingdom of heaven belongs to the spiritually poor because only the spiritually poor are willing to come on God’s terms. I encourage you this week to think of yourself as poor in spirit, and to receive the blessing of all of God’s fullness poured into all of your emptiness.

Hold on to this lesson, and return to it during these next weeks as we continue through the Sermon on the Mount.


[1] If you want to know, look it up yourself!

SOWING THE SEED

sowingseed

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 Experiencing Life Together Part 12

EXPERIENCING LIFE TOGETHTER #12

You are almost at the end of 15 weeks of a cell/house church experience. Hopefully this is been a positive experience. If things have gone as they often do, you might not want this experience to end; you might want this group to continue to meet together. That is generally a good thing, and our hope is that your group does continue for many months to come. In many ways a house church group that has been together for 15 weeks is only just beginning, and there might be months, or even a year or two of meeting as you are. But in the life of every house church group there comes a time when things ought to change. Your group leader has probably spoken about this already during one of the previous house church group meetings. In house church group circles this change is called “multiplication.” Generally, a healthy house church group in the United States should multiply after it has been together for between nine months and two years. So your 15 week group is probably not ready to multiply, and that’s okay. But this business of multiplication is sometimes hard to understand and even harder to accept, and so as we reach the end of this group curriculum it is an important topic to devote some time to.

Just in case anyone is still confused about what “multiplication” or “multiplying” is, let’s review it briefly. House church groups are supposed to be small groups. Technically a small group consists of 15 members or less. There is a certain dynamic in a group of this size that helps it to feel “small.” This dynamic is what facilitates the ministry of house church groups. In a small group all members are more likely to feel included. In a small group, it is easier for members to use their gifts to serve one another. In a small group sharing and praying take place on a deeper level. In a small group it is easier to recognize and welcome new visitors, and to devote the energies of the group to minister to particularly needy families. Of course the true key to house-church ministry is the Lord working in and amongst the members of the house church group. But this working is greatly facilitated by keeping the size of the group relatively small.

When the group has more than 15 members, the group dynamics change. There are so many different possible relationships, that the group no longer feels small; often, sub-groups start to form. It becomes harder to tell if someone within the group is hurting and sometimes absences may even go unnoticed; needs may go un-ministered to. When the group is large enough for people to sit back passively and not participate, they do not usually grow as disciples very much. A large group certainly has its purposes. Notably, it is often more fun to worship in a large group and it is more effective to teach a large number of people at one time. But a large group is not the most effective weekly context for making disciples. A large group does not make a good house church. Therefore when a house church group grows by reaching out to new people, eventually it becomes time to take what has become a large group and make it into two new small groups. This is what we mean when we say multiplication — the one group multiplies into two.

There are a few common objections that people offer to multiplication. Many people feel that the new group, because it is missing some of the members of the old group, could never be as close or effective in ministry as the old group was. Other people simply enjoy the group so much they don’t want anything to change. It is easy to empathize with these feelings — none of us enjoys changing things that don’t appear to need change. We all like to feel secure and have a group with whom we feel safe. Others fear that relationships will be lost without the continuity of a regular group meeting.

All these fears arise when we are focused upon ourselves, our desires, and our comfort. But Jesus calls us not to be comfortable, but to let him live his life out through us. Paul put it like this:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal 2:20, ESV2011)

We are here to let Christ live in and through us. His purpose is to make disciples. He said:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father and of the sun and of the holy spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I’ve commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:18-20).

The church is not on earth to please itself. If we are Christians, our purpose in life should not be to make ourselves more comfortable. Every single believer in Jesus Christ should be about at least some aspect of the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ. We need to be about this business even when it involves sacrifice and discomfort for ourselves. After all, Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us. Jesus describes his own sacrifice, and the call to live for his purposes, like this:

I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:24-25).

Jesus is explaining that in order to bear fruit for the Kingdom of God, God’s people must sometimes make sacrifices. A way of paraphrasing this for house church groups might be as follows:

I tell you the truth, unless the members of a house church group are willing to move out of their own comfort zones and multiply, the house church group remains only a single group and its influence for the Kingdom of God is limited to just the members of that group. But if the members are willing, and the group grows and multiplies, many more groups may be formed as a result and many more lives may be touched by Jesus. For if group wants to stay together for its own sake eventually it will become stale and stagnant and may even end. But those who are willing to multiply will find that they have fellowship with their dear friends even if they are not in the same group, and will find the reward of serving their Lord and Savior.

Over the past few months, we’ve looked a little bit at early church in Jerusalem, as described in the first few chapters of Acts. It was surely one of the most wonderful churches that anyone could be a part of. They had such sweet fellowship, and everything seemed to work together. And yet, the Lord allowed persecution to break out against that church, and it was scattered. This appeared to be a negative thing and it appeared as though their sweet fellowship had been broken. And yet, as a result of this scattering of the church, many more people in other places were given the chance to know Jesus.

On that day a severe persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the land of Judea and Samaria…

So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of good news…

Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them…

So there was great joy in that city (excerpts from Acts 8:1-8)

The breaking up of the sweet fellowship in Jerusalem resulted in the spreading of the good news, and the joy of salvation in other places. They were scattered, like seed, and that seed took root, and bore even more fruit.

The 12 apostles, while they had their occasional quarrels, must surely have been a tight group. And yet, once the Holy Spirit came upon them, they never were all together again — they never were the same small group that they had once been. While they could have chosen to look on this as personal tragedy, instead they accepted what the Lord was doing, and as a result, we know Jesus today. If those first Christians had not been open to multiplication, we probably would not be Christians today. Consider what results may occur years down the road if you too, are open, as they were.

The truth is, those that fear a new house-church group could never be the same as the old, overlook the fact that the power, and joy and love that they feel in a house church group comes not from the members, but really from God through the Holy Spirit as he works in and through the members of the group. And when a group multiplies, the Holy Spirit goes with each new group. Therefore the same love, the same power, and the same fellowship are all present in the new group just as they were in the old.

