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2 John #2. Remaining in the Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


complex answer

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

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2 John #1:Truth & Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 10The one who believes in the Son of God has this testimony within him. The one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony God has given about His Son. 11And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. 12The one who has the Son has life. The one who doesn’t have the Son of God does not have life. 13I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1John 5:10-13, HCSB)

So, by “the truth,” John means:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


suffering - mother and baby

When we reject the God of the Bible because of suffering, what we are really saying is that we will not accept a God who is greater than our own minds. We are saying that if we cannot work out a purpose or good outcome for suffering, then no such good outcome is possible.

And it is only in Christianity that suffering is redeemed by a God who has suffered himself, and who promises to impart meaning, significance and a good outcome from our own trials.

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 Last time, we considered the fact that New Testament clearly teaches that suffering is a normal part of being  a follower of Jesus. I want to unpack that more, later in this series. I believe that trust in Jesus gives us tremendous hope and grace when we experience suffering. But many people have trouble seeing it that way. One of the most common questions that both Christians and non-Christians have about suffering is this: How can a God who is good, loving, and all-powerful allow some of the terrible suffering that we see in the world?

This isn’t just a theoretical question. Many people turn away from the Christian faith because they feel that God has abandoned them in their suffering. Many others use some version of this question to keep God at a distance, and claim it as a reason they could never become Jesus-followers.

This issue of God’s role in human suffering is very deep, and dozens (if not hundreds) of books have been written on the subject, most by people who are much smarter than I am. I don’t want to pretend to have all the answers, because I don’t. But sometimes, I think we make this more complicated than it has to be.

One thing I find interesting is that usually, the people who turn away from Christianity because of suffering have not really considered what they are turning toward. In other words, what are the alternatives to the Christian view of suffering? Just so that we are thorough, I want us to briefly think about how other world-views and religions approach suffering. Obviously, this is all vastly simplified, but I think we can get to the basic idea of each. See if these other approaches can really bring you any better satisfaction than the Christian view.

Buddhism, and many similar religions, take the approach that the physical world is meaningless. The way to deal with suffering is to learn to not let it bother you. So when a five year old boy is repeatedly abused by his step-father, it isn’t a tragedy – it is meaningless. Don’t allow it to affect you. If you let such things bother you, you will never find ultimate peace. In addition, Buddhists generally subscribe to the idea of karma. From the website Buddhanet.net:

Karma is the law that every cause has an effect, i.e., our actions have results. This simple law explains a number of things: inequality in the world, why some are born handicapped and some gifted, why some live only a short life.

In other words, people suffer because they deserve to suffer (possibly because of actions in previous lives).

Hinduism, and many philosophies like it, also view suffering around the idea of karma. So, in both Hinduism and Buddhism, the little boy who is abused by his step-father deserves it. Eventually, (in Hinduism) after about  8.4 million lifetimes of suffering, you’ll finally be free. But in the meantime, you should accept it in your own life, and in that of others, as justly deserved. Is this more satisfying to you than the Christian God, who offers us His presence in the middle of suffering, and even suffers on our behalf?

Secularism (which is more or less based upon atheism) sees suffering as a senseless tragedy. Secularists are motivated to try and minimize future suffering, for the good of the human race. So secularists respond to child-abuse by making laws against such things. They want to build a society of laws and technology to benefit all humanity. But secularists don’t have any compelling reason for why we should care about the human race in the first place, or build that better society. Most would object to that statement, but if we are just the product of a random series of events, there is no meaning to life, nor any value to it.

Secularists may want to make the world a better place, but they don’t have much in the way of comfort for someone who suffers anyway. So, the little boy who is abused is suffering from senseless tragedy. There really isn’t anything to make it OK. And yet, on the other hand, there is no compelling moral logic telling us to care about him in the first place. Is senseless suffering more comforting to you than a God who can impart meaning and significance to pain?

