WHAT SHOULD CHRISTIANS FIGHT ABOUT?

tugofwar

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2 John #2. Remaining in the Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FOUNDATIONAL TRUTH

complex answer

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

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2 John #1:Truth & Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, by “the truth,” John means:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GOING WITH JESUS

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

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Matthew #100.  Matthew 28:16-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark has it like this:

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

And John includes this incident:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE PEOPLE OF HOPE

resurrectionmatt2017

You may not believe Jesus was actually, physically raised from the dead. But there is no question that every single writer of the New Testament did believe it – and most of them claimed to be eye-witnesses. True or not, this isn’t a fairy tale, or an allegory.

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Download Matthew Part 99

Matthew #99.  Matthew 27:62-28:15

Many people seem to have the feeling that the Bible is a bit like a fairy tale. In a fairy tale, all sorts of strange and magical things happen. In the Bible, all sorts of strange and miraculous things happen. It’s somewhat understandable that some people get confused, especially if they don’t read fairy tales, or the Bible, very often.

Even so, the Bible is very unlike a fairy tale in several respects. In the first place, fairy tales take place in a vague and imaginary place. The classic beginning to one is “once upon a time, in a kingdom far away,” or some such variation. If you searched for the time and place where the events in a fairy tale took place, you would not be able to find them: they don’t physically exist.

The same is true of the people in the stories. When did Snow White live? Where was she born? In what year did the evil queen take power? It is silly to ask such questions, because clearly, when you are dealing with a fairy tale, you aren’t supposed to think it really happened.

Another thing is that in fairy tales, we accept magical and improbable events as simply ordinary parts of the story. Returning to Snow White, there is no explanation given as to why a mirror could talk to a queen. These things aren’t considered out of the ordinary, in the context of the tale. Of course the mirror can talk. The story doesn’t tell us how or why.

Let’s set this in contrast to our text today. Matthew 28:1-8 tells of a miracle. You might say, it tells of THE miracle, the most significant one that has ever happened: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death.

THE miracle didn’t happen “Once upon a time,” or “far away in a strange Kingdom.” Matthew tells us where it happened: Jerusalem. The place where it happened still exists today. The people in the story of the resurrection are likewise real people. Pontius Pilate was really a Roman governor – all historians agree about that. Romans really did crucify people. Caiaphas really was a High Priest in Jerusalem. There really was a temple there. People really did and said the kinds of things that Matthew describes. The only resemblance to a fairy tale is that Matthew says something unusual happened: Jesus Christ was truly physically dead, and then later, he was truly physically alive.

However, the miracle of the resurrection is not treated as if such things happen all the time. Matthew records it as amazing and astonishing to everyone who learned of it. No one in the story of Snow White is amazed that the mirror talks, or that a kiss could cure a fatal illness. But miracles in the Bible, including the resurrection, are always treated as remarkable. It’s not like, according to the Bible, people rise from the dead all the time. In fact, no miracle is considered “commonplace;” by definition a miracle is something extremely unusual and amazing.

Matthew also deals with the skepticism of his readers. There was a counter story, circulated by some, that the disciples had stolen the body. Matthew tells us about it and explains how the story was concocted. How did Matthew know all this? Remember two of Jesus followers – Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus – were members of the Jewish ruling council. They were probably there as these decisions were made.

By the way, when Matthew says the story is told “even today” that “today” was only twenty years after Jesus was raised from the dead. I don’t know about you, but I can easily remember the major events in my life from twenty years ago. My oldest child was three, and my youngest was one. I had recently started a church in which many wonderful things took place. Almost all of those who were part of that church are still around, and could verify the many stories I tell about it. The same was true with Matthew. Most of those who witnessed the resurrection (more than 500, before Jesus returned to heaven) were still alive at this point. The apostle Paul explains, a few years after Matthew wrote his gospel:

3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1Cor 15:3-8, ESV2011)

You may not believe Jesus was actually, physically raised from the dead. But there is no question that every single writer of the New Testament did believe it – and most of them claimed to be eye-witnesses. True or not, this isn’t a fairy tale, or an allegory. If the New Testament described what it does, only without miracles, everyone would believe it: it describes real places, real people, and real first-century culture. People only disbelieve parts of it because they have a pre-existing bias against miracles.

The point of all of Jesus’ teaching hinges on the resurrection. We have seen throughout the book of Matthew that in a variety of different ways, Jesus claimed to be one with God. He continually acted as if the most important thing was how people responded to Him. Numerous times, he predicted not only his own death, but also his resurrection. If he wasn’t God, and he wasn’t raised from the dead, then much of his teaching doesn’t really make sense, and he would have to be considered an arrogant narcissist. We would also have to admit, that his major prediction – that of his resurrection – didn’t come true, so he certainly couldn’t be Divine.

