Dedicated to the Gospel

Acts 16 verse 40:

 After Paul and Silas came out of the prison, they went to Lydia’s house, where they met with the brothers and sisters and encouraged them.

Paul and Silas met with the believers and ENCOURAGED them. The reason that passage is noteworthy is because of what happened the day before. Paul and Silas encountered the slave girl who had a “spirit of divination” and made money for her owners by telling fortunes. She began following Paul and those who were with him everywhere they went and continually shouted, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.” This went on for several days until Paul became so annoyed that he finally turned to slave girl and commanded the spirit to come out of her… in the name of Jesus Christ.

When her owners realized they had lost this source of income, they seized Paul and Silas, dragged them into the town square and before the local authorities, made false accusations against them, and incited the crowd against them. Then the authorities had them beaten with rods and according to some Bible translations, Acts 16 verse 23 says they were also severely flogged.

Of course we know what flogging entails because of what Jesus endured prior to being crucified. Paul and Silas suffered the same sort of wounds as Jesus. They probably had multiple, deep lacerations on their backs and sides. We’ve all fallen and scraped our knees and elbows and when does it usually hurt the worst? It’s usually worse the day after, when the wounds begin to get irritated and scab over. So there’s no doubt in my mind that these men were in great pain.  On top of that they would have been weakened from the loss of blood. Yet according to the scripture, after their release from the prison, they went to Lydia’s house and offered encouragement to the believers. There’s only one word I can think of to describe something like that: DEDICATION.

As many times as I’ve read the book of Acts, I never noticed that before. I never noticed how Paul and Silas went to Lydia’s house probably less than 24 hours after being beaten and severely flogged, and in spite of their would which no doubt were very painful, they preached and taught and shared the gospel of Jesus Christ. So that raises a question. How dedicated to Jesus are we? How dedicated are WE to sharing the gospel? Are we dedicated enough to share the gospel in the midst of enormous pain? I don’t know about you, but if I had been flogged and beaten like that, I’d be looking for some pain killers. I’d be looking for a place to hole up until I had healed and fully recovered. I’d tell myself that I could go back to preaching the gospel……..after taking time off to heal. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But the fact that Paul and Silas didn’t take a few days off to heal before going to Lydia’s house to encourage the other believers speaks to their incredible dedication to Christ.

So again, how dedicated are we when it comes to sharing the gospel? It’s not likely that many of us will ever be made to suffer the sort of cruel pain as Paul and Silas, though the Bible does leave open that possibility. We may or may not have to endure that level of pain but most of us will, at some point, have to suffer through something. It could be the physical pain of an injury or illness. It might be emotional pain or psychological trauma. Pain of any kind can distract us from sharing Jesus Christ. My wife and I have been greatly distressed these past few months as we await the outcome of our custody case involving our granddaughter. I can speak from personal experience when I tell you that it is difficult at times to fight through that emotional pain and share the light of Jesus Christ with other people. When we go through pain, physical or emotional, all you want to do is focus on the source of the pain. And sometimes, we just want to shut down until the pain is gone. I’m sure Paul and Silas were grinding it out. They were fighting through the pain. But as great as their pain must have been, their love for Christ was greater.

So how dedicated are we? We’d do well to remember Paul and Silas’ example. Though their pain had to have been worse than anything we can imagine, they were focused on something far greater than themselves. And that’s our lesson. No matter how small or great our pain may be, God is greater. I repeat, no matter how small or great our pain may be, whether it’s physical or emotional pain, God is greater. And because the Spirit of God lives in all Christians the moment we ask Jesus to come live in our hearts, we can call on God and ask Him to give us the strength we need to help us fight through our pain and stay focused on Him. And once we do that, no one should ever be able to question our dedication.

Reforms We Can Live Without

In 1 John chapter 4, the Word of God tells us:

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,  but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.

God, the deity of Christ, and the Bible are being attacked, criticized, and challenged like never before. It’s happening here. It’s happening abroad. It’s happening outside the church, and it’s even happening within the walls of the church as well.

There is a very quiet but growing movement being promoted by non-Christians and surprisingly, even by some Christian churches, that calls for the reformation and modernization of Christianity. I read about this recently and here are some of the changes being recommended:

Pastors should stop preaching about heaven and hell.

Stop preaching the Bible as the absolute authoritative word of God.

Stop making the claim that the Bible is inerrant.

Stop preaching Christ as the only way to God.

Stop preaching sermons that make people uncomfortable.

And the lists concludes with this preposterous claim – Christianity must adopt these changes if it hopes to survive. 

Why do I say it’s preposterous? The Christian faith has survived for 2000 years because of its universal relevance, which simply means that the Bible and Christian doctrine are as relevant now as they were in the first century, and that there has never been an age in which they were not relevant. I would challenge anyone to point to a time in human history since Christ’s incarnation and show me a period of time when the Bible wasn’t relevant. And yet these so-called reformists are saying that Christianity must now adapt to modern culture in order to survive. John MacArthur had this to say on the subject: “The Bible does not need to adapt to modern times. Modern man needs to go back to Bible times.”

