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!

REVELATION #43: GOD HIMSELF

opendoor 2

If you have the treasure, you don’t need anything else, because the treasure will provide you with everything. And that is the promise of Revelation 21:3 – that we will have the Ultimate Treasure – God Himself. Anyone is welcome to receive this treasure, by walking through the Door – Jesus Christ.

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 Revelation Part 43

Revelation #43  Revelation 21:3-7

Last time, we looked in depth at the first two verses of this passage. Because the New Heavens and the New Earth are such a precious gift, I want to take a bit more time to meditate on what we are promised in this passage. Let’s look at verse three:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.

This is a very ancient promise, one which was given through Moses to the people of Israel:

6 Say therefore to the people of Israel, I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. 7 I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. 8 I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’” (Exodus 6:6-8, ESV)

In Revelation 21:3, we are witnessing the ultimate fulfillment of that promise. God will be our God, and he will bring us into the perfect New Creation that has been promised to us. However, the center-point of this promise is not the land, but rather, God himself. God is the best, highest good in the entire cosmos. There is nothing better than Him. And so, he gives us the best thing in existence: Himself. Earlier, he said to Abram:

​Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward. ” (Genesis 15:1, NIV. This translation is, in my opinion, the most literal rendering of the Hebrew in this particular verse. It implies that the great reward is God himself.)

When we read the promises in scripture, all of the stuff we really want, deep down – like  love, peace, joy, meaningfulness, fulfillment, adventure – these are given to us as by-products of having God himself. When we have God, we have love, joy, peace, adventure, fulfilment, and so on. When we don’t have God, our experience of those things is doomed to be both temporary, and corrupted. When we have God, we have everything. If we think we have something, but we have it apart from God, we really don’t have it. That is why Jesus told these two little parables:

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. (ESV, Matthew 13:44-46)

If you have the treasure, you don’t need anything else, because the treasure will provide you with everything. And that is the promise of Revelation 21:3 – that we will have the Ultimate Treasure – God Himself.

The next several passages in Revelation are describing what it means for God to be our God, and us to be His people in the New Creation. This is what we hope for. This is what makes our present sufferings bearable. This is why we can have joy in even the hardest situations.

Verse 4 tells us that God Himself “will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” In the New Creation, we will have New Bodies which never get sick, never feel pain. Our new bodies can’t get hurt, or be killed. Death itself will be “dead.” We will have no reason to cry or mourn.

Some people may have questions about that last part. What if some of our loved ones are not there? What if they reject Jesus, and so go into the lake of fire? Won’t we cry and mourn for them?

I think we are dealing with matters that we cannot fully understand. I think that’s why we have verse 5, where God says, “The former things have passed away. Behold I making everything new!” Things won’t operate the same way they do here. We will live in an entirely new and different “system,” one which we cannot understand fully at this present time. In present terms, yes, the loss of loved ones to the lake fire would make us grieve. But the New Creation is entirely new. The old ways of looking at things may not apply there.

I have an additional thought about that question, also. I imagine that when we are fully engaged with God, with no sin in the way of our experience of Him, His Joy will fill us so completely that there simply isn’t room for grief. Everything will be so “right,” that even things that might have made us grieve cannot touch us, because then we will fully accept all that God does, and be able to wholeheartedly affirm it as right and good.

Verses 7 and 8 do not seem so positive. I am quite sure that this is referring back to the judgment before the throne in 20:11-15. The Lord is reminding us that these promises are not universal. The only way into the New Creation is through Jesus (John 14:1-6).

Many people say that Christians believe in a mean, narrow-minded God, who only saves those who believe in Him specifically. But the truth is narrow minded. The answer to 2+2 is 4, nothing else, not even 4.0001. Truth, by definition, excludes everything that is not true. That means truth is always “narrow.”

However, actually, everyone who wants to enter the New Creation may do so. The Bible says there is a door in, and that door is Jesus Christ. Anyone is welcome to use that door. But there is no other door, no other way. If someone refuses to come through the only door, then, yes, they will be kept out, because there is no other way for them to get in.

5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (ESV, John 14:5-7).

40 For this is the will of My Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (HCSB, John 6:40)

10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (ESV, 1 John 5:10-12)

7 So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture (ESV, John 10:7-9)

No one is kept out because God is mean, they are kept out because they don’t want to come through the door. It humbling to come through the door. We have to admit that we are sinful, and we cannot save ourselves (1 John 1:7-9). We have to turn away from our sins, and from living for ourselves. We have to die to ourselves, and to our own sinful impulses, so that Jesus can live through us (Galatians 2:20).

Now, why should this be? Why is it that we must come through Jesus? Why is there no other way?

In the first place, only Jesus makes us truly holy, so that we can be in the presence of a Holy God without being destroyed. Every other religion says that you must make yourself holy, in one way or another. But  a flawed person cannot make themselves flawless. It is a logical impossibility. So, the Bible says, “Let Jesus take care of that, because it is not possible for a flawed person to be flawless.” The Flawless One is our only hope.

Second, this New Creation is described as perfect, and incorruptible. Nothing can go wrong here. No evil will be here, and none of the sorrow and pain that is brought about by evil. If there is to be no evil, there cannot be any person who is less than perfect. If there was, then the New Creation would be no better than this one. Therefore, if a person will not allow Jesus to change them, if they reject the forgiveness that brings holiness and the salvation that leads to perfection, then they cannot be in the New Creation without changing it back into the old creation.

Revelation 21:8 lists some specific kinds of people who refuse to come in through the door. The first is, cowards. Right before this, it says, “those who conquer, will have this heritage.” This refers to the battle of faith here on earth, before we stand in front of the judgment throne. The picture is that one the one hand, we have those who fight the battle of faith with courage and perseverance. Now, this doesn’t mean we fight our own way into heaven. But there is a lot of opposition to faith in this world. The attacks against Christianity are relentless. There is constant pressure to compromise, to give in, and even to give up. Jesus told us it would require that we surrender our very lives to him that we die to ourselves (Matthew 16:24-26). Now, it is his strength that works in us to persevere but there are some who will choose not to, because it is easier. Paul explains that we allow God to work, but it is His strength which works:

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (ESV, Philippians 2:12-13)

So, here in Revelation, those obey by allowing God to work in them, and by pursuing his work in them, these are recognized for their courage.

