Monday, December 30, 2013

The Paradox of God-Centeredness

Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:16 NIV 2011)
In the Bible, a mystery is not a secret but a revelation, something that God has made known in Jesus Christ. Godliness is holiness, or piety, or the “fear of the Lord.” Godliness is God-centeredness.

What Paul is about to tell us here is something he describes as “beyond all question,” or, as the NKJV has it, “without controversy.” The Greek word is homologoumenos, which has to do with confession. In other words, it is something about which the early Church was quite in agreement, a confession of faith, straight up and orthodox. Paul is likely quoting a creed or hymn that was already in circulation in the Church.

So, what is this mystery, the revelation about God-centeredness of which Paul speaks? It is a confession of the gospel. It is the proclamation of the good news, encapsulated in six short statements. But it is the first statement that I want to particular consider today. This is where the mystery begins: He appeared in the flesh.

The mystery of godliness is the mystery of the incarnation, that God appeared in the flesh. As John the Evangelist put it, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word with God, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1,14). This is what we celebrate in the season of Christmas, and is why Jesus is called Immanuel, “God with us.” This is where the gospel begins, for it is as a human being that Jesus was vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world and was taken up in glory.

In his letter to the Jesus believers at Philippi, Paul speaks of the mystery of godliness this way:
Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
So the great mystery is also a paradox, for it turns out that God-centeredness is gloriously centered on a man — Jesus the Messiah, God become flesh. He is the one we believe and confess, and in Him we learn true godliness.

(See also Divine Humility, Divine Greatness)

Let Earth Receive Her King
Let Earth Receive Her King
Advent, Christmas and the Kingdom of God
by Jeff Doles

Preview with Amazon’s “Look Inside.”

Available in paperback and Kindle (Amazon), epub (Google and iTunes) and PDF.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Joseph Pondered

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. (Matthew 1:18-20)
In Luke’s telling of the Christmas story, when the shepherds came running and found the baby Jesus and revealed what the angels had announced to them in the field, Mary “pondered” all these things in her heart (Luke 2:19). In Matthew’s account, we learn that Joseph had some pondering of his own, a pondering of a different sort.

Joseph was “betrothed” to Mary. Legally, it was more binding than what we would today call an “engagement,” but they were not yet living together as husband and wife, as the marriage had not yet been consummated. But one day, while he was making his plans and preparations, Joseph suddenly learned some very disturbing news: Mary was pregnant — and Joseph was not the father.

Joseph was shattered. The life he was preparing would now not take place. His dream was irreparably broken. He turned the matter over and over in his thoughts, his head in hard tension with his heart. He was bewildered. Had Mary betrayed him? It certainly seemed that way to him — he had not yet realized that the child she carried inside her was of the Holy Spirit.

Now he considered what he must do. The choice before him was not whether to continue the marriage. It was a foregone conclusion that he would not. Could not. The only decision was whether he would allow Mary to be subjected to public disgrace. But he was a “just man,” a man who understood something about covenant love, and he was not willing for her to be openly shamed. So he would divorce her quietly. Just sign the papers and walk away. But while he was pondering these things, he had a dream. An angel of the Lord came to him and said,
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.

So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:20-23)
Then Joseph woke up and did as the angel of the Lord told him — he took Mary as his wife, just as he had planned. But everything was different now, and that would be okay. Because now he realized that this was part of a much bigger plan. Not his own plan, but God’s. A plan that meant great healing and forgiveness for his people — and for the world. Mary gave birth to a son, and Joseph called his name Jesus. God with us in a new, and redemptive, way.

And that was something for Joseph to ponder the rest of his life.

Let Earth Receive Her King
Let Earth Receive Her King
Advent, Christmas and the Kingdom of God
by Jeff Doles

Preview with Amazon’s “Look Inside.”

Available in paperback and Kindle (Amazon), epub (Google and iTunes) and PDF.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Knowing My Brother Now in a Different Way

My sweet brother Gary, now with Jesus.

This past week, on Monday, December 2, my brother Gary went to be with Jesus. Though we grieve his absence here, we rejoice that he is now experiencing the pleasures of God in a much more profound way. Here are the remembrances I gave at his memorial service on Friday.

I want to share with you about how I know my brother Gary. I was born on his fourth birthday — he got no cake that year. We are exactly four years apart, and I have always felt a special connection with him from that. But I did not realize how strong that was for me until this last birthday, just a couple of weeks ago, when Gary was in that hospital bed, in a coma — and it was so very precious to me that we got to be together on that birthday.

How I know my brother Gary. Growing up, Gary and I shared a bedroom. He was my first roommate, and I was his. We got along together pretty well when we were little, and he was my first playmate. As we grew older, the four years between us began to show, as his interests became different from mine. I became the pesky little brother, and I remember Gary chasing me out of our room many times — especially when he had his friends over (he was a popular guy).

How I know my brother Gary. I know him in his music. I was there when it began, when he first learned to play and sing and write songs (he came a long way). I learned to sing and play, too, in large part because of him. We never really played together, though, our styles were so different, but I heard him and he heard me, and we sang on each other’s CDs.

How I know my brother Gary. In know him in his faith, with its many ups and downs, and the difficult years when he was trying to find his way, and my heart broke for him because he was so unhappy. And I know him in his faith when he began to find peace and healing. And then Gary found Jan. His years with her were the happiest, and his music — and his faith — blossomed in new directions. I know him in the happiness of his last years, which were the very best.

How I know my brother Gary. Now I will know him in a new way. Through his son, Emile. Through his wife, Jan. Through our father and mother. Through our brothers, Greg and Jon. Through all who know him and love him, and through all whom he knows and loves — for he knows and loves us still. And we will know him through each other.

But even more than that, I will know him when I worship and when I pray. For he is now with Jesus. I will know him in my baptism, and at the communion table, the Table of the Lord. For we both belong to the body of Christ. So I will know him in our faith, and I look forward to the resurrection, or when I go to God — whichever comes first — when I will know Gary once again face to face.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

By a Way You Do Not Know

Moses and the children of Israel were hemmed in. Before them was the Red Sea. Behind them, Pharaoh’s army was closing in. They could see no way out. Only days earlier, they had been filled with hope and rejoicing, but now that had quickly vanished. In Psalm 77, in a direct praise to God, the psalm writer recounts what happened next:
The voice of Your thunder was in the whirlwind;
The lightnings lit up the world;
The earth trembled and shook.
Your way was in the sea,
Your path in the great waters,
And Your footsteps were not known.
You led Your people like a flock
By the hand of Moses and Aaron.
(Psalm 77:18-20)
God did something completely unexpected: He made a path through the great waters of the sea. It was not there before they needed it and it closed in after they passed through it. But just when they needed a way, God made a path for them where they did not even know to look. When they first beheld the sea, all they saw was an impossible situation. But as Jesus said, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Luke 18:27). And the children of Israel walked through the sea on dry land.

