THE COMPROMISING CHURCH

Idolatry

The church at Pergamum resisted persecution, but they began to fall to seduction. With overwhelming cultural pressure around them, they began to compromise. They sought satisfaction in physical things, and it cost them greatly in spiritual things. Jesus told them to repent. He said that he was willing to go to war with them over their compromise with the culture. But he promised to the repentant ones that could find a satisfaction unlike any they could find on earth. They promised to the ones who were willing to not fit in on earth that they would be welcome in Heaven.

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Download Revelation Part 9

Revelation #9. Revelation 2:12-17

The church at Pergamum was one of the three churches in Asia that we know for sure had experienced overt persecution by the time John was writing. Virtually all the churches existed in a culture that was hostile to Christianity, and I’m certain that being a Christian in Asia during those times involved considerably more sacrifice than being a Christian in America in these times.  Even so, Revelation only clearly identifies three of the seven churches as experiencing overt persecution, and one of these was Pergamum. There was, however, a difference between Pergamum and the other two persecuted churches. In Smyrna, the tribulation was on-going, and the worst of it was yet to come. In Philadelphia, they were also in the middle of it, though Jesus promised to cut it short for them. In Pergamum, the overt portion of the persecution was over. Once again, it is important to understand that all the churches experienced a culture that was against them, even when there was not direct harassment, but those three churches were singled out for direct maltreatment.

Like Smyrna, Pergamum was a center of Emperor worship. Not only that, but they had a hill something like the acropolis in Athens, covered with shrines and temples to various deities. At the very top of this “temple hill” was the altar built for the Greek god Zeus, who was in the mythology of that culture, chief of all gods. It might have been this shrine to Zeus that Jesus was referring to as “Satan’s throne.” Alternatively, “Satan’s throne” could have been an allusion to the pervasive worship of the healing-god Asklepios, who was represented by a snake. A third possibility is that he was making reference to Pergamum’s dedication to emperor-worship, and a fourth is simply that the city was a center for all sorts of pagan worship. In any case, the picture we have of Pergamum is one of virulent paganism; or, in other words, a culture that put a lot of pressure on Christianity.

So, in this pagan environment, the church at Pergamum made it through a difficult time of persecution, during which at least one of their number was killed for his faith (v.13). It is for this that Jesus commends them. However, it turns out that once the persecution was over, the church did not remain unaffected by the culture around them. Jesus says to them:

“But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit acts of immorality.” (v. 14)

To understand this, we need a bit of Old Testament background. Please read Numbers 22:1-25:9 to get the complete picture. Balaam was some sort of Seer, someone who followed the Lord, and from the Lord had a gift of visions, and of blessings and curses. He lived in Mesopotamia. Balak was the King of Moab, which was near Palestine, and he was afraid of the Israelites, who at that time were still wandering in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. Balak saw that the Israelites had defeated everyone they encountered in battle, and so he called for Balaam to come and curse them, in order to defeat them without a military confrontation. Balaam came, in spite of strong warnings from the Lord to stay at home. He was apparently swayed by the huge amount of money that Balak offered him. He tried to curse Israel, but when he opened his mouth, all that came out was blessing for them. Balak, naturally, was not happy with Balaam, and the latter went on his way. That is all the text tells us overtly. But shortly after he left, the Moabite women came to where the Israelites were camped and invited them to Moabite religious festivals, which involved having sex with the women. The Israelites were thus committing a double sin – they broke God’s standards for pure and healthy sexuality (sexual intimacy is to be within marriage only) and they did so in the context of worshipping other gods. It was not a happy day, and God in his anger sent a plague upon the people. Later, in Numbers 31:16, it is revealed that Balaam was the one who suggested that the Moabite women seduce the Israelites. Apparently, although he could not curse the Israelites, he really wanted that money, so he conceived of this plan to derail the Israelites in order that he personally could get his pay.

Apparently something of this sort was going on in Pergamum. The church there could not be destroyed by overt persecution. So Satan’s new plan was seduction. If they couldn’t be forced to deny Jesus, maybe they could be compromised and seduced into it. Thus, with the pressure of the pagan culture around them, some members of the church had begun to take part in the feasts and festivals of false gods. It is important here to understand that the issue is not simply that the Christians are eating meat sacrificed to idols – the apostle Paul clearly says that is OK in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. However Paul placed two conditions on the eating of such meat. First, a Christian should not do it if it causes another Christian to “stumble” – that is, if it causes other Christians to think that idol worship is OK (1 Cor 8:9-13). Second, Paul emphatically rebukes those who deliberately partake in the feast as part of the of the whole worship experience of a false god (1 Cor 10:20). I would guess that the people in question in Pergamum are doing both things – causing other Christians to stumble, and actually participating in idol worship.

Not only were they engaged in such worship, but they also committed acts of sexual immorality. The Greek word for “sexual immorality” means any kind of sexual activity that takes place outside the union of one man and one woman in marriage. Therefore, it covers a host of possibilities. In every place it is mentioned in the New Testament, sexual immorality is condemned as a sin, and it is not right for Christians to engage in it. I realize that this sounds terribly old-fashioned and unenlightened, but it is what the Bible teaches, without a doubt. There are dozens of other verses like these two:

18Run from sexual immorality! “Every sin a person can commit is outside the body.” On the contrary, the person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body. 19Don’t you know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, 20for you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body. (1Cor 6:18-20, HCSB)

3For you have died, and your life is hidden with the Messiah in God. 4When the Messiah, who is your life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. 5Therefore, put to death what belongs to your worldly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry. 6Because of these, God’s wrath comes on the disobedient, 7and you once walked in these things when you were living in them (Col 3:3-7, HCSB)

Now, the thing to remember is that this teaching sounded strange and prudish to the culture that surrounded Christians in the first century. Sexual immorality was just as common and accepted by ancient Greco-Roman culture as it is today.

Apparently, to make matters even worse, the people who had caved in to cultural temptations in this way were teaching others that it was OK to do these things. They not only sinned, but they tried to pass it off as if it weren’t sin, thus sucking more innocent people into the darkness.

Jesus has seen this before, way back in the days of Moses, and is thoroughly angered. His words are blunt: “Repent therefore; or else I am coming to you quickly and I will make war against them with the sword of My mouth (v.16)”

The sword here seems to clearly represent the Word of God. The book of Hebrews calls the Word of God a double edged sword (Hebrews 4:12), and here a double edged sword is coming out of the mouth of Jesus, who was called by John (in his gospel) “the word. (John 1:1-14)” What this all amounts to is that Pergamum has the opposite problem to Ephesus. You will remember that the church in Ephesus was doctrinally pure, but struggled with relationship to Jesus. The Ephesian church hated the Nicolaitans and their practices. Here in Pergamum, the problem is false doctrine leading to sinful practice. In fact their error is similar to that of the Nicolaitans. Doctrine does matter, and it is important. So important that Jesus will go to war with his church over it. Sin is sin, and if we fail to call it that, we can expect to hear the judgment of God.