This means that resurrection is incredibly powerful, and incredibly joyful. It means that what Jesus said is true! We are forgiven for our sins! We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to forgive and love others! If we submit our hearts, minds and souls to Jesus, we, like him, will be raised from the dead ourselves!

The first people to see Him alive – the women – responded with fear and joy. The fear part is that you don’t see a dead person come to life…really, ever. It filled them with awe. The joy is that everything he said was now proved to be true, and this man who filled them with peace, grace and love was still alive!

Christians, more than any other group on earth, are people of hope. The ultimate hope of Hindus is to cease to exist as individual personalities. The hope of Buddhists is to cease to exist entirely. Atheists have no real hope – they believe that death means the end of existence, which, though they usually refuse to admit it – makes all of life meaningless. Jews believe in a resurrection, but it’s a bit tough to know if you really qualify. Muslims hope they’ve been good enough to live in paradise, but the end, even for good Muslims, is very much in doubt. Allah makes no promises.

Only Christians, out of all the major world religions, have the concrete hope that we will be resurrected with new bodies to inhabit a new creation and live glorious eternal life, free from pain and sorrow. And that hope is based entirely upon the resurrection of Jesus, and therefore, our relation to him. If we entrust ourselves entirely to Jesus, and give him free reign in our lives, we are promised that wonderful, eternal future.

That promise makes a difference, even here and now. As I write this in February of 2017, I have been struggling with chronic pain for more than two years. For the past 8 months or so, it has become much worse. Even doctors at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic will not promise me that I will ever be free of this pain. But Jesus does. I may not be free of it in this life, but I will in the next. Through Jesus resurrection, I have the assurance that I will have  new body, perfected, and ideally suited to the new creation. There is more out there than this life can offer me. That gives me hope to endure anything. It can do the same for you.

GRACE: FREE TO US, COSTLY TO HIM

crucifixion

God’s grace is free to us, but it was not free to Him. It was very costly. It is free in the same sense that a diamond is free to the girl who is getting engaged. It is freely given, but it cost the giver a great deal. And like the diamond engagement ring, it is offered not just as a trinket, but as an invitation into a lifelong relationship that will change the course of our future forever.

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To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Matthew Part 97

Matthew #97  Matthew 27:11-50

[This is a slightly longer message than usual. Be prepared, if you are listening, to take 35 minutes or so. If you are reading, please be ready for just a few more words than normal.]

At this point, I want to consider the extreme suffering of Jesus – all of which was for us. Some of you will read this long after I post it. In “real time,” as I write, it is only a few weeks until Christmas. This may seem like a weird topic to cover during this season of joy and goodwill. But consider this: I have already mentioned that in Jesus’ life on earth, every single moment that included physical or emotional pain, was suffering on our behalf. Even a stubbed toe was suffering that Jesus did not have to experience, but that he endured for our sake. So, in a way, his atonement for our sin began with his birth.

Of course the atonement could not be complete without his death. He came into the world for exactly this purpose: to die, to receive in himself what we deserved. Let’s consider what that meant for him, physically, spiritually and emotionally. As always, many other sermons might be preached on these same verses. I am choosing to focus on just the one thing, although I do think it is the most important thing in this text. By the way, even if you don’t normally “share” things online, I think this would be a good one to share.

Jesus was killed by torture. There is really no other way to say it. It began with three beatings during the course of about eighteen hours. First, Jesus was taken to the high priest’s house – and you can bet they weren’t gentle in the taking. Most likely they pushed him and perhaps even struck him on their way there. After the mock trial, he was surrounded by an angry mob, and beaten with fists (Matthew 26:67-68; Mark 14:65; Luke 22:63-64). At least some of the blows were to his head. This kind of beating alone would probably put most of us in the hospital, at least overnight. Picture an LA street gang finding the member of a rival gang alone, and deciding to teach him a lesson. You can imagine several people holding the poor man up, while others took turns punching him. It is possible that Jesus sustained a concussion from this, and certainly he received multiple bruises; possibly even broken ribs or teeth. Remember, there was no pain medication in those days.

Next, they took him to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who did not live in Jerusalem, but was there to try and keep the peace during the Passover festival. A standard Roman response to suspected trouble makers was to have them “scourged.” Pilate had this done to Jesus. In common language, this means he was whipped – that is, beaten with an instrument designed to inflict pain on human beings. Instead of one “tail” to the whip, it had several strips leather. At the end of each strip was fastened rocks or bits of glass or even pieces of lead. So each strike of the whip caused multiple gashes, laying open the flesh, and bruising the muscles as well. Most probably Jesus was given the 39 lashes, which had been known to kill people occasionally. Remember, Jesus had been beaten up by a mob, just hours earlier. In addition to his other injuries, Jesus certainly lost a lot of blood from the whipping, and perhaps sustained more broken ribs. Between these two beatings, the overall physical shock to his body was enormous. Coming so close together, there is no doubt that many men would have died from the combination of these two traumas.