Think of Abram. He was the son of an idol maker — a trade completely antithetical to the God of the Bible — and he was getting on in years. But one day God came to him anyway and said, “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). Then God made wonderful promises to him: “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:2-3).

So Abram believed and did as the Lord directed, though he had no idea where all this would take place or even how it would take place. After all, he was already 75 years old, and so was his wife, Sarai, who was well past child-bearing years. So what God promised him was impossible, at least from Abram’s point of view. But it came to pass anyway, and from him came a great nation — and a Redeemer — through whom all the families of the earth can now be blessed.

Finally, in the book of Isaiah, God describes how He will bring His people through, by a way they do not know.
I will bring the blind by a way they did not know;
I will lead them in paths they have not known.
I will make darkness light before them,
And crooked places straight.
These things I will do for them,
And not forsake them.
(Isaiah 42:16)
Our human nature always wants to see the way before us, but God often leads us by ways we do not know, ways we would not recognize or understand even if we could see them. Our part, then, is not to see but to trust. “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7). God makes a way for us that we could never have imagined, and leads us through.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Learning Jesus, Finding Rest

Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
The yoke Jesus is talking about here is not for plowing the fields or pulling the carts. It is about being with Jesus, side by side, and learning from Him. We can think about it in three ways, each one leading us to the next.
  • Learning of Jesus. This is hearing about Jesus, learning about Jesus, and coming to Him. it begins with His invitation, “Come to Me.”
  • Learning from Jesus. When we come to Jesus, He becomes our teacher and we become His disciple. We begin to learn from Him about many things.
  • Learning Jesus. This goes beyond knowing about Jesus, and knowing the things He has taught us. It is about Jesus Himself, knowing Him more and more.
My wife and I have been married now for 35 years. We know each other. Not just about each other. She knows me and I know her. We have learned each other so that we can even anticipate one another (not that we cannot still surprise each other — the more I know her, the more each day becomes a revelation of her). It happened over time, day after day, year after year. Turning to each other, tuning to each other, deepening with each. There is now an ease that we have with each other. A confidence, a trust, a rest with each other.

That is what Jesus invites us to, to learn Him — and find rest.

Praying through my psalms for the day, Psalm 131 seems particularly appropriate to this:
My heart is not proud, LORD,
My eyes are not haughty,
I do not concern myself with great matters,
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
Like a weaned child I am content.
(Psalm 131:1-2 NIV2011)

Monday, November 4, 2013

Delivering Us to Love

So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:24 ESV)
In Galatians 3:24, Paul tells us that the Law of Moses was a paidagogos. The KJV translates this a “schoolmaster,” and the NKJV has it as “tutor,” but I think those give too big a role to the word. Young’s Literal Translation says, “child-conductor,” and the ESV and LEB say “guardian,” which I think gives us a more accurate idea. The Law, in Paul’s mind, was not so much about instruction as it was about keeping the people of Israel out of trouble until the Messiah. “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith,” Paul says.

The Law governed behavior, but God was always looking beyond behavior to the heart. The Law required circumcision of the flesh, but what God desired more than that was “circumcision of the heart.”
Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer. (Deuteronomy 10:16)

And the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:6)

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your hearts. (Jeremiah 4:4)
However, the Law could never produce that in us. Yet, what the Law could not do, the Lord Jesus has done in us Himself:
In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12)
So, what God has always been looking at is the heart. And what He has always been looking for is love — love for God and love for each other. That is what the Law and the Prophets were always pointing us to. Or as Jesus put it, loving God with everything in us and our neighbor as ourselves — all the Law and the Prophets hang on that (Matthew 22:35-40). So when we love, we fulfill what the Law and the Prophets were always calling us to.

In Ezekiel 36:26-27, God promised Israel, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them.” I believe that is what God has now done for every believer in Jesus Christ. He has given us the Holy Spirit, who works in us and causes us to walk in His statutes, and to keep His judgments. How does the Spirit do this? By the fruit of the Spirit — love! And as Paul declares, “Love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:10). So the case is not that the Law no longer has significance for us but rather that it is fulfilled in us by the Spirit of God, through the fruit of love.

By the way, I believe that every Gentile believer is “grafted into” the “olive tree” that is Israel (see Romans 11:13-24), so that we receive the Messiah that was promised to Israel, the Spirit that was promised to Israel (for example, in Ezekiel 36:26-27), and the salvation that was promised to Israel. But that is a post for another day.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Perfectly Joined Together

Jerusalem is built as a city that is compact together. (Psalm 122:3)
Jerusalem is Zion, “the city of our God … the city of the Great King” (Psalm 48:1-2). It is where the “tribes of the Lord” go up to worship the Lord and give thanks (Psalm 122:4). It is the place of the “house of the Lord” (Psalm 122:1).

The revelation of the New Testament is that there is a New Jerusalem, a heavenly city which will one day come down and join heaven and earth together as one — the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven. And all who believe on King Jesus the Messiah are now citizens of that city (see Praying With Zion).

The psalm writer says that “Jerusalem is built as a city that is compact together.” One translation puts it this way: “Jerusalem is built as a city whose fellowship is complete” (this is Brenton’s English translation of the Septuagint, which is an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament).

For the psalm writer, Jerusalem was more than a geographical location, it represented a relationship — the people of the Lord entering together into His presence. It is a fellowship that is complete, compacted together.

Paul writes about the Church in a similar way. In 1 Corinthians 1:10, he admonishes the Jesus believers at Corinth to be “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” He wanted their attitude and behavior to reflect what was actually already true about them. And in his Ephesians letter, he describes that truth about our relationship as the body of Christ, with Christ as the head,
from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:16)
Joined and knit together. A city that is compact together, whose fellowship is complete. That is the truth about the heavenly Jerusalem and the reality of our identity in Christ. Let us, then, be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. In this way we will manifest who we are in Christ, and the unity that we truly have in Him.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Many or Few? A Surprising Answer

Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
This is part of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount.” It is a popular text for many preachers, one they can use in any number of sermons to bring a strong sense of urgency to whatever their message happens to be. Just tag on a few words about the narrow and broad ways, about how few find the narrow way that leads to life but many continue on the broad road to destruction. It plays well, especially to those who have assured themselves that they are among the few who are on the narrow way to life. And these are, after all, the “red letter” words, the word of Jesus.

However, this is not the end of the story. For not many verses later — in the very next chapter, in fact — Jesus says this:
Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 8:10-11)
Jesus had just healed the servant of a Roman centurion (Matthew 8:5-10). Being a centurion, this man understood very well the nature of authority but he also believed that Jesus had the authority to heal, and that made for a strong faith. The result is that his servant, though not even present, was healed at Jesus’ word.

