Saturday, March 18, 2017

We Can't Seem to Win

“But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates,

“‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:16-19)

These comments are directed at the scribes and pharisees at the time Jesus walked among us, but they also apply to many today, believers and unbelievers.

First unbelievers: how unreasonable!  We've seen this everywhere.  Anything that smacks of religion is rejected, no matter how clear and reasonable it is.  At Christ's time, the Jews found fault with practically everyone.  Here comes John the Baptist, preaching repentance.  He prepared the way with repentance and lived an ascetic life.  How did the Jews react?  He has a devil.  Now here comes Jesus Christ, God himself in the flesh, living like the men and women he was to save, preaching the gospel constantly, and he's not practicing any of the austerity that John the Baptist practiced.  What was the reaction? He's a glutton and a drunkard!  He hangs out with sinners!  Jesus was right to describe them as wayward children.

Second believers, or should I rather say, "professing Christians:" just as unreasonable!  Reactions to teaching and preaching alone is shocking.  The fault-finding is incredible!  Nothing pleases them.  We preach about grace alone and justification by faith, and we get hostility.  We are accused of being false teachers because we haven't given our congregation a steady diet of works-based-righteousness.  We preach holiness and are then accused of being legalists.  Congregants feel condemned--and rightly so--but they miss the fresh and loving gospel that follows the heaviness of the law.  They were so busy thinking of how the preacher made them feel bad that they missed the good news entirely.  Preachers are accused of being self-righteous with one breath and worldly with the next, puritanical at one time and then lost at another.  This is what Jesus experienced in his day, and he spoke to that very thing in these verses.

Here is the truth: unconverted people will never be satisfied, because the issue is not with the preaching.  It's not with even religion in general.  The unconverted hate God.  Christ said not to be surprised when they hate you.  They actually hate me, and they are merely taking it out on you.  True conversion comes from a change in the heart, and that change only happens by the will of God. The Holy Spirit convicts a man of his sin and the same Holy Spirit rescues that same man from his fate of everlasting death by opening his eyes to the joy of the gospel.  All else follows: obedience to the law, loving your neighbor, loving God.  All of these things come from a heart transformed by the glorious gospel.

How do Christians need to react?  The world is always going to be this way, so we must not be concerned with it.  We pray for their eyes to be opened, and in the meantime we focus on the gospel message, the glory of Christ, and the beauty and love of the God who made us and saved us.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Violent Take It By Force

From the days of John the Baptist until the now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. (Matthew 11:12)

Here is another difficult verse in Matthew 11, mainly because we think of the word "violence" with completely negative connotations.  Here is another version of the verse, not from a different translation but from a different gospel narrative, Luke's: "The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it." (Luke 16:16)

1. Jesus has already considered John the Baptist the greatest of the prophets.  Why?  Something has changed.  Until John, all prophecy was law-based.  Everything was immersed in the keeping or violation of the covenant of law.  From John until now (even our day) all prophecy (preaching) is gospel-based, good news based.

2. Upon hearing the good news, those who believe spiritually storm the kingdom of heaven.  It's so easy to get in!  The law-based prophecy implied that it was difficult, but since John the Baptist, the gospel-based preaching has confirmed that it is the easiest thing of all.  This truly is good news!

3. To cease all ideas of antinomianism (lawlessness), due to the ease of entering the kingdom of heaven, Jesus follows up these statements in both Matthew and Luke.  Here's Luke's first: "But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void."

4. This apparent contradiction is an important verse.  The prophecy up until John is not contradicted.  It is not nullified.  It's just that something important has changed.  The law still stands but now entering the kingdom of heaven is not through the law but through the gospel--through faith in Christ.  Through belief in Jesus Christ.  But the law is not abrogated.  No, to the contrary, the law still stands firm, and this is an important aspect of the gospel.  The law may not be the way through which one gets to heaven, but the law is a benchmark from which we can determine if one has grasped Christ through faith.

5. This is the difference between belief and unbelief.  A believer is keeping the law (imperfectly) out of gratitude for salvation.  This may or may not be conscious gratitude, but through faith the believer indeed becomes a more gentle and loving individual (remember that keeping the law is the same as loving God and your neighbor), more conforming to the image of Christ than he or she ever was.  This is evidence of true conversion.  This is assurance.