After that, Jesus was turned over to the Roman cohort for crucifixion. Before they did their job, however, the entire cohort had fun mocking him; a cohort was made up of about 500 brutal, hardened soldiers. They jammed a crown made of thorns on his head. They took a staff most likely made out of a cane stem (something like bamboo, but smaller in diameter) and gave it to him, and then took it away and used it to beat him over the head. This cane rod would probably not have created any serious injury, unless it was used to strike Jesus on the face, and thus open up cuts on his cheeks. Even so, they were likely hitting the crown of thorns, driving thorns into his head, and the direct blows themselves would have been very painful.

But all that stuff – physical punishment which could easily have killed many men – was only preliminary to the suffering which killed the Son of God. After these severe beatings, they strapped a big beam to his back and made him carry it a mile or two. The beam was likely equivalent to a 4”x4”, perhaps six or eight feet long. Considering what he had been through, it was no wonder he needed help. When they got to the place, they put metal spikes through his hands, into the crosspiece. Though tradition pictures these as going through the palms of the hands, it is more likely that they put the spikes through his wrists between the two bones of the forearm, so that the flesh would not tear away and drop him from the cross. Either way, that alone would have been painful beyond belief. His legs were slightly bent, and then they pressed his feet, one on top of the other, and drove a spike through them into the upright beam of the cross. Tradition pictures a kind of triangular piece of wood for his feet to rest on, but this is doubtful. Then they raised it up.

At this point, Jesus had two choices. He could let the weight of his body hang from his wrists, tearing away at the flesh, and rubbing on bare bone. Or he could straighten his legs, and push up against the spike driven through his feet, inflaming the wounds there, and grinding against broken metatarsals and tendons. Each movement probably drove splinters into his raw, lacerated back. If he had an itch, he couldn’t even scratch it. If he had to go to the bathroom, it would be right there in front of everyone.

Over time, victims of crucifixion spend more and more time hanging from their arms, since pushing up on the spike through the feet was intensely painful, and required effort. As Jesus’ body weight pulled on his arms, and kept them above shoulder-level, his lungs gradually began to fill with fluid, and breathing became difficult. The only relief for this came from thrusting against the spike in the feet. By pushing himself up this way, he could straighten his body and breathe more freely. But the pain was such that no one could endure this for long. It also required strength and energy. He was undoubtedly weakened by his beatings to start with, and as his body grew weaker through this torture, he got less and less air. In this position, fluid also collected around his heart, putting pressure on it. As a result the organs slowly got less blood and oxygen.

Incidentally, this was why, late in the day, they broke the legs of the other men who were crucified alongside Jesus. By breaking their legs, it became impossible for them to straighten up and get air, and so they died more rapidly.

Jesus was taken to the Roman governor early in the morning. He was put up on the cross before noon, possibly as early as eight or nine in the morning. He endured this suffering until it killed him, about eight hours later. It killed him, either by filling his lungs with fluid and suffocating him, or by the pressure of the fluids surrounding his heart, which could have caused it to stop.

This was actually a relatively short time for death by crucifixion. When we read the gospels, we find that Pilate was surprised when he heard that Jesus had died by late afternoon. But then, most people being crucified were not beaten three times within hours before they were put on the cross.

But the suffering wasn’t only physical. He also went through emotional and spiritual agony.

First, he endured the anticipation of suffering. He knew, long before what happened, what was waiting for him. When I have some special event approaching in the future, anticipation is almost half the joy of it. I enjoy the feeling of looking forward to a good thing coming. But the reverse is also true. If you know about something you dread that is coming up, part of the negative experience is anticipating what you don’t want to go through. It is clear that Jesus knew about his approaching suffering, and that he dreaded it. That is why he said hours before he experienced any physical torment:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (Matt 26:36-39)

He also experienced humiliation. He was the King of the Universe, the very One whom everyone around him professed to worship. And yet, in order to accomplish his purpose, he had to allow them to mock him, to spit on him, to humiliate him as if they were right and he was wrong. There was a physical aspect to the humiliation as well. It is a terrible experience to be a man, and be struck, and yet not be able to strike back. Also, they almost certainly stripped him completely naked when the put him on the cross, again a humiliating experience.