Some of you reading these notes may not even be in a house-church. How does this apply to you? At a personal level, these verses call all believers, wherever they are, to be ready to let Jesus work in them, and through them, even if it involves sacrifice. Some people, even today (in some areas of the world), give up their very lives for the sake of Jesus. At the very least, we should be willing to give up our personal comfort, so that someone else might be able become his disciple.

But I want to encourage each one of you, our comfort really comes from the presence of God, and his Holy Spirit goes with us, even when we leave our comfort zone. Jesus’ mission was to leave his comfort zone, and reach out to those who would receive him. Now, he lives in us, through the Holy Spirit, and he still wants to fulfill that same mission. There is joy and grace for us when we let him do that through us.

WHAT IS GOSSIP?

gossip

You don’t have to bury all conflict or hurt. But you should share your hurts and conflicts and struggles with the appropriate person, rather than talking about it with someone else.

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 Experiencing Life Together Part 10

 

Experiencing Life Together #10. Biblical Communication in the Church

Matthew 5:23-24; Matthew 18:15-17

What I am about to discuss here cannot be properly put into action without a strong commitment to loving others in the house-church. In order for the following principles to be practiced in a way that honors God, they must be used in the context of a commitment to value others – that is, in the context of Christian love.

Within churches in the United States, there is a pervasive unwillingness to deal openly with sin and/or conflict. This unwillingness is not only unhealthy, but it is also unbiblical, and unchristian. Many times, churches have been torn apart by conflicts that could have been resolved peacefully following biblical directives. Let me describe what commonly happens, and then we will look at what God would like to happen.

Linda was a member of Rachel’s house church. They had never been best friends, but they got along OK until Rachel invited every child in the group to her daughter’s birthday party – every child except Linda’s twins, who were the same age as Rachel’s daughter. Linda was enraged – the next week she could hardly look at Rachel. The following week she missed church, because she couldn’t stand to be around that snobby, stuck up woman. So full of hurt and anger, she couldn’t contain it, Linda called her friend Susan, also a member of the house church. In her anger, Linda had begun to see more of Rachel’s faults, and she sounded off at length to Susan, who listened sympathetically, promising not to pass any of it on to Rachel. Linda felt better for a while after this, but she could never be more than cold toward Rachel, and she stopped sharing anything personal or significant with the house church meeting. In the meantime, Susan was burdened with the rift between her two house-church mates. In a chance conversation with Rachel, Susan hinted that someone was upset with her. When Rachel wanted to know who, and why, Susan refused to tell, because she “didn’t want to gossip.” Rachel was puzzled and hurt, and she too, stopped sharing anything significant in church. This affected the rest of the group, and soon sharing and praying was just superficial.

This is just a hypothetical story, but it portrays a very real phenomenon. Not only that, but we could carry it on, ad infinitum. Susan may share with a friend in another house-church what is going on, and that person may call the pastor and sworn to “secrecy,” simply tell the pastor that there’s a big problem with the other house-church group. This sort of backward communication weaves an intricate and love-killing web. The Bible has a name for it – it is called gossip.

Paul saw it at work in several churches, among them, the Corinthian house churches:

For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (2Cor 12:20, ESV2011)

He knew that it all goes together: gossip, quarreling, jealousy hostility and anger.

Now, some of you may have been shocked to hear this called “gossip.” Many people think that gossip is simply sharing vicious or dirty secrets that shouldn’t be shared. While that is also part of gossip, I believe that gossip, in essence, is saying what shouldn’t be said to anyone, or saying what should be said to the wrong person. Some of you may protest and object that Linda should have the right to express her frustration to her friend whenever she wants to. The truth is, Linda does not have the right to say anything about Rachel that she has not already said to her face. She should not share her frustration with anyone until she has first brought it to Rachel herself. The only possible exception to this is her spouse, if it is understood that he is one with Linda, and will not share it with anyone else, and will encourage her to go to Rachel.

It is important also to note that two people committed the sin of gossip in the above story. Linda was the first, and Susan was the second. As unfair as it sounds, listening to gossip is a sin in the same way that speaking gossip is. Without a listener, there can be no gossip. Not only that, but by listening, Susan provided an inappropriate emotional outlet for Linda’s anger. The appropriate outlet would be for her to lovingly confront Rachel. But instead, she felt a bit better after talking to Susan, and so did not feel the need to talk directly with Rachel. Thus, by listening, Susan gave tension and hidden conflict a place to grow. By listening, Susan perpetuated and strengthened an unhealthy pattern of communication. Not only did her listening do further damage to the relationship between Rachel and Linda, but it also did damage to the whole house-church group. What happened between Linda, Rachel and Susan is a well-known communication pattern, referred to in psychological jargon as “triangulation.” You see, it is not only sinful – it is also recognized in secular psychological circles as an unhealthy and destructive way of relating. It ruins families and house-church groups wherever it occurs.

In contrast to this, let us look at God’s design for conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15-17.

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (emphasis mine)

First we need to recognize that these instructions were intended for a situation in which one person is actually sinning. I’m not sure that snubbing someone at a birthday party qualifies as a sin. However, it may in fact, qualify as a sin against you even if it is not against God. In addition, sin or no sin, this passage also contains some universal principles relating to conflict resolution and communication. And the basic underlying principle is to talk with the person directly, one on one. There is no thought, Biblically, of going to someone other than who you have the problem with – at least not until you have tried going to them directly. Even after this has been done, there is not really room to gossip – instead the idea is to bring a few more people, and again, talk to the person directly. Talking about the person to someone else simply has no place. The difficulty is, of course, that it is a scary and unpleasant thing to go directly to someone you have an issue with. Some people, faced with either sinning when they tell someone else about their conflict, or facing the other person directly, choose to do neither. Now, this is fine if you can forgive the other person, and get over the issue, and move on. But if your anger continues to burn inside, and you find yourself treating the person who hurt you differently than before, these are signals that you need to talk to them directly. Clamming up may not be sinful in the same way that gossip is, but it can be nearly as destructive if you are unable to forgive and move on. Matthew 5:23-24 speaks of this:

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.”

The basic point is, we cannot worship God when our grudges remain unsettled. Worship is something we Christians do together, in community, and it is very hard to do that when we remain angry or unforgiving toward someone who is worshipping with us. If we cannot truly forgive it and move on, we need to settle it by going directly to the one we have a conflict with – as soon as humanly possible. Jesus uses as an example someone who is in the very act of bringing a sacrifice to the temple, and he urges such a person to break off their worship until reconciliation can be made.