When I read that list and got to the part that says, “Stop preaching Christ.………..” that was as far as I needed to go. The changes being promoted by these so-called reformers are not from God. To stop preaching Christ is to effectively deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. It denies His deity. It denies the cross and the Resurrection. It denies that Jesus is Lord and it denies the fact that someday, Jesus is coming again. If these proposed changes were some sort of litmus test, they’d fail on that one single point alone. We can never stop preaching Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father.

Someone may ask, “What about Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation? Wasn’t reform needed then?” The answer is yes, reform was needed back then. By the time Martin Luther wrote his 95 Theses, the church had begun to stray off course. “So what’s the difference between the Protestant Reformation of the early 16th century and this modern day call for reform?”  The answer is very clear. Martin Luther and the other reformers turned to the Bible as their point of reference. They went to the Bible and sought out its truths. These modern day reformers are, for all intents and purposes, denouncing the Bible.

In 2 Timothy chapter 4, Paul wrote:  For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

It appears that time is near, if it hasn’t already come. I reject with all my heart and soul every single one of those recommendations. Every pastor and every Christian must emphasize heaven and hell, and not water down any part of any sermon concerning the reality and horror of hell. We must stand our ground on the authority of the Bible as the absolute word of God. We must boldly defend Christ, for if we deny Him, He will deny us. If that makes people uncomfortable, then maybe a little discomfort is what they need. We must pray that God will open their eyes to the truth.

Yes, it may cause some discomfort, so we must make every effort to teach and preach the truth of the Gospel in a spirit of love and with genuine concern for those who might be corrupted and lost because of this kind of false teaching. Our nature as men is to bristle and get defensive when challenged. We must avoid that type of response. We want to win people to Christ, not push them further away. Our conduct and speech must be a reflection of Christ. All we do is for His glory. Do people see Christ in us? That’s our litmus test.

Contrary to the notion that Christianity must adopt these changes if it hopes to survive, I say any church that adopts these changes would cease to be a Christian church. Peter warned the church about false teachers in his second letter to the church:

But there were also false prophets in Israel, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will cleverly teach destructive heresies and even deny the Master who bought them. In this way, they will bring sudden destruction on themselves. Many will follow their evil teaching and shameful immorality. And because of these teachers, the way of truth will be slandered. In their greed they will make up clever lies to get hold of your money. But God condemned them long ago, and their destruction will not be delayed.

Beware of false teachers and false doctrines. Know what God’s word says. That’s the only way to defend it. When you make your stand, stand on His truth!

 

The Great Gift

Genesis 22

Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance. Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there; and we will worship and return to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

“God will provide for Himself the lamb.” Basically, Abraham said to Isaac, “God will provide the sacrifice.” We all know the rest of the story. God did indeed provide the sacrifice. After the angel of the Lord stopped Abraham from sacrificing the life of his son Isaac on the altar, Abraham looked up and saw a ram caught in some bushes by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and sacrificed it instead. Afterwards, Abraham called that place, “The Lord Will Provide.”

The ram was sacrificed in Isaac’s place and was a foreshadow of Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross. By providing the sacrifice, God gave Abraham a gift, the gift of life, the life of his son.

Two thousand years ago, God gave all of humanity a great gift. But before a gift can actually be considered a gift, two things must happen. First, someone must give. That’s been taken care of. God gave His son who in turn gave His life for us. God provided the sacrifice. The other thing that has to happen for a gift to become a gift is that it must be received. Until the gift is received, it is only an offer and it’s an offer that’s only good in this lifetime. We can do nothing to earn the gift and that’s good news because we could never do enough to earn it. That’s why we call it grace. And it’s grace that saves us; God’s gift of grace. It is the greatest possible gift we could have ever hoped for and it’s received through faith in Jesus Christ.

Have you ever received a box at Christmas or on your birthday and opened it and discovered not just one gift inside, but several? As we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ this coming Sunday, let’s look closely at how much is packed into this gift of grace. When we open the package, we find not just one gift, but many.

There are the many lessons Jesus taught while He lived on earth. God could have forsaken sinful mankind, but He didn’t. He gave us His son and He gave us the Holy Bible with all its truths and principles to guide us and help us live God honoring lives.

There was Jesus’ willingness to suffer the punishment we deserve, which put his gift of love on display for all to see and was so vividly described by the prophet Isaiah: .

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed. Isaiah 53:5

And of course, there is the gift of salvation and redemption through His death on the cross.

But perhaps the greatest of all the gifts that came packaged with the gift of grace, the reason we celebrate Easter Sunday, is the resurrection. Without the resurrection, there is no Christian faith. There is no hope. But Jesus did defeat death. In the 11th chapter of the gospel of John, Jesus spoke these words of eternal life: I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;  and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. That is our hope. That is God’s great gift of grace!