Cowards are the opposite of this. There are some people who may be tempted to say of the Christian faith: “This is hard. I’m not getting enough out of it.” This is a warning to those who are so tempted. In addition, I believe this refers to Christians who are pressured and persecuted by human culture. Particularly in John’s day, Christians may have been tempted to deny their faith in order to avoid persecution and being excluded from non-Christian social circles. God is reminding those that this is a coward’s choice. It is a rejection of Jesus himself. To do so is to refuse to come through the door, because the door costs us everything in earthly terms. But the reason we have to let go of earthly approval is so that we can receive everything through God’s approval.

I am troubled by this today. Many so called “Christian celebrities” seem unwilling, when asked, to make a public statement affirming what the Bible says about human sexuality. If they are afraid of speaking the truth because they might lose their popularity, how much more are they likely to deny Jesus when they might lose their freedom, or even their very lives? I believe this should warn us that being a Christian in a non-Christian culture is always difficult. Cowardice is easy.

I want us to circle back around. It is important to remember that we must come through Jesus, and those who refuse to do so cannot enter the New Creation. But anyone who is willing to come through Jesus is welcome. And the reason for that one door, is so that the New Creation will be a whole new order, with no death, no sorrow, no decay. Instead, we have God himself, and in Him, everything our hearts truly desire, all the treasure of the universe, and more.

Let us hear what the Spirit is saying to us today!

REVELATION #27. THE BATTLE FOR OUR MINDS. (12:7-13)

Battle for the mind

Whether we choose to believe it or not, we Christians are in the middle of a spiritual war. Often, following Jesus is hard, and the reason we find it so is because we have enemies in the spiritual realm. They will attack whether we believe in them or not. The primary weapon used against us is lies. Often we think these lies are our own thoughts. We need to be aware of this, and learn how to fight those lies with the truth of scripture.

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 Revelation #27. Revelation 12:13-17

I want to reiterate something I’ve said before: I approach this book with a great deal of humility. I don’t think that I have the one true understanding of Revelation. But for each message, I study the scripture carefully, without regard to what others have said about it. I pray and ask the Holy Spirit what he wants to say through the scripture this time. After I have heard, I do check my interpretations against those of others. So, my main goal with each message is to hear what the Spirit wants to say in this moment. There may be many points in a text that we pass by to focus on the main thing I’m hearing for this particular time. If we come back to the text another time, we might find a different aspect to focus on. This is why we call the Bible “living and active.” The Spirit can reveal many different shades of meaning from one text, though, if the meanings are legitimate, they won’t contradict each other.

Last time, John presented us with crucial information about the spiritual war: Satan has already been defeated. He is like Hitler, fighting on from late 1944 until May 1945. No one could possibly deny by November of 1944 that Germany was going to lose the war. Even the Battle of the Bulge, which cost so many lives, and set back the Allied victory by a few months, never stood a chance of actually stopping the Allies. So it is with Satan. He can still wreak havoc in the lives of individual human beings, but he has already lost the war.

With that firmly in mind, the next few chunks of Revelation describe the spiritual war as it is before it is finally over. I think one of the purposes of it is to warn Christians. We need not fear the final outcome, but we can, and should be, aware of the schemes of the devil, which can still cost us dearly before the end finally comes.

I think that verses 13-14 are talking about exactly the same thing as verse 6.

Verse 6: “And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.”

Verses 13-14: But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.”

John is going back, and repeating what happened earlier in the passage. “A time, times, and half a time,” is the same as 3 ½ (years) or 1,260 days. Once more, this is a reminder that there are periods in the battle with the devil when the church is protected and nourished in complete dependence upon God.

There are some interpreters who believe that the woman is not the church, but God’s people Israel. In this interpretation, the “1,260 days” might represent the time of their exile from the Holy Land. Or, perhaps it means a time when they will be kept apart, after which, they will convert to Jesus in large numbers. This interpretation may be correct; I want to remain humble about my own understanding of Revelation. However, this interpretation does not leave us with much help for following Jesus in our ordinary lives. It seems much more helpful to consider that there are times when God seems to set people “in the wilderness” where all we can depend upon is him alone. That might happen when you move, and you don’t know anyone around you. It could occur if you lose a special relationship with someone. It might happen through financial hardship, or health issues. In that “wilderness-place” God takes care of us, if we depend completely upon Him. The time frame reminds us that it will not last forever. Of course, we should always depend completely on God, but the wilderness seems to indicate that there is some hardship or difficulty during this period.

While the woman is taken to the wilderness, the dragon spewed water out of his mouth, hoping to destroy her. I believe that this represents, in general, what we call “spiritual warfare;” that is, the schemes of the devil and his demons to destroy Christians. I want to spend the rest of our time on that subject.

Many people think the idea of spiritual warfare is kind of weird, and that maybe we can be Christians without “getting into all that.” But consider this: Prior to September 11, 2001, very few people had heard of an organization called Al Qaeda. Millions of Americans went through their daily lives, vaguely aware that America was somewhat unpopular in places like the Middle East, but not terribly concerned about it. All that changed – at least for a while – on that fateful September morning in 2001. The terrorist hijackings and the destruction of the World Trade Center and parts of the Pentagon, the loss of almost 3,000 lives all woke us up to the fact that whether or not we believed it, we were at war. “9/11” jarred us loose from our daily patterns. We suddenly realized that though we hadn’t taken the Islamic radical threats seriously, they certainly meant them seriously.

Before 9/11, I think most Americans felt pretty much invulnerable. In the weeks and months following it, we felt anything but that. Belatedly, we became aware that we had enemies – enemies who were dedicated, implacable and had the ability to do us great harm.

Sometimes I think that we Christians are dangerously complacent about the fact that we have enemies: deadly implacable enemies who will stop at nothing to destroy us. We go around, vaguely aware that there is something in the Bible about the devil and demons, but it doesn’t have much relevance to our daily lives. Unfortunately, striking unfairly and without warning, the spiritual terrorist network often takes out unsuspecting, complacent folks who might otherwise have faithfully served and followed Jesus. Even if we don’t take the threat seriously, the devil and his demons are serious about getting to us.

The fact is, the Bible (mostly the New Testament) refers to, teaches on, or mentions that we are in a spiritual war over 110 times. The Bible mentions demons or refers to demonic possession almost 100 times. The devil is mentioned 33 times. The name Satan is mentioned 54 times. Now, obviously there is some overlap among some of these verses, but even so the point is clear: Spiritual Warfare is in fact a major theme in scripture. It starts in Genesis 3:15, when God says to the serpent: “I will put enmity between your offspring and hers…”. It doesn’t end until Revelation chapter 20 when the Devil and all his angels (demons) are thrown into the lake of fire – and that time has not yet come in history.