Jesus commended the man’s faith. It was exactly the kind of faith He had been looking for in Israel, among the Jews, but had not found. And now here was an outsider who knew how to trust Him. But then Jesus talked about others just like this man, outsiders who would come from east and west and would be a part of the kingdom of God. Not just a few, but many would come. The Greek word for “many” here is the same one used earlier, about the “many” on the broad way to destruction. In the earlier passage, only a few would find the way to life. But here is this one, there are many who will enter it.

So which will it be, many or few? Will there be only a few who come into the kingdom of God and find life, or will there be many? We can find the answer to that by considering two things: Who is Jesus talking about, and when is Jesus talking about?

First, who was Jesus talking about? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was addressing the Jews, many of whom, whether they realized it or not, were on a path to destruction. But in Matthew 8:10-11, Jesus was talking about those who come from east and west — the outsiders, like the Roman centurion whose servant He had just healed. Not just a few, but many like him will come into the kingdom.

Second, when was Jesus talking about? Pay attention to the tenses that are used in each case. In Matthew 7:13-14, we find the present tense: “There are many” who go in by the broad gate, and “there are few” who find the narrow one. Jesus was not necessarily foretelling the way things would be in the future but He was talking about the way things presently stood. Many of the Jews were at that time on the wrong path, one that led to destruction. But surely one purpose of Jesus’ sermon was to show them the right path, the one leading to life. For He said that He came “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).

Now look at the tense used in Matthew 8:11: “I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” This is future tense, not about the way things were at the time but about the way things will be in the future. Many will come, and many will sit down in the kingdom of heaven (the Greek text shows that both the coming and the sitting down are future tense).

There will be many, then, who enter into the kingdom of God and see life. Even among the Jews, we should not suppose that only a few will find it, for Jesus’ warning was not about what will be or must be, but only about what then was the case when Jesus began His ministry. Indeed, we can expect to see many Jews, as well, who will take their place in God’s eternal kingdom. For that appears to be Paul’s expectation as he concludes his long discussion about Israel in Romans 9-11, “And so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26).

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Short of the Glory

For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)
Perhaps you have heard that one before. Many people have. It has been thundered from many pulpits and bellowed on a thousand street corners. Maybe you read it on a roadside billboard, or even on the side of a barn somewhere in rural America. Often the focus is on the bad news that “all have sinned,” and the problem that creates between us and God. Fair enough.

But there is also some good news hidden in that verse, and it is this: We were created to participate in the glory of God. Man was created in the image of God and according to His likeness.
Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26)
God’s plan from the beginning was for us to be like Him and to be His image in the world. In other words, we were created to bear the glory of God. Like the moon bears the glory of the sun and reflects it to the earth, we were meant to reflect His greatness and goodness to all creation.

The terrible news about sin is that by it we have “come short” of that glory. We have all “sinned.” The Greek word, hamartano, literally means to “miss the mark.” God created us to reflect His goodness, but we have done what is evil. God meant for us to show forth His righteousness, but we have done what is not right. Consequently, we have fallen far short of the glorious role He prepared for us.

But the good news is that in the Lord Jesus Christ that glory is being restored in us, as Christ lives His life through us, the Holy Spirit brings forth His fruit in us, and the Father conforms us to the image of His Son (Galatians 2:20; Galatians 5:23-23; Romans 8:29). Indeed, the mystery that has been revealed in the gospel is that Christ in us is the hope, or expectation, of glory (Colossians 1:27). And now, as Paul says, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Seventy Times Seven

In the fragmented way we often read Bible passages, we usually do not hear how they resonate together, though they may be separated by many centuries. For example, take the case of Lamech, and how he rationalized killing another man:
Then Lamech said to his wives: “Adah and Zillah, hear my voice; wives of Lamech, listen to my speech! For I have killed a man for wounding me, even a young man for hurting me. If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” (Genesis 4:23-24)
In the Septuagint (aka, LXX), which is an ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, the words for “seventy-sevenfold” are hebdomekontakis hepta.

Now contrast this with Matthew 18, where Peter asks the Lord Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” (v. 21). Do you remember Jesus’ answer? “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven” (v. 22).

First, notice that Peter asks about forgiving his brother “seven times” (Greek, heptakis). Lamech spoke of Cain (who killed his brother, Abel, remember) being avenged “sevenfold” (in the LXX, heptakis). Peter is on to something here though he does not yet realize how far it is to extend.

But see how Jesus sets aside Peter’s limitations and says, “No, seventy times seven.” The Greek words are hebdomekontakis hepta, the same as in the old Greek translation of Genesis 4:24. These are the only two places in the Bible where this phrase is found. However, see how Jesus’ use of it brings a reversal.
In Genesis 4, Lamech’s use demonstrates how justified he felt in killing another man. “Seventy times seven” was the measure of how much his vengeance was worth. But on Jesus’ lips, “seventy times seven” is no longer about vengeance but forgiveness.

King Jesus overturns old paradigms and sets things right side up.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Lessons from Hebrews on the Nature of Faith

Hebrews 11 has often been called the “hall of fame of faith,” because of the litany of Old Testament saints and the dynamic of faith at work in their lives.
  • When Abel “offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews11:4)
  • When Noah “prepared an ark for the saving of his household,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews 11:7)
  • When Abraham “obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews 11:8)
  • When Abraham “dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews 11:9)
  • When Abraham “offered up Isaac, and he who have received the promises offer up his only begotten son,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews 11:17)
  • When Moses became of age and “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews 11:24-26)
  • When Moses “forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews 11:27)
  • When Moses “kept the Passover and the sprinkling of blood, lest he who destroyed the firstborn should touch them,” was it a matter of faith, or of works? (See Hebrews 11:28)
The answer, of course, is that it was all “by faith.” What does this tell us about the nature of faith?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Gospel That Judges Our Secrets

In the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel. (Romans 2:16)
“Gospel” means “good news.” Not just any bit of news that happens to be good. In the Bible, the Greek word for “gospel,” euangelion, is most often used in a particular sense: the announcement that the kingdom of God — and its King, Jesus the Messiah — has come.

According to the gospel Paul preached, there is coming a day when God will “judge the secrets of men.” This is the same message Paul preached to the philosophers at Mars Hill in Athens, declaring that God has “appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained” (Acts 17:31).

When God comes to judge, it means that He comes to set things right in the world. Whatever is out of joint will be brought back into proper alignment. Whatever is evil and cannot be put back right will be removed. And whatever is good and proper will be established forever.

This can be a very encouraging prospect — but also a very terrifying one. On one hand, there are a lot of things wrong in the world that we would love to see put right. But on the other hand, we realize deep down that we are part of what is wrong with the world. There is a story told about G. K. Chesterton that, in answer to the question, “What is wrong with the world?” he said quite simply: “I am.”

There is coming a day when God will judge the secrets of our hearts, yours and mine, and that is a sobering thought. We can fool others, and even ourselves, for a time, but we cannot fool God. “For man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7).