On the other hand, even before he warns of judgment, Jesus calls his people to repent. He holds out not only the possibility of judgment, but also promises for those who hold on to the true faith. He promises first the hidden manna. There are many possibilities here, but it seems most sensible to understand that Jesus is promising a source of heavenly nourishment that is not available to those who don’t know him. These people have tried to satisfy themselves with meat from idol worship, and with sex. But Jesus is offering nourishment for the soul, a food that meets needs in a way that no idol feast and no illicit tryst could possibly meet. At least part of this “soul food” is the Bible, the Word of God. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel describe experiences of “ingesting” the word of God and finding it sweet to the taste. Peter was told to “feed my sheep” by Jesus – to feed them on Jesus’ own Word. But more than just the Bible, it is the promise of a soul fully satisfied by the presence of God himself. When we stop orienting our lives around ourselves and our own desires, and instead center our lives on God (who is, after all, the center of all things) we find a satisfaction that far exceeds any temporary pleasure derived from food or sex. I won’t deny that it takes some self-denial and effort to develop a taste for it, but when we do, we find this is the richest satisfaction in the universe, and the only satisfaction that will truly last.

The second promise offered is the “white stone” with a new name written on it. There are several possibilities for what this is about. In the First Century AD, inns and places for strangers to stay were not as common as they later became. Sometimes, when people from different places became friends, they would each take a stone, and write their names upon it, and then exchange the stones – almost like a business card (remember “card stock” was not invented until many hundreds of years later). So, if I gave you a stone, you would have my name written on it. Whenever you traveled to someplace where I was known, that stone would show people there that you were my friend. If you showed the stone with my name, my friends would offer you a place to stay, and all sorts of help and hospitality.

I like this picture, because when we surrender to Jesus, we become, in a sense, entitled to His name, in the same way as a holder of one of these “business card stones.” The name of Jesus means we will be welcome in heaven, and given a place there. The name of Jesus gives us protection from the devil, and the right to pray to God the Father. Some of the Christians at Pergamum wanted to fit in with the culture. Jesus promises them that if they are willing to not fit in on earth, they would find an eternal place of belonging in His Kindgom.

Another use for white stones was as a kind of “ticket” to admission to feasts. I kind of like this possibility too, because, Jesus is offering these Christians something better than the idolatrous and licentious feasts available to them in Pergamum. Here is a heavenly feast, where a person is known by his “hidden name” – his true character. Jesus knows them as no other can know them, and the feast he offers is for eternity – not simply an unsatisfying, passing pleasure.

A third possibility for the white stone comes from the ancient world of athletics. Professional gladiators trained extensively. In the early stages of training, the gladiator was simply called “apprentice.” Once he had completed a long period of training, the gladiator was given an opportunity to compete. If he was victorious, he received a white stone as a symbol of his achievement, and an elevation of status from “apprentice” to being called by his own name, and given a rank with more privileges. This matches the statement of Jesus that he will give a white stone to “the Victor.” The Christian life often involves self-discipline and training, like an athlete. It involves spiritual battle also. Those that persevere will be rewarded.

Personally, I think Jesus meant for the Christians at Pergamum to think of all three uses of the white stone; they are all meaningful and relevant.

So, what is meaningful and relevant about this text for you today? Are you tempted in certain ways to compromise with our idolatrous and immoral culture? As with the 1st Century Greco-Roman culture, today our culture is highly sexualized, and anything goes between consenting adults. Are you tempted to find satisfaction there? I mean, it seems like everyone else is doing it. Or maybe you aren’t tempted yourself, but you are willing to accept people who call themselves Christians and embrace all sorts of different sexual immorality? Don’t fall for the lie that “it’s about love.” Love is about commitment, and sex in our culture is definitely not about commitment. Love also sometimes means self-denial – again, this is missing from our culture. This is a very big deal for Jesus, as he makes clear here.. Droves and droves of Christians have fallen for the trick of Balaam, just in the last two decades. There can be no mistake, Jesus says: “repent!”

Perhaps your temptation runs more towards idol worship. Not too many people in the Western world worship physical statues anymore. But many, many people center their lives around things that are not God: money, status, pleasure, sports, entertainment and drugs & alcohol are some of the most common. We are also tempted to make idols our relationships; perhaps a romantic relationship, or even a child. Any time we build our identity on something other than God we are worshipping an idol. If anything holds “first place” in your life that isn’t God, it is an idol. Again, Jesus calls us to repent.

I look at the world, and even the huge number of Churches and Christians that are compromising with the world, and I think, “Either I’m crazy, or they are.” I may be crazy, but if so, I’m crazy in exactly the same way that the Bible is crazy; exactly the same way Jesus Himself is crazy. Maybe that’s what you need to hear today: hold on to what you know to be true. Remain steadfast.

It is hard when we don’t fit in with the culture around us. But Jesus promises us (with the white stone) that if we are willing to have no place in our ungodly culture, will always have a place in His kingdom.

The promise Jesus gives for repentance and perseverance are wonderful and soul satisfying. We can be more satisfied than the world dreams of. We are known personally by the Lord of universe, and given access to all of his resources for eternity. There is a better future than the world could ever offer.

Listen to what the Spirit has to say today!

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LOVE AND LIES

Love is easy. This is one of the big lies that destroys marriages, but it also destroys churches and personal friendships. When love gets hard, too many people “bail out” on marriages, churches and friendships. Real love does involve warm feelings. But real love also involves hard work. Forgiving others is hard, sometimes, but it is indispensable to lasting love. Being humble, saying sorry, and admitting that you are wrong are all very difficult, but all vital to real love. Withholding angry retaliation, being patient, listening, serving someone when you are tired and crabby – these are all important parts of true love, and they all take significant emotional energy and self-discipline. There are payoffs, of course. Many times, real love fills us with joy, happiness and wonderful feelings. But we need to know, and to remember, that true, lasting love is sometimes hard work.

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Download Overlooked Letters Part 4

Overlooked Letters # 4. Love, and Third John.

 I ran out of time/space in my last message about Christian love. I’d like to finish the topic of Christian love. Since John’s concern is for both Love and Truth, let’s consider some lies about love, and how we can live and love in the truth.

My focus last time was to show you how the Bible teaches that it is of utmost importance that we Christians love our fellow Christians. According to the New Testament, after God’s love for us, this is the most important kind of love. For many of us, that message should convict us that we have to change our lifestyle. If the way we live does not allow time and energy to put into relationships with other Christians, then we will find ourselves disobeying the command of Jesus (2 John 5). If we do not make room in our lives to love our Christian brothers and sisters, we cannot truly claim to be following Jesus.

20If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. 21And we have this command from Him: The one who loves God must also love his brother. (1John 4:20-21, HCSB)

Now, unfortunately, our culture has, in large part, separated love from truth. Remember, John is deeply concerned about both. We need to be aware of cultural lies about love.

One of the biggest lies about love is that it means unconditional acceptance. In other words, if you love me, you will accept, without reservation, anything I do, or don’t do. In fact, our culture is rapidly becoming even more extreme about this, and now many people believe that if you love someone, it means you must agree with, and endorse, all of their choices. Author Rick Warren puts it succinctly:

“Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.”