If we choose to be followers of Jesus, then we have entered a spiritual combat zone. Our enemies don’t care whether or not we believe it – but we are in a battle. They strike without warning, and if we are unprepared, great damage can be done. But now, pay attention – we can do great damage to them if we are aware and make use of the tools God has given us.

Consider what the Bible has to say about this: Our struggle is not against flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12); the devil stalks around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour us (1 Peter 5:8-11); the devil has schemes against us (2 Corinthians 2:11) we are waging spiritual war (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). We are urged to participate in that war: We should act as soldiers of God (2 Timothy 2:4); we must resist the devil (James 4:7); fight the good fight (1 Timothy 1:18 and 6:12) and contend for our faith (Jude 3).

You see, sometimes we think it’s hard to be a Jesus-follower because…it’s just hard. But why is it hard? There is a definite reason: Because we have enemies who make it hard for us. These enemies are not flesh and blood. Our battle is

against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realm (Ephesians 6:12)

“Rulers” and “authorities” do not refer to earthly government, but to different sorts of demons. Satan and all his demons are our enemies. At times they use other people, but we ought to keep in mind that those people are usually used unwittingly. The real enemy is the devil and his cohorts.

Two questions seem important to address: (1) How does the enemy wage war against us? How do we know when we are being attacked? And (2) How do we wage war against the enemy?

I don’t have time or space to lay out all of the different possible ways you can be attacked by the devil and his ilk. But here is the most common one:

The devil most often attacks us through lies. I believe this is why John pictures it as something spewed out of the mouth of the dragon. And the place where these lies take hold is in our thoughts. Demons have a way of planting thoughts in our heads, and then trying to get us to agree with them. They might do this through the insensitive words of others. Or, You might hear: “Tom, you are so stupid! What basis do you have for thinking you can help these people?” (but only if your name is Tom…). Or you might hear, “look at that hot babe! (or, guy!) You want her (or him)!” The devil wants you to agree with these kinds of thoughts. The minute you do, he’ll condemn you for it, and use it to beat you up all day long. Often we think it is us talking to ourselves, because the devil wants to trick us into thinking we have sinned before we actually have. He is, after all, “the accuser of the believers” (Revelation 12:10).

The point is that our sinful flesh (or a demon) is saying something that is not true, something that God does not say. The moment we accept that thought and agree with it, we have given the devil a foothold from which he can abuse us. He can use it to bring about scandal, problems in your relationships, to make you feel worthless and to paralyze you from really being a disciple. We may have a weakness in certain areas because of our backgrounds and experiences. The enemy will exploit that if he can!

To refute these attacks, we must learn to recognize the difference between God’s voice and every other voice. The scripture says God is for us, not against us (Romans 8:31-34). These same verses (and others) also tell us that, because of Jesus, God does not condemn us. We know also that God does not sin. So, if a thought condemns us, separates us from God, results in something clearly negative, or leads us into sin, we know it is not the voice of God. The best way for us to tell the difference between God’s voice and every other voice is to read the Bible regularly.

Now, it is true that the Holy Spirit will convict us of sin as he needs to (John 16:8). But when the Lord convicts us, it doesn’t condemn us — it motivates us to take action. When the Holy Spirit brings conviction, you find you want to repent, to make things right. It’s a good clean feeling, even if not completely pleasant – like a dip in a mountain stream that is really too cold – but also is beautiful and refreshing. On the other hand, when the enemy tries to tempt you with false condemnation, you will feel condemned, guilty and completely unmotivated. You will simply want to wallow helplessly in the guilt. That is not the voice of God. Once we recognize that the thought is not from God,

We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:5)

You might simply pray something like this:

Jesus be with me as I battle the enemy. In the name of Jesus, I come against that (the thought or idea). I reject it utterly and refuse to believe it. I take the thought captive and demolish it, in the name of Jesus.

It helps at this point if you know scripture well enough to bring to mind a verse or passage in the Bible that will directly contradict the attack in your mind.

But do we have the power to just throw Satan (or a demon) out like that? Yes! We covered it last time. Here are some other scriptures:

“I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20 However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:18-20)

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (1 John 4:4)

What all this means is that the devil has already been defeated. His fate is sealed. We don’t have to be afraid – we can defeat the evil one, because the Holy Spirit is in us, and he has already done it (Colossians 2:15). We talked about that extensively last week. The outcome of this spiritual battle has already been decided, and disciples of Jesus Christ are on the winning side. But the fighting isn’t over yet. We are still in the battle, and we need to keep our weapons loaded and ourselves alert.

In the 1970’s, the United States withdrew from Vietnam in disgrace. Vietnam is known as the only war which our country has ever lost. The interesting thing about Vietnam is that the war would never have been lost on military grounds. Our military at the time was far superior to anything the North Vietnamese could muster against us. And so the North Vietnamese used terrorist-style tactics, hit-and-run attacks and guerilla warfare. But our military, hampered by political considerations and public opinion, conducted very few major campaigns and did very little to make use of our tremendous advantages in equipment, resources and firepower. The reason we lost the war is because our country did not have the political will to commit to winning the war. The country didn’t really believe in the war, and so, naturally, we were defeated.

Too many Christians don’t really believe in this spiritual war. We don’t understand, we aren’t committed, and so the cost of fighting doesn’t seem worth it. We may feel sort of silly, or like it takes too much energy to do battle in our minds like that. Or, like the war on terror, we don’t recognize that many of the things we experience regularly are a war. As disciples, we must recognize that we are still fighting a war, and though the outcome isn’t in doubt, the enemy will still take out as many individuals as he can.

Paul’s advice to the Ephesians is helpful, as we consider how to conduct ourselves in this spiritual war:

15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, 16 making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. 17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. Ephesians 5:15-21 (ESV)

We need to be wise about spiritual warfare, “because the days are evil.” We need to understand God’s will – we need to know what the Bible says, so we can refute the competing messages we are getting every day. We should avoid dulling our senses, or coping, by abusing substances. We should, whenever possible, not give the devil any foothold through sin. We need each other in this battle: fellow Christians can encourage each other, and speak the words of scripture to one another. Finally, praise and thanksgiving are powerful weapons against the devil and his demons. Truly giving thanks to God helps us take hold of his promises, and causes Satan to flee.

WHAT SHOULD CHRISTIANS FIGHT ABOUT?

tugofwar

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2 John #2. Remaining in the Truth

Last week we talked about the importance of being “in truth.” Next time we will explore more about how being in truth allows us to truly love one another. But the importance of truth, and seriousness of John’s command to not even welcome someone who doesn’t believe and live according Christ’s teaching, calls for a bit more consideration.