The gospel is supposed to be “good news,” but when the secrets of our hearts are finally revealed, will it truly be good news for us? For those who have entrusted themselves to the Lord Jesus, the answer is Yes!
For all the promises of God in Him are Yes, and in Him Amen, to the glory of God through us. (2 Corinthians 1:20)

In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1:13-14)
And here is the secret that rescues us from the secrets of our own hearts: In Jesus the Messiah, God gives us a new heart, just as He promised His people in the Old Testament.
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Jeremiah 31:33)

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
This promise is not just for Israel but for all who receive the Lord Jesus. “To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

On that day when King Jesus comes and judges the secrets of our hearts, He will find a new heart and a new spirit — the Holy Spirit — at work in us. That is why He came, to bring this about. And He will be satisfied with what He has done in us.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Rich, Young Ruler in Three Scenes

Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)
Jesus’ encounter with the “rich young ruler” (RYR) is the middle scene in a three-scene narrative. Matthew, Mark and Luke include all three scenes together and in the same order. Notice what comes before and what comes after.
  • First, there is the blessing of the children, where Jesus says, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it” (Mark 10:13-16; see also Matthew 19:13-15 and Luke 18:15-17).
  • Second, along comes the RYR, who asks, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17-22; see also Matthew 19:16-22 and Luke 18:18-23). Then a brief exchange follows between him and Jesus.
  • Third, after the RYR departs, Jesus says, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:23-31; see also Matthew 19:23-30 and Luke 18:24-30).
Let’s take a closer look. In the first scene, Jesus says that only those who receive the kingdom of God as a “little child” will enter it. Now, the thing about a little child is that he has nothing. No position, no power, no possessions — nothing! He is completely dependent upon his parents for his well-being, and apart from them he is helpless.

That is how it is with the kingdom of God. We do not enter it or receive it by anything of ourselves. Neither position, nor power nor possessions will gain it for us. We must come helpless, totally dependent upon God.

And now here comes the RYR. He is loaded with position, power and possessions. But he realizes that there is something he is missing. He wants to know about how he can inherit “eternal life,” which is, literally, the “life of the age to come.” In other words, he wants to know how to receive the kingdom of God, which is all about the age to come (yet which has already broken into this present age). Of course, Jesus has already answered that question in the first scene: The only way one can receive the kingdom of God is as a little child.

Let’s be clear here: the problem is not that the RYR has all these possessions, the problem is that he trusts in them. He depends on them to see him through whatever comes his way. That is revealed when Jesus tells him to go and sell what he has and give the proceeds to the poor. The RYR is quite saddened to hear that because he has a lot of possessions. So he goes away, grieved and offended.

But that is not the end of the story. There is yet another scene. After the RYR leaves, Jesus says to His disciples, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:24). Obviously, He is referring to the young man in the previous scene. The RYR was trusting in his riches, yet seeking to enter the kingdom of God and inherit eternal life.

On the other hand, here are the disciples, puzzling over what Jesus has just said, and asking among themselves, “Who then can be saved?” Comparing these three scenes, we can see that “saved” means “inherit eternal life” means “enter the kingdom of God.”

So, Peter starts in and says to Jesus, “See, we have left all and followed You,” as if to ask, “What about us?” The disciples are not trusting in their possessions — they have left all that behind to follow Jesus. They did what the RYR was unwilling to do. Their faith is now in Jesus. So Jesus answers,
Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel’s, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time — houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions — and in the age to come, eternal life. (Mark 10:29-30)
The disciples are no longer trusting in their possessions, yet they will have more than they need for life in this present age — “and in the age to come, eternal life.” Eternal life. Isn’t that exactly what the RYR came seeking? And he could have received it, too, except that he was trusting in his riches. But he went away sad, not willing to give up what he had, yet having no assurance that what he possessed would be sufficient to see him through this present life, let alone the life to come.

Then Jesus adds the kicker: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:31). The kingdom of God turns everything upside down. Or right side up, depending on your perspective. The RYR had everything in life — position, power and possessions. He thought he would be a shoe-in to be among the first, but it turns out that he will be among the last. Yet, those who receive the kingdom of God like a little child, who put no trust in position or power or possessions but in the Lord alone, even though they might appear to be among the last and the least in this life, they will be among the first in the kingdom of God.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Unveiling of Jesus the Messiah

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants — things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John. (Revelation 1:1)
Revelation is an “unveiling.” That is what the Greek word apocalypse, which is translated as “revelation,” means. It is a compound word, from apo, “off” or “away,” and kalypto, “cover.” It is taking away the cover, like pulling back the curtain of a stage play to reveal what is happening behind the scenes. That is what this book does for us, it pulls back the curtains and shows us how the gospel — the announcement that the kingdom of God has come and Jesus Christ is the King —plays out in history and changes the world.

Notice that the revelation of Jesus Christ is something God gave to Jesus Christ to show to His servants. It was given to Jesus but it is also about Jesus, and has everything to do with it means in the world that Jesus is Lord — what it meant for John’s day, what it means for the end of the age, and what it means for the time in between.

In this opening verse of Revelation, John gives us three important clues about how to interpret the rest of the book. First, John immediately identifies it as an apocalypse. This clearly indicates that it belongs to a specific genre known as apocalyptic. This Jewish form of literature is visionary, highly pictorial, draws heavily on the Old Testament prophets and portrays what will happen in heaven as well as on earth, and how everything will turn out for the people of God. Recognizing the genre as apocalyptic alerts us that the book of Revelation is not to be read as straight prose, or as a newspaper-like account of history in advance, but as a highly stylized form of literature that requires some decoding.

Second, the content of Revelation is about what God gave to the Lord Jesus to show it to His servants. The Lord Jesus, in turn, sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John. The Greek word for “show” has to do with what is seen. The book of Revelation is a collection of visions John was shown and it records what he both saw and heard in those visions. The word for “signify” is semaino and has to do with what is indicated or made known by a sign or symbol. These two terms, “show” and “signified,” alert us that the content of Revelation is not meant to be taken literally but symbolically.

Third, the book of Revelation is about “things which must shortly take place.” The Greek for “shortly” is en tachei. It is about things that would not only happen quickly but would also happen “soon,” which is how many major translations render it (e.g., NIV, NASB, ESV, NRSV). There is no suggestion that it will be delayed for an indefinite period of time (such as hundreds or even thousands of years) and then happen quickly whenever it does begin, however far in the future that may be. Quite the opposite, John reinforces the nearness of these thing when he says, in verse 3, “for the time is at hand.” At the end of the book, in Revelation 22:6, John reiterates, “And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent His angel to show His servants what must soon [en tachei] take place. ‘And behold, I am coming soon [tachu]. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book’” (ESV). And in Revelation 22:10, John once again observes, “for the time is at hand.” This alerts us that the book of Revelation, though it was about the future, was mostly about what was for John and his audience the near future, and not some distant time.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Verdict on Judgment Day (Part 2)

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. (Romans 2:6-10 ESV)
There is coming a day when God will judge each one of us according to our works. On that day of judgment, there will be only two outcomes: For those who do what is good, eternal life. For those who do not obey the truth but do what is wrong and unjust, there will be wrath and fury. There is no middle ground, no compromise solution.

