Saturday, June 15, 2019

Judgment and Glory

When He came to the other side into the country of the Gadarenes, two men who were demon-possessed met Him as they were coming out of the tombs. They were so extremely violent that no one could pass by that way. And they cried out, saying, “What business do we have with each other, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before the time?” Now there was a herd of many swine feeding at a distance from them. The demons began to entreat Him, saying, “If You are going to cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” And He said to them, “Go!” And they came out and went into the swine, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the waters. The herdsmen ran away, and went to the city and reported everything, including what had happened to the demoniacs. And behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw Him, they implored Him to leave their region. (Matthew 8:28-34)

The surface details have been talked about often, but what about the big picture? We have two men in this scene who are ensnared by demons, who are prisoners of evil. Jesus Christ sets them free, getting rid of the demons, and making the area safe from the violent men, but also removing the financial means from the Gadarenes by allowing the demons to drown their profit supply (in another gospel we find out that this was over 2,000 head of swine).

However, the economic loss to the community appears to be the instigating factor but not the true repulsion of Christ. Some say that there is a choice being made between the world and God's salvation, and the Gadarenes choose the world.  Since Jesus has rid them of their profit, they demand him to leave, but the root of sin lies deeper than that. Verse 34 reads: "And behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw Him, they implored Him to leave their region." The whole city: let that sink in. This is not a few entrepreneurs and capitalists coming forth to chastise Christ for ruining their income plan.  This is a sinful rejection of the power of Christ. Jesus has done something very intense by driving demons out of extremely violent men who blocked the way.  There is an irrational rejection on the part of the world toward the saving power of Christ.  Because the power screams judgment at them.

Now, many are drawn to Christ when he performs wonders, but many more are driven away.  Even then, the ones who are drawn to him are usually drawn to him for the wrong reason.  They are drawn to the miracle itself.  Jesus accompanies each miracle with a teaching, and this teaching is usually a difficult one about the kingdom, and such teachings also drive away the superficial follower.  Let's look at similar versions of this rejection: one from the old and one from the new testament.

The prophecy of Amos 7 has God threatening to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel by two ways: locust and fire, both aimed at the farmlands...and the economic prosperity of the region. Amos begs the Lord to stop, and the Lord does each time, but then the third time God does not send locust nor fire but a plumb line. This is no longer an attack on their economics (and ruin of the country as a whole) but an attack on the people themselves. The sanctuaries of Israel will be laid waste by the plumb line. What is the plumb line? Jesus, of course. Jesus Christ comes to this crooked world, and anything that is not as straight and perfect as he is destroyed.  Of course, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  All people fall short of the plumb line, and so they are to be ruined, unless...one puts his faith in the plumb line itself. The only way to be saved is to put faith in the just judge.

The second half of Amos 7 describes the priest Amaziah doing the very thing the Gadarenes did in Matthew 8: he rejects Amos' prophecy and Amos himself, who is a mere shepherd called by God out of his life in Tekoa, south of Jerusalem, to go to another country, Israel, and preach the truth to them.  Now, this priest, representing the people of Jerusalem, tells Amos the same thing the Gadarenes tell Jesus: flee from here! The result is a direct prophecy to Amaziah: he personally will suffer the same fate as Israel, the loss of everything, because he has rejected the plumb line.

The other passage is in Acts 16. Paul travels to Philippi, where he plants a church with a woman named Lydia and then adds a family through the jailer.  The town, however reacts quite violently to them, until Paul declares himself to be a Roman citizen. Then the town rejects him on a whole different level, much in the same way the Gadarenes reject Jesus and Amaziah rejects Amos: they beg him to leave. Once again, this is not because of annoyance, or because of an economic problem, which it had been before. In Acts 16:19 Paul has destroyed a certain group's economic profit by casting a demon out of a servant girl.  So, yes, it begins this way, but something greater is happening at the end of the chapter: Paul has brought salvation into their midst, and instead of happily embracing such, they reject it in fear.  Just as Israel rejects the plumb line in fear. Just as the Gadarenes reject Christ in fear.

It's fascinating to see how people respond to Jesus, and it's scary when you realize that so many respond so negatively, but how do you respond? When your sin is shown to you, like when Peter hides his face from Christ in the boat, or when Isaiah is faced with the Lord's glory. Do you confess your sin and tell God that you are not worthy? Do you believe yourself to be ruined? Do you ask the Lord to depart in the way Peter did?  Christ responded with a call to follow him and to be a fisher of men.  Compare that with the begging for Christ to leave that was given by the Gadarenes, Amaziah, and the Philippians.  What is the difference? One pair (Peter and Isaiah) is confronted with God's glory, and they respond with humility. However, the others are confronted with God's judgment: the casting out of demons, the standard of the plumb line, and the salvation of sinners. And the reaction looks similar on the outside, but there is no faith and repentance on the inside. The wrath of God is finding its place, judgment is coming early upon them, and they are essentially asking the mountains to fall upon them.

