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.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Secret of Ministry is Falling in Love with People

Georgian Banov, of Global Celebraton, bringing 5,000 Gypsies their favorite meal, fatted sheep stew. Georgian and his wife, Winnie, have fallen in love with the people.

Pondering 1 Thessalonians 2:6-17 in preparation for a Bible study group I teach, I was struck by just how much the apostle Paul loved the Jesus believers at Thessalonica — they were very much like family to him. See how he speaks of his and his ministry team’s relationship with them.
  • Like children. “We were like young children among you” (v. 7 NIV). “We became as infants in your midst” (LEB). Other versions, like the NKJV, say, “We were gentle among you.” Paul and his team tenderly identified with the new believers there, and were as gentle as children with them.
  • Like a mother. “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you” (vv. 7-8 NIV).
  • Like a father. “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory” (vv. 11-12 NIV).
  • Like brothers. “For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea” (v. 14 NIV).
  • And in their absence, like orphans. “But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you” (v. 17 NIV).
All of this adds up to one of the key ingredients for a ministry that touches lives and changes the world. It is about falling in love with the people. For God Himself is love and He has fallen deeply in love with us. His desire is that we should not only love Him with all that is in us but that we should also love one another with all out love.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Praising God Before the Elohim

I will praise You, O LORD, with all my heart;
Before the “gods” I will sing Your praise.
I will bow down toward Your holy temple
And will praise Your name
For Your unfailing love and Your faithfulness,
For You have exalted Your solemn decree
That it surpasses Your fame.
(Psalm 138:1-2 NIV 2011)
As I began my time with the Lord this morning, I was suddenly impressed to sing the common doxology to the familiar tune of the “Old Hundredth.” So I picked up my guitar and began strumming the chords and singing the words. I looked toward the icon of the baptism of Jesus, which so beautifully depicts the Trinity: The voice of the Father in heaven saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” and Jesus the Son, standing in the baptismal waters, and the Holy Spirit descending upon Him like a dove. And I sang to the Lord, repeating the words of the doxology again and again.

Then I turned to my prayer book (I use The Paraclete Psalter), to the psalm laid out for today. But along the way, my eye fell on Psalm 138, and I was caught up by it. So I began to pray it:
I will praise You, O LORD, with all my heart;
Before the “gods” I will sing Your praise.
Let me get technical for just a moment. The Hebrew word for “gods” is elohim. It is the word that is usually used to refer to God Himself. But, clearly, that is not its use here because the psalm writer is speaking to God in the first person, but he refers to the elohim in the third person.

Elohim is a plural form, and so it can be translated as “gods.” It can refer to angels, as it perhaps does in Psalm 8:5, “For You have made him [man] a little lower than the angels,” where the Septuagint translates the Hebrew word elohim with the Greek word angelos.

Or it can refer to judges, as it appears to do in Exodus 21:6 and Exodus 22:8-9. This could be how the psalm writer uses it in Psalm 82:1, where God judges among the “gods,” who were themselves supposed to judge justly, but had failed to do. God warns them, “You are gods, and all of you are children of the Most High. But you shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes” (Psalm 82:6-7). So, here elohim could refer to kings and rulers and heads of state, who were supposed to bring justice to the people God entrusted to them. It could also refer to the principalities and powers, the fallen spiritual entities who so often influence the political and cultural affairs of humanity.

But, back to what happened in prayer this morning: As I began praying Psalm 138, I suddenly found myself standing in the courts of the Lord, to do what I had just read — to praise God with all my heart, singing it before the elohim. I saw them as angels, parted on either side of me and waiting for my song to begin. Peter says that the angels long to explore the mysteries of the gospel and the salvation of humanity (1 Peter 1:12). And that is how I sensed them here.

I found myself overwhelmed as I stood in the clearing and in the silence of that moment. But as the psalm writer says in Psalm 138:3, “When I called, You answered me; you greatly emboldened me.” And I knew it would all be alright.