As always, this applies to us as individual Christians, but it also applies to our churches. I want you to know that it is absolutely possible to have a church that does not engage in gossip. I’ve been in such churches. It starts when people rely on the Holy Spirit to stop them from saying what they should not say (or saying it to the wrong person), and also from listening to something they should not be involved in. For those of us in Life Together Churches, I want to encourage you to be that sort of church.

I don’t mean you should bury all conflict or hurt. I mean you should share your hurts and conflicts and struggles with the appropriate person, rather than talking about it with someone else. If that person does not listen, share it with them again, only this time feel free to bring along one or two trusted others.

I realize that some folks really would rather avoid the hassle that comes from talking one-on-one with someone with whom you have an issue. But the truth is, talking directly with a person about an area of significant conflict, is far more loving than suppressing it. When you deal directly with people, you are investing in your relationship with them. You are saying that this person is worth the hassle, worth working it out. When you suppress the conflict without being able to get over it, you are saying “this person is not worth the trouble. I’d rather be superficial with them my whole life, than invest the time and energy in working out our differences.” It is love that leads us to deal honestly and openly with each other.

Some people do find this whole topic a bit confusing. Can you ever listen to someone’s frustrations with another person? Can you ever share your aggravation with a non-involved party? One good way to determine whether you are saying something that ought to be said to a different person, is to imagine what you would feel if the person you are talking about were to overhear your conversation.

Suppose you are mad at Bob about something. You are at a coffee shop, talking to your friend Rex about Bob. Now, suddenly, you realize that Bob is sitting in the booth right behind you, and he’s heard everything you’ve said. Are you embarrassed? Are you sorry that Bob heard you saying that? Do you feel a little awkward? If the answer is “yes” to any of those questions, then you have been engaged in gossip.

Or suppose you are Rex, listening to your friend talk about Bob. If you suddenly noticed Bob in the booth behind your friend, would you feel badly? If so, you need to stop your friend, and ask him gently to go see Bob first, before you can have this conversation. Gossip cannot spread if no one will listen to it.

Large churches can sometimes get away with gossip. It is still a sin, but in a large congregation, two people can attend without really have a relationship with each other. However, in networked house-churches, gossip and talk-behind-backs will absolutely kill a house church. It is too small to avoid somebody. It is too intimate to be so superficial. Since the New Testament was written by and for people in house-churches, we need take what it says about gossip and slander very seriously.

Ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit as you seek to apply what he has already said through the Word, which we have looked at this week.

WORSHIP IN SPIRIT AND IN TRUTH

worship
Worship in spirit involves giving ourselves wholly over to God and abandoning ourselves to his mercy, grace and joy. Worship in truth means our worship is based upon the revelation of Jesus in the Bible.

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 Experiencing Life Together Part 9

Experiencing Life Together #9. Worship

Worship is central to what we do together as a church, and therefore it is central to what house churches do together. Unfortunately, the average, modern-day American Christian has become somewhat confused by the bewildering amount of information about worship. “Worship” can now refer to a style of contemporary Christian music. “Worship” has also been artificially distinguished from something else called “praise.” For many people, worship is synonymous with singing. For many others, worship involves litanies, bowing, sitting, kneeling and standing. For some, worship is something that we do for God. For others, worship is something God does for us. It is time for some clarity concerning worship in general, and hopefully this clarity can lead us to a practical way to truly worship God in our house churches.

What is worship? At the risk of muddying the waters even further, consider this simple definition of worship: Worship is our response to God’s presence and activity in our lives. This is a very basic, obvious understanding of what worship is; in fact as you read the scriptures it becomes almost self-evident, although sometimes it gets lost in the commercialized “worship movement” of our day. The book of Psalms is sometimes called the “hymnal” of the Bible. Throughout the Psalms you see various calls to worship and almost always the pattern goes something like this:

Sing joyfully to the Lord you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.

Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.

Sing to him a new song; play skillfully and shout for joy.

For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. (Psalm 33:1-4, emphasis added)

What we have here is the psalmist calling believers in God to worship. He is in essence calling them to respond to the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord. And that is what worship is. Here is another example from the Psalms:

Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. (Psalm 98:1)

There are far too many references of this sort to list in full. Again, the point is that worship is an interaction between God and us. God does something for his people, or he reveals a certain attribute of his nature, or he makes his presence known or felt in some way and then his people respond through singing, praying, kneeling, playing instruments, dancing or in a variety of other ways that are all exhibited in Scripture.

We also find in the book of Psalms people crying out to God for help. This too, is a form of worship, and it involves the same elements of worship. When we cry out to God for help, we are actually exhibiting faith in his goodness and his power to help us.

So how do we worship? As mentioned briefly above, there are a variety of ways described in Scripture in which people worship the Lord. Singing, dancing, playing instruments, lying flat on the ground, clapping, raising hands, giving tithes and offerings — all of these are ways (recorded by Scripture), in which God’s people worship him. It seems safe to say that if we use Scripture as our guide there are many possible activities and styles by which we might respond to God in worship. Jesus, when he speaks about worship in John Chapter four, appears to be more concerned with what is going on in the heart when people worship than with the external expression of worship:

Yet a time is coming and has now come, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth. (John 4: 23-24)

What exactly did Jesus mean by this? When Jesus said we must worship in truth, he meant that worship must proceed from an acknowledgment and acceptance of the truth about ourselves, God, and this world. And the truth about those things comes from the Bible. The Bible says the only way we can have a relationship with God is by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2: 8-9). Therefore, true worship cannot take place without faith in Jesus Christ. Without faith in Jesus Christ we are “dead in our transgressions” (Ephesians 2: 1), that is, spiritually dead. To truly worship God we must be reconciled with him through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we do have this faith and we are reconciled with him then true worship is possible, and it is based, not on correctly performing external ceremonies or singing certain kinds of songs, but rather on the truth that we are sinful people who have been saved by God’s grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ on the Cross. In addition, worship must have at its heart the central truths and themes of Scripture: God’s goodness, our need for him, his love and joy, and so on.