When Paul speaks of “law” in his letter to the Jesus believers at Rome (also in his letter to the believers in Galatia), he is not referring to some general principle of right and wrong, or of conscience or consciousness about such a general principle, but to the Torah God gave His people through Moses.

Paul asserts that the “doers of the law will be declared righteous.” His Jewish readers at Rome may have had the written Torah, engraved in stone, but that did not give them a leg up on the Gentiles in regard to God’s judgment at the last day. That is because it is not those who hear the law but those who do the law who will be justified, that is, “declared righteous.”
For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus. (Romans 2:13-16 ESV)
Who are these Gentiles who “by nature do what the law requires” and have the law “written on their hearts”? Merely a hypothetical group conjured up for the sake of argument, a null set with no actual members? I do not think so. Rather, I believe they are Gentiles who have come to faith in Jesus the Messiah. The law of God written on the heart was the very thing God promised He would do for His people in the age of Messiah:
For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. (Ezekiel 36:24-27)
Jeremiah refers to this same reality in terms of the new covenant, and also speaks of the law of God written on the heart:
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah — not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)
So when Paul speaks of Gentiles who have the law of God “written on their hearts,” he is referring to the new covenant reality that Ezekiel and Jeremiah prophesied by the Spirit of God. God has given every believer in Jesus the Holy Spirit, by whom is written the law of God on our hearts. The fruit of the Spirit produces in us all the things God requires but which the law never could produce (see The Spirit of God Fulfills Righteousness in Us). The surprising things for many Jews in the days of the early Church was that God would do this not just for believing Jews but also for believing Gentiles.

Now let’s move forward a few verses to the end of Romans 2, which is still very much in the flow of the same context:
For circumcision is indeed profitable if you keep the law; but if you are a breaker of the law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision. Therefore, if an uncircumcised man keeps the righteous requirements of the law, will not his uncircumcision be counted as circumcision? And will not the physically uncircumcised, if he fulfills the law, judge you who, even with your written code and circumcision, are a transgressor of the law? For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God. (Romans 2:25-29 ESV)
Who is Paul describing here? Merely some people who have a primal remnant consciousness of right and wrong? No. He is speaking of those who are of the true circumcision, a circumcision “of the heart.” It is done not by the letter of the law but by the Spirit of God. See how Paul speaks of this “circumcision of the heart” elsewhere, in Philippians 3:3 and Colossians 2:11.

The Gentiles Paul describes in Romans 2, then, are believers in the Lord Jesus who, though they are Gentiles outwardly, are Jews inwardly. They are people upon whose hearts God has written his Law, just as He promised to do for His people. And they have been given the true, inward circumcision of the heart by the Holy Spirit, just as God promised.

So on that day when every person is judged according to their works, the work God has done in us through His Son and by His Spirit will confirm that the verdict He has already announced to us in this present time, through faith in Jesus the Messiah, is a completely just and appropriate one. That verdict will not be based on anything of our own initiative, our own abilities, or our own works but completely on God’s gracious initiative in Christ, His almighty power and the work of the Holy Spirit in us and through us. That is why Paul can say of those, both Jew and Gentile, who believe on Jesus the Messiah:
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8:3-4)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Random Thoughts

Some thoughts culled from my random file. Some have occurred to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in discussion with others. For your edification, inspiration and/or amusement — or your money cheerfully refunded.
  • I have given up the idea of doing “great things” for God — I don’t trust my judgment anymore about what is “great.” I am learning to be content with doing what God leads me to do. He knows what He wants me to do, and I believe that will actually end up being the greatest thing I can do, whether or not it appears that way to me at the start. After years of ministry, I have learned that it is often the small things, things I don’t even remember doing or saying, that have the greatest effect.
  • If anyone thinks of ministry as a competition, he has already cut corners and is headed for trouble.
  • True ministry in the lives of others is always something initiated by God. We plan it one way, it often happens another. We stumble into it. We back into it. We wake up in the middle of it.
  • My advice to anyone who feels “called to ministry,” is to understand that the ministry is not his or hers — it belongs to Jesus. The ability to do ministry does not come from themselves — it comes from the Holy Spirit. When we yield it all completely to God, He will do amazing things through us, above all we could ask or imagine, because it will be His power at work in us.
  • My advice for Christians in other fields is similar. Our vocation (“calling”) is an assignment from the Lord, and it belongs to the Lord because we belong to the Lord. If He has called us to it, He will provide whatever we need to accomplish it. And when we yield it all completely to God, He will do amazing things through it, above all we could ask or imagine, because it will be His power at work in us.
  • I view preaching, both in the prep and in the delivery, as dynamic, not static. It is a process. I want to be aware of not just what the Word and the Spirit have said but they are saying in regard to the people to whom I am ministering. I have often experienced the message I end up delivering to be more effective than the one I prepared. There has often been an overlap between the two, of course, but not a 1:1 ratio. That said, I don't think it is usually necessary to announce that the Holy Spirit has given me something to preach that is different from what I prepared. I just go with what God is giving me, and count the prep for preaching to be a matter of the preparation of my heart as much (and usually more) than the preparation of my notes.
  • I don’t actually think much in terms of obedience. I think more in terms of loving God and loving others and letting the love of God work through me. It’s been said that we become like what we behold. As I get older, I find that my desire is to behold God more. In that, I discover that godly things flow out of my life, not as a matter of obedience or discipline or discipleship, but more naturally than that.
  • What does faith mean in the face of disappointment and tragedy? Faith does not deny the reality of tragedy, sickness or death, but it says that God is bigger than all those things, that He gets the last word on them and that that last word is a good one.
  • “Your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). Young men see what is, old men see what will be. Both aspects speak of awareness of who we are, where we are and why we are. God is from eternity — He takes the long view. His plans and purposes endure. “He remembers His covenant forever, the word which He commanded, for a thousand generations” (Psalm 105:8). God has dreams a thousand generations long.
  • Every thought, word and deed should flow out of love for and relationship with God. Do nothing except what His love compels you to do.
  • The size of your God determines the size of your miracle. That is, how great and powerful and good you understand God to be will determine how big a miracle you will be able to believe Him for. Little God, little miracle. Big God, big miracle.
  • What does it cost to change the world? Everything. But it is well worth the price.
  • When you learn how to hear, you will know what to do.
  • Intimate relationship with God is the seedbed for every pure desire.
  • “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (1 John 4:16). Believe the love.
  • Faithfulness — the ability to walk in faith, exercise faith, be full of faith.
  • Discipleship — in training to be like Jesus. Not a program but a relationship with Jesus and His people.