The Resurrection Story

The Resurrection Story

Beginning with John 20, verses 1 and 2

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

While John mentions that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb, he never said or implied that she went alone. There were other women with her as confirmed in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Luke does not mention any of the women’s names until later in the account.

Matthew said there was a violent earthquake and that an angel of the Lord rolled back the stone at the entrance to the tomb. According to Mark, we know when it happened. It happened before the women arrived at the tomb because they found that the stone had already been rolled away, according to John.

Matthew’s account is not completely chronological. And in fact, none of the gospels are a second by second, minute by minute transcript of what took place that morning. Keep in mind too that it only takes us a few minutes to read about the Resurrection and everything that went on. In real time, all these events actually took place over a much longer period of time. There is no mention of Roman soldiers lying in front of the empty tomb pretending to be dead in any of the other gospels. Matthew is the only one who mentions that. As far we can tell, the soldiers apparently picked themselves up off the ground and were long gone when the women got there. Then the angel that had been sitting on the stone frightening the daylights out of the soldiers went inside the tomb, or disappeared, or whatever it is that angels do to keep from being seen.

At the end of the 23rd chapter of Luke, the scripture tells us how the women knew which tomb Jesus had been placed in. Verse 55: The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how Jesus’ body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment. This refutes modern day arguments against the resurrection of Jesus which claim that Jesus was not raised from the dead, but that the women merely went to the wrong tomb. They knew where Jesus was.

And at the beginning of Luke chapter 24, Luke continues: On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.

When the women went inside the tomb, they encountered two men in bright white clothing.

As Luke explained: While they (the women) were wondering about this; suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’Then they remembered his words. When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others.

Remember the part of that passage that says, “In their fright, they bowed down with their faces to the ground.” We going to come back to that.

The parallel to this in Matthew’s gospel said they ran quickly from the tomb to go find the disciples. Matthew also said Jesus met them along the way and the women worshiped at His feet. But based on what we read from John’s gospel in the first paragraph, it seems that Mary Magdalene left the other women behind and continued on to go look for John and Peter. From Matthew’s account, it seems that the other women must have immediately recognized Jesus. But as we’ll see in a moment, John says later on in chapter 20 that Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener. So it’s most likely that she ran right by Jesus in her rush to go find John and Peter. In those disputed verses in Mark chapter 16 (verses 9 thru 20), verse 9 says that Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene. There is no indication that she immediately recognized Jesus, however.

When she found John and Peter, she told them about the empty tomb. Continuing with John 20 verse 3: So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He (speaking of John) bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then (verse 6) Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

 Most commentators agree that in verse 8 where it’s written that John saw and believed, it means he believed that the tomb was in fact, empty; NOT that Jesus had risen. The very next verse says they did not yet understand.

But if Mary Magdalene had seen and recognized the risen Lord, if she had seen Jesus and worshiped at His feet with the other women like Matthew described, it makes no sense that she would have told Peter and John that someone took His body. So it’s reasonable to conclude that she did indeed continue on to go look for John and Peter after she and the other women left the tomb.

We can conclude also that Mary returned to the tomb with Peter and John. Or at least, she wasn’t very far behind. In the very next verse, (John 20, verse 11), John said Mary stood outside the tomb crying. We can also conclude that she remained behind after Peter and John left. She is now alone.

John 20, verse 11 continues to tell us: As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

This is not the angelic encounter described by Luke and Matthew. When we look closely at the gospels, we can conclude that this was her second visit to the tomb that morning. The fact that John did not mention the other women here is inconclusive because he didn’t mention them earlier either. John did say Mary saw two angels in white, but notice that he did not give any indication that she was frightened by them. Usually, whenever the Bible says someone saw an angel, the very next words are…..and they were afraid. And in fact, Luke did say the women, in fright, bowed at their feet. But John said nothing like that here, which leads me to believe that this was her second encounter with the two angels. The first time she saw them was when she first arrived at the tomb with the other women, as we’re told in the other gospel accounts.

This passage confirms then, that for whatever reason, when Jesus appeared to the group of women as they ran from the tomb, Mary did not immediately recognize Jesus. If she had recognized Him, why is she now asking about His body? The reason is this: Mary, like John and Peter, did not yet understand that Jesus had risen. Even though Jesus was standing right in front of her, the scripture says she mistook him for the gardener.

(Picking up in John 20 verse 15) Jesus asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

I believe verses 11 through 18 are in chronological order. Some have suggested that verses 11-18 should follow verse 1 to be chronological. That makes no sense. Again, why would she then run to Peter and John and tell them someone took the body, if she had seen Him alive and recognized who He was?

So Mary returned to wherever it was Peter and John and the other disciples were gathered. She went to the disciples with the news I have seen the Lord. The disciples had probably been scattered prior to this time, with no more than two or three of them in the same place. Remember, Jesus predicted they would scatter when He quoted the prophecy from Ezekiel the night before His death. “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” But now it appears that they’re all in one place. Luke’s gospel tells us what took place when Mary got there, and he now identifies the women by name.