Obviously, John is concerned that both individual Christians and even whole churches might be led away from true faith if we welcome as Christians those who are not “in the truth.” He lays out the issue in verses 7-11.

  • There are many deceivers. Those who don’t confess the coming of Jesus in the flesh represent the message of the anti-Christ.
  • If you don’t remain in Christ’s teaching, but go beyond it, you don’t have God
  • If you remain in Christ’s teaching you have the Father and the Son
  • If someone doesn’t bring Christ’s teaching, don’t welcome him into your church

This is an important message for many Christian churches today. Far too many Christians and churches seem almost terrified of coming across as narrow-minded or bigoted. They seem to be afraid of hurting the feelings of those who believe or live differently. Let’s call these, “Wishy-washy Christians” (WWCs). They minimize the importance of truth. If someone asks a WWC, “Do you believe that anyone goes to a real hell, a place of torment for those who reject Jesus?” they might respond with something like, “Well, I believe God is a God of love, and we can’t put limits on that love.” WWCs typically shy away from the hard truths that the Bible teaches about human sins (particularly sexual sins), or the demands of Jesus that we give him our whole lives, and die to ourselves as we follow him. They try to help people avoid feeling guilty about not praying, not reading the Bible, not going to Church, not being involved in real Christian community.

WWCs often say things like “Everyone is welcome! You don’t have to change your life or lifestyle, just come be a part of our community. Of course, Jesus said it differently: “If anyone wants to come after me, let him take up cross, die to himself, and follow me.”

WWCs might say things like: “We don’t judge you just because you have a different opinion about Jesus, or how to be close to God.  Jesus, again, says it differently: “I am the way, the truth, the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

John’s words are certainly aimed at Wishy-washy Christians.

Though many churches today seem to shy away from admitting it, the fact is, Jesus calls us to hard choices. When we don’t insist upon truth in our churches, we obscure that, and we are in danger of not remaining in Jesus.

But where, exactly, do we draw the line? How do we apply this business of remaining in truth? How can we insist upon truth, and yet not become a cult that suspects all outsiders?

Because, unfortunately, there are many other Christians who seem to have the opposite problem. These folks can take up ten blog pages explaining how the worship song “Ten Thousand Reasons” will lead to the downfall of Christianity across the entire globe. Let’s call them “Divisive Christians,” (DCs). DCs seem determined in all cases to throw out the baby with the bathwater. So if a movement arises that is leading people to the Lord and helping thousands of people to become true and better disciples of Jesus, but that movement also involves speaking in tongues, DCs seem perfectly willing to warn all Christians that it is probably the work of the devil. DCs are after a pure, untainted theology. What makes up a pure and untainted theology, none of them can seem to agree upon. At their worst, DCs can become cult-like, believing that no one but themselves has a true understanding of Jesus’ teachings.

So how can we apply John’s commands to remain in the truth of Jesus’ and teaching, without becoming either a Wishy-washy Christian, or a Divisive Christian? There is no cut and dried, easy way, but I think there are some principles that could be quite helpful to us. To WWCs, these will probably seem to rigid and judgmental. To DCs, they will undoubtedly seem not rigid enough. I realize I am moving off the text of 2 John as we do this, but I think it is important, and certainly, I think it is relevant to John’s concerns about truth and love.

The New Testament contains many commands to insist upon sound doctrine and Biblical teaching. It tells Christians leaders to contend for the faith, and rebuke and teach those who are wrong. 2 Timothy 4:1-5 is just one of many similar passages:

1I solemnly charge you before God and Christ Jesus, who is going to judge the living and the dead, and because of His appearing and His kingdom:2Proclaim the message; persist in it whether convenient or not; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching.3For the time will come when they will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear something new.4They will turn away from hearing the truth and will turn aside to myths.5But as for you, be serious about everything, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2Tim 4:1-5, HCSB)

At the same time, many, many New Testament passages warn Christians not be involved in frivolous disputes:

23But reject foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they breed quarrels.24The Lord’s slave must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone, able to teach, and patient,25instructing his opponents with gentleness. Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth.26Then they may come to their senses and escape the Devil’s trap, having been captured by him to do his will. (2Tim 2:23-26, HCSB)

 14Remind them of these things, charging them before God not to fight about words; this is in no way profitable and leads to the ruin of the hearers.15Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.16But avoid irreverent, empty speech, for this will produce an even greater measure of godlessness. (2 Tim 2:14-16)

So what is worth fighting about? What do we insist upon as the truth that all Christians should walk in, and what things should we not quarrel about? At what point do we refuse to welcome people who call themselves Christians, but differ from us? At what point do we say, “those differences don’t have to divide us?

I think it helps to think of Christian beliefs on four different “levels.” The first level includes those things that we must believe in order to be Biblical Christians. I call this “foundational level” truth. We must insist upon agreement when it involves foundational-level issues, like:

  1. When the self-revelation of God is at stake. The universe exists for the glory of God. Anything that makes him less, that lifts up something higher than God, that makes something other than God and his glory a higher priority, is worth fighting about.
  2. When the revelation of Jesus Christ is at stake. Anything that makes Jesus less than Lord, Messiah, Savior, God-the-Son is worth fighting about. John makes this clear in 2 John 7.
  3. When the Gospel is at stake. Anything that claims we can be saved without Jesus’ death and resurrection, saved without repentance and gracious obedience, is worth fighting about.
  4. When the integrity of the Bible is at stake. We know and believe 1, 2 and 3 because of the Bible. Anything that generally undermines the truth or reliability of scripture therefore also undermines those things. Note, I don’t mean things that undermine a particular interpretation of one or more passages. I mean teachings or behavior that results in the bible as whole being viewed as less reliable or true.

When there is disagreement about things on this “first level” we need to obey the command of 2 John 10-11, and refuse to welcome the dissenters as Christians. If they do not claim to be Christians, we can still welcome them as visitors.

There is a second level of important Christian beliefs. I believe these things are also necessary to agree about among true Christians. Second-level Christian truths may not be entirely central to the faith, but if can’t agree on these things, Christian faith becomes basically meaningless. I call this second level “Doctrinal level” truth (“Doctrine” means “teaching.”)

For instance, the Bible contains many clear verses about Christian sexual morality. Now, we are not saved by obeying the Bible’s teaching about sexuality. We must also admit that this topic is not directly about the nature of God, or the work of Jesus. Even so, the Bible’s teaching on sexuality is so clear and straightforward that if we reject it, we are basically rejecting the Bible as a source of spiritual truth. If we do that, we end up having no basis to believe what the Bible says about God, Jesus, sin or salvation. All of the moral teachings of the Bible (not just sexual morality) fall into this doctrinal level of truth.