In addition, Jesus experienced abandonment. All his followers ran away and left him to his fate. His faithful lieutenant, Peter, denied him publicly. But even worse, he was abandoned by God. 2 Corinthians 5:20 says this:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

God the Father abandoned Jesus the Son in a way that he has never abandoned any human being, ever, nor ever will. The bible teaches us that if we choose to reject God’s grace through Jesus, then ultimately God allows us to do that. In other words, God doesn’t reject us, but he gives us the freedom to reject Him. If we choose that, we will experience what it is like to be without God – but it will be our doing not His. He does not willingly forsake us. But in the case of Jesus on the cross, it was the opposite. Jesus never turned away from the Father. He followed him obediently, and perfectly to the end. But when the Father made Jesus into sin – for our sake – He turned away and abandoned him. He had to, if Jesus indeed took our sin on himself. This is why Jesus cries out:

46About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Elí, Elí, lemá sabachtháni?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt 27:46, HCSB)

Now, I want us to consider something. When I think about the horrible suffering that Jesus experienced, it’s hard to contemplate. But there are many other things in this life that are hard to contemplate as well. For instance, it is hard to contemplate the horror of rape. It is hard to truly grasp the awfulness of murder. We don’t like to think this way, but even the sins which we think aren’t so bad are so far removed from God’s holiness that they are as fully horrific to God as the suffering Jesus experienced. The extremity of Jesus’ suffering shows us the extremity of our sin. All this is the depth of God’s love for us. This is picture of the true horror of our sin. This crucifixion is the gulf that would exist between us and God if Jesus had not taken our place.

The cross is also justice for sin. This is what makes forgiveness possible. We can’t just wave our hands and say “it doesn’t matter.” When we hurt others, it matters. When we offend God, it makes a difference. There are a lot of people who like to say, “It’s OK to do whatever you like, as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” But what if you hurt God? He has told us, in the bible what matters to Him, what drives a wedge between us and him. Why is it OK to hurt him, but not anyone else? A sin that is only against God is just as much a sin as something which hurts another person.

Jesus, by his suffering, has endured what sin deserves – all sin. I can forgive the person who did something horrible to me because there was punishment and suffering for the evil that was done. It was made right, and justice was done for that sin, to Jesus, on the cross.

23For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. 26God presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom 3:23-26, HCSB)

No other faith takes sin or forgiveness seriously enough. You can’t just wave your hand and say, “it doesn’t matter,” as Buddhism does. One reason Buddhist monks dedicate their lives to separation from the world and to meditation is that you have to concentrate very hard and remain very isolated to believe that the suffering caused by sin in this world doesn’t matter.

You can’t say, “You’ll make it up next time you’re re-incarnated,” as Hinduism does. Since nobody is perfect, all you would do is rack up more “karma-debt” with each new life. Even Islam and Judaism say, essentially: “Well, you do your best, and God forgives the rest.” But why? On what basis can God allow un-holiness into his holy presence? If he could do such a thing, it means that God isn’t really holy, and therefore that moral standards are not actually real; in short, that anything goes. We like “anything goes” if it means we can do whatever we want, but it becomes intolerable when someone else can do whatever they like to us with no consequences. If there is no moral standard, we live a world of senseless brutality, and all kindness and love mean nothing. Even what think of as moral good is meaningless. If nothing is evil, nothing is good either.

That is why it was necessary for sin to be accounted for. Justice must be done. Sin must have consequences. If not, there is no such thing as goodness or grace. If not, we cannot survive in the presence of a holy God. It is only through this extreme suffering of Jesus that sin could be dealt with. The Lord has made a way to take away the power of sin, and still allow goodness and grace and love to flourish.

There is one more thing about the cross. Scripture tells us that there is a mysterious spiritual truth: when we trust that Jesus did this for us, it was not only he who died there. We too, died with Jesus to sin.

Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him, because we know that Christ, having been raised from the dead, will not die again. Death no longer rules over Him. For in light of the fact that He died, He died to sin once for all; but in light of the fact that He lives, He lives to God. So, you too consider yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  (Rom 6:3-11, HCSB)

This cross that killed Jesus also killed our sin. This is now also our death. This is why we can be free from guilt – our sins were punished with this severe and just punishment. About a year ago, I was speaking with a murderer. I mean it, this man was just released from prison after doing time for murder. He was marveling at the fact that he could be forgiven. It was this horrible crucifixion death that punished his terrible sin of murder, and he is putting his faith in Jesus that this is so. He doesn’t need to feel guilt anymore, because his murder was paid for – not by his ten years of prison time, but by the death of Jesus. I think when we feel guilt, it is usually because we have not considered how fully our sin was punished on the cross. The extreme suffering of the Perfect Man was enough for you, for me, for the world.