Again, reading from Luke 24

When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles.  But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

It seemed like nonsense because, according to John, they still did not understand what had happened. As I said previously, they all appear to have gathered in one place from what we just read in Luke. We know Jesus appeared to a large group of His disciples not long after this, and they were all in one place. It may have taken a while to get everyone together. When the other women went to look for the disciples to tell them this news, they may have had to split up because it’s very likely that the disciples had divided up into smaller groups.

Regardless of how it all came about, they told the Eleven that they had seen and talked to Jesus. This took place after the other women saw Jesus and worshiped at His feet after leaving the tomb, and after Mary finally recognized and spoke with Jesus.

Now we turn out attention to Peter. When the women told everyone they had seen Jesus, that got Peter’s attention. Luke said he got up and ran to the tomb when he heard what the women said. I think this was his second visit to the tomb that morning because Luke made no mention of John going with him. Luke also said nothing about Mary Magdalene running behind him. I don’t believe Luke would have missed those details. He was the only gospel writer to mention the repentance of the second criminal during the crucifixion. Plus, we’re told in John’s gospel that Mary first went to John and Peter which seems to imply that the other disciples were not present when she told them someone had taken Jesus’ body. So based on that and based on the movements of Mary Magdalene that morning, I believe Peter visited the tomb not once, but twice. The first time was when Mary Magdalene told him and John that Jesus’ body was missing, and the second time was when he heard all the women talking about having seen and spoken with Jesus as described by Luke.

It only makes sense that Peter was anxious to see Jesus. What happened three days before this? Peter denied Jesus, not once, but three times. So I think Peter was eager to see if it was really true. Because if it was really true, he needed to get right with Jesus. They didn’t part on good terms the night before Jesus was crucified.

How anxious was Peter to see Jesus again? In John chapter 21 beginning with verse 7 the scripture tells us just how eager he was:

Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water. The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards.

I’d say if Peter was eager enough to see Jesus that he was willing to swim 100 yards to shore, he was eager enough to make two trips to the empty tomb.

In what you’ve just read, I’ve tried my best to take Biblical evidence and come to what I believe are logical conclusions. If I missed anything or made an error, as W.A. Criswell once said, we’ll settle it in Heaven!

The reason I’ve attempted to describe the resurrection in one single account is because – even though there are four gospels – there is only one truth. Jesus came into the world. He walked on the earth as man. He was crucified for our sins, but on the third day He rose from the grave and ascended into Heaven. That’s the truth. God could have easily inspired one writer to document the life of Jesus, but He didn’t. He inspired four, knowing full well that people would come along in ages to come and would claim that the four gospels contradict one another, or that they’re inconsistent, or that they contain errors. And it’s not just non-believers and critics who say this. There are Christians out there today saying the same thing. That does not surprise God any at all. The truth is, the gospels do not contradict each other. They complement one another. We praise God for inspiring four writers to write four accounts of the life of Jesus because it only makes us work that much harder and dig that much deeper into the scripture to find the truth about Jesus Christ!

What’s Holding You Back?

For those who are not familiar with the Texas Motorplex, it’s an NHRA sanctioned 1/4 mile race track in Ennis, Texas, which is a few miles south of Dallas. In the world of professional drag racing, there are two classes of dragsters that can reach speeds close to 300 miles per hour, the Top Fuel dragsters and the Funny Cars, and another, the Pro Stockers, that consistently hit speeds well over 200 miles per hour. You have to be able to bring these cars to a stop in hurry so they don’t run off the end of the track and to do that, they deploy parachutes that are attached to the rear of the cars.

So I was at the Motorplex a few years ago watching the races when during one particular race, one of the cars in the Funny Car class suffered a parachute malfunction right off the starting line. He was probably no more than ten feet off the starting line when before his parachute accidentally dropped out and deployed. Needless to say, he lost the race. It’s kind of hard to win a drag race with your parachute holding you back.

Of course in the Apostle Paul’s day, there were no top fuel dragsters or race cars but Paul often compared our Christian walk to running a foot race. He used that analogy in several of his letters as a way to illustrate his own personal growth as a Christian. In 1 Corinthians chapter 9 for instance, Paul wrote: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

Paul used that same analogy again his when Judaizers tried to convince the Christians at the Galatian church that they were required to keep the Old Covenant Law in addition to their faith in Christ. He asked in his letter to that church, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?” They were being hindered in their growth – held back if you will – by false teaching.

It happens to us as well in our own time. There are things we do and things we fail to do that hinder our growth as Christians. There are things that hold us back from being the kind of Christians that God has called us to be. This has been true in my own walk and I know I’m not alone. No one is immune to it.