One thing that is helpful about doctrinal level truth is that we have 2,000 years of Christian history to help us. The core of Christian belief has been tested by 20 centuries of disagreements and discussions. Doctrinal level truth includes those things that we call “orthodox Christianity” – beliefs that all Christians have agreed upon throughout history.

Let’s make sure we are very clear about this. I don’t mean we should go around automatically condemning those who fail to live according to Biblical morality. I don’t mean we should demand that Christians be perfect. But we must insist that the Bible’s teachings on these issues are good, right and true. In other words, we let the words of the Bible judge our behavior and belief in these matters. If someone rejects these teachings of the Bible as not good, or invalid, we cannot call that person a fellow-Christian. This isn’t about performance, it is about Biblical truth.

There is another “level” of Christian belief. At this third level, we can disagree and still accept each other as Christians, yet the disagreement is serious. Therefore, I call it,  “Contention level,” truth, because at this level, we need to contend for (that is, make arguments for) a true understanding of the Bible. It is different from foundational and doctrinal level truth, because disputes at this level do not mean that one group are true Christians, and the other is not. Even so, we recognize that in contention level truth, usually, one party is in error, and that error should be corrected.

For example, consider the teaching of the “prosperity gospel.” The focus of prosperity gospel is all about this life. It minimizes the eternal hope we have in Jesus. It tends to reduce God to some sort of slot machine that we can manipulate in order to get what we want. I think the teaching of the prosperity gospel is wrong. I think it is dangerous, and tends to lead people farther away from Jesus, rather than closer.

Even so, I am sure that almost all of those with prosperity gospel beliefs are still real Christians. They agree with orthodox Christianity about foundational level and doctrinal level truth. This means that even though they are in error, they are still fellow-Christians. We shouldn’t welcome their teachings, but we can welcome them personally as fellow Jesus-followers.

Again, history can guide us. Orthodox Christianity (that is the core of agreed-upon Christian beliefs) has never included the prosperity gospel as correct.

At a fourth level we find teachings that are in the Bible, but about which many Christians have disagreed about for centuries. I call this “theological level,” truth, because the main people who get worked up about it are professional theologians. It is not necessary that we agree upon all theological level truth in order for us to have good Christian fellowship. We can accept as fellow-Christians people who disagree with us in these fourth level issues. Though we may have our strong opinions, at the theological level, we need to recognize that perhaps our opinions are wrong.

Two examples of this “theological level truth” are the doctrines of Baptism and Communion. The Bible teaches about these things. But some aspects of the Bible’s teaching about these two subjects are not quite clear. Good Christians have disagreed with each other for centuries about these two areas. People who were baptized as babies, and believe that infant baptism is valid, are going to be in heaven. There will also be people in heaven who believe that only adults should be baptized. There is a legitimate case to be made – from the Bible – for both positions. Most importantly, history shows that neither position undermines either foundational or doctrinal level truth, or tends to weaken any part of the Christian message more than the other.

Theological level disputes should not be allowed to cause deep divisions among Christians. Once more, the history of Christian orthodoxy is helpful. 2,000 years have shown us that these disagreements have remained, and have not harmed the core of the Christian faith.

At the fifth level, we find things that definitely should not be an issue between true Jesus followers. I call this the “liberty level” of truth, because the Bible clearly allows Christians to make individual decisions about a number of different things; that is, we have liberty to make our own choices, while remaining good Christians. Liberty level truth includes things like worship styles, and particular ceremonies for worship or other occasions. Special festivals, liturgies, or church seasons should not be issues that divide us, nor should we try to impose them on each other. We have liberty in what we eat, and how (and when) we eat it. There is liberty in whether Christians choose to view movies (and which ones) and in the sorts of music we listen to. There is liberty in whether or not we consume alcohol (as long as we are not getting drunk). There is liberty in whether Christians go out dancing, or play cards, or in a huge number of individual decisions in which we exercise our best judgement as we live our lives of faith in Jesus Christ.

There is a very old saying, dating back about four hundred years: “In essentials Unity, in non-essentials Liberty, and in all Things, Love.” This is a good, quick way to summarize what we’ve been learning here. Let the Holy Spirit continue to lead you as you meditate on these things.

FOUNDATIONAL TRUTH

complex answer

Truth provides the context for love. Truth is where love can thrive. This also means that love can only thrive where there is truth.

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2 John #1:Truth & Love

I want to engage in another short series, this time, one centered on three often-overlooked books of the Bible. If you have followed my sermons for very long, you know that I believe that everything in the Bible is there because the Lord has chosen to put it there, and he can (and does) use every part of it to speak into our lives today. Two verses that remind us of this are Hebrews 4:12, and 2 Timothy 3:16-17

12For the word of God is living and effective and sharper than any double-edged sword, penetrating as far as the separation of soul and spirit, joints and marrow. It is able to judge the ideas and thoughts of the heart. (Heb 4:12, HCSB)

 16All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, 17so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim 3:16-17, HCSB)

But there are three little books of the New Testament that seem to me to be generally ignored, at least in comparison to the rest of the New Testament. These are the second and third letters of John, and the letter of Jude. I cannot recall reading or hearing a single sermon that was based on one of these three books. And yet, these three books are part of the inspired Word of God. Therefore, I will do my part to explore what the Lord might have to say to us through them.

Let’s start with the second letter of John. First John, of course, is a well-known, often-preached-from book. All common-sense New Testament scholarship agrees that there is a high probability that the Apostle John (as in, “Peter, James & John,” or “John, son of Zebedee”) wrote the gospel of John, and all three letters that are attributed to him.

I think it is likely that 2nd John and 3rd John (as they are called) were written fairly late in John’s life. One reason I think so, is because he calls himself “the Elder.” There were of course, many “elders” in many local churches, long before the apostles passed away, and have been ever since, and even so, today. So who could claim to be “The Elder” and expect to his readers to know who he was? The logical answer would be “the last living apostle.” By apostle, I mean, “those who personally knew Jesus.” It is widely accepted that John was the last apostle to die, therefore at some point, when he was old, John would have been in a unique position as the pre-eminent elder of the entire Christian movement.

John writes to “the elect lady, and her children.” When we read the rest of the letter, it becomes fairly clear that John is not talking to a specific person, and he is not writing a “personal” letter, but one that is to a community of people. It seems clear enough that  the “elect lady” is a church, or group of churches in a particular place, and “her children” are the members of the church/churches.