6. Here is Matthew's version of the verse, whch gives us more clues as to what Jesus is saying: "For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come." The first part of this verse confirms all that has been said above, but there is this addition: "He is Elijah who is to come."

7. If we go to Malachi 4:5, the prophet writes, "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes."  Jesus is saying that this prophecy has been fulfilled and that John is the one like Elijah who precedes the Lord's coming.  Jesus, of course, is the Lord.

8. After that verse in Malachi, we get this verse: "And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction." This means that from John the Baptist until now, the gospel will be preached, believers will have their hearts turned to their father, and they will enter the kingdom of heaven (be written in the book of life) before the final destruction comes.

9. Jesus previously said in Matthew (verses 10:34-39) that he had come not to bring peace but a sword and that he would divide families from each other.  Is this a contradiction with the last verses of Malachi?  No.  Whereas the believers' hearts will be turned by the gospel toward their father in heaven, the believers' hearts will also be turned away from worldly individuals who do not believe the gospel, even after they have heard the good news.

10. The gospel is a wonderful, and yet violent, thing!  It turns the wicked against the justified in a violent way.  It turns the world against the gospel itself.  Finally, it yanks the justified into the kingdom violently, because God's grace is irresistible. Repent and believe the gospel!  Overtake the kingdom violently.  The Lord wishes that you will, and he will rejoice at such action. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Degrees of Glory

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,

    “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
        who will prepare your way before you.’

Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Matthew 11:7-11)

Last time we talked about how John did indeed know that Jesus was the Christ, but he was evangelizing his disciples from prison by sending them to Jesus, in order to be converted to Christ by the source.  Afterward, Jesus says a few things about John that are both fascinating and help us in our walk.

1. "A reed shaken by the wind means" doubt and double-mindedness. Jesus is essentially confirming last week's sermon.  No, John never doubted, and Jesus says as much.

2. He was a penitent disciple who taught other disciples to be penitent.  Jesus contrasts him with an arrogant and prosperous king.  John was the opposite.

3. Jesus calls him the greatest of the prophets, for two reasons. First, he directly heralded Jesus' coming.  Second, he is written about by other prophets, like Isaiah and Malachi.  Usually only Jesus is prophesied in the Old Testament, but John was prophesied, too.

Now, here comes the next baffling thing Jesus says.  No one is greater than John the Baptist, "yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."  This seems like a paradox.  This seems to imply that the lowliest sinner who was saved by the skin of his teeth is going to be considered greater in God's eyes.  So, the thief on the cross who repented at the last moment is going to be at some higher place in the hierarchy than John?  Well, what if "the one who is least" is Jesus himself? Isn't this the only thing that makes sense? Jesus referred to himself as many things.  What if this is one of them? If you doubt this, think of how he was treated during his short life on earth.  He was indeed treated by the wise of this world as if he were dirt. He is the indeed "the one who is least."  Therefore, there is actually only one person greater than John the Baptist in heaven, and that would be Jesus himself.

But where did we get the idea of a hierarchical structure in heaven?  It does seem to be hierarchical, especially when we read texts about John being just under Jesus in status, but I think the wrong word here is "status?"  We get the idea of a hierarchy of status from our own sinful desires, and also from parables from Luke and Matthew about kings giving talents or minas to servants who then wisely invest them and are then placed in charge of many things or ten cities, etc. One servant just buries his and does not invest it.  He is thrown out entirely.  On the surface, this parable sounds like we will be given great responsibilities in heaven, depending on our good works on earth.  Indeed, some may even end up being janitors in heaven because they didn't do enough here.

Many are convinced this means a hierarchy of status, but I'm going to make the case that it is actually degrees of glory.

1. We are saved by grace alone. 

2. We are given good works to do by God's grace, too.

3. The Holy Spirit performs these good works through us.

4. Jesus did the true good work on the cross.  Any good works that we do are mere manifestations of faith in the good work Jesus did.

5. Since Jesus did the one good work, and the Holy Spirit does good works through us.  The only one who deserves any status reward in heaven is Christ himself.

6. In the parable, ignoring number of cities and investment of number of minas, the ones who do the good works that God has given them (in actuality the Holy Spirit doing the good works through the believer) are given eternal life.