So just what are some of things that hold us back? The first and most obvious answer is sin. The Bible makes it very clear that sin hinders our fellowship with God and this is is expressed very clearly in the first Epistle of John:

1 John 1

If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

Regardless of whether it’s an unconfessed sin, something that we’d prefer not to think of as sin, or something that we’re trying to keep concealed, sin hinders our growth as Christians by breaking our fellowship with God. And it will hold us back until it’s been acknowledged, confessed, and dealt with in accordance with Biblical teaching.

There are some things that are not as obvious. And there’s one thing in particular. Again, we can look to the first letter of John:

1 John 4

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

Jesus said that we’re to “love the Lord with all our heart, all our souls, and all our minds.” And He also said “we’re to love our neighbors as ourselves.” All too often, we fail to do that. The failure to love as we’re commanded holds us back in our growth as Christians. Yet, love is at the top of the list of attributes that identify a genuine Christian in Galatians chapter 5, what Paul referred to as the “Fruit of the Spirit”. It’s quite possible that a person who professes Jesus Christ as his or her Savior but whose faith is not yielding the kind of love highlighted in scripture might not be saved UNLESS…….it’s something that God is working on in that person’s heart through the conviction of the Holy Spirit. But that’s another matter for another time.

Do we display that type of love all the time? I know I don’t. Sometimes we’re just trying grind our way through a tough day or difficult week, and we all go through seasons when it’s hard to be the loving people of God we’re called to be. We all go through dry spells. What we need to look for in ourselves is the desire to love God and love others as we’re commanded to do in scripture. The Bible says we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose (Philippians 2). 

We’re also commanded to examine ourselves to see whether we’re in the faith. And Paul explained the reason for self examination with this question, “Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? (2 Corinthians 13) So when we examine ourselves, when we’re working out our salvation with fear and trembling, we must ask ourselves, “Is my faith yielding the love that God desires? Or is the lack of Christ-like love holding me back?” And we must ask God to reveal that to us as well. 

It’s not easy. I struggle with this. We all do. After all, how can you love someone who doesn’t have any use for you? How can you love someone who despises you? How can you love someone who treats you as though you don’t exist? How can you love someone who only says they love you but only if you give something in return?

Let me ask those questions another way. How can you love someone who would take a thorny vine and wrap it around your head and grind it into your forehead? How could you love someone who spits on you and beats on you and whips you like an animal? How could you love someone who would nail your hands to a hunk of wood and then taunt you during the final moments of your life? Yet, Jesus did. He even loved those who crucified Him. “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

He could have stopped it at any time but he didn’t. He loved us too much to put a stop to it. Because we so often fail to love others as perfectly as He loves us, He had to become our sacrifice. He had to bear our sins and our failures and our flaws because they hold us back. But at the cross, nothing could hold Jesus back and in turn, He held nothing back from us. He gave His own life for our lives and by doing so, He was the model of perfect love.

From Luke 23

Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.”

The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”

There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

That passage from Luke is one of my favorite because it speaks to the immeasurable love of Jesus Christ, that even in the midst of His own pain and suffering, as He was dying on the cross, He answered the one who called on His name and saved him from eternal condemnation.

I’m sure many sermons have been preached about the criminal who Jesus saved that day. But so there’s no confusion, this isn’t about him. This is about the criminal who was not saved, the one who said to Jesus, “You’re the Messiah? Then get us down off these crosses!”  He’s the one I’m referring to here as the “other criminal.” 

Very little is known about the other criminal and in fact, we don’t very much about either of them. We don’t know either of their names. We only that both men were under a sentence of death. They were getting what their deeds deserved. The one who said, “Jesus, remember me.” said so. One day we will know his name. We will meet him in Heaven. He is with Jesus at this very moment. He was very close to being eternally separated from God but in the final hours of his life, he discovered grace. He knows the saving power of Jesus first hand.

But what about the other criminal? We tend to dismiss him and focus more on the one who cried out to Jesus for salvation. But have you ever wondered about that other criminal? Have you ever wondered who he was?  I have. And I’ve discovered who he was. He was me. Just like his partner in crime, the other criminal cried out to Jesus too, but for different reasons. All he wanted was for Jesus to get them out of the jam they were in. He just wanted to save his own skin. I’ve done the exact same thing. I’ve cried out to God on more than one occasion to get me out of some mess I had gotten myself into. For years I only prayed when I wanted something. I was just like the other criminal. And according to the Bible, we’re all just like the other criminal. In Romans 3, God’s word says:

There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
All have turned away,
they have together become worthless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.