How do you react to Jesus, the plumb line? Do you see judgment coming? Or do you see glory? Either should instill fear, but only one inspires faith and brings you into the kingdom.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Silence

A common question I hear from many who disciple is, "do those who reject Christ in life get a second chance after death?" The larger, hidden question behind that is, "what is it like after death?" Here are some verses from Holy Scripture that may help:

Psalm 6:4-5:
Return, O Lord, rescue my soul;
Save me because of Your lovingkindness.
For there is no mention of You in death;
In Sheol who will give You thanks?

It seems, for the lost, God doesn't even come to their minds. Why?

Psalm 88:10-12:
Will You perform wonders for the dead?
Will the departed spirits rise and praise You?
Will Your lovingkindness be declared in the grave,
Your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Will Your wonders be made known in the darkness?
And Your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?

The implied answer to all these questions is, "no." God is not there. In fact it's the place from where God has banished himself, as well as all the good things he provides. Note, also, the term, "Land of Forgetfulness." There does not seem to be any thinking about God in the grave. No "missing" him.

Psalm 115:17-18:
The dead do not praise the Lord,
Nor do any who go down into silence;
But as for us, we will bless the Lord
From this time forth and forever.
Praise the Lord!

Verse 18 shows that the Psalmist is not talking about all who die in verse 17. We have a distinction between the lost and the saved. Note that the lost go down into "silence." This seems important. The lost don't remember God, nor can they articulate anything. The land of the dead is a land of silence. This makes sense, since all good things come from God, communication is good, and so without God, there can be only silence.

Here are a couple other places that refer to silence in the death of the lost:

“He keeps the feet of His godly ones,
But the wicked ones are silenced in darkness;
For not by might shall a man prevail. (1 Samuel 2:9)

If the Lord had not been my help,
My soul would soon have dwelt in the abode of silence. (Psalm 94:17)

Ecclesiastes 9:10 tells us some more about the destination of the lost:

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.

We take for granted the good things that God gives everyone on earth: things like activity, planning, knowledge, wisdom. None of that exist for the lost in the land of forgetfulness.

Ok, let's rise out of this hole of darkness and see what eternal life is like for those who are in Christ. First, there is some forgetfulness, but what we forget is not God. Here are some verses from Isaiah 65:

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;
And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.

The sin and pain of earthly life are forgotten.

“But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create;
For behold, I create Jerusalem for rejoicing
And her people for gladness.

There is a rejoicing forever. Rejoicing involves sound.

“I will also rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in My people;
And there will no longer be heard in her
The voice of weeping and the sound of crying.

The sound will not involve pain or sin but joy and gladness.

“They will build houses and inhabit them;
They will also plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
“They will not build and another inhabit,
They will not plant and another eat;
For as the lifetime of a tree, so will be the days of My people,
And My chosen ones will wear out the work of their hands.

For those alive in Christ, there is activity and planning, there is wisdom and knowledge.  All good things come from God, and being in the presence of God will accrue only good things.

Now, we tend to go to the final chapters of Revelation for a description of heaven, but I want to look at a different description of heaven, from Luke 15. The parables of the lost sheep, coin, and son, are usually analyzed for their salvation content, but look at the details of everlasting life:

And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:6-7)

1. Friends and neighbors together.
2. Rejoicing.
3. Speaking (and singing).
4. Celebrating.
5. Joy.

And why is there so much rejoicing and joyous noise? Because the Lord found another lost person, and that is the whole focus of heavenly life: the lost found, and not just found but kept forever.

“Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’ In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)

1. Friends and neighbors together.
2. Rejoicing.
3. Speaking (and singing).
4. Celebrating.
5. Joy.

Look at the last one:

But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:22-23)

Once again, we have a joyous celebration over a lost soul found. Also, the very soul is honored as a king. But...

“Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. (Luke 15:25-28)

In Christ, there is music and dancing. But the lost are not willing to go in. They are jealous of the ones the Lord has found and refuse to be a friend and neighbor. The Lord even comes out and pleads with the lost, but they will not repent.

And that is the answer to the question. The seeking of the Father happens throughout this life.  The pleading occurs over and over. Second chances, third, fourth, four hundred. Ultimately the found are brought into honor and glory in the presence of God and friends and neighbors. And the lost banish themselves to silence.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Snakes and Stones

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 7:7-12)

1. Sin makes us ask selfishly. We actually ask for snakes and stones. Our parents used to deny us snakes and stones, because they knew they were bad things, but now they are happy to give us snakes and stones.