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Spirit of God Fulfills Righteousness in Us

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23)
Earlier in his letter to the Jesus believers in Galatia, Paul has argued that it is not by doing the works of the law of Moses that we are justified — declared to be in right relationship with God and His people — but by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16). Though the terminology of justification comes from the law-court, the declaration Paul speaks of is not a hollow determination or “legal fiction.” In Galatians 5, Paul shows how the reality of this right relationship plays out, and it has to do with the Holy Spirit and with love.
You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love. (Galatians 5:4-6)
No one could ever have been justified by the law, because the law could never impart the ability to do what the law required. “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law” (Galatians 3:21). However, for those who are in Christ, who belong to Him through faith in Him, there is indeed life — His life. As Paul said, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).

This life is mediated to us by the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, we “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.” Hope is about expectation, and righteousness is about justification. We have an eager anticipation (not an anxious one) that on that day when we stand before God, He will count us among the righteous, because of the life of Christ in us and the work of the Holy Spirit.

The law that we could never keep on our own will be fulfilled. How? By love. “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14). And where does this love come from? It is the fruit of the Spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.” This fruit displays the very character of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The law of Moses is certainly not against this. Indeed, the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, is what actually fulfills the law. But what the law was unable to work in us, the Spirit of God is in us to produce in our lives. So Paul can say, at the end of his letter, that those who sow to the Spirit will reap everlasting life.
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith. (Galatians 6:7-10)
The work of the Holy Spirit, and the fruit He manifests in and through us, demonstrates that eternal life is at work in us, which is the life of the age to come, the life of Him who is Life itself — the Lord Jesus Christ. His life in us, and our life in Him, fulfills all that righteousness requires. And when we stand before God on that final day, He will see that righteousness, that it is very real, and will be pleased with what He has done in us.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Washing of Rebirth and Renewal by the Holy Spirit

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. 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. This is a trustworthy saying. And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone. (Titus 3:4-8 NIV)
This passage from Titus was recently brought once again to my attention, and though I have studied it a number of times in the past, I was captured by a few new realizations. That’s the way it often is with reflecting on Scripture. No matter how many times I have gone over a passage, there always seem to be new things unfolding from it.

There is an old saying that no man ever steps into the same river twice. The water is ever flowing and the man is ever changing, and though he steps in again at the exact same place, it is not the exact same water that flowed by previously and he is no longer exactly the same as he was before. That is what has happened to me again with these verses. My perspective has changed some since last I visited them and I now recognize a few currents I had missed earlier.

One thing that strikes me this time around is how Trinitarian it is in its soteriology (doctrine of salvation). It is out of the kindness and love of the Father — God our Savior — that He has saved us. In the words of that famous verse, “God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son” (John 3:16 NIV). This salvation is also a renewal by the Holy Spirit (more on that in a moment). And the Holy Spirit is poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, the Son. As I have learned to meditate more on the rich relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that is the Trinity, the more I have learned to recognize it in Scripture.

Another thing that particularly stands out for me now is how much this fulfills what God promised through the prophet Ezekiel:
Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)
Here is the “washing of rebirth,” the sprinkling of water that cleanses us from all impurity and idolatry. We are given the new heart and new spirit — which can be called the new birth — that God has for us. This “washing” is beautifully portrayed in the sign of baptism.

The “renewal” Paul speaks of is by the Holy Spirit, God’s own Spirit, who comes to dwell within us. The fulfillment of this promise in Ezekiel turned out to be what God would do not just for the Jews but for all the nations of the earth. In fact, Paul writes this letter to Titus, who he appointed to oversee the largely non-Jewish church at Crete.

Finally, I have recently been considering the relationship between justification and final judgment, and this passage speaks to that. Paul says that God has saved us and Christ has generously poured out the Holy Spirit on us so that, “having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” The first part, “having been justified,” speaks of what has already been accomplished — through Christ we have been declared righteous, fit for fellowship with God and His people. “The hope of eternal life” is about our future expectation — the life of the age to come.

Paul solemnly affirms that this is “trustworthy,” and he stresses these things “so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good.” The new birth and renewal by the Holy Spirit that we receive by faith in God (through Jesus Christ) brings us into a life of good works that honors God. And that is exactly what God promised in Ezekiel, that He would put His own Spirit within us who would cause us to walk in His ways. We also find this same line of thought expressed earlier in Paul’s letter.
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)
The grace of God that teaches us and the Holy Spirit whom God has given to live in us begins to transform us in this present age so that, when the Lord Jesus comes and we stand before Him, the work of God will be revealed in us. And God will be satisfied with what He has done.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How I Learned to Pray in Tongues

He who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God. (1 Corinthians 14:2)
Recently, a friend from my Bible college days (back in the 70s) asked about my experience of praying in tongues, how I first entered into it, whether it was something that happened unexpectedly or something I worked to attain.

It’s been so long now that I needed to take a little time to remember how it came about. It was not some sort of frenzy, or some big emotional experience. Quite the opposite. I had for a long time believed in the validity of speaking in tongues and that God was still doing today what He had done in the early days of the Church. Speaking in tongues was part of the heritage of the church I had grown up in (Christian and Missionary Alliance), and having been convinced of the biblical legitimacy of the gift, I was open to it. I didn’t do anything about it for many years, but I was open to it.

It was back in the late 80s, when I began learning to pray the Psalms, that things began to change. Up until then, I had always only prayed spontaneously, but now I was learning to pray words that were not my own extemporaneous ones. They were other people’s words — the words of David and the psalm writers. Holy Spirit inspired words, no doubt, but still the words that were not my own (not yet my own, anyway).

As I continued, I began to see the value of praying the words of the psalm writers and the prayers of others who had gone before me in the faith. My own words were so limited, and so also my prayers. But now my prayers began to be enlarged and my prayer life expanded in new directions.

After a while, it began to occur to me that praying in tongues was, likewise, not about my own words but words that somehow come from the Holy Spirit, who dwells in everyone who has been born again of the Spirit. And I started to understand some of the benefits of praying in tongues (see below). So now I was not just open to it, I began to desire it, and I started talking to the Lord about it. “Lord, if You’re willing, I’m willing.”

And I believed He indeed was willing — but I had no idea how to begin. After a while, it occurred to me to just start praying out some syllables and giving those to the Lord. I’m reminded of the story of the little girl whose mother came into her room one night and found her kneeling beside her bed, reciting the alphabet. The mother asked what she was doing and the little girl answered that she did not know how to pray, so she was giving all the letters to God for Him to make a prayer with. Well, I want God to be Lord not just over all the words of mouth and the meditations of my heart, but over all my syllables, too. So I started praying some out and giving them to God to do with whatever He wanted.

