Sunday, February 21, 2016

True Testimony

And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:21-28)

We focus on the apparent rudeness of Jesus when he seems to call the woman a dog, but the real attention-grabber for the preacher is when Christ says, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  How can Jesus Christ be savior of the world, if he only came for the house of Israel?  The answer lies in covenant theology.  The short version: God honors the covenant he made with Israel so that the other nations will witness God's faithfulness and be converted.

The long version:

Israel was always meant to be missionaries to the rest of the world. God told Abraham that his seed would be a blessing to the nations.  But being missionaries to the world does not necessarily mean being a positive role model.  Not only did God's power reach the world though the exodus from and punishment of Egypt, but God's power was also expressed through the punishment of Israel.  The focus is not on God being an enabler who spoils his chosen people no matter what, but a righteous and holy God who punishes the wicked, even if they are his own people.  The holiness of God is what draws new converts, not the cool buddy who rewards his followers.

This is why testimonies need to focus on the witness' sin and God's holiness, not the "God made my life better" approach.  Everything is for his glory alone, not our own.  Show how God's righteousness always trumps our own wants.  Show how we ourselves are sinful wretches who deserve God's wrath but get his grace and mercy anyway.

1. The converted are to share the gospel with the unconverted.  We are not to revel in the grace God has given to us, but to pray for and preach to the weak, so that they might be partakers of God's grace, too.  This is not only loving our neighbor but building them up through our own sufferings.  Christ did not enjoy his sojourn on earth. He suffered on our behalf.

2. The scriptures are the fullest expression of Christ's sufferings on behalf of the ungodly. The Bible was written for us in order to give us hope and encouragement.  We witness the sufferings of Christ in its pages and as a result we endure to love God and our neighbor for the glory of Jesus Christ.  We also use the scriptures to make sure that our own testimonies are biblically grounded.

3. Christ became a servant to Israel to show God's honor of the covenant he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  This service involved suffering to the point of death on a cross.  The result is that not only Jews but also Gentiles are brought into the sheepfold and both groups glorify God for his mercy.

The Canaanite woman in Matthew 15 never departs from her testimony of repentance, hope, and faith.  She has a correct evaluation of her own sinfulness, she has hope that Christ will heal her daughter, and she has faith that he will rescue the Gentiles as well as the Jews. She knows that God will honor the covenant he made with Abraham, that all the nations through his seed will be blessed, even if those blessings are only crumbs that fall from the table.

When Jesus seems to call her a dog, he's actually using a statement about how the Jews sinfully feel about the Gentiles to draw out the woman's faith and to show his disciples that she is part of Israel after all. Remember that Jesus is without sin, so his apparent insult has purpose.  It was actually a teaching lesson for his followers.  It is also a clear representation of covenant theology and God grafting believers from every nation onto the vine of Israel. Instead of saying, "I've never been so insulted in all my life!" the Canaanite woman agrees with Christ's assessment, and in penitent faith continues to ask for mercy.  All of us are like dogs to God.  Actually, that comparison is too positive, because dogs are loyal. More accurately, all of us are like thoughtless sheep who would blindly follow the devil himself, if he gave us an entertaining reason.

A great example for us is the ultimate sufferer in the Old Testament: Job.  In chapter 19, this man, who has suffered so much exclaims:

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

Testimony of our own sufferings, paired with our hope in God's deliverance, actually draws God's flock closer, not dispels them. But pointing to our own sin and suffering, and God's suffering on our behalf for our deliverance, all the while keeping everything biblical, we glorify our creator and redeemer. Let us praise God and sing his name.  Let us rejoice as branches on the vine of Christ.  Let us never lose hope but be filled with joy and peace in faith.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Confession of Hope

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. (Matthew 4:1)

The Bible is not about us, it is about Jesus Christ.  If we want to make it about us in any way, we need to to see that it is about what Jesus Christ has done FOR us.  We are spectators on the sideline.  Jesus is the hero.  We are not to make ourselves into heroes.  We are to understand what Jesus has done for us, and to put our complete faith in his accomplishments on our behalf.

First, Jesus shared in our flesh and blood.  He underwent the same things as we, even death, but whereas our deaths are the finish line of our lives, Christ's death was the beginning of some amazing, supernatural accomplishments, including destroying the one who has the power of death: the devil.  Through Christ's death he also delivered those whom he would call brothers and sisters.  We lived according to the flesh, just like everyone else, but that path was one that led to eternal death.  As brothers and sisters of Christ, however, we have been born again of the Spirit, and we are in the process of putting to death the works of the flesh, and our destination is eternal life.  The Spirit of God makes us into slaves of Christ and adopts us as sons and daughters to God, heirs of everlasting life.  Before this happened, we were slaves to sin and feared death, because it brought everlasting death.

Second, as fully human, Jesus became our high priest. Why do we need a priest?  Because we need a mediator between us and the Father, a mediator who is merciful, faithful, and who makes propitiation for the sins of his people.  Being merciful, even though we are in the great tribulation, and as sons and daughters of God we suffer, Christ does not leave us or destroy us, because he remembers the covenant that he made with Abraham, and we are grafted into that covenant by Christ himself, the vinedresser.  Being faithful, he is our rock, our fortress, he rescues us from snares and dangers laid by others, and redeems us from the pit.  Finally, being the propitiation for our sins, he actually spilled his own blood, instead of ours, and we receive his blood by faith, making that spilled blood our own, as payment for our sins.

Third, as high priest, he is tempted like us, he suffers like us, but as a result he helps us through temptations and sufferings.  He sympathizes with us, he understands our weakness, he has "been there," and has "done that."  There is a difference: whereas we give into temptation and our sufferings are a result of our sins, Christ never gave into his temptations, never sinned, and so his sufferings are only on our behalf.  Because of this substitutionary atonement, we are able to draw near to God to receive his mercy and grace.