So, contrary to popular opinion, loving our fellow-Christians does not mean that we must agree with them on everything, and endorse everything they do (or don’t). Sometimes, the truly loving thing is to tell someone that they are wrong, or are headed in the wrong direction. The other side of that coin is that just because someone confronts you about something does not mean that they hate you, or are acting in an unloving way. We Christians need desperately to remember this, and to model it to the culture around us. I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again: If I believe you are going to hell (even if I’m wrong in my belief) and I say something to you about it, my motivation is loving – I don’t want you to go to hell. On the other hand, if I truly believe you are going to hell (rightly or wrongly) and I say nothing, I must hate you a great deal, because I’m content for you to go to hell, without warning you. So, many times, the hateful thing is to remain silent, while the truly loving thing is to share your belief.

In Christian relationships, it often isn’t about going to hell; it’s usually more nuanced. But often, we keep silent about things because we don’t want to put the time and effort into having real and genuine relationships with each other. Subconsciously, we know that if we speak, it might cause conflict, and deep down, we aren’t sure we love the other person enough to spend the time and energy to work through that conflict.

Here’s another lie about love that is very destructive, especially in Christian relationships: Love means never having to say “I’m sorry.” It’s a nice idea, I get it. The thought is, if someone really loves you, they will accept and forgive everything you do, and so you don’t have to apologize about anything. In reality, if you really love someone, one of the greatest gifts you can give them is to say: “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” If you believe you are never wrong in relationship to someone else, or that you need never apologize, you are not living in the truth, and without truth, real love cannot thrive. Humility, apology, confession and forgiveness are powerful tools that make love grow. Our culture would like to minimize them. Don’t let it happen in the church. Love each other in truth, and that means being humble and saying sorry.

6But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 7Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (Jas 4:6-7, ESV2011)

5Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 6Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1Pet 5:5-7, ESV2011)

31Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Eph 4:31-32, ESV2011)

Here’s another cultural lie about love: Physical attraction means love. The vast majority of our movies, television, music, and other popular art promote the idea that the highest expression of love is sexual intercourse. This is one reason the culture is so sensitive about sexual issues – any sort of sexual moral standard is viewed as interfering with “love.” This means the church is in trouble, because a) Churches who are “in truth” teach that sex is only for married couples. So the culture thinks we are somehow restricting true love. b) If sex is the highest expression of love, that means people in the church will never share the highest form of love with each other (unless it’s a weird, perverted cult, which, of course, would not be a true church). So Christian fellowship becomes kind of a “second class” love.

However, the Bible teaches us that highest form of love is self-sacrifice. In New Testament Greek, there are several words for love, including: romantic love (eros), brotherly/friendship love (phileo) and self-sacrificing love (agape). The love of Jesus, and of God, is described as agape. The famous “love chapter” that is often read at weddings – 1 Corinthians 13 – describes agape. All throughout the New Testament, it is agape – self-sacrificing love – that is the highest form of love. That kind of love, we can have in the church among everyone, and it transforms lives. There is indeed no Biblical restriction on this highest kind of love.

Another one: Love is easy. This is one of the big lies that destroys marriages, but it also destroys churches and personal friendships. When love gets hard, too many people “bail out” on marriages, churches and friendships. Real love does involve warm feelings. But real love also involves hard work. Forgiving others is hard, sometimes, but it is indispensable to lasting love. Being humble, saying sorry, and admitting that you are wrong are all very difficult, but all vital to real love. Withholding angry retaliation, being patient, listening, serving someone when you are tired and crabby – these are all important parts of true love, and they all take significant emotional energy and self-discipline. There are payoffs, of course. Many times, real love fills us with joy, happiness and wonderful feelings. But we need to know, and to remember, that true, lasting love is sometimes hard work.

Let me close the topic of Christian love by simply sharing a brief sermon given by the Apostle Paul on this matter. 1 Corinthians 13, “the love chapter” is one of the most-read passages in the Bible, and many people are quite familiar with it. Go ahead and read it on your own. But I want to share a different one, here. This passage below describes many practical ways in which Christians can and should love each other. This is how we should love one-another, Christian to Christian.

1I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

My comment: We can only love by surrendering to God, and presenting ourselves to Him. Then, he can use us. It will be his love, passing through us, to love others.

2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

My comment: this is about rejecting the lies of our culture (as I’ve described) and instead, being conformed to the truth about love, as given to us in the Bible.

3For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one.

My comment: This is talking about humility again.

4Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, 5in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another.

My Comment: We belong to each other. When we come to Jesus, we join a body. Every part (including you) is indispensable.

 6According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts: If prophecy, use it according to the standard of one’s faith; 7if service, in service; if teaching, in teaching; 8if exhorting, in exhortation; giving, with generosity; leading, with diligence; showing mercy, with cheerfulness.

 9Love must be without hypocrisy. My Comment: there we are: truth again.  Detest evil; cling to what is good. 10Show family affection to one another with brotherly love. Outdo one another in showing honor. 11Do not lack diligence; be fervent in spirit; serve the Lord. 12Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. 13Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality. 14Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. 16Be in agreement with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. 17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes.

18If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. 19Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. 20But If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head.

 21Do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good. (Rom 12:1-21, HCSB)

GOING WITH JESUS

go-therefore-feet-walking

The spread of faith in Jesus Christ came about through ordinary Christians who lived their lives in such a way, and spoke about their faith in such a way, that others came to faith also. We don’t have to do any of this alone. We don’t have to do it with our own power, or skill. Obviously, if we are disciples who are in true fellowship with other disciples, we have each other. But even more than that, Jesus promised that will have Him.

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Download Matthew Part 100

Matthew #100.  Matthew 28:16-20

16The 11 disciples traveled to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw Him, they worshiped, but some doubted. 18Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:16-20, HCSB)

This section of scripture is often called “The Great Commission.” One way or another, all four gospel writers record that after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples that he wanted them to spread the word about Him. So Luke writes, at the beginning of Acts:

3After He had suffered, He also presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God. 4While He was together with them, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise.

“This,” He said, “is what you heard from Me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, are You restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time? ”

7He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:3-8, HCSB)

Mark has it like this:

15Then He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. 16Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16, HCSB)

And John includes this incident:

21Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” 22After saying this, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21-23, HCSB)

I doubt that any of these refer to the same incident. Instead, it seems that after his resurrection, several different times, and in different ways, Jesus told his disciples that they were to continue on with his mission after he left the earth, and that he would empower them with the Holy Spirit to do so, and that His presence would be with them through the Spirit.

This mission was not only for the eleven faithful apostles. Earlier on, Jesus sent seventy of his followers on a smaller mission, preparing them for the time when they would have the opportunity to share the full good news (Luke 10:1-12). Almost immediately after Jesus left the earth, we find not only the apostles, but other Christians as well, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Stephen, who was not one of the twelve, shared it so boldly that he became the first Christian martyr. After his death, the Christians in Jerusalem were scattered by persecution, but even as they left their homes, they brought the good news to other places:

4So those who were scattered went on their way preaching the message of good news. (Acts 8:4, HCSB)

Mostly, they spoke to other Jews, but eventually, they began sharing with the culture at large:

19Those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one except Jews.