Was that just me, “priming the pump”? Perhaps. But I kept coming back to that every few days and, after a while, there began to be something of a flow to those syllables/words that was not coming from my conscious mind. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. For a while I would ask, “Is that You, Lord, or is that me?” I went on for months like that, wondering, but after a while I began to relax about it — whatever it was, I was giving it to God.

So I was praying in tongues. As I continued, I began to experience some wonderful benefits. For one thing, it is a way of speaking to God. The apostle Paul said, “He who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God” (1 Corinthians 14:2). So it is a way of prayer and/or praise.

Paul also said that, in that same verse, that a person who speaks in tongues “speaks mysteries.” When I pray in tongues, I often have no idea of what I am praying about. But sometimes I do, especially when I have asked the Holy Spirit to help me pray about some person or situation. And sometimes I have a sense of what I am praying about because of what comes to my understanding as or afterwards. Praying in tongues is then, in a sense, something like “downloading” in the Spirit.
For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my understanding is unfruitful. What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. (1 Corinthians 14:14-15)
Like Paul, I am happy to pray with the Spirit, and also to pray with the understanding. Sometimes there is an overlap between the two that I can discern. Sometimes not. If I have no understanding or particular sense about what I am praying, I do not let that bother me; I expect that God is speaking mysteries to me at a level of my spirit that goes beyond my understanding. And I expect that it will eventually trickle down to my understanding as needed.

My belief is that the Holy Spirit is always active in believers, working in us in ways that we do not necessarily understand. So I often pray and/or sing in tongues as a way of focusing on the Lord and welcoming the Spirit to do His work in me, whatever that work may be and whether or not I understand what He is doing at that moment.

I also correlate my experience of praying in tongues to Paul’s teaching in Romans 8:26. Not so much the “groanings that cannot be uttered” part, although I believe tongues can well be a part of that. But more in that the Holy Spirit “helps” us when we pray — because we do not know what or how we should pray! Sometimes I am moved to pray for some person or situation, but I have no idea how to approach it in prayer, and I find praying in tongues to be of particular benefit. I start praying in tongues, and then out of that I usually begin to know how to pray the matter with my understanding. What a coincidence!

(See also How Praying in the Spirit Helps Me)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How Wide is God’s Mercy?

The whole world is in need of salvation. Everyone is subject to the corruption of sin and mortality, and even creation itself is waiting for its own redemption (Romans 8:19-21). But there is no salvation for anyone apart from the Lord Jesus Christ, His cross and His resurrection. His atoning work is sufficient for the sins of the whole world, in all times and places, and He is the only way to salvation for everyone who has lived.

The witness of the apostles in the New Testament is that whoever believes on Him is saved, born again, receives eternal life, inherits the kingdom of God. But that raises questions about infants and people who are mentally incompetent to believe — what about them? There is also the question about the “heathen” and people who have never heard of Jesus. And what about people who existed before Jesus came and who therefore never heard of him?

The Gospel of John sheds some light on this, I believe. For Jesus is the True Light who gives light to every one who comes into the world (John 1:9). I think this is not just true concerning after Jesus came into the world but that it extends even to those who lived before His incarnation. For He is the creator of the world (John 1:3), the source of life: “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4). Even before John reveals that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, a statement about the incarnation), we learn the Jesus is the Light and that he gives light to everyone who comes into the world. So I believe that applies to every person who has ever existed and ever will. The light that Jesus gives is a manifestation of God’s grace, without which, no one is able to turn to Him and be saved.

I am also reminded of the passage in Ecclesiastes 3, where The Preacher says, “He has put eternity in our hearts, except that no man can find out the work that God does from beginning to end” (v.11). This seems to me to speak of a witness that God has given to every person. And, of course, Paul says that “what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20). The problem has never been that nobody knew what was necessary to know but that “although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21). In other words, the problem is not that they did not receive light, but that when they received light, they rejected it, so their foolish, unbelieving hearts were darkened.

Surely God holds everyone accountable only for the light He has given each one — no more and no less. And there is a point where each person becomes accountable for whatever light that has been given them. That is, there comes a point in their development when they able to choose whether to receive it or reject it. If a person never reaches that point of accountability, say, an infant or child who dies before they reach that stage, or a person who has otherwise never developed to sufficient competency to respond, I believe that God does not hold them accountable but graciously receives them — but only the basis of Messiah’s saving work.

For those who have never heard of Jesus the Messiah, I believe God does nonetheless give them light and holds them accountable for whatever light He has given. If they respond to that light in faith, then if more light is necessary, I believe God will give it to them and will continue to do so until they have sufficient light. However much light is necessary, God will give it.

I think this has always been so. How much light did people have before Jesus came? Surely there were people who were saved in the Old Testament, even though they were not of Israel. What faith was Adam accountable for? Or Seth? Or Enoch? Or Melchizedek? Or Job? We know that Abraham believed God and it was accounted to Him as righteousness, but it was a budding light, not like the fuller revelation of Jesus the Messiah we have received in the New Testament. Or how about Nebuchadnezzar, who said, “And at the end of the time I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my understanding returned to me; and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever: For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom is from generation to generation” (Daniel 4:34). Was Nebuchadnezzar saved?

Jesus gives light to every one who comes into the world, and I believe it is sufficient light, if anyone will respond to it in faith. I don’t know where the dividing line is on that or exactly how much light God requires, but I believe the God supplies whatever light is needed and does not hold anyone accountable for any more light than He has given them. However, I do know what message God holds me accountable to preach: the message of King Jesus the Messiah and salvation through faith in Him.

Ultimately, all these other questions I leave to God to deal with in His goodness and mercy, but I do believe His mercy may well be wider than we expect.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Verdict on Judgment Day

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified. (Galatians 2:16)
“Justification” is law-court terminology. It is a verdict, a judicial finding that is made by the judge. It is a pronouncement that is made in regard to the law. If the judge finds you “justified” (or “righteous”) it means that you have not broken the law but have kept it.

In the Old Testament, God made covenant with the children of Israel. He became their God and they became His people. And He gave His covenant people the law of Moses. Righteousness was spoken of in terms of that law and that covenant. If you kept the law, you were considered “righteous,” which was to say, in good standing with God and with the rest of the covenant community. If you broke the law, well, then there was a problem that needed to be resolved, because it was a break in covenant and the fellowship of the community. So justification has implications regarding God’s covenant and the rest of the community that stands in covenant with Him.

The problem for all of us, Jew and Gentile alike, is that we have all “sinned.” We have all broken God’s law, and that was a big problem that needed to be resolved. For we will all stand before God one day in the final judgment. Who will be justified, receive a favorable verdict, be judged as righteous in that day? In that day, who will be pronounced a law-keeper, a member in good standing with the covenant people of God?