Please pause right now, and read through all of 2 John – it’s only 13 verses. Then, ask the Lord to speak to you as you read this message, and meditate on what the verses say.

John’s major concern in this letter is that these Jesus-followers believe, and live, in truth and love.

Love and truth  are foundational to Christian belief. They are also foundational to Christian living and behavior. This is because truth and love are fundamental parts of God’s character, as revealed in the Bible.

I want look at 2 John in three parts. First, we will look at the importance of truth. Second, we will consider some practical things about how to apply truth. Third, we will look at what John says about love. However, even though I am dividing the book into three sermons, I want us to understand that truth and love can’t really be separated like that. They go hand in hand.

John shows us that by the way he begins the letter:

1The Elder: To the elect lady and her children: I love all of you in the truth — and not only I, but also all who have come to know the truth — 2because of the truth that remains in us and will be with us forever. 3Grace, mercy, and peace will be with us from God the Father and from Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love. (2John 1:1-3, HCSB)

He says that he loves them “in truth.” John sometimes employs double meanings, and I suspect he is doing that here. I think, in the first sense, he means that he truly loves them. I think he also means that his love springs from the fact that they are all living “in The truth,” that is, according to their common faith in Jesus Christ. Truth provides the context for love. Truth is where love can thrive. This also means that love can only thrive where there is truth.

So what is this truth that John talks about, and what is his concern about it? A few verses from John’s other writings can give us the idea of what he means by “truth.”

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

 8If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1John 1:8-9, HCSB)

 10The one who believes in the Son of God has this testimony within him. The one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony God has given about His Son. 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 5:10-13, HCSB)

So, by “the truth,” John means:

  • The Person of Jesus Christ and faith in Him
  • The teachings of Christ, and about Christ; in other words: the New Testament

In verses 9-11 of our text today, John explains the importance of remaining in Christ’s teaching:

9Anyone who does not remain in Christ’s teaching but goes beyond it, does not have God. The one who remains in that teaching, this one has both the Father and the Son. 10If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your home, and don’t say, “Welcome,” to him; 11for the one who says, “Welcome,” to him shares in his evil works. (2John 1:9-11, HCSB)

Let’s make sure we understand the background to John’s words here. All churches during John’s lifetime (and for two hundred years afterwards) met in homes. House church wasn’t weird – it was how church was done. So when John says “do not receive him into your home,” we should read: “do not receive him into your church.

So, John is not saying “Don’t invite unbelievers over for dinner.” But he is saying: “Don’t welcome people into your church who claim to be believers, but who don’t have faith in Jesus, and who don’t hold to his teachings.” If someone comes along, claiming to be in the truth, but does not remain in Christ’s teaching (the truth) then that person cannot be included in Christian love and fellowship.

I hope you have a whole bunch of questions about that. It sounds kind of shocking to our modern ears, at least in 21st Century America and Europe. Just in case you wondered, however, this is not some isolated teaching found only this obscure little letter. It is a widespread, common teaching of the New Testament. Jesus commanded us to practice what we call “church discipline” in Matthew 18:15-18, which included, if necessary, asking people to leave the church (also Matthew 16:19, and John 20:23). Many other verses command Jesus’ followers to separate themselves from those who claim to be Christians, but do not follow the teaching of Jesus. Just a few of them are: 2 Corinthians 6:14-15; Galatians 6:1; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, and 3:14-15; 1 Timothy 5:20; 1 Timothy 6:3-5; Titus 3:10-11.

Now, we should be clear, this is about people who claim to be Christians, but do not believe what the Bible says, and/or willfully and persistently disobey God’s moral standards. It isn’t about someone who struggles and is honest in that struggle, and is seeking to believe and live in the truth. And it isn’t about non-Christians. Paul puts it like this:

9I wrote to you in a letter not to associate with sexually immoral people. 10I did not mean the immoral people of this world or the greedy and swindlers or idolaters; otherwise you would have to leave the world. 11But now I am writing you not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or verbally abusive, a drunkard or a swindler. Do not even eat with such a person. 12For what business is it of mine to judge outsiders? Don’t you judge those who are inside? 13But God judges outsiders. Put away the evil person from among yourselves. (1Cor 5:9-13, HCSB bold/italic format added for emphasis)

In the churches that I have served, I know for a fact that we have had people who were adulterers, murderers, drug addicts, greedy, gossipers, and a whole host of other things. We even have had people who did not believe in Jesus.

But there are two important things about most of these folks. Most of them are honest about what they have been in the past, and they have given all those things up so that they could enter into the freedom and forgiveness that Jesus offers.

The people who have not given them up, or who don’t trust Jesus, are often honest about that. They are also welcome in our churches, provided they do not pretend to be what they are not. That is John’s big problem with those who don’t hold to the teaching of and about Jesus. In the churches to which he writes, there are people who claim to be Christians – but they don’t believe what Christians believe, or they don’t act like Christians act. These people are problem for churches.

Imagine you  are an alcoholic. You went for a long time without wanting to admit it to yourself. You went even longer before you were willing to admit it to anyone else. But finally, broken, humbled, a little bit afraid, you go to Alcoholics Anonymous. The people there welcome you. You are just beginning to realize that maybe you aren’t alone, maybe there are others who understand, and might be able to help you. Then you meet a guy named Joe.

Joe tells you “You know, I come here because my family wants me to, but it’s all a load of horse-manure. I’m not helpless and broken. You aren’t either. We don’t need this AA junk to fix us. We’re just fine as we are. Say, you wanna grab a beer afterwards?”

The leader comes up, and Joe starts talking like he’s been sober for six months, and it’s struggle but it is so worth it. In other words, he pretends he’s there because he wants to be. He pretends he’s a part of it, when, in fact, he scorns it.

Now, Joe could be right (he isn’t). But even if he was right, everything he is saying and doing is completely contrary to the principles of AA. If the meeting was full of people like Joe, no one would get any help at all. Even with just Joe there, he might derail someone like you, who are just beginning to get the help you need.

Now, Joe is entitled to his opinion. If I was the AA leader, I would encourage Joe to be honest about where he is really at. But Joe is not entitled to try and make AA meetings conform to his opinion, and he is not entitled to come to AA and work against everything AA stands for, and most especially, he is allowed to come to AA and tell lies about who he is and what he thinks. It doesn’t help anyone, least of all himself. If you can see that it is reasonable for an AA group to have some sort of standard, certainly it must also be reasonable for a church.