20But there were some of them, Cypriot and Cyrenian men, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Hellenists, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. (Acts 11:19-21, HCSB)

The spread of faith in Jesus Christ came about through ordinary Christians who lived their lives in such a way, and spoke about their faith in such a way, that others came to faith also. I italicize “spoke” because many people think they shouldn’t have to say anything. I have heard many Christians express enthusiasm for the saying: “Share the gospel. If necessary, use words.” It sounds cool, but it is utter nonsense. There is no record in the New Testament of anyone coming to faith without hearing someone speak. Cornelius was a man who was seeking God. He had a vision from the Lord. The Lord did not reveal the full gospel in that vision. Instead, he instructed Cornelius to find Peter, and he instructed Peter to share the good news with him. In order to make disciples, we must be willing and able to speak about Jesus.

Of course, it is important how you live your life as well. Both things: Living your life for Jesus, and speaking about Him, are important. The rest of the New Testament backs me up with this.

14But even if you should suffer for righteousness, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear or be disturbed, 15but honor the Messiah as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. (1Pet 3:14-15, HCSB, emphasis added)

5Act wisely toward outsiders, making the most of the time. 6Your speech should always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should answer each person. (Col 4:5-6, HCSB, emphasis added)

Even in our text for today, Jesus emphasized that teaching is an indispensable part of making disciples.

These texts show us that speaking about Jesus is the responsibility of all Christians. Obviously, some are called to do it in a special way, full time, but every Christian should be willing and able to share about Jesus at any time. The Greek expression for “go therefore” might also be translated “as you are going.” In other words, this is something all Christians do, as we go through life.

To more fully express the mission Jesus gave us, we might say this: all Christians are supposed to be disciples and help make other disciples, as we go through this life. Most certainly, that is what the very first Christians did (and not just the apostles).

Let me clarify some things that many Christians seems to get confused about. Acts 11:26 tells us that “the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.” In other words, to be a Christian means you are a disciple. To be a disciple means you are a Christian. Being a  Christian (and thus, a disciple) means that you trust Jesus, and, however imperfectly, try to allow him to be in charge of your life. This means that you make decisions based on what you believe Jesus wants you to do. You treat others the way you think Jesus wants you to treat them. You live your whole life that way.

In order to do this of course, you have to get to know Jesus. Disciples spend their whole lives getting to know Jesus more, and more. They do this through reading the Bible (which is His special message for us, so it is listening to Him), praying (which is talking to Him), and “doing life” with other disciples so that you can help each other along the way. This is what Jesus meant when he said “make disciples.”

Jesus did not say “make converts.” A convert is someone who goes from believing one thing, to believing another. Often, becoming a disciple involves being converted. But that is only part of the process. Once you are converted, you are supposed to continue to walk the path of discipleship. Conversion is only one step in that path.

Jesus did not say “make churches.” However, becoming a part of a church is a necessary by-product of being a disciple. A real disciple is part of the family of God, and according to the New Testament, the family of God is not “all humanity,” but rather, it is the church. We need other disciples of Jesus to encourage us, pray with, and for, us, tell us when we are being stupid, work together with us for the purposes of Jesus, and help us through tough times. A church can also get together and call Bible teachers, who can assist people in understanding God’s Word (the Bible), which, again, helps us to be better disciples. A real church navigates the ups and downs of life together. If you don’t have a group of fellow-disciples-of-Jesus with whom to do that, you need to find one, as soon as possible. Christians quickly drift away from really following Jesus when they don’t have a church.

Even so, being a part of a church is merely part of being disciple. In other words, if we make disciples, and pursue discipleship ourselves, we will naturally join together and form churches. If we keep the proper mission in view (“Make Disciples”), then churches will indeed form. But we need to remember that our main goal is not to form churches, but to be, and make, disciples. The emphasis should always be not on growing churches, but growing, and making, disciples.

We don’t have to do any of this alone. We don’t have to do it with our own power, or skill. Obviously, if we are disciples who are in true fellowship with other disciples, we have each other. But even more than that, Jesus promised that will have Him:

“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Luke and John, and the rest of the New Testament, teach us that when Jesus returned to Heaven, he sent his Holy Spirit to be with us in a special way. Through the Holy Spirit, the presence of Jesus is always with every one of His disciples.

16And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Counselor to be with you forever. 17He is the Spirit of truth. The world is unable to receive Him because it doesn’t see Him or know Him. But you do know Him, because He remains with you and will be in you. 18I will not leave you as orphans; I am coming to you. (John 14:16-18, HCSB)

Now, I hope you know that this is a scary thought. That’s right, he’s with us always. When you did that thing, you know what I’m talking about – the Holy Spirit saw you. That’s why Paul writes:

30And don’t grieve God’s Holy Spirit. You were sealed by Him for the day of redemption. (Eph 4:30, HCSB)

And:

15Don’t you know that your bodies are a part of Christ’s body? So should I take a part of Christ’s body and make it part of a prostitute? Absolutely not! 16Don’t you know that anyone joined to a prostitute is one body with her? For Scripture says, The two will become one flesh. 17But anyone joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. (1Cor 6:15-17, HCSB)

But it isn’t just that Jesus knows when we sin. Through the Spirit, he applies the work He did on the cross, to us. Through the Spirit, he forgives, washes and renews us:

4But when the goodness of God and His love for mankind appeared, 5He saved us — not by works of righteousness that we had done, but according to His mercy, through the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6He poured out this Spirit on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7so that having been justified by His grace, we may become heirs with the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7, HCSB)

Through the Spirit, he teaches us, comforts us and guides us.

25“I have spoken these things to you while I remain with you. 26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit — the Father will send Him in My name — will teach you all things and remind you of everything I have told you. 27“Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Your heart must not be troubled or fearful. (John 14:25-27, HCSB)

We can only do the work of discipleship, and making disciples, through our connection with Jesus by the Holy Spirit:

5“I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me. (John 15:5, HCSB)

I am embarrassed when I sin, and then after, remember that the Holy Spirit is with me. But His grace and forgiveness are bigger than my sins, and bigger than yours, also. He reminds me of all the teachings of Jesus, and applies all of the work of Jesus to my heart.

All in all, the promise that Jesus is with us always through the Holy Spirit should bring us tremendous comfort and joy. Relying on the Spirit’s power and guidance, if we give Him our willingness, we can be sure to find joy in fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus, in being His disciples, and in helping other disciples to come to Him, and grow.

TALENT ON LOAN FROM GOD

Burying-His-Talent

We don’t do good works in order to be saved, we do good works because we are saved. Good works indicate that Jesus is alive and active within you, and is conforming you to His character. Understanding that, you need to realize your entire life, and all that is “you,” and all that is available to you, is on loan from God, and is a talent to be invested for His kingdom.

 
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Matthew #87. Matthew 25:1-13

Jesus has been talking about his return, and the importance of being ready. It’s always helpful to remember that the verses and chapter divisions in our modern Bibles were not there originally. Personally, I think Matthew 25:1-13 belong with the words of Jesus that came at the end of chapter 24. It is, in fact, one more admonition to us to be ready for his return. Let us look at it briefly.