As we consider all this, I want us to be very aware of one thing. God’s grace is free to us, but it was not free to Him. It was very costly. It is free in the same sense that a diamond is free to the girl who is getting engaged. It is freely given, but it cost the giver a great deal. And like the diamond engagement ring, it is offered not just as a trinket, but as an invitation into a lifelong relationship that will change the course of our future forever. A single woman doesn’t accept a diamond ring from the man she loves and then go on in her life without him, except for maybe occasionally remembering him fondly. No, the diamond is not just a gift – it is an invitation to a new life. When she accepts that gift, she also accepts that invitation, and enters a new relationship, a relationship that is strengthened and reaffirmed daily as they make their lives together. The acceptance of that gift is life-changing.

What Jesus did for us on the cross – the grace that God offer us – is far more precious than any diamond ring that ever has, or ever will, exist. It should not be received any less casually than a marriage proposal. To receive this gift is also to accept the invitation to a new life. It is to give your life to Jesus, to commit to Him for forever, to live in a daily relationship with him. It is life-transforming.

If you’ve never received that gift, never really accepted that invitation to a new life, now is the time. Pause and do it now. There are no special words, just your willingness and acceptance and surrender to God’s love.

Let us thank him for that gift today!

WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PETER AND JUDAS?

peter-denies

Peter is my hero. He seems to mess up more than any of the other disciples, but he is my hero because of what he does after he makes mistakes. Every time, he repents, and goes back to Jesus in humility and faith. It’s not about how often you fall down: it’s about what you do after you fall. And Peter always does the right thing after he falls. He’s a terrific example for us.

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Matthew #96. Matthew 26:69-27:10

There is a lot going on here. Matthew tells the tale as it happened, so we are jumping back and forth between various events. So far, I have not spoken about the physical suffering that Jesus experienced, beginning with his arrest. I will continue to put that off until another message, and this time, instead, we will concentrate on Peter and Judas.

In the book of Acts, Luke describes the fate of Judas in these terms:

18Now this man acquired a field with his unrighteous wages. He fell headfirst and burst open in the middle, and all his insides spilled out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that in their own language that field is called Hakeldama (that is, Field of Blood). (Acts 1:18-19, HCSB)

This is not necessarily incompatible with Matthew’s account. I will warn you that there are some gruesome thoughts in this paragraph. Here’s one way to reconcile the two. It may be that the body of Judas hung, unattended, until it began to decompose. Then, whenever it fell down “bursting open” would be a normal sort of thing to happen. At that point, the field in which it happened would have been, for Jews, ceremonially contaminated by contact with the dead body. For the Jewish religious rulers, the ideal solution to both the money (which they couldn’t use for themselves or the treasury) and the contamination, would be to buy the field as a burial ground for foreigners, since it was no good to Jews anyway. The one slight variation to this theory could be that when Judas went to hang himself, he did so at the edge of some sort of cliff, and instead of succeeding, the rope broke, and he fell to his death. After that, the same logic takes over for the rest of it.

In any case, I don’t think we have to imagine the entire sequence of Judas as happening on the very same night when Jesus was tried. I believe Matthew included it here to wrap up the history of what happened to him, but I tend to think it did not all occur on the same day Jesus was crucified. After all, the religious leaders were busy with that, and then with the Sabbath, and it is doubtful they would have taken time to debate about what to do with the money on that very day. I would say it is likely that Judas changed his mind and committed suicide within a week or two of Jesus’ crucifixion.

A lot of people use this passage to “rehabilitate” Judas, so to speak. They point out that Judas felt regret because, he says, “I have betrayed innocent blood.” Using that, many people speculate the Judas betrayed Jesus because he thought that the betrayal would provoke Jesus into some spectacular action that would then prove he was the Messiah. In other words, Judas really believed in Jesus, and just thought he needed a little “push” to start the war with the Romans. The argument boils down to this: Judas had really good intentions, and just went about it the wrong way.

However, both John and Luke tell us that it was Satan who motivated Judas to betray Jesus (John 13:27; Luke 22:3). I think that pretty conclusively ends the argument that he was just a misunderstood man with good motives.

I don’t think it is an accident that Matthew puts the story of Peter’s betrayal next to the story of Judas’ end. We have very important similarities, and also very important contrasts between the two disciples. It’s true that Judas’ betrayal is premeditated. Jesus gave him at least two opportunities that very night to repent. However, you could say the same thing about Peter. Jesus warned Peter about what was coming. When Peter denied Jesus the first time, you might say it was the heat of the moment. But there was time before his next denial, and time again before the third. After each one, Peter might have re-considered. He too, was given every chance to do it differently, and yet he too, in his own way, betrayed Jesus.

So what was different? Why is it that Judas committed suicide, while Peter went on to become the leader of Jesus’ church?