Worship in spirit means that we are responding to God in a way that goes beyond simply thinking about him with our mind or going through external motions. Worship in spirit involves giving ourselves wholly over to God and abandoning ourselves to his mercy, grace and joy. It means that we have allowed the truth of God’s word to penetrate our lives to such an extent that our will and emotions respond. Worship in spirit is relational as we truly interact spiritually with the living God. To worship in Spirit also means that we allow God’s Spirit – the Holy Spirit – to direct our hearts and minds as we respond to Him.

Worship without Spirit is dead formalism. You may have experienced such a thing at times, where it felt to you like you were simply going through the motions with no enthusiasm. Worship without truth is empty emotionalism. This too is an experience some people have. You may feel like all the hype and excitement is really empty and pointless. Real worship involves both Spirit and truth.

We need to remember that worship is not a neutral activity. One way of looking at it is that worship stirs things up in the spiritual realm. Worship can help us feel closer to God, it can lead us to a place of repentance and it can often release spiritual power. The devil does not want these things to happen, nor does our sin-riddled flesh. Therefore, when we set out to worship it is normal to expect a certain kind of opposition. We need to recognize this and rebuke the devil and resist the impulses of our own flesh.

Following are four steps to take to help us worship more fully in spirit and in truth:

1. Kill the flesh (sinful nature) – eliminate the opposition. This is an act of Will. Practically, this might mean an internal dialogue like this: “I don’t feel like worshiping right now. I’m distracted by all sorts of other things. But I am making a choice to ignore my feelings and other distractions. I make a choice to give God the honor and glory that he deserves.”

2. Remember and Think about the greatness of God. This involves recalling the truth, reading and listening to Scripture, and it is an act of the mind. This means, we don’t just sit around and wait for some worshipful emotion to strike us. We actively read and listen to scripture, we actively think about God, who he is and what he has done.

3. Experience and visualize (enter in to) His presence. This is an act of emotion. In other words, let your emotions get engaged, if you can. God’s love is truly overwhelming. Many people have no trouble getting very excited at a sports game, but allow themselves to feel nothing when they come into the presence of the God who created the entire universe. When emotion is guided by a will and mind for worship, it is a good thing. Sometimes it is useful to use your body to help focus your emotions on worship. When I am not playing guitar, I often lift my hands in worship. I almost always do that, not because I feel tremendous emotion, but because I know that if I honor God with my body (the lifting of hands, or lying or kneeling) emotions of worship often follow. And that is what often happens.

4. Release the Spirit to lead. This is a spiritual act. It is also an act of faith. To let the spirit lead is to consciously invite him to lead your thoughts, will and emotions. When you get a little idea or picture or feeling that you think might be the Spirit, go ahead and follow it. The great thing about house-churches is that you can do that, and if you make a mistake, it’s okay. You and your church will figure it out. So maybe, at the Spirit’s leading, you suggest singing a song, or repeating a verse, or praying.

Here’s a practical example of letting the Spirit lead. Last Sunday, I did not pick the songs for worship. For various reasons, I didn’t even know what the songs would be until about an hour before-hand. I’m sorry to say, I was busy getting ready for church, so I just printed them out. But during our singing time, one of the songs was “Surrender.” As we were singing it, I felt the Lord prompting me to pause and invite people to name things that they wanted to surrender to the Lord. So I did that. The great thing about house-church is, it doesn’t have to always be the worship or music leader who does this. Anyone can be prompted by the Holy Spirit.

When we approach worship this way, we find that style becomes far less important. It is true that some people prefer contemporary praise songs, while others prefer litanies and hymns. There is nothing wrong with these preferences as long as we are willing to subordinate them to the greater cause, which is to worship the Lord. The main thing is what we’re doing (worshiping the Lord), not how we’re doing it.

By the way, that last paragraph is a challenge for me. When I visit other churches, or attend conferences, I often find myself not appreciating the style of worship. I’m not much for liturgy, but a lot of contemporary worship seems to me to be performed too loudly, and in musical keys that are far too high for the average person to sing comfortably. I get the message that my singing is not really intended to be part of the worship service, because I can’t even hear myself, let alone the people around me, and often the band will go off into a solo while the rest of us just sort of stand around.

Now, as a pastor and theologian, I have issues with that approach to worship. However, as a worshiper, I have learned that I can worship in that environment anyway. Because worship is more than singing, and more than style. If I apply my will, my mind, and my emotions to worship, and follow the Spirit, I can worship in Spirit and in Truth, even when the style bothers me a little bit.

DO MIRACLES HAPPEN TODAY?

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EXPERIENCING LIFE TOGETHER #6.

AWE & WONDERS

Acts 2:43 “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.”

We have examined the four things that the first Church was devoted to. I hope you’ll agree that any church and even any Christian ought to be growing in devotion to the Word, Fellowship, Intimacy with Jesus (characterized by the Lord’s Supper) and Prayer. These things are essential to what it means to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. They are therefore also central to the community life of those who know Jesus. The first Church was also characterized by living for a single purpose. This too is part of the core of Christian discipleship. In addition to these, however, there are a few other things that characterized that very first Christian church. These other things are also meant to be characteristic of all Christians and all churches. The first of these that the text mentions is a sense of awe, which is accompanied by “wonders and miraculous signs.”