This isn’t about being perfect. It isn’t about getting your act together before you can be part of a church. Instead it is about living in truth. I already quoted John’s first letter, but it is worth looking at again:

5Now this is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light, and there is absolutely no darkness in Him. 6If we say, “We have fellowship with Him,” yet we walk in darkness, we are lying and are not practicing the truth. 7But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.

 8If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

 10If we say, “We don’t have any sin,” we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

 1My little children, I am writing you these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father — Jesus Christ the Righteous One. 2He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world. (1John 1:5-2:2, HCSB)

So John is not saying we have to be perfect. But we do need to be honest; that is, we need to be in the truth. We need to believe and admit the truth that we have sinned, and we need to go on admitting it when we sin again. We need to believe the truth that our sin is serious, and our only hope of cleansing is through Jesus. And we need to trust that the love and sacrifice of Jesus does, in fact, completely cleanse us. We need to live in the truth of the fact that we are now forgiven people, made holy by the efforts of Jesus. As we truly trust that, we will find ourselves sinning less, and growing closer to God.

May the Holy Spirit establish you in the truth more and more, this week, and forever!

WHICH IS MORE IMPORTANT: LOVE OR TRUTH?

 

truth-love (1)

The fact is this: Love and Truth are equally important. We need to hold on to both. Love without truth is just meaningless and ineffective sentiment. Truth without love is arrogant and cruel.

 

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Matthew Part 26

 

Matthew #26 . Matthew 8:5-13

When He entered Capernaum, a centurion came to Him, pleading with Him, “Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible agony! ”

“I will come and heal him,” He told him.

“Lord,” the centurion replied, “I am not worthy to have You come under my roof. But only say the word, and my servant will be cured. For I too am a man under authority, having soldiers under my command. I say to this one, ‘Go! ’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come! ’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this! ’ and he does it.”

Hearing this, Jesus was amazed and said to those following Him, “I assure you: I have not found anyone in Israel with so great a faith! I tell you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Then Jesus told the centurion, “Go. As you have believed, let it be done for you.” And his servant was cured that very moment. (Matt 8:5-13, HCSB)

Last time we saw how Jesus reached out and physically and spiritually touched someone who was literally untouchable – a leper. Now Matthew records another incident where Jesus interacted with someone whom the Jewish culture of his time saw as unacceptable. The man in question is a centurion – an army officer. Automatically, this means two things. First, he was not Jewish. The Jews at the time were an occupied people, a people under the oppression of Rome and Rome’s vassals. The Jews were not permitted to have their own army, so any army officer would certainly be a Gentile.

Second, because he was an army officer, not only was this centurion a non-Jew, but he was also one of the oppressors. Part of his job was to enforce laws that the Jewish people had not made, and to keep them from rebelling. He was part of the conquering and occupying army that was kept in the Jewish homeland. He would have been viewed by the Jews much the same way patriotic Frenchmen would have viewed a German officer in the army that occupied France during the Second World War. To put it another way – he was the enemy.

So here is Jesus, heading home with his Jewish disciples, and along comes the enemy. I think it is worthwhile to look both at how the man approached Jesus, and what Jesus said to him and about him.

Let’s begin with the centurion. He was probably in charge of the local garrison of soldiers. Jesus was a young, homeless, Jewish Rabbi with no official standing. The centurion could have come to Jesus and said, “Look, I’m the law in the town. Some officials might consider you a troublemaker. But I could make things easier for you if you take care of me, too.”

Instead, he came to Jesus and called him “Lord.” We’ve already talked about what this word means in Greek. It could mean “sir,” or it could mean “The Lord” as in, God. Even for a Gentile army officer to call a homeless Jewish Rabbit “Sir” is startling. But I think as we go through the text, we’ll see that this Centurion meant not only “Sir” but also “Lord” in the sense that he personally believed that Jesus was The Lord.

Let’s continue to look at the humility of this man. He doesn’t even actually make a request of Jesus. He simply tells him the problem. He says, “My servant is paralyzed with pain.” He doesn’t tell Jesus what to do about it – he just brings his burden to the Lord. I think this is very useful to us when we come to God in prayer. So often I am tempted to tell the Lord how to deal my prayer request: “Sally has leukemia, Lord, would you please touch her bone-marrow and remove the problem, and let those white and red blood cells come into balance?” But this Centurion shows us the way of simple trust. He simply says, “Lord, my servant is ill and in pain.” He figures that Jesus will know exactly what to do about it. He seems to think that simply just bringing the problem to Jesus will be enough. I can learn a lot from this.

Jesus, confronted by this enemy soldier, by a man who enforces the oppression of his people and who, by his cooperation, keeps them in crushing poverty, responds immediately: “I will come and heal him.”

The Centurion again displays both humility and faith. First, he knows that if Jesus enters his house, it will cause trouble for Jesus. Jews were not supposed to go into the houses of Gentiles. In those days, that would make them ceremonially unclean, and they would have to go through a cleansing ritual before they could worship again, or even eat with other Jews.

So the Centurion demurs. He could have said, “My servant is not worth all that trouble,” but what he actually said was, “I am not worthy, and besides, there is no need.” This is where he reveals that he already sees Jesus as the “The Lord.” He describes his own command. He is in Palestine under the orders of the Roman Caesar, and so he has authority to tell his soldiers what to do. He recognizes that Jesus is on earth under the orders of God the Father, and so Jesus has the authority to tell the very creation what to do. He only needs to give the order, and the sickness will leave.

Most of the New Testament was originally written on a paper-like material called “Papyrus.” It was much more rare and expensive than paper and ink today. So Matthew doesn’t take the time to give us this man’s back story. But clearly, he had spent some time around Jesus, and he believed absolutely that Jesus had all the authority of God.

The next line is worth analyzing a little bit. It says that Jesus was amazed. The Greek doesn’t have a direct English equivalent, but it might be best translated, “Hearing this, Jesus marveled at it, and said…” You almost get the sense that Jesus was surprised. But how could Jesus be at the same time the one true omniscient God, and yet also be surprised? I think this question is very important, so we’ll take it as a side-topic for a minute. When Jesus came to earth, though he came in the fullness of his God-nature (Colossians 1:16-20) he chose, for the entire time he was on earth, to set aside all the advantages of being God, and to remain every bit as dependent upon the Father as we are (Philippians 2:6-11). And so, every miracle He did, He did not from His own power as God the Son, but rather, as any human would do – by completely depending upon the Father:

Then Jesus replied, “I assure you: The Son is not able to do anything on His own, but only what He sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, the Son also does these things in the same way. For the Father loves the Son and shows Him everything He is doing, and He will show Him greater works than these so that you will be amazed. (John 5:19-20, HCSB)

So Jesus was not using his divine omniscience when he spoke with the Centurion. He had chosen to set that aside, and not use it. Therefore, he did not know the future any more than you or I, except when the Father chose to reveal it to him. This was part of Jesus’ sacrifice for us – that he became like us, even to the extent of setting aside his Godly powers, and depending instead on the Father, just like any other human being must do. Remember the temptations of Satan in Matthew chapter four? They were aimed at trying to get Jesus to use his own power, rather than depending upon the Father. Jesus agreed to live a life that required trust in the Father, so that he was like us in every way.