I think it boils down to the essence of what the Bible teaches: repentance and faith. [By the way, before we get into this, let me say that I am not talking in general about people who commit suicide. I am talking about Judas, specifically.]

Let’s start with repentance. Matthew says that Judas felt remorse for what he did.  The word is metamelaytheis. It is only used six times in the New Testament: the HCSB translates it three times as “changed his mind,” here as “remorse” and twice as “regretted.” The ESV translates it here as “changed his mind.” Though it is related, it is not the same word as “repentance.”

At some level, Judas felt bad about what he had done. So bad, in fact, that he committed suicide. But in all his bad feeling, he never turned back to Jesus. He regretted, but he did not repent.

Regret eats away at you. It doesn’t help you change, or lead you to anything positive. You just sit there, wishing you had done differently. Regret means you wish it hadn’t happened, but it doesn’t mean you are sorry, or that you are willing to change. That is why “regret” is one of the favorite words used by politicians in meaningless “apologies.” Over and over, you hear some Pol, caught in a scandal, say something like, “I regret what happened,” or “I regret that people were hurt.” This isn’t the same thing as saying, “I’m sorry,” or, “It is my fault; please forgive me,” or, “I am going to change.”

Since both Luke and John tell us that Judas was deeply influenced by Satan, I think we can assume that this regret was deepened, worsened, and played on demonically, over and over.

There may be something else, too. The regret of Judas was focused on the fact that he had done something wrong. Maybe you could put it this way (please pay attention to the italic emphasis):

Peter sat there, thinking, “I’ve betrayed Jesus!”

Judas sat there, thinking, “I’ve betrayed Jesus!”

What I’m getting at is this: It could be that Judas was more upset about the fact that he screwed up than the fact that it was a sin against Jesus. For Judas, it was about himself. He had regret, but not repentance. He did not humble himself before God. Though he regretted the incident (deeply) there is no evidence that he repented.

For Peter, it was that he had hurt the man he had come to know and love. The point wasn’t that he screwed up (Peter might have been used to that by now!) but that he had hurt Jesus. He wasn’t just sorry that he had made a mistake – he was sorry he had hurt his Lord. Regret is self-focused, but repentance is God-focused.

By the way, some of you have mentioned that I seem to enjoy picking on Peter. Actually, Peter is my hero. He seems to mess up more than any of the other disciples, but he is my hero because of what he does after he makes mistakes. Every time, he repents, and goes back to Jesus in humility and faith. It’s not about how often you fall down: it’s about what you do after you fall. And Peter always does the right thing after he falls. He’s a terrific example for us.

It takes humility to repent. When you repent, you are fully owning the fact that you are wrong, and in addition, humbling yourself by asking for forgiveness. You are putting yourself in a position of need in relationship to the person you hurt. You are saying that you need their forgiveness, and that you have no right to be forgiven, and no power to make them do so. You are, in a sense, offering them power over you. Peter was very humble. He knows what he is talking about when he writes, years later:

God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble. 6Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that He may exalt you at the proper time, 7casting all your care on Him, because He cares about you. (1Pet 5:5-7, HCSB)

The second difference between Judas and Peter was faith. Despite the fact that Jesus predicted it all, neither Judas nor Peter understood what was happening when Jesus was put to death. But somehow, though he couldn’t see how, Peter believed that Jesus could overcome. He believed that Jesus would have mercy on him, and forgive his failure.

Judas, clearly, did not believe he could be forgiven. I believe he could have been. I believe that Jesus, with his question in the garden “Why have you come?” was inviting Judas to repent, even after his deed was done. Even after, Judas had the same opportunity that Peter had. But the truth was, he simply did not believe in Jesus, which is why he betrayed him in the first place.

So how do we apply these things to our lives today? I’ll offer a few thoughts, but let the Holy Spirit take you wherever he wants with this. Here are my thoughts:

The Bible says we have all sinned:

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)

We aren’t any better than Judas or Peter. We all stand on the same ground. The question is, will we be more like Judas, or Peter? Obviously, we want to be like Peter, but how?

  1. Seek repentance, and beware of regret. Regret doesn’t help you in any way. It leaves you with nothing. Repentance motivates, and brings you back to the Lord. If you find you are regretful but not repentant, I encourage you to ask God to help you repent instead. Repentance means you change, you turn away from your sin and toward God, even if that means sacrificing other things to do so.
  2. Seek humility. You cannot repent without humility. In repentance you admit your faults, you admit that your actions (or inactions) are wrong, and you are truly sorry for them. In addition, you give God (and sometimes other people) power over your life by admitting that you stand helplessly in need of his (and possibly their) forgiveness. To do that, you need humility.
  3. Believe that Jesus’ death was truly enough to make up for your sins. Trust what the Bible says:

Everyone who believes has God’s approval through faith in Jesus Christ.  There is no difference between people.  Because all people have sinned, they have fallen short of God’s glory.  They receive God’s approval freely by God’s grace through the price Christ Jesus paid to set us free from sin. (Romans 3:22-24, God’s Word Version)

Sometimes when I see people struggling to accept that God really forgives them, I ask this: “Are you saying that what Jesus suffered wasn’t enough for your sin? Are you saying he should have suffered more? Are you saying that what he did was somehow incomplete? If not, then stop messing around, and believe you are forgiven. Take him at his word, and receive his forgiveness.”