Now, it was obvious what the song should be, because I had been singing it just moments earlier in what had turned out to be a practice session for this encounter. And now I realized why that hymn had “popped” into my head — God had placed it there especially for me to offer for His pleasure in a “command performance.” So I lifted my voice and began to sing, softly at first and with some trembling:
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
As I sang, I began to realize that I was offering this praise to God not only before Him and His angels, but also in full view of the principalities and powers, reminding them of their defeat at the cross. For that is what always happens in the spiritual realm when the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are worshipped and adored. And I was aware that our worship calls even to all the kings and queens of the earth and the rulers of nations, who will all one day bow, whether willingly or not, before God. The hope of the psalm writer is that it will be willingly:
May all the kings of the earth praise You, LORD
When they hear what You have decreed.
May they sing of the ways of the LORD,
For the glory of the LORD is great.
(Psalm 138:4-5 NIV)
That is my hope, too, as I sing to the LORD with all my heart before the elohim.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

All Things Made New

Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3-5)
The kingdom of God makes all things new. Because King Jesus makes all things new. “Then He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Revelation 21:5).

So, all who want to be a part of Jesus’ kingdom must be made new, too. This came as quite a shock for Nicodemus and the religious establishment of Jesus’ day.

Still does today.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Developing Vital Relationship with God and Others

Here’s a definition I heard years ago about evangelism — telling the good news about Jesus the Messiah and the kingdom of God — and I think it is true about Christian ministry in general:
Evangelism is what happens when you have a vital relationship with God and a vital relationship with someone else.
I think Christians have often tried to domesticate evangelism by making it a program, or a script that we run through with people like a sales pitch. If you’ve ever been cornered, you know what I talking about. But it is really about developing vital relationships.

First is having a vital relationship with God. However, a lot of times we want to domesticate that relationship, to domesticate God and fit Him into our little box. But He is bigger than an hour or two on Sunday morning, bigger than a daily prayer or devotional, bigger than our own little home and our own little concerns and our little lives. Gloriously bigger! The more we come to know Him and the amazing things He wants to do in the world, the more we are vitalized, energized, our heartbeats coming into rhythm with His.

But we must also develop vital relationship with others. That is how God made us to be in the beginning. For God Himself is vital relationship — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a relationship of love with each other that is thoroughly full and complete. Yet, out of the divine love relationship among the Persons of the Trinity, God created the heavens and the earth, to share the overflow of their love, and vital relationship, with humanity.

To use an analogy, when I come into vital relationship with others, they will not only know me, they will know about my wife, because I am in vital relationship with my wife. Or think of some of the grandparents you know, and how eager they are to talk about their grandchildren. That’s because they are in vital relationship with those children. Likewise, when I am in vital relationship with others, they will know about the Lord Jesus, because I am in vital relationship with Him.

There are thousands of ways we can develop such relationships with the people we are naturally around everyday as we are out in the world. This is true not only on the individual level but also at the level of involvement with the larger communities of which we are a part. For example, the realms of family, education, government, business, media and the arts are all areas in which we can develop vital relationship with others.

These are all ways individual Christians can become more involved in the life of the community and develop vital relationships. But the local church, as a corporate body, can also develop vital relationship with the community in the same ways. For example, my son and his wife are part of a church in Ybor City (Tampa, FL). The church is only about eight years old, but they have, almost from the beginning, been developing a vital relationship with Booker T. Washington Elementary School, reaching out on the level of meeting practical needs. They have also been developing vital relationship with the Ybor community — the people of Ybor — and its culture. They are currently working on a project to develop vital relationship with the arts community there.

Now, let me be careful to say that vital relationship is not a means to an end; it is a sufficient end itself. It has no agenda; it is its own agenda — to know, love and fellowship with others, to live life together. But it is the nature of such relationships that we each share what is most important to us, that we may give ourselves openly and honestly and receive each other more fully. And so we give life to one another.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Tale of Three Kings in the Psalms

The king shall have joy in Your strength, O LORD;
And in Your salvation how greatly shall he rejoice!
(Psalm 21:1)
This psalm is called “a psalm of David.” Which mean it was written by him, or about him, or perhaps in the Davidic style. As we see from the first verse, this psalm speaks of “the king” and the joy he has in the strength and salvation that comes from the Lord.