And just a little further down, in verse 23, Paul wrote, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Now we’re all very familiar with Romans 3:23. But if you read that one single verse and stop right there, it almost paints a portrait of hopelessness. It very aptly describes who the other criminal was, and it also describes who we are. We are fallen sinners who can never be right in the eyes God, not on our own. You can’t read Romans 3:23 and stop there though. You have to read on, because in the following verse is found the message of hope. Verse 24: “And all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”

It’s almost tempting to say that on one side of Jesus hung the criminal represented by Romans 3:23, and on the other side hung the criminal represented by Romans 3:24. But the truth is, verse 23 is an accurate depiction of both criminals. Just like all of us, both men sinned and fell short of the glory of God. Both were condemned to death, not just by the Roman authorities, but also by God. They both cried out to Jesus and asked to be spared. But that’s where the similarities end. One cried out to be spared from the cross, the other cried out to be spared from eternal condemnation. One cried out because he wanted  a little more time in this world. The other cried out for eternal life. And He was the one who was justified, who was made right, by grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

On one side of Jesus then, we see redemption. On the other side, rejection. On one side of Jesus we see eternal salvation. On the other, eternal condemnation. Like those two criminals, everyone has a choice to make. To paraphrase the word of God spoken through Moses to the people of Israel: Set before us is life and death, blessings and curses. Choose Life!

Strengthening the Shield

The pastor of my church has been preaching a sermon series on the Armor of God (Ephesians 6), and he recently focused on the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation. The shield shown in the picture is a replica that might be used for ceremonial purposes, while an authentic, period correct knight’s shield like this would likely be found in a museum. Notice how nice and shiny and pristine this shield is.

A real shield that’s seen combat looks nothing like the one in the picture. A shield that was used in warfare by an ancient foot soldier is going to have creases, dents, dings, scratches, gouges. I say this because if my own shield of faith was an actual metal shield right now, it would probably more closely resemble the hood of a car after a north Texas hail storm.

Jesus taught in John 15,“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” And He finished that teaching with a reference to Psalms 35 and 69 that speak of one who is hated for no reason. I’ve experienced some of that recently along with some other things I just don’t understand. I’ve experience hatred from people I hardly know. I’ve been blamed for things I had no hand in. And we’ve had to deal with some pain within our family. My shield of faith and helmet of salvation have taken a beating the past few months, and I ask you to pray and ask God to hammer out some of the dents.

As I’ve come to learn, the very things that attack our spiritual shield of faith are the things that make our faith stronger. How so? With an actual metal shield, dents and creases do not weaken the metal. They make it stronger (though aesthetically, it may not be much to look at after a couple of battles). The dents and dings and creases caused by repeated blows from swords and hammers and axes and clubs would actually increase the strength of the metal through a process called work hardening. It’s a process that’s still used today, though with much more modern  tooling. The more a piece of metal is bent and creased and hammered on, the harder and stronger it becomes. Over time, ancient metal smiths learned how to work harden metal using hammers and dollies and anvils as a means of adding strength to objects like…….shields, and helmets, and swords.

The same principle apples to our spiritual shield of faith. As we go through the battles of trials and adversity, our faith in God is made stronger. Bad news from your doctor, a betrayal by a friend, the loss of a job, an adult child who no longer speaks to you; all of these can feel like hammer blows to your shield of faith and let there be no doubt, Satan tries to use these kinds of trials to get you to drop your shield, to throw away your faith. Remember, the stresses that bend and stretch and compress a piece of metal make it stronger and in the same way – so long as we hold onto the shield of faith – God can use the stresses in our lives life to draw us closer to Him and to strengthen our relationship with Him. The trials of life increase our dependence on His mercies and grace, and they teach us to rely on His strength instead of our own.

James wrote that the testing of our faith produces perseverance, or patience as other translations state. A knight’s shield in a museum on static display is representative of a faith that has never been put to the test. It looks good but it’s never been battle tested. Likewise, a shield used for ceremonial purposes is like faith that is for appearance’s sake only. It’s all for show and like a museum piece, it really has no function. God allows trials and adversity to come into our lives NOT because he wants to hurt us or punish us. He allows them in order to test us. And ultimately, He allows them in order to strengthen us. Men and women of strong faith, in the power of God, use that bad news from the doctor to minister to others. People of strong faith pray for the friend who betrayed them. People of strong faith turn to God for provision when their jobs end suddenly. People of strong faith give grace to an adult child who has cut off all contact.

James went on to write, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” The hammer blows against the shield of faith come by way of trials and adversity and hardships. Sometimes we may wish there weren’t so many or that they could come a little less often. But when they do come, we can be assured it’s not because God has left our side, or because He has abandoned us. The scripture is very clear on that. God will never leave us or abandon us. No. For the faithful, committed Christian, when the hammer blows come against the shield of faith, it’s a sure sign that God is by our side!


Living Without Hope

In 1916, a college football game between tiny Cumberland College (located in Lebanon, Tennessee) and Georgia Tech resulted in the most lopsided score in college football history. Georgia Tech won the game 222 – 0. That is not a typo. Two-hundred and twenty-two to nothing. There’s more to the story though.