Some religions, like Islam, are more or less fatalistic. Suffering just is what it is, and all we can do is get through it as best we can. God has his reasons, which we won’t understand. So the little boy must simply endure it well. There is no sense that God shares our pain, or participates in suffering on our behalf. While it is noble to suffer well, there is no real assurance that it means anything, or accomplishes anything.

Only in Christianity is suffering redeemed by a God who has suffered himself, and who promises to impart meaning, significance and a good outcome from our own trials.

Now, I know that this is still hard to swallow. What good outcome could possibly justify the repeated abuse of a little child?

The answer is quite simple: I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows.

But the God of the Bible is not only revealed as good, he is also revealed as infinite

For everything was created by Him in heaven and on earth, the visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things have been created through Him and for him. He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17)

15God will bring this about in His own time. He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, 16the only One who has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light; no one has seen or can see Him, to Him be honor and eternal might. Amen. (1Tim 6:15-16, HCSB)

3He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. 4He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them. 5Our Lord is great, vast in power; His understanding is infinite. (Ps 147:3-5, HCSB)

3Do not boast so proudly, or let arrogant words come out of your mouth, for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and actions are weighed by Him. (1Sam 2:3, HCSB)

8“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.” This is the LORD’s declaration. 9“For as heaven is higher than earth, so My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8-9, HCSB)

We human beings are not infinite – there are definite limits to our physical bodies, to our brains, even to our souls. This means that we can only ever grasp a very, very, tiny piece of God. When we reject the God of the Bible because of suffering, what we are really saying is that we will not accept a God who is greater than our own minds. We are saying that if we cannot work out a purpose or good outcome for suffering, then no such good outcome is possible. We are demanding that an infinite God must act in such a way we tiny, finite creatures can understand with our tiny little minds. That is not the God described by the Bible.

All of this is addressed in one of the oldest books of the Bible: Job. Job is good man, with a good life, when God deliberately allows him to suffer terrible tragedies, one after the other. Four friends come to be with Job in his suffering. Job speaks out about his anguish, and he demands an explanation from God. Job’s friends rebuke him, arguing that Job is suffering (basically) as the result of his own karma – in other words, he deserves it. Job disagrees, and maintains that God must explain Himself, and show him the reasons for his suffering. They argue back and forth about this for most of the book. Finally, in chapter 38 of the book, God breaks His silence.

Who are you to question my wisdom with your ignorant empty words? Now stand up straight, and answer the questions I ask you.

Were you there when I made the world? If you know so much, tell me about it. Who decided how large it would be? Who stretched the measuring line over it? Do you know all the answers? What holds up the pillars that support the earth? Who laid the cornerstone of the world?

In the dawn of that day the stars sang together, and the heavenly beings shouted for joy. (Job 38:1-7, Today’s English Version)

I can just hear someone saying, “Ha! We do know better than God: we know the earth isn’t supported by pillars!” That sort of response is a bit silly. This is clearly poetic language, expressing the main idea that next to God we know nothing.

After going on for four chapters reminding Job of all that he doesn’t know, God stops a moment. Job repents. Next God rebukes Job’s friends, who had insisted that Job’s suffering was essentially the result of karma. He spoke to the friend named Eliphaz:

“I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7, HCSB)

He tells them to offer sacrifices, and to beg Job to pray for them:

“Then my servant Job will pray for you. I will surely accept his prayer, and not deal with you as your folly deserves, for you  have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (42:8, HCSB).

Job did not have the right to an explanation, but in all his demands, he did not say anything untruthful about God. But God says that Job’s three friends – who said many things that some modern Christians often say – were wrong in what they said about God. Note the final twist of the knife against the idea of karma – God says he will not punish Job’s friends, even though they deserve it. The message is clear:

  1. We will not always have an explanation for suffering. We cannot begin to understand God’s perspective, and we are simply not smart enough to comprehend God’s reasons for allowing suffering.
  2. The idea that suffering is always the result of what we do, or don’t do (in this life, or in past ones) is simply wrong. We often have no control whatsoever over our own suffering.

