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.