The setting is a Jewish wedding. In those days, in much of Israel, weddings were the most important social events, after religious festivals. A large proportion of the population lived in poverty, and even, at times, on the brink of starvation. A wedding was a chance for them to eat their fill of good food. Most people had to work hard from sunrise to sunset, but a wedding was a chance to relax and celebrate. The 10 virgins that Jesus is talking about were part of the wedding procession – roughly equivalent to bridesmaids in the present day (though not exactly the same). This was a rare moment in their lives when they got to dress up, relax and have fun, and eat their fill of good food. It would be bitterly disappointing for such girls to miss out on a wedding where they were bridesmaids.

One of the key parts of weddings in ancient Israel was the procession of the bridegroom. He paraded through town to the place where his bride waited, and then they paraded together, accompanied by the “bridesmaids,” and others, to his home, and to the feast! This procession took place after dark. Anyone who was part of the wedding would be expected to carry lights to add to the joy and festivity of the procession. If someone was out on the streets without a light, they would rightly be considered a stranger, someone who was not part of the wedding.

People in those days did not have watches or clocks, so time was a pretty fluid thing. As the bridegroom progressed through the streets of the town to his bride, he might pause to greet friends and family, or stop off at various houses to receive blessings and gifts from various people. Therefore, no one knew exactly when a given bridegroom would arrive, and when the procession with the bride (and after, the feast) would begin. The bridesmaids waiting to meet them would have to be ready, because no one knew exactly when he would come.

In the parable, some of the bridesmaids were not prepared to wait for very long: they did not have enough oil to keep their lamps burning for a long period of time. Without lights, they would be considered strangers, and not accepted in the wedding party. Because they were not prepared, they had to leave to get more oil for their lamps, and when they got back they found out that they had missed out, the gates were closed and they would not get to participate in the wedding feast. There would be no leisure, no celebration, no joy, no good food. It’s hard to emphasize how deeply disappointed these girls would be.

I want to point out a few things about this parable.

First, it is told for people who think, “I’ll wait until the end of my life is closer,” or “I’ll get right with God someday – just not right now.” You never know when Jesus is coming, and it will be too late to get your spiritual affairs in order once he is here. Jesus is telling us to be prepared, now and always.

Second, in this parable, part of being prepared includes being ready for it to take a long time. The five foolish virgins were ready at first, but they weren’t in it for the long haul. If the Christian life is a race, it is a marathon, not a sprint. Sometimes life can feel long and difficult – part of being ready for Jesus is about being able to endure through those times.

Third (and this is my favorite part of this parable), before this, Jesus has been telling us to be prepared in order to avoid the negative consequences. This parable, however, paints his return in a positive light. This is something we won’t want to miss out on. There will be joy, and laughter, and feasting and celebrating. It is like a long awaited vacation. This is something we should be looking forward to, something we will want to be a part of. A wedding, for most of Jesus’ listeners, would have been one of the most fun, satisfying and joyful events that they could look forward to. Heaven should be that for us – only not “one of” the best things to look forward to, but rather “the very best thing” we have to anticipate.

So, up until this point, Jesus has been telling his disciples – and us – to be prepared for him at all times. Starting in 25:15, he begins to tell us how to be prepared. What does it mean to be ready? What does it look like? He starts with another parable, the parable of the talents. I want you to read the parable yourself. It is a little long, and I don’t want to use up the space here. Read Matthew 25:15-30, and then come back and finish reading this message.

Let’s make sure we understand the parable. Our English word “talent,” as in “ability,” can be traced back to this parable of Jesus, since he clearly intended us to understand this is about how we use what God has given us (and not only about money). But at the time Jesus told this story, a “talent” was simply a measurement of money, roughly equal to about 6,000 denarii. Isn’t that helpful? Well maybe, if you know that a single denarius was acceptable pay for one day’s wages for a manual-laborer (see Matthew 20:1-2). In today’s money, if we assume a manual laborer makes $80 per day, one talent is roughly equal to $480,000. If you assume a laborer makes $100 per day, then a talent would be more like $600,000. Another way to calculate it is that one talent represents the total earnings from 16-20 years-worth of manual labor.

To make it simple, it is reasonable to picture it like this (as of 2016 in America): The man with one talent had roughly $500,000; the one with two had $1 Million; and the man with five had about $2.5 Million. In other words, this is a significant amount for investment. Even the one who had the least was dealing with a sum equal to twenty years-worth of earnings. Now, obviously, this parable is not about money. Very few people in any generation are given that sort of money all at once. Jesus was talking to his disciples, and none of them ever had nearly that much money. But the point is this: What God has given you is very valuable. Even the least amount is still worth a very great deal. And he wants us all to use what he has given, for his glory and his purposes.

So what are your “talents”? Your natural abilities are certainly part of what the Master has entrusted to you, to use for his purposes. Maybe it is musical or athletic ability. Perhaps it is the way people look to you for advice or for comfort. It might be your ability to listen, or to talk, or to sing, or dance, or make others laugh, or to be real. If you know how to put people at ease, that is a talent on loan from God. If you know how to appropriately challenge people and encourage them to grow, that is also from God. Your personality, your voice, your face, your body, your intelligence – all these are on loan from God, and are supposed to be used for His purposes. Don’t insult your own body, or any of your talents: to do so is to insult God, who made them, and has a purpose for them.

Some people are given monetary wealth. This too, is on loan from God, and is intended for use and investment in His Kingdom. Your situation in life is also part of what God has given you. Many of my readers were born in the United States of America, and that gives you opportunities and privileges not found in many parts of the world. You may not feel privileged, but you are. Even the poorest Americans have more wealth and opportunity than much of the world. Those opportunities and privileges, like your natural abilities, are “on loan” from God, and he expects us to use them for His purposes. Esther was given this sort of “talent,” and God wanted her to use it. She was made a queen, with a position of influence. When there was trouble for God’s people, Mordecai, her uncle, told her this:

If you keep silent at this time, liberation and deliverance will come to the Jewish people from another place, but you and your father’s house will be destroyed. Who knows, perhaps you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.” (Esth 4:14, HCSB)

In other words: “The opportunity and privilege you have has been given by God. Use it for Him. If you don’t, God will still deliver his people, but it won’t help you. But perhaps God has given you this privileged position for this very moment in time.” So we too, who are better off in this world, are supposed to use that privilege for God’s purposes.

Our relationships, our connections, are also gifts of God to be used for Him. Can I make it simple? your entire life, and all that is “you,” and all that is available to you, is on loan from God, and is a talent to be invested for His kingdom.

Now, I hope you have a few questions. The big one is this: doesn’t this parable make it sound like we will be welcomed into heaven if we use what God has given us for His glory, and we will not enter in if we don’t? In other words, doesn’t it seem like we are saved, not by God’s grace, but by what we do? It seems to contradict what the Bible says elsewhere:

For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9)

I understand why, at first glance, someone might think there is a contradiction here. In order to resolve it, we need to understand the role of “good works” (good things, done in the name of Jesus) in the Christian life. This will be very important when we look at the next parable, also.