The answer Paul finds in the gospel is that all who believe on the Lord Jesus will be judged “righteous.” The good news about Jesus the Messiah is that we already know what that end time verdict will be. It has already been revealed ahead of time to us through Him: His death is reckoned as our death, and His righteous life is reckoned as ours. So shall it be reckoned on judgment day for all who belong to Him.

In the Old Testament, circumcision was a sign that marked out who the covenant people of God were. If you were one of God’s “chosen,” you were circumcised. Without it, you would not be considered a member in good standing. However, in Paul’s day, there were some Jewish Christians who were trying to carry that over into the new covenant we have in Jesus the Messiah: If a gentile believer in Christ wanted to be in good standing with God’s covenant people, then he must be circumcised. That would identify him as one of the “righteous,” the “justified,” who would receive a favorable verdict on the day of judgment.

Against that, Paul rendered an emphatic No! It is not circumcision or Sabbath keeping or any works of the law that indicates who will receive God’s favorable verdict on judgment day. Rather, it is faith in the Lord Jesus that now points us out as God’s covenant people — people of the new covenant God has cut in the blood of Jesus the Messiah — who will stand in the “congregation of the righteous” (Psalm 1:5)

What will the verdict be for us when we stand before God on judgment day? We already know, because it has already been revealed to us in Jesus the Messiah:
Justified — fit for fellowship with God and His people!
Righteous — in right relationship with God and His people!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Praying with Zion

Sing praises to the LORD, who dwells in Zion! (Psalm 9:11)

Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King. (Psalm 149:2)
There are many psalms that speak of Zion. It is where the LORD establishes His anointed Son as King over Israel and the nations1. It is the where He has chosen to dwell2. It is the place of the help, strength and salvation that comes from the LORD3. It is where the LORD establishes justice for His people and the whole earth4. It is where the people of the LORD appear before Him5. It is where the LORD shows His mercy and favor6. It is where the LORD is revealed in His glory7. It is where the LORD commands His blessing8.

Zion is Jerusalem, the city of God. For the psalm writers, there is no other place like it. It is “the joy of the whole earth” (Psalm 48:2). There we find the temple, revealing the presence of the Lord and the place where God rules and reigns over His people.
As we have heard, so we have seen
In the city of the LORD of hosts,
In the city of our God:
God will establish it forever. Selah.
We have thought, O God, on Your lovingkindness,
In the midst of Your temple.
(Psalm 48:8-9)
After the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were carried off into exile, Jews began to believe that there must be a heavenly Jerusalem, just as the psalm writer spoke of a heavenly temple: “The LORD is in His holy temple, the LORD’s throne is in heaven” (Psalm 11:4). It is this heavenly city that endures forever and so fulfills the promise of Psalm 125:1, “Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.” So the prophets begin speaking of a new city and a glorious temple (for example, in Ezekiel 40-48, Isaiah 54:11-14 and Zechariah 2).

In the New Testament, we find this promise beginning to be fulfilled through King Jesus the Messiah and the new covenant He brings. By the end of the book, in Revelation 21, we see the New Jerusalem descending, joining heaven and earth together as one.
For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar — for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children — but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. (Galatians 4:24-26)

But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant. (Hebrews 12:22-24)

He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. (Revelation 3:12)

Then I, John, saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband … And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God. (Revelation 21:2, 10-11)
All who believe on King Jesus the Messiah, who belong to Him by faith, are a colony of heaven, citizens of that city that is above. We are not waiting to be airlifted out of the world but for the New Jerusalem to come down. And we ourselves are now the temple, the dwelling place of God on earth (see 1 Corinthians 3:16 and 1 Peter 2:5).

So now when I pray the psalms and come to the ones about Zion, I recognize my place in the New Jerusalem, the Jerusalem that is above and will one day be fully revealed on earth. The city “whose builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:10), the “better” and “heavenly” city the Old Testament saints longed for (Hebrews 11:16), and which New Testament believers also earnestly desire and seek (Hebrews 13:14).

(1) Psalm 2; 149:2 (2) Psalm 9:11; 76:2; 132:13 (3) Psalm 14:7; 20:2; 53:6; 110:2 (4) Psalm 48:11; 50:1-4; 122:1-5 (5) Psalm 84:85-87 (6) Psalm 102:13 (7) Psalm 102:16 (8) Psalm 128:5; 133:3; 134:3

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Random Thoughts

Some thoughts culled from my random file. Some have occurred to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in discussion with others. For your edification, inspiration and/or amusement.
  • I give thanks for the waves the Father makes for me to ride, the wind of the Spirit to fill my sails, and the peace the Lord Jesus speaks over my life.
  • Prayer is not a business meeting, or placing an order with God’s customer service agent. It is part of a life-giving relationship with the one who made you.
  • “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us” (1 John 4:16). Yet, even if we have not believed it, God's love for us is greater than our unbelief ~ He loves us still. How great is our joy when we know and believe that love.
  • Important distinctions get lost when people react instead of respond. To react requires nothing more than emotion, but to respond requires careful thought.
  • There are two kinds of people I avoid: Those who want to be accountable to me ~ after all, who am I? And those who want me to be accountable to them ~ after all, who are they?
  • Accountability can quickly devolve into rules and regulations, no longer about relationship, but someone with a checklist by which to evaluate everyone around. When it is no longer about encouraging and building up the members but about controlling them, it becomes simply a means to power for the ego-driven.
  • The Epistles don’t negate the Gospels; the Gospels don’t negate the Epistles. If we ever think that one negates the other, it is only because we are reading one of them wrong.
  • When one’s interest in “social justice” becomes, as so often seems to be the case, a matter best left for the State to handle, then I think both “social justice” and the State have become forms of idolatry.
  • “Social justice” is not a matter only for individuals. There are many forms of interconnectedness, including family and local community, as well as the Church. To whatever extent the State may represent interconnectedness, I do not think it is the highest form or the most efficient or effective form.
  • One thing we have to ask is who gets to define “social justice,” and how and by whom it is to be implemented. The State? A political party or movement? A denominational structure? Individual conscience?
  • The Christian faith teaches us to give of ourselves for the sake of others; it does not teach us to take what belongs to someone else in order to give it to another. Christian charity gives and serves; it does not commandeer others for the sake of our own agenda, however good we may think our agenda is. When we take from others what they have not offered, that is called stealing, something about which God says, “Thou shalt not.”
  • The tithe Abraham offered Melchizedek was a voluntary one, and one God honored — Abraham received a blessing. I would not go so far as to call it a “norm,” but it is certainly a worthy example for Christian giving. I believe God still honors the tithe today, even as He did back then, quite apart from the Law.
  • Tithing is based on increase, what comes into your hand. If you have not experienced increase, there is nothing to tithe on. But it is still possible to give. There are a lot of ways we can give of ourselves for the sake of others. For example, through acts of service, through our prayers for others, through kind words to others. If our heart is to give and serve, God blesses.