2. So, when we don't receive from God, we were probably asking for things that seemed like bread and fish but were actually snakes and stones. God knows all things, and he withheld the bad thing that we wanted.

3. So the problem of sin turns the Golden Rule on its head: we treat others badly, because we treat ourselves badly. We don't seek out God's kingdom and his righteousness.  When it is offered to us, we reject it. God, however, knows what is good for us in the long run, and so he disciplines us with temporal suffering. Suffering helps us tell the difference between bread and stones, and fish and snakes.

4. What are good things? Psalm 84 tells us that the Lord is the source of
a. Light,
b. Protection,
c. Grace,
d. Eternal Life, and
e. The destruction of sin forever.

5. What is a good thing? James 1:17 tells us that every good thing
a. is perfect,
b. is a gift from above,
c. is from the Father of Lights, and
d. is without shadow or blemish.

6. How can this be? Because there is only one good thing, and that is God himself.  Here is the Luke variant of the Matthew passage:

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13)

Notice what is read as "good gifts" in Matthew is read as "the Holy Spirit" here. The Holy Spirit, the down payment of eternal life, is given to us on this earth, in this life. The Spirit guides us in distinguishing between bread and stones, fish and snakes, eggs and scorpions.

7. Look at Romans 8:26-39:

a. The Spirit shows us the difference between bread and stones, between fish and snakes.
b. The Spirit asks, seeks, knocks on our behalf.
c. God knew beforehand whom he was to give his Spirit.
d. He predestined us to have his Spirit.
e. The Spirit calls us awake from the dead.
f. The Spirit justifies us.
g. Finally, the Spirit glorifies us (eternal life + destruction of sin).

How do we know that God has done this? Because he gave us the life of his Son first. This historical event, this sacrifice of the Son for the forgiveness of sins: if we can put our faith in that, we can certainly put our faith in the "easier" act of God that he predestined us to receive his Spirit.

In conclusion, the rest of the Romans passage says it all better than I ever could:

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Peter's "Yes"

Why do Christians try to put the Ten Commandments in public places and not the Beatitudes? The simple answer is that the Ten Commandments are for everyone, believer or unbeliever, and the Beatitudes are only for disciples, those who have been transferred into a covenant of grace by the Lord.  It would be fruitless to put the beatitudes in a public place, because the world is unable to possess them.  The beatitudes are descriptions of faithful Christians, and the only place where the unbelieving world factors in is in the latter part (verse 11), as people who insult and persecute faithful disciples.

The ten commandments have a use for the unbelieving world. They are the spelling out of the eternal conscience that all people have. All cultures know that they should not covet, steal, lie, murder, commit adultery, and disobey their parents. Everyone's conscience also tells them that there is a God and that we should love him, but many find successful ways to bury that truth.  However, the ten commandments are the best, most universal way of getting across solid boundaries that prevent the world from harming their neighbors.  All successful laws are founded on them, and even though the world will try to eradicate them from the public places, they cannot refute that they are the foundation of all good law. 

The beatitudes, and the sermon on the mount in general, are a completely different animal. Only faithful disciples in a covenant of grace can even come close to following them. They run counter to the world's teaching, and whereas the world will look to the ten commandments and with honesty say that at least commandments 5-9 are rules to live by, the world teaches the opposite of the beatitudes.  The sermon of the mount in its entirety contrasts the two covenants: the covenant of works that all are born into and the covenant of grace that only believers (true disciples) are transferred to by the Lord himself.

1. The beatitudes are descriptors of a faithful disciple.
2. True disciples are evangelists to the unbelieving world.
3. Following the ten commandments, even to the letter, does not make one a true disciple.
4. True disciples follow the spirit of the law, which is deeper than the letter of the law.
5. Social justice in the covenant of works does not look like social justice in the covenant of grace.
6. True disciples value heavenly things and not earthly things.
7. True disciples have peace, even in adversity.
8. True disciples do not judge others but help them to also become true disciples.
9. True disciples have a good relationship with God and their neighbors.
10. True disciples walk a narrow path impossible to walk for those in the covenant of works.
11. False teachers will teach the covenant of works as a rule for disciples and lead many astray.
12. Jesus concludes the sermon with an analogy of two foundations. The covenant of works is built on sand, while the covenant of grace is built on the rock of Christ.

The entirety of the law can be summarized thus: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. The ten commandments only touch the surface of this. Like I said before, the world does not keep the first four commandments at all, and they can't keep the last six, either from failure or indifference. A disciple who wants to keep them cannot do so in order to be saved. God saves us through his grace alone, by our faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone. The result of his salvation is the desire in the believer to please God and live in the covenant of grace as espoused in the sermon on the mount, not the ten commandments (although the sermon on the mount contains a deepened version of the ten commandments).