Peter humbly took Jesus as his word. More than that, he trusted the character of Jesus, that somehow, he could make it all OK. And that’s exactly what Jesus was doing at the very time that Peter betrayed him: making it all OK for anyone and everyone who will trust him.

FACING TRIALS

The Bible

We are all capable of being very self-righteous and very blind – you aren’t safe from it just because all your friends tell you that you are open minded. A whole set of things that is called “open minded” is, in fact, just a new set of beliefs that is actually closed to alternative views. That leads me to the other application. This passage may be an encouragement to you when you are unfairly judged and insulted by our culture, and people who have bought into the new cultural values.

 

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Matthew #95.  Matthew 26:57-66

We are continuing with the last night of Jesus life before the crucifixion.

None of this happened quite the way the enemies of Jesus had planned. Originally, they did not want to kill Jesus during the festival of unleavened bread, which started that very day, with the Passover (Matthew 26:5). Judas surprised them by delivering Jesus to them on Thursday night. It wasn’t ideal, but they decided to go with it. However, the timing forced them to have their trial that very night, because they wanted Jesus to be sentenced to death by the Romans before the Sabbath began, on Friday night. Otherwise, they would have violated the Sabbath by doing business with the Romans.

I want to pause and absorb this. In putting an innocent man to death, they were very concerned that they not break any of their man-made rules about the Sabbath. It gets even worse. It is almost fascinating to see how far the Jewish religious rulers were willing to go to keep pretending that what they did was righteous. It was wrong, by Jewish law, to hold a trial at night. But their desire to be done before the Sabbath forced them to do so. Even so, in order to maintain their sense of personal righteousness, they waited until after daybreak to pronounce the verdict, so they could claim that technically, it was not done at night (Mark 15:1).

Another rule of Jewish law was that everything had to be established by two or more witnesses:

15“One witness cannot establish any wrongdoing or sin against a person, whatever that person has done. A fact must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. (Deut 19:15, HCSB)

But the trial of Jesus was assembled so hastily that no one had time to brief the witnesses and coordinate their testimony. After several came forward with various accusations that did not match each other, finally two came forward who claimed that Jesus said something about tearing down the temple, and rebuilding it in three days. Mark records that even these two did not fully agree with one another (Mark 14:59). Jesus did, in fact, say something much like this, though the “temple” he was referring to was his body.

18So the Jews replied to Him, “What sign of authority will You show us for doing these things? ” 19Jesus answered, “Destroy this sanctuary, and I will raise it up in three days.”

20Therefore the Jews said, “This sanctuary took 46 years to build, and will You raise it up in three days? ” 21But He was speaking about the sanctuary of His body. 22So when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this. And they believed the Scripture and the statement Jesus had made. (John 2:18-22, HCSB)

During his trial, his accusers took this to be a statement by Jesus that he was God, since only God could accomplish a feat like destroying the temple and rebuilding it in three days. In other words, they thought it was blasphemy.

In all of this, Jesus did not defend himself. This fulfilled Isaiah 53:7

7He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth. Like a lamb led to the slaughter and like a sheep silent before her shearers, He did not open His mouth. 8He was taken away because of oppression and judgment; and who considered His fate? For He was cut off from the land of the living; He was struck because of my people’s rebellion. (Isa 53:7-8, HCSB)

Apparently there was still some question about whether or not the testimony of these two was good enough, therefore the High Priest asks Jesus directly if he is the Messiah. Jesus’ reply is quite clear:

64“You have said it,” Jesus told him. “But I tell you, in the future you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

 65Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? Look, now you’ve heard the blasphemy! (Matt 26:64-65, HCSB)

You can see that up to this point, the High Priest was a bit concerned about the quality of the evidence. But now he says: “Why do we still need witnesses?” In other words, everyone present (which was certainly more than two or three) heard Jesus’ words, giving them the required number of witnesses that would agree.