This is the starting point for a Christian view of suffering: God is bigger than we are. He is infinite, we are not, and so we cannot possibly understand the reasons for everything he does, or does not, do. The rest of the Bible, however, calls us to trust this God that we cannot understand. He is willing to suffer Himself, on our behalf. He promises to redeem and make good come from all of our suffering, if we trust Him. Trusting God when we don’t understand may be difficult, but it is not complicated. You don’t have to be a genius to deal with the questions of suffering – you simply need to trust – something any child knows how to do.

I do know – from personal experience – that sometimes trust is a tall order. I haven’t always been able to trust God in the midst of suffering. But when I can, it changes everything. It helps tremendously to remember that Himself has suffered.

18For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. (Heb 2:18, HCSB)

God, and His actions are beyond our understanding. But He isn’t just some distant puppet-master. He himself entered into our suffering, and suffered on our behalf. He has helped many millions of people in the midst of their suffering. I know he can help us, also. I know He is trustworthy to do so. Won’t you trust Him yourself?



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 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.



The Old Testament commands concerning relationship with God are all fulfilled in trusting and obeying Jesus. What the rich young ruler lacks is not outward behavior, but an internal commitment to the Lord as his one and only true God. Even so, in Jesus, we don’t have to be perfect – we trust that he meets that standard for us. This isn’t license to sin, rather, it is a comfort to sinners who want to do right, but fail sometimes. It is reassurance that our only “goodness” comes from the only One who is good.


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Matthew #67 Matthew 19:13-22

Verses 13 through 15 record an incident with little children. This is similar to what came previously, in chapter 18, and we spoke about it then. Again, Jesus states that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are like children. In addition, we can see that Jesus does indeed value and love actual little children.

After this, Matthew records an incident that is also covered by Mark and Luke. I want to point out that we have here one of the “contradictions” that skeptics are always talking about. Matthew remembers that the young man asks “Teacher, what good must I do to inherit eternal life?” One the other hand, Mark and Luke record the shocking difference that the young man says: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” You talk about a contradiction. Wow. People often say “the bible is full of contradictions.” They usually can’t give many specific examples (that is, they really don’t know what they are talking about), but this is one them. As you can see, the contradiction makes no difference. In fact, Matthew does not claim that the young man never called Jesus “good teacher,” so actually there is no necessary contradiction.

I believe that this is an incredibly relevant passage of Scripture, precisely because the discussion is about “goodness.” Goodness is at the heart of the point of this passage, and is also at the heart of the divide between Christianity and all other religions. It isn’t so much that we disagree about what goodness is (although there is a certain amount of disagreement there), but Christianity has a fundamentally different understanding of how to achieve goodness, and the role that goodness plays in our relationship to God.

I want to pause for a moment, and thank those of you who are praying for the ministry of Clear Bible and supporting us financially also. It’s easy to skip the piece I usually put in at the end about prayer and support, but we really do need your prayers, and we really do appreciate them. It’s not that we are in crisis, but we are in spiritual work, and spiritual work needs spiritual support – that is prayers. I am being honest when I say that we also need material support – that is, financial support. But I believe that if you join us in praying for that, as well as for the ministry in general, the Lord will provide what we need. If he leads you to be a part of that provision, you can use the donate button here on the blog, or you can send a check to New Joy Fellowship; 917 Canyon Creek Drive; Lebanon, TN 37087. Just put “Clear Bible” in the memo. Your check will be tax-deductible.

All right, let’s get back to the text. Virtually every other religion on earth besides Christianity has this basic proposition: “Your behavior will determine your eternal destiny. Behave well, and you will reach the goal you are seeking; behave badly, and you will fail.” What many people don’t notice about this, is that it means you are in control. If you just do certain things, you win the prize. Religion is humans trying, through their own efforts to become good, and then immortal (though in the case of Buddhism, humans are trying to become immortally nothing). It is about human effort and human goodness.