I think you should write this down somewhere, because it will help you through so many parts of the Bible: Good works indicate that Jesus is alive and active within you, and is conforming you to His character.

Good works are not absolute proof that you are a Jesus-follower – many non-Christians do all sorts of good works. But if you claim to be a Jesus-follower, and your life shows no evidence of the character of Jesus, there is a problem. You might say that the presence of good works does not necessarily prove anything, but the absence of good works is a strong indication that something is spiritually wrong. Let’s look at the verse from Ephesians again, only this time, I’ll include the part I left off:

For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift — not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10, HCSB, emphasis mine)

Being saved by grace (not by works) goes hand in hand with walking in the good works that God has already prepared for us to do. Salvation and good works go together. We don’t do good works in order to be saved, we do good works because we are saved.

When we refuse to use what God has given us for God’s purpose, it shows us that there is a problem in our relationship with God. We are telling him that we aren’t interested in what he wants. So the man who refused to invest his talent was rejected, not because he failed to make an investment, but because, by his refusal, he showed that he wanted nothing to do with the Master.

So where does all this leave us today? Are you ready? Are you in this for the long haul? And do you use your life like it belongs to God, and is only on loan from Him? If you don’t, why don’t you? What prevents you?

What is the Lord saying to you today, through the Scripture? Spend some time praying about it, right now.

Lord help us to recognize that all we have belongs to you. Help us to recognize that you have saved us for a purpose. Let us realize that you want to use all you have given us for that purpose. Help us to allow you to do so. Where we have been selfish, and withheld from you, please forgive us, and restore us to a right, healthy relationship with you.

As you continue praying, please also remember this ministry in your prayers. Through this ministry, we are trying to do what the parable speaks about – invest our talents for God’s purposes. Please pray that the investment here is fruitful, that we continue to have all that we need to do his work. Thank you!

 

LOVE IS THE ANSWER. BUT WHAT WAS THE QUESTION?

Love concept

We are to love God with all of our being. According to Jesus, nothing is more important than this. If we love God with our entire being and put him first in our lives, everything else will flow out of that in a way that fulfills what God wants. If we don’t love him, we are just a clanging gong; nothing. We are not to act religious for the sake of being religious. It is meaningless to follow Christian morality unless we do it out of love for God.

If you truly love God, and also your neighbor, you will fulfill, not ignore, the moral teachings of the Bible. 

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Matthew #80  Matthew 22:34-45

The third question with which the religious leaders tried to trap Jesus was about the law. Among Jews in those days, it was legitimate to discuss which commands were harder to keep than others, or which ones were more “weighty,” but most Jews felt that all of the commands of the Old Testament were equally valid. Jesus had to watch his answer carefully. If he suggested that one command was more important than another, he might be accused of heresy.

37He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38This is the greatest and most important command. 39The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. 40All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.” (Matt 22:37-40, HCSB)

We need to understand what Jesus did here. He says, “There is a command that is most important, and a second one also. But the reason they are more important is because all of the other commands are contained in these two.” In other words, he answered their trick question in a way that they cannot criticize; but in so doing he also teaches us something very important.

Loving God and loving your neighbor: all of the commands are summed up in love. The Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write this:

1If I speak human or angelic languages but do not have love, I am a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. 3And if I donate all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body in order to boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not conceited, 5does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs. 6Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. (1Cor 13:1-7, HCSB)

The attitude and choices of our hearts toward God and toward our neighbor are very important. We can do the right things with the wrong motives. The goal of all that God asks of us is love. We don’t try to live good, moral lives so that we can boast about it. The reason to live as the Bible tells us to is because that is the best way to love God, and to love those around us.

Even so, I think a large number of people in Western culture are very confused about what Jesus taught about love. I think that over the past several decades, the message of the Bible about love has been misunderstood and distorted.

First, I think we must remember that the most important command – as Jesus himself said – is to love the Lord with all your heart and all your soul and with all your mind. A lot of people these days sort of skip that part, and jump right into loving our neighbor. But Jesus said we need to love God with our entire being, and put him above all things in our lives. We are to love him emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. The word for “soul” is the Greek “psuche,” which has developed into the modern English word “psyche.” It means all of what makes you, you. This means we are to love God with all of our being. According to Jesus, nothing is more important than this. If we love God with our entire being and put him first in our lives, everything else will flow out of that in a way that fulfills what God wants. If we don’t love him, we are just a clanging gong; nothing. We are not to act religious for the sake of being religious. It is meaningless to follow Christian morality unless we do it out of love for God.

Look at it this way. My motivation to be a good husband to Kari is not out of fear that she will punish me. It isn’t just because it is a good moral way to behave, in the abstract. Most of my positive behavior as a husband is because I love my wife. No doubt, there are times when I don’t feel particularly loving, but even in those times I motivated by the fact that my love is more than just feelings; it is also a lifetime commitment to honor and value her. So, even when I don’t feel like it, my loving behavior proceeds from true love. When I am a bad husband, it is usually because I am not behaving in a loving way. The key to my behavior is love. In the same way, the key to my behavior as a follower of Jesus is love for the Lord.

When it comes to the second most important command, love for our neighbor, I think we have become confused about what love means. For many people influenced by popular culture, love means unconditional affirmation. In other words, a lot of folks think that if you love someone, it means that you must endorse everything they do, no matter what. I cannot tell you the number of times I have heard that it is not loving, or even that it is hateful, to tell someone that I cannot endorse all of their lifestyle choices as good and righteous.

But both common sense and the scriptures tell us very clearly that real love for neighbor is not the same thing as unconditional affirmation. The verses above state that love finds no joy in unrighteousness, but that it rejoices in truth. That means that true love cannot approve falsehood, and it cannot approve that which it believes to be unrighteous. It would not be real love if it did approve those things.

Consider this example: I have four children, all of whom I deeply love. Suppose one of my kids becomes a drug addict. Would it be loving for me to affirm her lifestyle as a drug addict? Of course not. The loving thing to do would be to help her confront her addiction and get free from it. The hateful thing to do would be to affirm her choices, and encourage her to continue on a path that I believe will ultimately destroy her. It would be hateful to affirm the lies in her life that tell her that addiction is not a problem. Affirmation and encouragement are not always loving. Love is not always affirming or endorsing.

As author Rick Warren says:

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

In addition, when I really love someone or something, it often means that I want them to change. When I don’t mind if someone changes or not, it often means that I don’t care about them. To illustrate this, Let me offer another analogy. I know this is somewhat frivolous, but please bear with me and I think you’ll understand my main point.

Somehow, years ago, I became a fan of the Minnesota Vikings NFL team. You might say I love the Vikings (I know this is silly, but stay with me). I don’t love them because they are so great. No one would love them for that, because, frankly, they aren’t. But I care about the Vikings, and because I do, I want them to be better than they are. I don’t require them to change before I will love them, but rather, because I already love them, I want them to improve.

The Cleveland Browns is another NFL team that hasn’t won very often over the years. However, I don’t mind if the Browns never change. Is that because I love the Browns unconditionally, in a way that I don’t love the Vikings? No, it is exactly the opposite. It is because I don’t care about the Browns that I don’t mind if they never change (apologies to my many readers in NE Ohio, it’s nothing personal). I don’t necessarily want the best for the Browns, and so I can affirm how they are, with no desire to see them become different.