Finally, because of all this--all that Christ suffered and paid for with his blood--we make a confession of hope. This is not to be confused with making a positive confession in order to be blessed temporally.  No, if we make any confession naturally, we are predisposed to make a negative confession.  A confession of hope is a confession of faith in Christ's accomplishments on the cross, that he defeated death and the devil and that he has paid for our sins.  In our natural state, we have no hope in Christ.  See this passage from 1 Samuel 17, from the recount of David and Goliath:

Now Eliab his eldest brother heard when he spoke to the men. And Eliab's anger was kindled against David, and he said, “Why have you come down? And with whom have you left those few sheep in the wilderness? I know your presumption and the evil of your heart, for you have come down to see the battle.” And David said, “What have I done now? Was it not but a word?” And he turned away from him toward another, and spoke in the same way, and the people answered him again as before.

David represents Christ prepared to defeat the devil, Goliath.  We are the frightened people of Israel on the sidelines.  When Christ brings forth the challenge, we are naturally unable to confess hope in him, like Eliab.  As we become children of God, however, we hold fast to our confession of hope in Christ, hoping that Christ has defeated the devil on that cross. We watch as he entered into a battle of wits with the devil in the wilderness.  The devil unleashed every weapon of temptation upon Jesus, trying to force Jesus to use his divine power to end his own suffering.  But we know that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer, and that without such suffering he would not be able to enter into his glory.  Likewise without a confession of hope in Christ's sufferings, and his resistance to temptation, we will be unable to enter into our own glory.

Stand firm in hope.  The devil will leave.  Angels will come and minister.  Do not lose faith. 

Saturday, February 6, 2016

What Kind of a Person Are You?

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13)

There's a phenomenon going around, where kids are encouraged by their pastors and their youth leaders to take the famous middle section of this chapter and substitute their name for the word "love."  So, the kid ends up reading this:

Madison is patient and kind; Madison does not envy or boast; Madison is not arrogant or rude. Madison does not insist on her own way; Madison is not irritable or resentful; Madison does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Madison bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Now, provided that the child doesn't arrogantly agree with the paragraph, the desired effect is accomplished: the youth realizes that he or she does not even come close to being this sort of person. However, because of the name substitution and reading oneself into the text, the goal of the kid (or adult even) is to become such a person.  That sounds completely reasonable, doesn't it?  Who wouldn't want to be this sort of person?  I'd like to be patient and kind!  What's wrong with striving to be that sort of person?

Because we are not good people.  However we strive to achieve these goals, we will always fall short because of our sinful nature.  The one who tries to accomplish these goals will strenuously attempt the impossible until he or she is desperately in a worse state than before.  Even if we think we are finally meeting these goals, our hearts are not turned to God.  We are meeting the goals for our own selfish ends. I was patient today!  Aren't I great? The truth is we are envious. We are boastful. We are arrogant and rude.

What's worse is when someone is encouraged to substitute their boyfriend's or girlfriend's name for "love." What is this supposed to accomplish? The youth who is deciding whether to marry Harold, will put Harold's name in the paragraph and discover one of two things. 1) Harold falls way short of this list of attributes.  I shouldn't marry him.  2) Harold has these attributes!  Or he's very close, so I should marry him! Of course, Harold is a sinner and does fall short of these attributes, just like Madison, but Madison is now thinking that Harold is better than he is, and will marry him under false pretenses and dishonesty.  But neither of these scenarios focuses on forgiveness of sins, putting faith in Christ, or repentance.  Everything instead points to working harder to achieve your selfish goals.

If we need to substitute a name for "love," there's only one name under heaven or in earth that will suffice: that of Jesus Christ, God himself.  He is patient. With us. Because we continually sin and fall short, never getting better without his Spirit living in us.  We fall and he patiently picks us up again.  He is filled with lovingkindness for the people who reject him and who bruised and beat him and crucified him. He created us and we in turn hated him, never putting him first, and yet he saves us anyway.  He allowed us to utterly ruin him, in order to prevent our own inevitable ruin.  That is the kindest thing anyone as ever done. 

God never envies, because everything, including us, is his. Does God boast?  Boasting comes from us thinking we are better than we really are.  God is the greatest thing in the universe, so any attention he draws to himself is not boasting, because it is the truth.  God is not arrogant, nor is he rude.  He cannot insist on his own way, simply because his way is the only possible way.  He is not irritable: this falls in with his patience.  He doesn't resent anyone, because he is impervious to our attacks.  We transgress his laws and yet he stays his hand in punishment.  He will get revenge on his enemies, but it is a revenge without passion, without malice.  He merely cannot exist in the same space with evil.

God is an enemy of wrong and a lover of truth.  He is very truth itself.  God bears, believes, hopes, and endures everything that is true.  He is all-powerful, omnipotent, and can support the weight of the universe by his will.  He is our all in all.  God is love.

What should our reaction be to this supreme love? First, we should know that we are never in the slightest way capable of putting our names in for "love."  We should be hyper-aware of our own sinfulness and wretchedness.  But when we seek these attributes, we must never seek them in ourselves, or in another person, but only in Jesus Christ.  He is where we need to put our trust.

Awareness of our condition and Christ's righteousness should force us to our knees in repentance. We cannot be all those things, but Christ is all those things, and has always been all those things.  We repent of ourselves and put our complete faith in Jesus Christ, and we find that we are becoming more patient and kind and enduring and hoping, but only because God's Spirit has put us in Christ and we are living his righteousness, even just a tiny bit.  The fraction of improvement is a monumental achievement over our original state.  Let us keep turning our focus on Jesus and away from ourselves.  He is not only our righteousness but he is our sanctification as well.