This is the attitude of the young man who approaches Jesus. His question is “What [good] must I do to enter eternal life?” In other words, his underlying assumption is that he is able to control his eternal future, if he just does the right things. Jesus’ response is very interesting.

17“Why do you ask Me about what is good? ” He said to him. “There is only One who is good.

Right away, Jesus is confronting the man’s assumption. The implication of what he is saying is that the young man can’t be good, since there is only One who is good – and that would be God. In other words, Jesus is already hinting that it isn’t about doing good, but rather, knowing the One who is good and giving your allegiance to Him. But Jesus’ next words seem almost like a contradiction, not only to his first sentence, but also to what Christians have believed and taught for 2000 years:

If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

It sounds like what Jesus is saying here is that you have to obey the commandments in order to get eternal life. However, I think Jesus is answering the young man’s question on the young man’s terms. In other words, he is saying: “If you wanted to get into heaven by being good, you have to obey all the commandments.” I don’t think Jesus means that we really can achieve eternal life that way. Paul talks about this in the book of Galatians:

1Christ has liberated us to be free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery.2Take note! I, Paul, tell you that if you get yourselves circumcised, Christ will not benefit you at all.3Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to keep the entire law.4You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace. (Gal 5:1-5, HCSB)

In other words, theoretically, you could reach eternal life by being perfect. However, if you are going to go the route of trying to earn your salvation through your own goodness, then you must keep the law perfectly. I think that is what Jesus is saying to this young man.

But, as Paul points out in numerous places, nobody can actually do it in practice. Here are two references:

9What then? Are we any better? Not at all! For we have previously charged that both Jews and Gentiles are all under sin,10as it is written: There is no one righteous, not even one.11There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.12All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one. (Rom 3:9-12, HCSB)


15We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners”16know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. And we have believed in Christ Jesus so that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human being will be justified. (Gal 2:15-16, HCSB)

So, it is clear that Jesus is engaging with this young man on a more or less theoretical level; but that is where the man starts the conversation, so Jesus meets him where he is. Next, the man asks a very interesting question: “which commandments do I have to follow?” This question is not as hypocritical as it might sound at first. By the time of Jesus, the Jews had developed a huge body of rules and regulations that they claimed needed to be followed. I’ve mentioned this in a number of sermons on the book of Matthew. So the Jewish religion was no longer simply based upon the Old Testament, but also on the collected teachings of various rabbis, and numerous traditions and regulations that have been handed down. Modern Jewish rabbis will readily admit that no one could possibly follow all of these things consistently. So the young man is probably thinking of many things besides simply the 10 Commandments. Jesus, as he always does in such situations, brings it back to God’s word as it was given in the Old Testament:

1 Jesus answered: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness;19honor your father and your mother; and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt 19:17-19, HCSB)

There is a fascinating subtext here. Do you notice anything missing? Jesus has left out every command that pertains to following, loving and obeying God. In the 10 Commandments, God told the people to have no other gods besides him; to neither create nor worship idols (things that represent God to us, but are not him); to honor, and not misuse the name of the Lord; and to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. These are the first four Commandments, and they all have to do with our relationship with God, and Jesus says nothing about them.


The commandments that Jesus told the young man to follow are quite similar to the basic moral code for Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims, and of course, Jews. Apart from the second one that he named, almost anyone in Western culture today, Christian or not, would be happy to agree with Jesus’ response. Even atheists are generally against murder, stealing, and lying for gain; and they are generally for being good to your family and loving others. This is the type of thing that leads people to ask: “Aren’t all religions the same?”