Now since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these, so that through His death He might destroy the one holding the power of death — that is, the Devil — and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death. For it is clear that He does not reach out to help angels, but to help Abraham’s offspring. Therefore, He had to be like His brothers in every way, so that He could become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. (Heb 2:14-18, HCSB)

This business of being amazed at the Centurion is just one example of how Jesus made himself like us, dependent on the Father. He knows what it is like to not know what God is going to do. He knows what it is like to blindly trust that God will do the right thing, the best thing, even when he personally doesn’t know what that will be. He has truly “walked in our shoes.”

With that, let’s get back to the Centurion. Speaking (as always) what the Father leads him to speak, Jesus makes a statement that would have been startling, and even offensive, to many of the Jews around him.

First, Jesus unequivocally makes trust in Him the requirement for entering the Kingdom. Second, he adds, basically, “A lot of non-Jewish people will be there in the Final Kingdom of Heaven – and many Jewish people will not be there.”

Over the fifteen-hundred from Moses to Jesus, the Jewish people went through an difficult and tragic arc in their attitudes toward non-Jews. God’s promise to Abraham was designed to bless both Abraham’s descendants, and the nations around them. The laws given through Moses commanded the people of Israel to be different from those around them, in order to show the nations something of what God was like, and so encourage those pagan people to come into God’s blessing. But the Hebrew people did not really obey those laws. Instead, after they entered the promised land, they embraced the cultures around them and let go of the things that made them unique, the things that would show foreigners the truth of God. They let the cultures around them influence them, and ultimately, lead them astray into abandoning the One true God. They went through many cycles of repenting and coming back to God, and then straying away again. Finally, they were utterly destroyed as nation roughly 587 years before Jesus (587 BC). When the nation was re-formed seventy years later, it seemed they had finally learned their lesson. The Jews after that maintained a very distinct identity. They no longer seemed inclined to mix with the cultures around them, nor worship false gods. But now, they went too far in the opposite direction. Not only did they not mix with the non-Jews around them, but they no longer cared if those outsiders ever learned anything about the One true God. They became self-satisfied, and by the time of Jesus, felt that Heaven was the birthright of all Jews, and all those who were not born Jewish were generally out of luck. It is true, there were still converts to the Jewish religion from other nations, but as whole, at the time of Jesus, Jews did not pursue non-Jews or make much effort to tell them about God. If an outsider expressed a passionate interest in Judaism, he could probably find a Jewish person to help him convert, but in general Jewish folks were not very eager to spread the word, being content to have it to themselves.

So when Jesus states that many Gentiles (non-Jews) will be in heaven, and many Jews will not, this was a shocking and offensive idea. Many people may have felt that they would automatically be in Heaven, just because they were Jews by birth. By the same token, they felt that non-Jews would not be there, simply because they were born to the wrong kind of parents. But Jesus challenges their entire basis for salvation and heaven. He says it is about trusting Him.

There are so many applications to this passage. Let’s go back to the Centurion. He was a soldier in an especially brutal army in an especially brutal era of history. Sometimes we think, “I want to follow Jesus, but it’s really tough to do that in my profession. No one around me understands. It just doesn’t fit my circumstance.” But this man in the Roman Army found it possible to trust Jesus and follow him, even in his exceptionally brutal and profane circumstances. If you find yourself saying, “It’s hard to follow Jesus while I do _______ for a living,” I encourage you to pause and consider this Centurion.

Now let’s think about Jesus welcoming this enemy soldier, this oppressor, when he comes in faith. We Christians struggle with both of the same extremes with which the Jews had difficulties. When Jesus welcomes this outsider, this enemy, it reminds us of his words that we should love our enemies. It challenges us to welcome and accept people who are very different from us, people whom we might even tend to think of as enemies. Have we become self-satisfied and content to believe we are going to Heaven because we go to a Christian church, while meanwhile, we don’t care if our friends and neighbors and co-workers take the road to hell? Too many Christians seem to have this attitude. We think it is about organizational membership, rather than trust in the person, Jesus Christ.

We forget that Jesus Himself tells us to reach out and tell those who don’t know Him yet. Are you willing to tell Muslims about the grace of God that comes through Jesus Christ? What about black folks or white people? Are you ready to show God’s grace and love and forgiveness to gay people and Democrats? Or maybe your problem is with people who oppose gay marriage, or with Republicans, or members of the National Rifle Association – can you show them the love and truth of God?

But there is another side to all this, one that we must not forget. The Jewish people before 587 BC had a problem too, and it was the opposite problem. They welcomed all cultures, regardless of the Truth, regardless of their attitudes toward the One true God; and they let those cultures influence their own beliefs and their own relationship with God. This passage does not teach us that everyone is saved, regardless of their attitude to Jesus. It does not tell us to give up truth or give up the standards of the bible. Instead, it teaches us that we are all the same in our need for Jesus. The Centurion did not come to Jesus and say, “This is who I am and I’m not gonna change for you. You must accept me, but you may not change me or command me.” Instead, as we have seen, the Centurion came to Jesus in trust and humility.

Many Christians these days have difficulty accepting this. They can accept people who are different from them, and even embrace different cultures. But they have a hard time insisting that all people must repent of their sins and receive Jesus in trust. Jesus welcomed this Centurion precisely because he trusted Him in humility. If we welcome people regardless of their attitude toward Jesus, we are not helping them. If we tell people who are sinning that they are not sinning, we ourselves are distorting God’s Word and are endangering our own position of humbly trusting Jesus and what He says.

The fact is this: Love and Truth are equally important. We need to hold on to both. Love without truth is meaningless and ineffective sentiment. Truth without love is arrogant and cruel.

This incident with the Centurion challenges us to hold on to the truth that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we must trust Jesus and humbly receive Him and His truth. At the same time, it also challenges us to accept anyone in the world who wants to come to Jesus with faith and humility. It encourages us to bring our burdens to Jesus with humble faith.

Listen to the Holy Spirit today as He uses this passage to speak to you.

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