You see, love often seeks change, precisely because love seeks the best for the beloved. So I repeat: loving your neighbor does not always mean affirmation and endorsement; these are not always loving.

I feel the need to explain a little bit more. I am not giving you a license to nag your loved ones, or to be cruel to anyone who lives in such a way that you disapprove. Some people are harsh and judgmental, and even if their words contain truth, they do not speak them out of love, but rather out of fear or anger. Do not use what I say here as an excuse to be that way. Love genuinely wants change, because love genuinely wants the best for the beloved. But love is also patient, gentle, and kind (see the verses quoted from 1 Corinthians 13, above).

So our culture when it hears “Love your neighbor,” often misunderstands this to mean “affirm and endorse whatever your neighbor chooses to do.” However, this is not what it means.

There is another way in which our culture misunderstands what Jesus said here. Many people think that when Jesus says “The law is summed up by ‘love God and love your neighbor,’” it means that this cancels out the specific moral guidelines of the Bible. In other words, people think Jesus was saying, “Forget all that stuff about traditional morality. Just love.”

If this was the case, we wouldn’t have to worry about it when the Bible says, “don’t bear false witness,” as long as we tell lies only for reasons that are loving. Or, it wouldn’t matter whom we have sex with, or even whether or not they are married to us (or another person) as long as we simply love them. Or, we wouldn’t have to worry about foul language coming from us, as long as we love God. Or, it wouldn’t matter if we stole something, as long as we did it with a loving heart.

But this is not what Jesus meant at all. He said all of the law “hangs” on these two commands. It is not that love replaces the other commandments, it is that if you truly love God and your neighbor, you will fulfill those commandments. For instance, if you love your neighbor and God, you won’t steal from your neighbor. Or, if you truly love God, you will put him first, above all things in your life.

These days, the cry of the new sexual ethics is “It’s all about love.” But Jesus is saying here that if you love God and your neighbor, you will lovingly, voluntarily, keep your sexual activity within marriage. “Love” does not mean “sleep with anyone with whom you fall in love.” What Jesus is saying is that real love for God and neighbor will result in keeping the command: “do not commit adultery.” Love for God and neighbor will result in keeping the commands: “Do not covet,” and “remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”

If you truly love God, and also your neighbor, you will fulfill, not ignore, the moral teachings of the Bible. Paul explains this more fully in his letter to the Romans:

8Do not owe anyone anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments: Do not commit adultery; do not murder; do not steal; do not covet; and whatever other commandment — all are summed up by this: Love your neighbor as yourself. 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Love, therefore, is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom 13:8-10, HCSB)

This helps me, because I realize that when I sin, one of the underlying things going on with me is that I am not loving God, or my neighbor, or sometimes, either one. It isn’t just that I need to behave better externally (though that is true) – it is also that I need to love God and my neighbor more. Over the course of my life, I have learned to see this problem, and to ask God not only to help me not to sin, but also to increase the love I have for Him and for my neighbor. I am convinced that is a prayer he is happy to answer.

Our love comes from the Lord in the first place, and so, if we ask him, we can trust him to give us the love that we need; for Him, and for our neighbor, to live as he wants us to.

WHAT IS THE UNFORGIVEABLE SIN?

unforgiveable

 

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Matthew #38 . Matthew 12:15-45

Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the healing of the man’s hand on the Sabbath as the point at which the Pharisees began to seriously oppose Jesus. Remember, in the exchanges about the Sabbath, Jesus said, “The son of man is Lord of the Sabbath.” When he says, “Son of man (this is the second time he uses it in Matthew) it is clear that he is referring to himself. Not only that, it is clear that he is referring to himself as the Messiah.

Psalm 80 contains this obscure Messianic reference about “the son of man”:

Let Your hand be with the man at Your right hand, with the son of man You have made strong for Yourself. (Ps 80:17, HCSB)

A vision of Daniel makes it even more explicit:

I continued watching in the night visions, and I saw One like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was escorted before Him. He was given authority to rule, and glory, and a kingdom; so that those of every people, nation, and language should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will not be destroyed. (Dan 7:13-14, HCSB)

Calling himself the “Son of Man,” and the claims to have authority to determine what was right or wrong on the Sabbath were staggering claims. It would be like someone coming into a Christian church today and saying, “Communion is all about me. I alone have the right to determine how you celebrate communion, and to tell you what it means.” That of course, would be tantamount to a claim to be Jesus himself. In the same way, Jesus’ words at the beginning of Matthew 12 are nothing less than a claim to be God.

When Jesus, not only claiming authority to break the (man-made) rules of the Sabbath, actually breaks them, deliberately, in front of the Pharisees and all the worshippers, this is the last straw for them. It is at this point that they move from being skeptics to enemies. What seems staggering in the middle of all this is that the miracle of healing that was at issue does not seem to figure into their calculations at all, except as something to explain away.

I think there is something important for us to consider here. The Pharisees began to oppose Jesus as soon as he claimed authority over something they wanted to control. It is when they are faced with the challenge to accept his authority over their own lives that they balk. He can have his healing ministry. He can wander around and say stuff to isolated groups of country people. But as soon as he comes into their synagogues, claiming authority to tell them what’s appropriate on the Sabbath, they become his enemies. What he does and says no longer matters – they only want to discredit him and destroy him.

Jesus knew this, and so Matthew records that he withdrew. Though he continued to heal, he tried to keep a low profile. Remember, Jesus came to earth with one mission, broken into two tasks. His first task was to reconcile the world to God by offering his life as a sacrifice in our place. To do that, he had to die. The second part of the mission was to train and prepare his disciples to follow him even after he was gone, and show them how to make new disciples and spread the news about his sacrifice. He could not die until his disciples had been trained. So, he avoided conflict at this point, because he was still training the disciples. Therefore, though Jesus continues his healing ministry, he warns people not to spread the word about him.

Matthew 12:18-21 marks the twelfth time that Matthew explicitly points out how Jesus fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy, in this case, Isaiah 42:1-14. (There are other things that Matthew records which show fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, but Matthew does not always point them out explicitly).

There was one healing incident to which the Pharisees are privy, however. Jesus heals a man harassed by demon, and the occasion was so impressive that many more people began to wonder if Jesus was the “son of David,” which, in this context, means Messiah.

The response of the Pharisees, and Jesus’ accompanying teaching have become one of the most controversial passages of Scripture. The Pharisees have decided that Jesus is their enemy, so they cannot accept that anything he does is godly or righteous. Therefore, they attribute Jesus’ ability to drive out demons not to God, but to the devil. It is important for us to understand how they arrived at this place. Their minds were already made up: they didn’t want to listen to Jesus or obey what he said, therefore, Jesus could not be approved by God, therefore, whatever supernatural power he seemed to exhibit must come from the devil.