But Jesus is about to burst the bubble of the rich young man, and along with it, the bubble of those who think all religions are the same. He was a brilliant teacher, and part of his brilliance was helping people to come to the right conclusion through their own thought process. You can see it happening in this young man right before our eyes:

“I have kept all these,” the young man told Him. “What do I still lack? ” (Matt 19:20, HCSB)

I don’t think we need to criticize the young man for saying that he is kept all the commandments the Jesus named – millions of people think they do this, at least, externally. But I want us to see what Jesus has done to him. This guy knows that there is another shoe that hasn’t dropped yet. If he was a good Jew, he certainly knew that Jesus had left out the first four Commandments. By leaving them out, Jesus has called his attention to the fact that he is missing something, and so he asks “What do I still lack? What am I still missing?”

21“If you want to be perfect,” Jesus said to him, “go, sell your belongings and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.” (Matt 19:21, HCSB)

What is Jesus saying? First, he is saying that in order to have eternal life, the young man must be perfect. He is spelling out what I mentioned before: if you want to try to get eternal life in this way, you must be perfect. Second, Jesus is telling him to obey, in a practical way, those first four commands that he omitted to mention before. This young man was rich, and his money was both a God to him, and an idol. For this man to obey: “you shall not worship an idol,” he had to sell all of his possessions. For this man to have no other gods, he had to get rid of his wealth. For this man to honor the name of the Lord, to trust him above all, he had to become poor so that his wealth would not tempt him. For this man to worship, to honor the Sabbath and rest, he had to give to others, and free himself from the cares and worry that came from being rich. And above all, Jesus is claiming his ultimate allegiance: “Come and follow me.” This is yet one more place where Jesus claims to be the Lord, the God of the Old Testament. He is telling this young man that the command: “I am the Lord, you have no other gods before you,” is practically fulfilled in following Jesus. The Old Testament commands concerning relationship with God are all fulfilled in trusting and obeying Jesus. Jesus makes that clear here.

What the rich young ruler lacks is not outward behavior, but an internal commitment to the Lord as his one and only true God. He needs to get rid of everything that is standing between him and following Jesus, and then follow.

This is an answer for those who ask: “What about the good Buddhist, who lives a moral life? How will he be kept from heaven?” First of all, if someone is a good Buddhist, he doesn’t want to go to heaven. He wants to eternally cease to exist. Seriously, that’s the goal, and when people ask that question, they are only revealing their ignorance of religion. But there is a valid point there, so let’s replace “a good Buddhist, with “a good Muslim.” I know Islam has a lot of negatives, but I have met many Muslim men who basically want to live good, moral lives. The commands that Jesus lists here not so different for Muslims. So, Jesus could be talking to a good Muslim in this passage. The one thing such a person lacks is total commitment to Jesus as Lord. And Jesus makes clear that that is the one thing necessary for eternal life.

So, to be clear, there are two answers in this text to the question: “Why can’t a good, moral person who does not believe in Jesus go to heaven?” The first, is that Jesus says only God himself can be good enough. If you want to get into heaven by your good works, the standard is perfection. I don’t care who you are, no “good moral person” is perfect, and Jesus says here that in fact no one is even good, except God.

Second, Jesus also makes it clear that the only way to eternal life is to give all of your allegiance to him. We must get rid of what comes in between us and following Jesus, and then follow him. When we do that, we are not judged based on our perfection, but rather on our faith in, and allegiance to, Jesus. This is the message of the entire New Testament, and in fact the entire Bible. Re-read Galatians 2:15-16 above. Here’s another from 1 John 5:10-13

10Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son.11And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.12Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.13I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1John 5:10-13, ESV2011)

Though it isn’t spelled out in Matthew 19, the rest of the New Testament teaches true goodness is a gift from God that we receive when we trust Jesus Christ, and follow him. Trust in Jesus comes first, and what we call “morality,” or “doing good” comes about as a result of that faith. Doing good without faith will never be good enough, because, as Jesus said here “Only One is good.”