Let's look at loving your neighbor:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:1-5)

How do I love the God whom I can't see? By loving my neighbor whom I can see. In the example above Jesus shows one in the covenant of works pretending to love his neighbor in order get praise by other people. This is not true love of neighbor. This is nowhere near love of God.  Now look at John 21:

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. (John 21:15-17)

Peter is in the covenant of grace. Jesus does not command him to do good works in order to gain God's love. God already loves him, and Christ has died for Peter's sins. Now Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. He asks him three times. Peter is not saying "yes" each time so that God will accept him. God has already changed his heart. He has already taken him from the covenant of works and put him into the covenant of grace. Peter's "yes" is in response to his trust in Christ for the forgiveness of his sins.  He knows that God loves him.  Does he love God? His answer is "yes." Now, how does he show that he loves God? Jesus tells him: "feed my sheep." Love your neighbor, not to be seen by others, not to be rewarded, but to love the God whom you cannot see.

Peter himself affirms this in his first epistle: "Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight NOT UNDER COMPULSION." In other words: not from within a covenant of works. Not out of fear of hell or reward of heaven but out of love for God. Not under compulsion, Peter tells us, "but voluntary, according to the will of God." Yes, God wills his believers to shepherd the flock of God, because they are now operating within a covenant of grace. In God's grace we are subject to his will alone.  Peter finishes, "not for sordid gain (Matthew 6:1-5), but with eagerness (John 21:15-17)."

You don't have to be a pastor to shepherd God's flock. True disciples share the gospel with each other and study the bible together.  They seek Christ and his kingdom together. And they do all things for each other out of love for God. They do not seek to be praised by others. They don't do it because they feel they have to or God will punish them.  They offer up their lives each day to serve their brothers and sisters--whom God has given them to serve--because loving their neighbors is loving the Lord who has eternally saved them.  God brings them from being rebellious self-servers into faithful God-pleasers. God loves you. Do you believe that? Are you loving the brethren?


Saturday, April 20, 2019

Brethren

Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.” (Matthew 28:10).

1. When Jesus mentions his "brethren" in this verse, he is not talking about his natural family. In Matthew 12:46-50, Jesus' natural mother and brothers seek him, wishing to speak with him. Jesus asked, in response, "who is my mother and who are my brothers?" And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, "Behold, my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother." So, we know from these verses that Christ's disciples are more closely related to him than his natural family.

2. Now, we learned from John 8 that not all disciples can be called such. One can follow Jesus and not put his faith in him for his salvation. At the end of Matthew 28 we read, "But the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee." So, when Jesus designated his "brethren" to meet him, he was not talking about the mass of followers but specifically the eleven, those whom he knew would put their trust in him, those who indeed had left their livelihoods to be with him.

3. However, the great commission Jesus gives to his eleven disciples encourages them to make disciples of all the nations. He's not talking about making disciples of the kind who may follow for a time and then fall away, who are believing Christ's teaching until something they don't like comes up. Jesus is talking about making disciples of the kind the eleven are, those who put their full trust in Christ for their salvation, for the forgiveness of their sins.

4. In Romans 8, Paul tells us for these specific disciples, God causes all things to work together for good. These are the disciples who truly love God, because they are putting their faith in him. God works things out for their good, even dark trials and tribulations are part of this working out. These disciples are called to him. This is not a general call of discipleship but a special calling into a spiritual family. God knew whom he was going to call from the foundation of the world. And these individuals are being transformed into the likeness of Christ. Even more than being called brethren in name only, true believers are transformed into the kind of people that please God, making them brethren of the spirit as well.

5. None of this would be possible without the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Hebrews 2:9-18 tells us that Christ has done the following for those he calls his brethren:

a. He gives us understanding of the gospel. We identify Jesus Christ as the only way to the Father.
b. He tastes death on our behalf, so that we may have eternal life.
c. He suffers for our salvation and glory.
d. He cleanses us to be fit for the Father's presence, just as he is clean. We can call him brother.
e. He also takes possession of us. The Father chose us before the foundation of the world and has given us to his Son.
f. He destroys the power of the devil over us.
g. He frees us from slavery to sin and death.
h. He makes us descendants of Abraham through faith.
i. He is merciful and faithful to his brethren.
j. He is our great high priest, sacrificing himself for the sins of the brethren and reconciling us to the Father.

Finally, his resurrection ensures that he will raise his brethren up on the last day. When we read our bibles, we see Christ's suffering in his incarnation, we see his sacrifice for the sins of his brethren, and we see the firstfruits of eternal life in his resurrection. Can you be called his brethren? Are you drawn to him? Do you believe he died for you? When you see the risen Christ in the pages of scripture, are you filled with an overwhelming sense of love? Do you have faith in him for your salvation, for the forgiveness of your sins?