7. The one who buries his mina/talent is cast out entirely.  He is not given a janitorial job in heaven.  He is not allowed in at all.

8. Since Christ is doing good works through believers, the resulting hierarchy is not that of status but of glory.  Status forces a comparison between individuals, which is a problem on earth.  Why would it be present in heaven?  Knowing someone got "more" or "less" than I would prompt sinful thoughts.  Also, any preaching that goes in a "hierarchical status" direction is hitting me with all law and no grace.  Despair enters into my Christian walk, because I feel that I'm not doing enough, and the result is backsliding and turning away from God.

So, why are there degrees of glory?  For the answer to this question we turn to Herman Bavinck and the final passage of his four volume Reformed Dogmatics:

"God crowns his own work, not only in conferring eternal life on everyone who believes but also in distributing different degrees of glory to those who, motivated by that faith, have produced good works.

"His purpose in doing this, however, is that, on earth as in heaven, there would be profuse diversity in the believing community, and that in such diversity the glory of his attributes would be manifest. Indeed, as a result of this diversity, the life of fellowship with God and with the angels, and of the blessed among themselves, gains in depth and intimacy. In that fellowship everyone has a place and task of one's own, based on personality and character, just as this is the case in the believing community on earth."

1. Just as the material world is diverse (think of the vastness and complexity of the universe and the complexity of the microscopic world), so is the heavenly realm.

2. Just as our lives are different and varied, so will our lives in heaven be.

3. All of this variation and complexity and diversity is to manifest God's own glory.


Saturday, February 25, 2017

John, Did You Know?

John 11:2-3 reads, Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?"

The Big Question that all have when reading this is, "Has John fallen into doubt?"

Does John need to be reassured by Jesus that he is actually the Christ?  I've heard so many sermons on this, with different interpretations, that I get confused as to what is going on here, but leave it to Scottish Divine David Dickson to set me straight.

1. John knows that Jesus is the Christ, and he never doubts.
2. John has followers who will not leave his side, even though he has told them to follow Jesus.  Remember, John must decrease and Jesus increase.
3. John sends them directly to the source, Jesus himself, to receive the Word and be converted from the Baptism of John to the Baptism of Christ.

His message for Jesus is not for John's benefit but for the benefit of his disciples.  He needs them to move from being followers of himself to followers of Christ.  Other things we learn from these two verses:

1. Followers of Christ are persecuted and sometimes imprisoned by the world.  Often times they are killed by the world.
2. We can still evangelize others from a place of persecution.
3. Evangelism is leading others to Christ.  This is more simple than it sounds.  We think it takes a lot of heavy lifting to lead someone to Christ, but it actually means what it says: we take people to the Word of the Lord--the Bible--and we let the Holy Spirit do the heavy lifting.  John led his disciples to Jesus, and then Jesus did the work of convincing them of his truth and changing their hearts.
4. The question is not one of believing in Christ at all.  The question is one of finding the promised messiah in Jesus.  As we read in Romans 1, all know the truth.  Many suppress the truth, but in their hearts they know there is a God and we are lost and sinful and there is a way of salvation.  We may deny these truths, but deep in our cores we believe them.  Now, the true question becomes, "where do I find this salvation?"  The answer is Jesus.  We will put our faith in everything BUT Jesus, but the only true location to put our faith is Jesus Christ, because he is the only possible way for us to be saved.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Mercy Not Sacrifice

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:14-17)

This passage should be looked at within the context of Matthew 9:13, which reads, "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'"  That verse itself is in the context of salvation.  Only those who know they are sinners in need of a savior desire Jesus and call out to him.  Everyone is a sinner, but many think they are good, because they compare themselves to other people and not God himself.  They refuse Jesus, because they don't need him.  They are not sick.  They do not need the doctor.  The sinner does.  God only saves bad people.  Everyone is bad, but most think they are good.  People who know they are bad cry out to him for salvation.  He is ready and willing to save everyone who calls out to him.  Faith is that true belief that you are a bad person who needs salvation from a good God.

So what does all this have to do with fasting and wineskins and patches on clothes?  Well, when Christ says, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice," he is saying that he desires a sinner to cry out to him for mercy, like I wrote above, and not someone who goes through some outward ceremony to garner God's appreciation.  God is a saving God, not a pagan deity that needs to be appeased with offerings.  Fasting is one such ceremony.