The word translated as “awe” in the NIV Bible is actually the Greek word “phobos” from which we get the English “phobia.” In other words, the word means fear. I think that we in modern American culture are afraid (no pun intended!) to use this word in connection with our experience of God. It sounds like the dark ages somehow – “they were filled with fear.” However, it is a Biblical word, and it is used many times to describe people’s relationship with God. A God we fear is not an altogether comfortable God. He is not the kind of God we can control. Now I don’t believe that this whole concept of “fear of God” is meant to be negative. Perhaps the best rendering of the concept I ever heard comes through the children’s books written by C.S. Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia. In these stories there is a character called Aslan, the Son of the Great Emperor-over-the-Sea. Aslan was intended by Lewis to be a picture of what Jesus is like. And one more thing – Aslan is a lion. In the stories, people who haven’t met Aslan want to know what he’s like. Upon hearing that he is lion, one character asks about him:

“Then, isn’t he safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

I think that Lewis has really captured what the fear of God is about. God is out of our control. He is powerful, and, dare I say, even a little wild, like a lion. He isn’t quite safe because of his great power and his complete otherness. But he is good. This was the kind of “fear” that everyone was filled with in Acts 2:43 – the fear of God who is not quite safe, but is good. We Americans are not usually comfortable with this (which is sort of the point). We like to think that we can respect anyone who is worthy of it, but that we fear no one. But when we try to reduce the fear of God to mere “respect” we have lost part of the true Biblical understanding of who God is. Now the “fear of God” is not the same as being afraid of Him. We do not need to fear that He won’t love us or forgive us. But at some level the thought of what God can really do – how completely at His mercy we are – ought to give us a kind of thrilled fear. He is God and we are truly nothing in comparison.

The first Christian church was characterized by this sort of “fear.” I think it probably influenced how they worshipped and prayed in very positive ways – they did not take God for granted. I think this sense of “fear” also made the miracle of their salvation even more wonderful and incredible to them. The fruit of their fear was altogether positive. Their fear of God only led to a greater wonder that He would consider them worth loving and dying for. Personally, I think it heightened their joy at knowing Jesus as well as their thankfulness to him.

Accompanying this very positive fear, were wonders and miraculous signs. I have no doubt that these manifestations of supernatural things helped them to continue in this positive sort of “fear-of-God.”

Perhaps three main questions can help us to dive more deeply into the question of wonders and miracles: What were the signs and wonders? And, Do signs and wonders still happen today? And, Are we meant to experience them as well?

First, what were they? There is no doubt among any serious scholars that the text is referring to God’s supernatural working. The specific things that He did supernaturally remain somewhat vague in this passage; but we can infer what they were from other passages, with a high probability of being correct. In Acts, we see two primary supernatural manifestations of Gods power: healings and exorcisms. You can bet that these two things were part of what is being referred to in Acts 2:43. In fact, in the passage immediately following this one, the apostle Peter was used by God to heal a crippled man (Acts 3:1-10. For an example of exorcism, see Acts 16;16-18). But Acts also records other things. The great outpouring of the Holy Spirit was accompanied by the miraculous sign of tongues – people from all over the world heard the apostles speaking in their own languages when they preached (Acts 2:5-12). In Acts chapter 12 Peter was miraculously freed from prison. The Holy Spirit gave a word of prophecy to the congregation at Antioch in Acts 13. Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake but suffered no ill effects (Acts 28:3-5). The rest of New Testament also records other sorts of miracles, signs and supernatural workings apart from healings and the driving out of evil spirits. The important thing is not really what the specific events entailed – instead the point is that God intervened in ways that were clearly supernatural. Another significant point is the choice of the words “miraculous signs.” The effect of these things was to strengthen the faith of the believers, and to help in bringing unbelievers to faith. Even today, the fastest growing churches worldwide are those where God is doing supernatural things. The first Church clearly viewed the miracles and wonders as portents of God’s presence. The supernatural events gave them opportunities to preach (Acts 3) and often helped convince unbelievers (Acts 8:9-13).

Now, do these things still happen today? I must be fair and tell you that there are people who genuinely know and love Jesus, who believe that God no longer does miracles like these. For theological support, they point out that in this passage, it only mentions the apostles as those who did the miracles, and since the apostles are now with the Lord, there are no more miracles. They claim that these supernatural actions were merely intended to help the very first church establish itself. Now that the church worldwide is no longer in danger of not being established, miracles aren’t needed. I believe that these people are sincerely misled. There are plenty of other New Testament passages (including some in Acts) that demonstrate that supernatural things are done by God through people other than the apostles. In 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14, Paul clearly expects non-apostolic, ordinary Corinthian house-church members to exhibit miraculous gifts of various sorts. In John, Jesus said this:

“I assure you: The one who believes in Me will also do the works that I do. And he will do even greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in My name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. (John 14:12-14, HCSB)

Jesus expected that the kinds of things he did, would also be done by his Holy Spirit-empowered disciples. The truth is, the church needs to be re-established in every generation. The Christian message is no more secure now than it was in the time of the apostles – the gospel needs to be communicated again and again to each generation, or it will be lost. There are plenty of local churches that are closing their doors, precisely because they have not done this. We are certainly not in any less need than the first Christians for supernatural power to assist us in our efforts to introduce people to Jesus.

In addition, the evidence demands that we take seriously the premise that God still works supernaturally. As G.K. Chesterton points out,

There is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural.

The fact is… the believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you would believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder.

Recent studies have even confirmed that hospital patients recover more quickly, with fewer complications and have an better overall chance of recovery, when they are prayed for. The studies included people who were being prayed for, but were not aware of that fact. They included people who do not believe in the power of prayer. It is indeed accurate to say that God’s supernatural power is alive and still active in our world.

I think part of the difficulty that many people have with miracles is that they seem so unreliable. Let’s be honest. Sometimes, it seems like the perfect situation for God to do a miracle, and yet, he does not. Other times, he may do something that even seems almost unnecessary. I mean, Jesus didn’t have to feed the five thousand. They might have gone hungry that day, but no one was going to starve to death. They would have made it home and found something to eat the next day at the latest. Also, He certainly didn’t have to walk on water. So we hear about miracles that happen for others, and think, “I need a miracle even more than that.” And yet, we don’t get one.

This problem of miracles being unreliable is hangover from our scientific world view. We think if anything is real, we should be able to reliably duplicate the results. But if you think about it, this lack of “reliability” is exactly what makes a miracle miraculous. It can’t be duplicated, because it is an instance of God’s intervention – it isn’t “normal.” In addition, we can’t duplicate it, because we cannot control God, who is the main variable in the experiment.