Jesus responds to their allegations with several reasonable thoughts. First, it doesn’t make any sense for Satan to be going about freeing people from his own power. If this is how the devil operates, says Jesus, then the works of the devil would soon fall apart and the world would be free. Second, Jesus points out that some Jews in the party of the Pharisees claim to also drive out demons. The book of Acts makes reference to this, as does the historian Josephus. The Bible doesn’t really tell us if these other exorcisms are genuine or not, and that’s not the point that Jesus is making. His point is that the Pharisees do believe that demons can be driven out by the power of God. He is uncovering their bias, showing that the reason they want to attribute his power to the devil is not because he is driving out demons, but only because they don’t want to listen to him.

Next, Jesus moves from responding to the Pharisees to teaching in general about what is going on in the spiritual realm.

If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you. How can someone enter a strong man’s house and steal his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can rob his house. Anyone who is not with Me is against Me, and anyone who does not gather with Me scatters. (Matt 12:28-30, HCSB)

Jesus clearly means to say that he is the one who has entered the territory of the devil, tied him up, and is now doing as he pleases. As a side point, this should encourage us whenever we face spiritual opposition. Jesus is stronger than the devil. It is not a struggle between equals – Jesus wins, every time. Jesus adds this:

Anyone who is not with Me is against Me, and anyone who does not gather with Me scatters. (Matt 12:30, HCSB)

The Message paraphrases it like this:

This is war, and there is no neutral ground. If you’re not on my side, you’re the enemy; if you’re not helping, you’re making things worse.

Christians are often accused of being narrow minded, or demanding that people agree with them. There are ways we do that which are inappropriate, of course. However, Jesus demanded allegiance to him in no uncertain terms. He says, “either you’re with me, or against me.” These are not my words, nor the words of a fundamentalists preacher. These are the words of Jesus himself. The teaching of Jesus is that the world is indeed divided between those who are with him and those who are against him. As Petersen rightly captures in the message, there is no neutral ground. We don’t get to hang back and say, “I don’t follow Jesus, but I’m not against him.” Jesus himself says that can’t be true. Anyone who wants to can be with Jesus, by simply surrendering our lives to Him and trusting him for grace and forgiveness. But if we don’t want to do that, (and particularly, we don’t like the part about surrendering control of our lives to him) Jesus says, “you’re against me.”

Next comes the part that we often find so scary:

Because of this, I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the one to come. (Matt 12:31-32, HCSB)

This is sometimes known as the “unforgivable sin.” It is the only sin in the entire Bible about which it is said “it will never be forgiven.” When we read this, it is natural to want to know specifically what this sin is, and how we can avoid it. I have met tortured souls who are afraid that they have committed this “unforgivable sin.”

First I want to make something clear: I don’t think this is a sin that you can commit by accident. If you ever thought, “Oh my gosh! Have I committed the unforgivable sin?” I want to set your mind at ease. First, you have learned the context of this verse. The Pharisees have made an internal commitment to receive nothing that Jesus says or does as coming from God. If you are worried about committing the unforgivable sin, you probably have not made that same commitment.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it is helpful to revisit it for understanding this verse. Remember that when Jesus came to earth he chose not to use his divine nature to make things easy for himself. He chose to come in human flesh, which meant among other things that he had to rely entirely upon the Holy Spirit working in him and through him. Jesus did not do his miracles as God-the-Son revealing his power; instead he did miracles by relying upon the power of the Holy Spirit to work through him. So when he healed people, it was as a man, relying upon God the Holy Spirit to heal through him. And especially important for this case, when he drove out demons it was by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus just said that, right here in verse 28.

This may seem all strange and theological but hang with me for a minute. Jesus came to earth to die. In order for that to happen, a number of people had to reject him and despise him. Rejecting Jesus himself could not be the unforgivable sin, because someone had to crucify him, and those who crucified him would have been condemned to hell with no chance for redemption. Someone who blasphemes against Jesus might be mistaken, or blinded by political considerations. However, it is the Holy Spirit who works to bring us to repentance. It is the Holy Spirit through the Bible who tells us the truth about Jesus and gives us the opportunity to receive him in faith. If we reject the work of Holy Spirit, we have cut off any possibility of being saved, since it is only through the power of the Spirit that we are given faith to trust Jesus.

The Pharisees were looking at the work of the Holy Spirit and saying, “this is the work of the devil.” If they committed to viewing the work of the Spirit as the work of the devil, then when the Spirit went to work on their hearts to bring them to repentance and faith in Jesus, they would say, “No! That’s the work of the devil.” They would be left with no way to repent and be saved.

To put it another way, to blaspheme the Holy Spirit, is to totally reject God’s work in the world and in your life. It is to cut yourself off from God. This is unforgiveable, because you are rejecting the only means by which you may be forgiven.

To use an analogy, it is something like this. You are hanging by a rope from a sheer cliff, one thousand feet above the ground. You say, “I don’t want this rope. It does me no good. I can get to the top without it. In fact, it is hindering me.” With that, you cut the rope. You fall to your death, not because the cliff is vindictively punishing you, but because you cut yourself off from the one thing that could have saved you.

Jesus makes it clear with the following comments:

“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for a tree is known by its fruit. Brood of vipers! How can you speak good things when you are evil? For the mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart. A good man produces good things from his storeroom of good, and an evil man produces evil things from his storeroom of evil. (Matt 12:33-35, HCSB)

The Pharisees’ blaspheming against the Sprit is the fruit – and it reflects the nature of the whole tree, which is the rejection of the work of the Holy Spirit. They said what they did because they had rejected God right down to the core. Their words were an indication of where their hearts were.

All right, what does all this mean for us? What took the Pharisees down the road to the unforgiveable sin was their refusal to let Jesus have authority in their lives. What I mean is, they rejected the idea that Jesus should be able to correct them or lead them, and it began with rejecting his authority over one area of their lives; in their case, the Sabbath. Is there anything about which you are tempted to say, “No, Jesus! You cannot direct me, in this area. No, I retain my own right to do what I want here.” This is very dangerous, spiritually speaking.

But I want us to consider something else. What we tend to focus on in this passage is Jesus’ words about the unforgiveable sin. However, revisit the first part of what he said:

Because of this, I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. (Matt 12:31, HCSB)

Jesus begins this by saying, essentially, “anything except this one thing can be forgiven.” Do you understand – grace is huge. Forgiveness is vast. Turn it around: except for this one thing (because of the Holy Spirit brings us faith), everything else can be forgiven. This is wonderful news. To put it simply, if you still believe you need forgiveness, if you still want forgiveness, it is yours by simply trusting that Jesus has obtained it for you, and turning away from your sin.

When I say “turning away from your sin,” I don’t mean “living a perfect life.” I mean repenting, moving the opposite way, even if you do so imperfectly, and fail from time to time.

Perhaps that is what you need to hear today: You have not fallen so far that you can’t be forgiven and restored.

Listen to what the Holy Spirit has to say to you today.

Thanks again for making use of Clear Bible.

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WELCOMING JESUS

002-john-baptist

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

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 5

Matthew #5 . Chapter 3:1-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew says:

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

A voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

Prepare the way for the Lord;

make His paths straight!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~

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

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

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

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 Thank for your prayers, and your support!