Does this mean we are not to fast?  By no means, but like all sacrificial/ceremonial actions--baptism, communion, fasting, even coming to church--they are performed by the born-again Christian out of gratitude for his or her salvation.  This takes time to build up, and is only done as the Spirit inspires one.  I think this is crucial to understand, because this is something that is done in the church today.  You're a Christian now?  Here are all the duties that come with the title, here you go!  And then all of this crushing sacrificial/ceremonial stuff is laid upon the new believer as new burden.  But Christ said his yoke is easy an his burden is light.  When one becomes a Christian, the Spirit is working within him and brings forth the desire for sacrifice.  Sacrifice in no way leads to salvation, but God showing mercy does, and sacrifice only comes after salvation as an urge within the Christian to please God for saving him.  So in Acts 8, Philip brings the Ethiopian Eunuch to Christ and then this happens:

And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. (Acts 8:36-37)

Upon being converted, the desire to be baptized is built up inside by the Holy Spirit.  The desire to congregate with other Christians begins to arise, too, as well as to partake in communion.  Now, fasting is an act of repentance, and that may build up more and more as the Christian wrestles with sin.  However, a new Christian, someone who has just come to Christ, does not usually have the desire to fast, and Jesus knows this, hence our passage (Matthew 9:14-17).

The disciples of John fasted, and indeed John's was a baptism of repentance, of preparation for Christ, essentially of the Old Covenant.  It is still at heart a ceremonial conversion, and faith in Christ is still needed--the only thing that saves.  John himself says this to his disciples in John 3. I'll reprint the whole thing here:

Now a discussion arose between some of John's disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:25-36)

John is telling his disciples, in short, the ceremonial/sacrificial practices of the Old Covenant are meaningless without faith in the one the ceremonies point to.  Now that Christ is here, we all need to put our faith in him.  Remember, the Old Testament salvation was by faith, too, but it was faith in Christ to come.  We showed we had faith by ceremonies and sacrifices, but now that Christ is come, our faith is in the Christ of the Bible, explained in the pages of scripture.  He himself has performed the ceremonies and sacrifices, and so all we need is faith without ceremony.  Now, the Holy Spirit will compel us gradually to offer insufficient sacrifices out of gratitude, but they are not the same as Old Testament sacrifices.  As John says above, all that matters is faith.  "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life."  Now, what comes after salvation is obedience out of gratitude, as the Spirit compels us.

Back to our Matthew passage, Jesus is saying the same thing.  Now that Jesus has come, repentance is not a precondition of salvation.  This is a big sticking point in the church today, and books like the Marrow of Modern Divinity have been written to point out the distinction (and have been condemned by legalists as a result). Now that the bridegroom is here, Jesus says, faith alone saves you.  There is no precondition to salvation.  Now, once you are saved, the Spirit will compel you to repent, and sometimes fast, but that is not a precondition to salvation. What Jesus is speaking out against are the people who are applying preconditions to salvation.  In Galatians, Paul is writing to a church that was saved through faith, but then Judaizers came afterward and told this church that faith was not enough and that they needed to add ceremony--not as the Spirit compelled them but as a precondition to true salvation. Your faith wasn't enough, they told the Galatian church.  Paul had to set them straight with the gospel again.

So, Jesus uses a couple of comparisons to show that when Old Covenant ceremony is yoked onto a new believer, it will quench the Spirit and crush their faith away, likewise if people of the Old Covenant say that new believers are now part of their covenant.  No, the Old Covenant people need to be converted to the New Covenant now, not the other way around!  The New Covenant is that of faith alone in Christ alone.

All of this should be encouraging to the new believer, for the good news of Christ is that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone.  Never let anyone tell you that you are "doing it wrong."  If you have an abiding faith in Christ, the Spirit will compel you to make sacrifices at the rate and speed that God knows you can handle.  Don't try to overdo your new life in Christ.  Recenter yourself with the Gospel as given to us in God's Word, and the Spirit will build a Christian life upon your faith. Don't worry! Eventually, you will be undergoing sacrifices, trials, and tribulations--and great blessings--like the rest of us!