I suffer from chronic kidney stones. They are extraordinarily painful, and usually, they do not pass for many days. One time, I developed a kidney stone just as I was about to start speaking at a retreat. The people there prayed for me, and within seconds, the pain disappeared. The kidney stone was gone, as quickly as that. I’ve never personally experienced anything like it, before or since. I feel like I sound foolish, sharing this. But it really happened. About six months later, I developed another stone. This time it was a Sunday morning, right before I was about to preach. It was basically the same situation as before. The same group of people prayed for me, and nothing happened. I went home and spent three days of misery until that stone passed. There is no doubt that God healed me from the one stone. There is no doubt that he did not deliver me from the next one. To this day I don’t know why. What I do know, is that God does do miracles, and also that we cannot control when and where he does them.

So, what is our part in all this? Does God want us to be involved in these kinds of things? If you feel a little thrill of fear at that thought, then you’re on the right track! The answer is of course, YES! God wants to do incredible things through us. Of course sometimes we want to “move in the supernatural” all the time and never “come back to earth” – that is not God’s plan either. God uses the supernatural for three main purposes: to set people free (either from sickness, emotional pain or demonization); to strengthen the faith of believers; and to help unbelievers come to faith. He doesn’t work supernaturally simply to give us another cool experience. He wants his children to grow to the point where we walk by faith and not by sight. So the first part of allowing God to work miracles is to release control to Him. Many of us who have had some supernatural experience try to control Him by attempting to arrange things so he’ll come do it again. But we can’t make Him do a miracle. At the same time, we should not try to prevent his working because we are afraid. Primarily what he wants from us in the arena of miracles is an openness, a willingness to be used (or not used), and a sense of fear and awe, that at any time He can come and do whatever He wants.

If we are willing for God to work in ways that might inspire holy fear, what is our part in making that happen? We need to ask him to act, invite him to work. Do we want him to set people free, to strengthen and encourage our faith, and to bring unbelievers to faith? Well, then ask him for a miracle. Ask him to physically heal someone. Ask him to deliver your friend from addiction to drugs or alcohol. Ask him to encourage someone who is struggling. Ask him to find a job for someone who has lost his. The result is up to God, not to us. He is not a machine that we can manipulate. Sometimes he WILL do a miracle. Sometimes he won’t. But, for whatever reason, God has chosen work through us as we are open and as we ask. he best way I know of to PREVENT miracles, is to not ask God for them. So go ahead and ask.

If you are in a house-church, I want to remind you that you are in the perfect context for God to do awe-inspiring things. It was a house church that prayed for the release of Peter when he was imprisoned by Herod. Even so, they did not believe at first the miraculous release that occurred. It was in a house church where a young boy fell out of a high window and died, and Paul prayed and he was made alive again. Prophecies, and the Lord speaking, came often in those first New Testament house-churches. I personally know a man who was instantly delivered from addiction to cigarettes when his house-church prayed for him. I was there when it happened, and frankly, I didn’t believe it at first, but the man hasn’t had a smoke since that night, fourteen years ago.

I encourage you to be open to these types of things that the Lord does. If the thought brings a little thrill of fear, then you are probably on the right track.

ONLY JESUS SATISFIES

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Experiencing Life Together #1

Psalm 63

The chances are, if you’ve decided to try out this “house-church thing” you may be feeling a bit dry in your Christian life lately. One person I know expressed it as a feeling of “surface-level interaction.” Another expressed it as a shallowness. Others may feel like they’re running on empty. It may be that you are dissatisfied with the way things are, particularly in your church, and you are interested in trying something new. Make no mistake about it — we (the developers of this curriculum) believe very strongly in the house Church model, and we think it presents solutions to many common church problems. However, there is no structure or method of doing church that can, in and of itself, offer true spiritual life. The answer to our struggles and issues is not a new way of doing church, but rather Jesus himself. Therefore we want to start this “house Church experience” by focusing not on house Church, but on the person of Jesus Christ.

On the surface, a feeling of dryness or shallowness in one’s spiritual life seems like a bad thing. After all, it can be frustrating to feel that you aren’t connecting with God, or with fellow believers. Worship might seem dull, and prayer might feel like empty repetition. There might be almost a dreary sameness to your spiritual life. But believe it or not, these are good signs! The problem is, we don’t always recognize them as such, and act accordingly. Many people blame themselves for these symptoms, and they try to overcome these feelings by sheer willpower. Some may blame their worship environments, and either work hard to change things, or simply leave. Others simply grit their teeth and wait it out. But sometimes God is responsible for our feelings of dryness and shallowness! That is because God wants to give us a greater thirst for Himself. God does not want us to become complacent, or self-satisfied about our relationship with Him. And so while feelings of discontent, restlessness and shallowness can be disturbing, they actually serve the wonderful purpose of making us hunger after more of God’s presence in our lives.

How should we respond to these feelings? I believe that there are several responses that are helpful, and some that are not helpful. Keep in mind that what God is after is a deeper relationship with you – the end result should be more of God’s presence in your life. First, some things to avoid – these are things that will cover up, or waste the thirst that God is creating in you:

1. Avoid making other people responsible to “fix” the problem. It may be a temptation to look to your church or your pastor to make things “deeper” or more meaningful. Maybe if your pastor was more like Chuck Swindoll, or your worship leader more like Michael W. Smith, you wouldn’t feel this way. While you certainly ought to bring up concerns you have about your church to your pastor or another appropriate leader, you cannot make them or anyone else responsible for your spiritual condition. God doesn’t want you to thirst for a certain kind of structure– He wants you to thirst for Himself. If you respond by seeking God, I can almost guarantee that your experience of house-church meetings during these few weeks will also be richer, particularly if others in your house-church do the same. If, on the other hand, you respond to spiritual dryness by trying to find some kind of experience (within, or outside of the house-church) you will eventually be disappointed. Once again, it is certainly legitimate to bring up for discussion issues that your church ought to address. But the start of a richer house Church experience is always found in a richer personal experience with God. The house-church model cannot take you farther than you are willing to go with God alone. The house-church cannot satisfy a thirst for God – only God can.