You see, just prior to the beginning of the 1916 season, Cumberland College discontinued its football program. However, just as colleges and universities still do today, Cumberland had signed an agreement to play Georgia Tech a few years prior to the 1916 season. But Georgia Tech’s athletic director and head coach John Heisman (yes, THAT John Heisman as in….Heisman Trophy), would not allow Cumberland to cancel its game, threatening a lawsuit if they did, even though the football team had been disbanded and the coaching staff had dispersed.

Heisman not only coached Georgia Tech’s football team, he was also the baseball coach and it’s generally believed that Heisman wanted to pay Cumberland back for a 22 – 0 defeat that Georgia Tech’s baseball team had suffered at the hands of the Cumberland College baseball team the year before. Heisman, along with several sports writers, accused Cumberland of using professional baseball players as ringers and he was eager to settle the score. He even offered to pay all the expenses of the Cumberland players out of his own pocket. In that day and time, even large colleges operated on a shoe string budget and could ill afford the expenses associated with a lawsuit. A lawsuit would have certainly forced a small school like Cumberland to close its doors. So rather than face off against Georgia Tech in a court of law, one of the students was persuaded by Cumberland administrators to put together a team and head off to Atlanta and face Georgia Tech on the football field.

And so this student, a young man by the name of George E. Allen (no relation to the NFL coach George Allen of later years), put together a team of scrubs who had absolutely no experience playing, or knowledge of, the game of football whatsoever. All told, Allen, who was both player and coach, was only able to round up 14 men, most of whom were members of his fraternity. That same Georgia Tech team would go on to win the national championship the following year, so it’s not difficult to imagine how one sided the game was.

What the Cumberland students did might seem insane to us; they committed themselves to something that was completely hopeless. They didn’t stand a chance and they knew it going in. It might seem insane and we might think we’d never make a commitment to a hopeless cause. But here’s the reality: People do it every day.

In Isaiah chapter 55, God poses this question: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and labor for that which does not satisfy?” This doesn’t mean that God is saying that we should only spend money on the most basic necessities. Within the context of Isaiah 55, it’s a question that asks why we pursue things that offer no hope, no hope for an empty soul, no hope for redemption, no hope for reconciliation with God. There are things that matter in this world, and things that don’t. Why waste time and energy on the things that don’t matter? That’s what God is really asking.

Centuries before Isaiah lived, Solomon came to realize that the pursuit of anything not done for the glory of God is meaningless and he summed it all up in Ecclesiastes: If we are living apart from God, nothing we do on this earth matters, regardless of what we do or how much we have. Apart from God, all earthly pursuits are but hopeless causes.

Think about it like this: If you were stuck in a dead end job with no hope for a raise or promotion, if there was never a chance for any sort of advancement, you’d look for another job. No one would deliberately remain in a hopeless situation if they had to the power to do something about it. But here’s something else to think about. How many people in the world today don’t realize they are in a hopeless situation? We might be tempted to think that all of this only applies to those who are neck deep in sinful living. And that is true. If they do not turn away from their sin, they are without hope. They will be separated from God for all eternity. But just as hopeless are all the good and decent people who live good lives, who go to work and pay their taxes, who teach their kids right from wrong, who treat their mates with love and respect, but yet they’ve failed to do the one thing that matters most; they have not accepted Jesus Christ. No matter how good and moral and decent they are, if they willfully turn away from Christ, they are as hopelessly lost as the worst sinners we can imagine. As Solomon pointed out, all that they do is meaningless.

That’s not what the world wants to hear, but it is what the world needs to hear. People need to hear that a life without God is a life without hope. They may not like it, but they need to hear the truth. And they need to hear the message of hope found in Jesus Christ.

In John 5 verse 24, Jesus said, Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. To turn from death to life, from condemnation to salvation, that is the message of hope. Only Jesus can offer that. He takes away hopelessness, and replaces it with hope!

In the battle between the flesh and the spirit, we ask Jesus to step into the gap between the flesh and the spirit so the spirit of God within us may prevail.

The Consistency of Scripture

“Have faith in God,” Jesus said. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. 

Those two paragraphs are a compilation of scripture verses from the New Testament. But notice how it all flows together in to a central theme, faith, even though the passages were lifted from six different New Testament books. Granted, four of the passages are from letters written by the Apostle Paul (and perhaps five since it’s possible that Paul may have also written Hebrews), and there is a consistent content in all his letters, but still, you cannot do this with any other body of literature that I’m aware of. You cannot lift a paragraph from a chapter of a book written by Hemingway or Shakespeare and stitch it into another chapter of the same book and have it make any sense. It would be noticeable that something is out of place.

In his Forward to the most recent reprint of W.A. Criswell’s book, The Scarlet Thread Through the Bible, The Gospel Project’s managing editor Trevin Wax wrote, “The Bible is not simply a collection of interesting stories about morality but one overarching story about salvation found only in Jesus Christ.” This is not to say you can do this with every single passage or verse in the Bible. But because the Bible is the revelation of God to humanity from Genesis to Revelation, it is possible to select certain passages and group them with other passages and verses in a way that still flows together in a meaningful way as if what you’re reading was originally written that way to begin with.