So, let’s makes this practical for us today. The rich young man was prepared to do good, but he was not prepared to give up his wealth in order to follow Jesus. He was not prepared to give his ultimate allegiance to Jesus. It isn’t a command for all Christians to be poor, rather, it is an example of how we might be called to give something up for Jesus. So, what is it in your life that keeps you from following Jesus? What are the things that tempt you not to give your ultimate allegiance to him?

For some, it may be a relationship. You are afraid you might lose your spouse, or your lover, or your group of friends if you really gave your whole life to Jesus. For others it might be a lifestyle choice. You’d have to give up whatever Jesus wanted you to give up, and there are some things that, frankly, you are not willing to let go of, even for the sake of Jesus Christ. It might be alcohol, or drugs, or sex outside of marriage. It might be that you want to remain master of you own destiny, and if you follow Jesus you are afraid your life might be boring, or you might not get to do what you want in terms of your career. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sin. Kristen Powers, an anchor for Fox News, had an intense struggle before becoming a Christian, in part because she, and everyone in her circles, despised Evangelicals. She had to be willing to give up her reputation to follow Jesus. Wealth, in and of itself, is not necessarily sinful, but that was what was keeping the young man in the text from following Jesus. Remember what Jesus said, at least twice already in the book of Matthew:

8If your hand or your foot causes your downfall, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the eternal fire.9And if your eye causes your downfall, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, rather than to have two eyes and be thrown into hellfire! (Matt 18:8-9, HCSB)

37The person who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; the person who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.38And whoever doesn’t take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.39Anyone finding his life will lose it, and anyone losing his life because of Me will find it. (Matt 10:37-39, HCSB)

In essence, he is making these word practical, specifically for the rich young man: “get rid of your wealth, because it is keeping you from following Me, keeping you from having no gods before Me.”

I want to make something clear here. When we do give our trust and ultimate allegiance to Jesus, he meets the standard of perfection on our behalf. I mentioned a number of things above that might keep us from following Jesus. Even after we trust him and start to follow, some of those things may still be a problem for us. But if we are following, after we fail and fall down, we get back up with the help of Jesus, and continue on following him. In Jesus, we don’t have to be perfect – we trust that he meets that standard for us. This isn’t license to sin, rather, it is a comfort to sinners who want to do right, but fail sometimes. It is reassurance that our only “goodness” comes from the only One who is good.

With that in mind, hear Jesus’ call to surrender everything to him, and follow him.


 loving discipline

Church discipline is not about demanding perfect behavior. It is about rescuing sheep who are straying. In New Testament times, it was not done by some barely-known official showing up at your door in a suit and tie to tell you that you were a sinner. It was done by your good friends, maybe even some family members, or co-workers. People who loved you and knew you would come to you, because they were motivated by love.


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Matthew #63 Matthew 18:15-35

Let’s remember where we are in Matthew 18. Jesus has said that we must become humble and trusting like children to enter the kingdom of heaven. He has said he has a special anger against those who lead “little ones” astray. Little ones means both children, and also those who trust Jesus with this childlike humility and trust. He also tells about how his heart is to seek the lost sheep. In is in this context, with the understanding that those who trust God are precious to Him, and that he pursues those who wander, that Jesus talks about what we like to call “church discipline.” Jesus gives us a kind of procedure for trying to bring back a lost sheep who is caught in sin. He has already predicted his death and resurrection before this point. He knows that he will not always be there in the flesh to bring back a lost sheep. So, he tells his followers how to go about bringing back those who are straying.

Jesus gives us a simple procedure. First, talk to the person alone. Appeal to your Christian friend to acknowledge his sin, and try to give it up. If that doesn’t work, bring along one or two trusted friends, and appeal again, along with them. Let them give their perspective, and also help you evaluate if your friend is really not repentant. If that that doesn’t work, bring the matter to the church at large. The whole community can appeal to your friend. And if that does not work, the person must be excluded from the church. During the Middle Ages, this last step became known as excommunication – exclusion from the Christian community. By the way, it doesn’t have to end there. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians give us a picture where a believer had to be excommunicated, but was later restored to the church community after he repented.