2. Avoid trying to fix the problem with other things. Human nature is such that we are almost always discontent. The great Christian thinker, C.S. Lewis found this to be one of the greatest indicators that we have an eternal, spiritual nature. Unfortunately, many of us attribute our discontent to something other than a need for more of God’s presence in our lives. We sometimes try to fill the void with relationships, activities, material things or lifestyle changes. While none of these things are of themselves bad, they are not the proper prescription for someone whom God has made thirsty. Some people may respond to spiritual dryness by attending all sorts of conferences and meetings and increasing the number of “spiritual” activities they are involved in. Once again, though these things are not bad, they miss the point – in fact, one of the greatest dangers to the spiritual life is often busyness with church and para-church activities. God is calling you to get alone with Him, and receive a deeper measure of His presence in your life. Church activities, shopping, friendships and so on will not accomplish this for you.

3. Don’t Ignore your thirst. Actually, the things I have just written about are ways to ignore, or divert, the thirst God is giving you for Himself. Don’t put it off until later – our spiritual sensitivity decreases every time we put God on hold. Own up to the dryness you feel, and own up to the reason for it – it is something that God wants you to respond to.

On the other hand, here are some thoughts on how to cultivate, and make use of, a thirst for God.

1. Get alone with God. Though we are responsible to other people, no one else is responsible for us. Only you and God know the status of your walk with Him. When He gives you a thirst for Himself, it can only be quenched in His presence. Get up early, or stay up late to be with Him. Perhaps you could go for a walk by yourself on your lunch break, or trade off watching the kids with your spouse on a Saturday, so that you can each have some time alone with Him.

2. Read your Bible. Peter said to Jesus: “You have the Words of eternal life.” Scripture is God’s primary way of “talking to us.” Hearing God through the Bible helps us to soak in presence. Without the written Word of scripture, our faith experience can become just so much spiritualized imagination. We can rely on God’s voice through the Bible. Some good places to read for those thirsting for God are Psalm 119, 63 and in fact, any of the Psalms. One of the Prophets, like Hosea, Isaiah, Malachi or Joel can also encourage the thirsty reader.

3. Pray conversationally. As you get alone with the Lord, talk to Him just like you would to a best friend. I personally pray this way best while I walk. Others may find kneeling more helpful. We can take for granted that He is with us and listening. As you pray, also take time to be quiet and “listen” to the thoughts and feelings that the Holy Spirit plants in your heart. If they truly are from the Lord, these thoughts and feelings will agree with what scripture says, which is another reason why it is so important to read your Bible.

What if you’re not thirsty right now? I believe a thirst for God is a gift that God gives His children. I believe very strongly that He will give it to you if you ask him for it. The key of course, is to recognize it for what it is, and not cover it up by trying to acquire more things, or by trying to satisfy it by church activities or human relationships. In addition, you can help fuel a desire for God by avoiding television. No other single influence does so much to direct us to seek contentment in things other than God. A hunger for God can also be aided by reading devotional books and/or listening to audio tapes. The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer is a terrific book I know to encourage a thirst for God’s presence in your life. Another is “Journey of Desire” by John Eldredge.

SELF-JUSTIFICATION, OR JESUS-JUSTIFICATION?

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Only Jesus can satisfy the demands of the law. Only Jesus can make you holy. Only he can make you good. You don’t have to try any more.

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GALATIANS #15

Galatians Chapter 5:2-6

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal 5:2-4, ESV2011)

Before all you ladies quit reading, I want to make it clear that these verses have to do with some timeless and important principles. It isn’t really about the male anatomy at all. Remember, the situation in Galatia is that some false teachers have come in and are saying that although Jesus is the Messiah, in order to be right with God and be truly saved, you must follow Jewish law. For men, that meant that they must be circumcised. Some of these folks were in Jerusalem with Paul at one time:

But some of the believers from the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to command them to keep the law of Moses! ” (Acts 15:5, HCSB)

Now, let’s be clear. Paul himself was circumcised. At one point, he had his helper, Timothy, circumcised, so that he could stay the houses of non-Christian Jews (Acts 16:3). So clearly, Paul did not view circumcision itself as evil or always wrong. The problem was, the Galatians were starting to believe that circumcision was necessary (for men) to get right with God. For both men and women, they felt it was necessary to follow Jewish law.

Paul is saying this: “We are saved by Jesus plus nothing. If you want to count circumcision or the Jewish Law toward your salvation, then you can’t count Jesus. If you want to follow the law, you have to follow the whole thing perfectly, your entire life.” Jesus presents us with an either/or proposition. Either we receive him, and him alone as our only hope, or we try and get right with God through our own efforts. But we can’t do both.

If you think anything other than the death and resurrection of Jesus will get you right with God, then you are on your own. If you say, “well, God needs to let my aunt into heaven because she was so kind and generous,” you are really claiming that one way to get right with God is kindness and generosity. Paul, Jesus and entire New Testament disagree.

You can come to God through Jesus, have no other claim or hope; or, you can come to God with anything else you want, but not Jesus. Jesus is exclusive. Martin Luther, writing about these verses, put it this way:

“This teaching is the touchstone by which we can judge most surely and freely about all doctrines, works, forms of worship, and ceremonies of men. Whoever (whether he be a papist, a Jew, a Turk, or a sectarian) teaches that anything beyond the Gospel of Christ is to necessary to attain salvation; whoever establishes any work or form of worship; whoever observes any rule, tradition or ceremony with the opinion that thereby he will obtain the forgiveness of sins, righteousness and eternal life – will hear the judgment of the Holy Spirit pronounced against him here by the apostle: that Christ is of no advantage to him at all.” (Martin Luther).

People these days do not like the idea that there is only one way to God, and therefore only one way to heaven. According to the Bible, there is only one way to God, and that is through Jesus Christ. Jesus said it himself:

“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6).

“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. How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it. (Matt 7:13-14, HCSB)

The apostles all reiterated this teaching of Jesus. John wrote:

And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. (1John 5:11-12, HCSB)

The reason Jesus is the only way, is because it is only through his life, death and resurrection that God’s holy standard is satisfied. God is holy. Holiness destroys sin. If we come into God’s presence with sin in us, we will be destroyed. Jesus embodied both the holiness of God the flesh of sinful humanity. Because of who he was, his life, death and resurrection satisfied the holy standards of God’s nature. He was the only one who could do that. As we trust him, he includes us in what he has done. But if we try and justify ourselves in any way, Jesus is useless to us. The Galatians were trying to do it through Jewish law. Let me share a few ways I’ve heard people these days try to justify themselves apart from Jesus:

“Well, I’m basically a good person.”