These are the passages that were compiled to create the opening paragraphs:

“Have faith in God,” Jesus said. “Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (Mark 11:22-23)

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1-3)

 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence. (Ephesians 3:12)

 The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:6-7)

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

Here’s another example, picking up where that last verse from Romans 5 leaves off:

And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. May your unfailing love be with us, Lord, even as we put our hope in you. And now these three remain, faith, hope, love. But the greatest of these is love. Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.

That was a blend of Psalms and New Testament passages.

To be clear,  I’m not attempting to reorder the word of God. In the last chapter of the book of Revelation, we’re warned about taking away from or adding to God’s word. The scarlet thread that Criswell used to illustrate the consistency of the message of salvation in scripture is a thread that is unbroken. A piece of thread can be balled up in the hand, coiled, or tied in a knot, but it is still an unbroken thread. And so it is with scripture. You can take certain select passages of scripture and arrange them with other verses and passages and the message being conveyed remains unbroken. No, I’m not trying to rearrange the word of God or take anything out of context. I’m simply pointing out the beauty that is God’s word. I’m highlighting the consistency of the message of salvation. Even when you take parts of passages and group them with others parts of scripture, the message is still unmistakable and undeniable.

Only God could write have written a book like that!

 
http://storage.cloversites.com/firstchurchofchrist1/documents/The%20Scarlet%20Thread.pdf

Jesus, Light of the World

From Daniel chapter 10:

On the twenty-fourth day of the first month, as I was standing on the bank of the great river, the Tigris, I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. His body was like topaz, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.

From Revelation chapter 1:

I saw someone among the lampstands who was “like a Son of Man.” He was dressed in a long robe. He had a gold band around his chest.  His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow. His eyes were like flames of fire. His feet were like bronze that glows hot in a furnace. His voice was like the noise of flooding water.

In those passages, the man described by Daniel and John was none other than Jesus Christ. Though their lives were separated by hundreds of years, the descriptions of the “man” they saw in their visions  were, for all intents and purposes, identical, and are consistent with Ezekiel’s description of a man who “looked like fire from the waist down and like glowing hot metal from the waist up”.  (Ezekiel 8:2-3)

Daniel said His face was like lightning. John said His head and hair were “white like wool, as white as snow.” Both men noted that His eyes were like flames of fire. In their accounts of the Transfiguration (presumably as told to them by Peter, James and John), the gospel writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke gave these descriptions of Jesus’ appearance: “His face became as bright as the sun.”“His clothes were dazzling white as no one on earth could bleach them.” – “ Apparently, in His glory, Jesus’ physical appearance is so intensely bright and so radiant that it almost defies description.

So hold that thought and that imagery in your mind and let me ask you this: Have you ever looked at a bright light and then looked away and noticed how everything goes dark for a few moments? That’s the effect of the light acting on the pupils of your eyes. It’s the same thing that happens when you walk into your house on a bright sunny day. The house looks dark. It takes your eyes a little while to adjust.

Jesus said in John chapter 8, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Light overcomes darkness, never the other way around. As John wrote, The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

In His glory, Jesus’s physical appearance is intensely bright. But when He said, “I am the light of the world.”, he wasn’t just talking about his physical appearance. He was declaring Himself to be the spiritual light for those who are trapped in the darkness of sin and He affirms this for us in the 12th chapter of John in verse 46: I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.

It’s easy for us to hide from another human being in darkness. Not so with Christ. We can’t hide from Him. We can’t hide our sins from Him. We can’t hide our guilt. We might try. Some may even prefer the darkness as Jesus said in his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3:  Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear their deeds will be exposed.

Biblically speaking then, the words light and truth are synonymous: For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible-and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. In that paragraph from his letter to the Ephesians, not only did Paul proclaim sin to be darkness, he also proclaimed that sin causes us to become darkness. He did not say “You once lived in darkness.” He said “You were darkness.” It makes perfect sense because the opposite of light is darkness, and the opposite of truth is falsehood, deceit, lies. You don’t just practice it, Paul exclaimed, you become it.

But in Christ, darkness is overcome. Again, Paul proclaimed to the Ephesians, “…now you are light.” You don’t just practice being a Christian, you become one. That’s the essence of what Paul was saying. It was what Jesus preached. He said to the crowd in the Sermon on the Mount, “You are the light of the world.” Following Christ is not something you do, it’s who you are. That’s something worth remembering as we watch what’s going on in our culture. The world seems to be growing darker every day, but remember this; no matter how dark it gets, light always overcomes darkness. Or as one pastor put it, “It’s always the darkest just before the dawn.” Revelation 21:23 tells us, “The city (the new Jerusalem) will need neither the sun or the light of the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.” Jesus will come again in glory. And when all is said and done, there will be no darkness ever again.