I think it is fascinating to realize that modern psychology has adopted Jesus’ approach for tough cases of addiction. When the community comes around a person to appeal to her to give up an addiction, we call it an intervention – but it is essentially what Jesus said to do in Matthew 18.

I think it is good to get the big picture. First of all, this is generally for cases when someone who calls herself or himself a Christian is living in a persistent pattern of sin and will not repent. This is not something we need to do every time any Christian commits a sin. Someone who is sorry for her sin, who keeps seeking to live for Jesus even though she knows she fails, is not really a lost sheep. I have spoken before of repentance as a road, or a direction. You may fall down while you are on the road, going the direction of Jesus. But when you do, you get back up, still on the same road, still headed in the direction of Jesus. In other words, we don’t need to go around confronting church members every time they inadvertently say the s-word, or, whenever they have a bad day, and happen to speak unlovingly to someone else.

If you are not repentant, however, you are not even on that road. You are headed away from the kind of life Jesus wants to live through you. You are distancing yourself from God and other Christians. When you fall down, you don’t turn around and head toward Jesus, you keep going away. It is for that situation that Jesus tells us to use the procedure in Matthew 18. This is not about demanding perfect behavior. This is about rescuing sheep who are straying.

We have an example of all this from the church in Corinth, along with Paul’s instructions about how to handle it:

1It is widely reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and the kind of sexual immorality that is not even tolerated among the Gentiles — a man is living with his father’s wife.2And you are inflated with pride, instead of filled with grief so that he who has committed this act might be removed from your congregation.3For though I am absent in body but present in spirit, I have already decided about the one who has done this thing as though I were present.4When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus with my spirit and with the power of our Lord Jesus,5turn that one over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the Day of the Lord.

6Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast permeates the whole batch of dough?7Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch. You are indeed unleavened, for Christ our Passover has been sacrificed.8Therefore, let us observe the feast, not with old yeast or with the yeast of malice and evil but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

By the way, the words of Jesus in Matthew 18 are not talking only about times when someone personally sins against you. In verse 15, many English translations read “if your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private.” However the words “against you,” are missing from several generally reliable ancient copies of the Greek New Testament. My favorite translation has those words in brackets, in order to show this fact. Certainly, what Jesus says here applies in the case where someone has committed a personal sin against someone else; however I think both the textual evidence, and Luke’s gospel (which omits “against you” in Luke’s description of this conversation) and other relevant verses in the rest of the New Testament, all point to the fact that this procedure also applies more generally towards a Christian brother or sister who is caught in a consistent pattern of any sort of sin.

In case you missed it, I have been saying it applies to a Christian brother or sister who is caught in sin. The New Testament does not teach us to go to people who do not claim to be Christian, and explain how they are sinning. The idea itself is illogical. It is like telling me I’m violating the dress code for a prestigious New York preparatory school. So what if I am? I have nothing to do with the school, so why should I try to abide by their dress code, or indeed, even care what the dress code is? In fact, the way my biases run, I might find out more about the dress code there just so I could be sure and violate it. In the same way, if a person is not a follower of Jesus in the first place, why should he or she live according to the standards of Jesus?

Paul, implementing church discipline in Corinth, writes this:

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

So we see very clearly, we do not waste time and energy imposing our moral standards on those who do not claim to be Christian. At the same time, when someone claims to be a Christian, and yet engages in a persistent, ongoing pattern of sin, we most definitely have a responsibility to the straying sheep to bring him or her back; if necessary through this pattern of “discipline.”

I want to make sure we understand the cultural and church context for all this. Churches in the New Testament met in homes, and they ranged in size from about four to about fifteen adults. Some cities had multiple churches of this size, and all the groups also considered themselves as “belonging” to the others in one big “church,” but their regular fellowship and worship took place in those small group gatherings. This is important, because it means there was a relational context for this kind of church discipline. These were people who had grown to know and love each other in small-group communities. Church discipline was not done by some barely-known official showing up at your door in a suit and tie to tell you that you were a sinner. It was done by your good friends, maybe even some family members, or co-workers. People who loved you and knew you a little bit would come to you, because they were motivated by love.