“I’m no saint, but I’m no worse than anyone else.”

“I’m no saint, but at least I’m not a hypocrite.”

“I’ve gone to church all my life.”

“I take care of the people around me. The bible says to love your neighbor, and I do that, probably better than a lot of church people.”

Folks, this is all self-justification. These statements are all about getting into heaven by your own merit, or at least your own merit compared to other people (but not compared to God’s Holy Standard). This is living by law. In terms of relating to God, it is no different from insisting upon following Jewish law. It is up to you to be good enough, or to be at least no worse than others, or to behave religiously. Paul says that if you rely on such things, Jesus Christ is of no value to you.

Some people look for justification in other religions. They may say that all religions lead to the same goal. I always find that idea kind of humorous, because the one thing all religions seem to agree upon is that the other ones are wrong. Islam claims to be the one right way. Jesus himself excluded any other way but himself. That means you can follow other religions if you want, but you won’t have anything to do with Jesus. Even Hinduism and Buddhism, which many people think are so inclusive, are not really that way. They might be willing to includes Jesus as another one of their thousands of Deities, but they absolutely refuse to let him claim the exclusivity that he claims. In other words, they are inclusive only if you accept their way of looking at things, which of course, means they aren’t that inclusive.

There is one more thing people do to justify themselves. They simply change the standard. Listen carefully here, because it doesn’t sound like living by law, but it is. The ten commandments command us to put God first, to not make or worship idols, to not take the name of the Lord in vain and to observe a day set aside for rest and worship. They tell us we should honor our parents. They say we should not murder, commit adultery, steal, lie or covet. Jesus said they were all summed up by these two ideas: Love God, and Love your Neighbor.

So our current culture says “It’s all about love. As long as you act ‘loving,’ you are a good person.” So, you can cheat and steal and lie as long as you do it to the government or a large corporation, where no one (that you know about) gets personally hurt. You’ll still be a good person. You can have sex with someone you aren’t married to, as long as it is loving. You can have greed and envy and hatred in your heart, as long you don’t hurt anyone. You can gossip, or get drunk, or lie to your boss about why you weren’t there. Our culture has reduced holiness to innocuousness.

Now, all this is still self-justification. We aren’t putting our hope in Jesus to forgive us and make us good from the inside out. We are changing the standard of goodness and holiness so that it describes the way we prefer to behave. We are trying to make ourselves righteous by changing what righteousness is. This isn’t putting our hope in Christ – it is putting our hope in the fact that we can, through our own efforts, meet the reduced standards. If this is our approach to God, we are trying to be right with him so other way than Jesus. Paul says, if that is so, we are cut off from Christ.

Now, again, circumcision in itself is not the problem. Paul writes:

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love. (Gal 5:6, HCSB)

The issue is self-justification. Circumcision might be a good thing for hygiene or even something that helps some people remember they belong to God. But it can’t be a law, or a means to get right with God.

There are many things like circumcision. Fasting can be helpful to focus our hearts and minds upon the Lord. Certain forms of worship and spiritual disciplines can really help us grow closer to the Lord. But if you ever find yourself thinking “If I just do this, I’ll be OK with God,” watch out! The devil is lying to you. If you think, “Only people who do this activity, or observe this ceremony, are real Christians,” you are in deep spiritual danger!

Let me be even more clear. Not even keeping the ten commandments will get you right with God. First, if you are old enough to read these words, you have already failed to keep the ten commandments. It’s already over – you haven’t kept the whole law perfectly for your whole life. You aren’t holy enough to come into the presence of God. You never will be. It’s good to follow the ten commandments – the Holy Spirit, living inside Christians, wants to do them. But if you are trying to follow the ten commandments in order to keep God from smiting you, you are out of luck. The smiting is coming, unless you are in Jesus.

Only Jesus can satisfy the demands of the law. Only Jesus can make you holy. Only he can make you good.

When you are in Jesus, as you submit to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, you will start to look a little more holy, because he wants to live his holy life through you. But it won’t be you trying to be good in order to please God or get to heaven. It will be Jesus in you, being good, as you. And you won’t trust your own goodness or worry if your own goodness is enough – because the goodness of Jesus is enough for you.

I know you screw up, because I know I screw up. I know that even though Jesus has made me good, I don’t always act like it. Paul knew this about himself too. And that is why he wrote verse 5:

For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. (Gal 5:5, HCSB)

The Greek word there for “eagerly wait,” frequently refers to waiting for the fulfillment of something that has been promised, but hasn’t happened yet. We have this righteousness through Jesus, and yet it isn’t fully complete at this time. So we anticipate it eagerly. Paul wrote about this in 1 Corinthians 1:7; Philippians 3:20 and Hebrews 9:28. He wrote this to the Christians in Rome:

For the creation eagerly waits with anticipation for God’s sons to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to futility — not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it — in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. And not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits — we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. Now in this hope we were saved, yet hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with patience. (Rom 8:19-25, HCSB)

So what does all this mean for us now? Paul talked about freedom in verse 1. What freedom it is to be done with justifying yourself! You aren’t letting yourself off the hook – you are admitting that you can’t get off the hook and you need Jesus to save you. You are admitting you cannot do it. There is great freedom in that.

There is a warning here, too. If you think you can add to what Jesus had done for you, or if you think you have a part to play in saving yourself, you are in grave spiritual danger. And there is a warning also, to not make good things into necessary things.

Finally, there is this business of eagerly waiting. I see a lot of people who call themselves Christians who do not seem interested, let alone eager, in Jesus bringing his righteousness into their lives. It makes me wonder how much room he really has in their hearts. We don’t need to be perfect. We don’t need to strive to make ourselves good. But we should eagerly anticipate the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to do those things. We can be looking for it, praying for it, ready to respond right away as the Spirit prompts us to do something, or refrain from doing something else. We are not supposed to wander off and say, “Well, let Jesus make me righteous if he can, I’m off to do my own thing. Good luck to him.” No, Paul says that we who are in Jesus should be anticipating his work in us, eager to see it come about.

What is the Spirit saying to you today?