Here’s an interesting thought though: Jesus’ words would have been blasphemy only if they were not true. It’s only blasphemy to claim to be the Messiah if you are not the Messiah. It’s only blasphemy to claim to be God if you are not God. There’s no doubt that Jesus’ words would have been shocking and offensive to the Jewish people of time. But neither the  High Priest, nor any of the Sanhedrin (religious ruling council), bothered to investigate whether or not the statement of Jesus was true. They didn’t review the evidence of his miracles, or consider the record of his teachings. They simply pronounced him guilty because he threatened their world view. Their self-righteousness blinded them to the truth.

When I seek application from this passage, it runs in two different directions. First, how often are we like these religious leaders? How often do we refuse to let Jesus threaten our world-view? How often are we so self-righteous that we are blinded to the truth right in front of us?

Whenever we begin to be more concerned with our way of doing things, or our particular rules, than we are about God himself, we are in danger of becoming like the Sanhedrin. For instance some religious people might be so against dancing that they forget that some kinds of dancing might honor the Lord (as David did, when he danced in worship). Some of us might get so wrapped up in “honoring the Sabbath,” that we make Sundays the most burdensome day of the week. We might hold such strong views about baptism or communion, or worship styles, that we forget the very purpose of those things. Sometimes we mix up cultural conservatism and Christianity. The two share some (but not all) values, however they aren’t the same thing. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that to be a Christian, you must vote a certain way, or belong to a certain political party. To be a Christian, Jesus alone commands all your allegiance.

By the way, blind self-righteousness is not the exclusive domain of those who go to church. Our culture is in the midst of a transition to a new set of values, and many who embrace the new values are just as self-righteous and blind as traditionally religious people; sometimes, maybe more so.

After the Presidential election of 2016, a friend of mine made an angry post on Facebook, accusing all Trump supporters of being racist, misogynistic, dishonest and greedy. She then said, in the very next sentence, that she wanted to live in a world where people respected and cared for each other, regardless of how different they were, completely missing the irony that she herself disrespected, made assumptions about, and judged, those who voted differently than her.

The point I’m making is that we are all capable of being very self-righteous and very blind – you aren’t safe from it just because all your friends tell you that you are open minded. A whole set of things that is called “open minded” is, in fact, just a new set of beliefs that is actually closed to alternative views. That leads me to the other application. This passage may be an encouragement to you when you are unfairly judged and insulted by our culture, and people who have bought into the new cultural values. Bible-believing Christians have been mocked for many years in most areas of popular culture. If you bring this up with non-Christians, however, you are likely to be insulted as a whiner, and told you are the one in power, and you are the one oppressing others.

The truth is, our culture has begun a radical shift away from Biblical values and morals. Christian thinking and Christian values are increasingly being pushed to the fringes of society. It is becoming more and more acceptable to mock and insult Christians. We are accused of being “haters” for simply believing what the Bible says about sexual morality. We are accused of being sexist and racist and homophobic and narrow minded. Examples of sexist and racist Christians can be found, of course, but in general, our culture is becoming inclined to believe those things of all of us, whether or not it is true.

I believe this will get only worse for some time to come in Western Culture. There is a vast temptation to join with this cultural shift so that the people around us don’t think badly of us. Many Christians have already given up the Bible as a significant source of truth, because they don’t want to look bad in our current culture.

It is helpful for us to remember Jesus, who was accused utterly unfairly. The accusations against him, and against first Century Christians, were exactly the reverse of the truth. But they came anyway. How will we handle such things when they come to us? I believe the example of Jesus should be a comfort to us. The accusations against him were unfair and unjust. They were lying. But Jesus did not fight back. As Peter writes:

21For you were called to this, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in His steps. 22He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth; 23when He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He was suffering, He did not threaten but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly. 24He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; you have been healed by His wounds. 25For you were like sheep going astray, but you have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls. (1Pet 2:21-25, HCSB)

Peter encourages his fellow believers repeatedly as they face the ridicule and slander of those who reject Christian truth:

1Therefore, since Christ suffered in the flesh, equip yourselves also with the same resolve — because the one who suffered in the flesh has finished with sin — 2in order to live the remaining time in the flesh, no longer for human desires, but for God’s will. 3For there has already been enough time spent in doing what the pagans choose to do: carrying on in unrestrained behavior, evil desires, drunkenness, orgies, carousing, and lawless idolatry. 4So they are surprised that you don’t plunge with them into the same flood of wild living — and they slander you. 5They will give an account to the One who stands ready to judge the living and the dead. (1Pet 4:1-5, HCSB)

Once more:

12Dear friends, don’t be surprised when the fiery ordeal comes among you to test you as if something unusual were happening to you. 13Instead, rejoice as you share in the sufferings of the Messiah, so that you may also rejoice with great joy at the revelation of His glory. 14If you are ridiculed for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. (1Pet 4:12-14, HCSB)

Let the Holy Spirit apply his Word to your life today.