Now, I want to be honest. I have had to engage in this kind of church discipline a handful of times during my ministry as a pastor. I have never enjoyed one minute of it. And unfortunately, it does not always lead to repentance. I have known two different men, who, caught in an affair, claimed that the real sin was that his wife “gossiped” to me about the affair. Sadly, in those cases, the men chose to leave the church themselves even before the process had come to bringing in more of the community. Though I believe we approached them in real love and urged them to receive grace in repentance, they chose differently. Even worse, they went to churches elsewhere in town and pretended to be walking with the Lord. It is very discouraging when things like this happen. However, I am reminded of the Lord’s words to Ezekiel.

4The children [of Israel] are obstinate and hardhearted. I am sending you to them, and you must say to them, ‘This is what the Lord GOD says.’5Whether they listen or refuse to listen — for they are a rebellious house — they will know that a prophet has been among them.6“But you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words, though briers and thorns are beside you and you live among scorpions. Don’t be afraid of their words or be discouraged by the look on their faces, for they are a rebellious house.7But speak My words to them whether they listen or refuse to listen, for they are rebellious. (Ezek 2:4-7, HCSB)

Results are God’s business. He says “but speak my words to them whether they listen or refuse to listen.” Our business is to be obedient to what we know to do, and speak what he has told us to speak, and do what he has told us to do. Though I am sad about what happened on some occasions of church discipline, my conscience is clear, and I know that at least my friends were given the opportunity to repent and do something differently.

Paul writes to the Galatians about church discipline:

1Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted.2Carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. (Gal 6:1-2, HCSB)

Here, the Holy Spirit, through Paul, reminds us that we need to approach this task with extreme humility, not setting ourselves up as better than anyone else. Another important part of the task is to try to help the lost sheep bear their burdens as they travel down the road of repentance. In other words, we aren’t just laying down the law on someone, and leaving him to feel awful – we are also coming alongside him, helping him however we can as he travels back to a place of restoration.

In 1 Corinthians chapter five, which I quoted earlier, Paul reminds them of their duty to follow this procedure of discipline given to us by Jesus. By the time he wrote the letter we know as 2 Corinthians, the individual had apparently repented as a result of their actions. So Paul writes to remind them that the goal of all of this is restoration and forgiveness:

5Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you.6For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough,7so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.8So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. (2Cor 2:5-8, ESV2011)

That is the joyful goal of church discipline. It isn’t about controlling. It isn’t about making someone conform. It is about love. Suppose I see a family with small children floating down a river in an open canoe. I happen to know that not far away are some vicious, killing, unnavigable class V rapids. Not even the world’s best kayakers would attempt them. The most hateful thing I could do would be to say nothing. The most kind, compassionate thing to do is to call out and warn them. That is all Jesus is asking us to do: Warn those who are headed for spiritual disaster, and help them get out of the river in time.

Jesus ends his instructions with some encouragement:

18I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.19Again, I assure you: If two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by My Father in heaven.20For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there among them.” (Matt 18:18-20, HCSB)

He is assuring us that we do have the authority to engage in this sort of church discipline, and that it does accomplish real things, spiritually speaking. Also, he promises that when two or more of his followers are gathered in his name, he is there in a special way. We already know that the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts as we trust Jesus (Titus 3:6-7; Ephesians 1:13-14; Romans 5:5), so the Lord is always with each individual believer. However, Jesus seems to be saying here that he does something special when believers come together; that he is present in a special way that does not occur when believers are alone. Certainly, in regard to church discipline, he is encouraging us to do this together as a group, to present a united front as a loving community.

Let the Holy Spirit speak to you right now.


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