There are many psalms which speak of God as King, but there are also many that speak of the king of Israel — of David, and the descendants who would sit on his throne. As I pray through the psalms, which is one of my spiritual practices, whenever I read about the king, as in Psalm 21, I am always aware of three kings to whom it rightfully applies.
  • First, there is David himself, whom God anointed to be king over Israel. And God made a promise that a descendent of David would reign on that throne forever. Of course, it soon became apparent that David and his heirs often fell far short of the glorious things that were ascribed to the king of Israel.
  • The second king is Jesus, the Son of God who became human. In His humanity, He is a the son of David who fulfills the promise God made to David. He is the Messiah, whom God anointed to be King over Israel and the nations forever. He is the divine embodiment of everything the psalm writers were longing for.
  • The third king is … me. Actually, it is all who know King Jesus and belong to Him by faith. Paul says that God has raised us up with Him and seated us with Him, and Jesus is seated on His throne at the right hand of the Father (Ephesians 1:19-22 and 2:4-6). In King Jesus we, too, are made “kings and priests” to God our Father (Revelation 1:6 and 5:10).
When I come to those places in the psalms where God makes promises concerning the king and the king responds to God, I see a this three-fold overlay: King David, King Jesus and me. King David and I find our highest identity and fulfillment in King Jesus, and through King Jesus receive the full blessing of God.

So it is in Psalm 21:1, “The king shall have joy in Your strength, O LORD,” I find David and Jesus and me, taking great joy in God because we have all experienced the strength of the Lord in amazing ways. “And in Your salvation how greatly shall he rejoice!” We “whirl and twirl for joy” (the word here for “rejoice” indicates to “spin”) because of the salvation God has worked on our behalf. For David and me, He worked that salvation through Jesus (Hebrew, Yeshua), whose very name means “salvation” (yeshuah). And He worked salvation for Jesus by raising Him from the dead.
You have given him his heart’s desire,
And have not withheld the request of his lips. Selah.
(Psalms 21:2)
God never refused the desire of David’s heart. For David delighted himself in the Lord, and the Lord gave him the desires of His heart (Psalm 37:4). Because David delighted in the Lord, his desires were God-shaped desires.

God also never refused the desire of Jesus’ heart. “For the Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand” (John 3:35). What was the desire of Jesus’ heart? “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). And God heard Him, for “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

And God will not refuse the desires of my heart or yours. “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). King Jesus has given us this promise: “Whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). “In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I shall pray the Father for you; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from God” (John 16:26-27).

So now, as the psalm writer continues, see what God has done for David, for King Jesus, and through Him, for you and me:
For You meet him with the blessings of goodness;
You set a crown of pure gold upon his head.
He asked life from You, and You gave it to him —
Length of days forever and ever.
His glory is great in Your salvation;
Honor and majesty You have placed upon him.
For You have made him most blessed forever;
You have made him exceedingly glad with Your presence.
For the king trusts in the LORD,
And through the mercy of the Most High he shall not be moved.
(Psalm 21:3-7)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Reading the Bible with Church History

As we read and study the Bible, it is important to have a good grounding in Church history, because it will help us realize that there is not a straight line from the way we read Scripture and understand Christian theology today back to how the apostles originally taught and understood it in the early church. There have been a multitude of twists and turns along the way.

When we do not know anything of the history of the Church or the historical development of Christian theology, it becomes very easy for us to think that we are merely reading Scripture for ourselves, because we are unaware of how much our own reading and theology has been conditioned, influenced and shaped by century upon century of hermeneutical and theological developments.

The more we understand the history of the church and of theology, the less we will be susceptible to reading Scripture in a simplistic way (that is, a way that is overly simple and reductionist).

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Exploring the Gospel ~ Psalm 98

Psalm 98 is gospel-shaped. That is, although it has its own historical setting in the story of Israel, it finds its greatest fulfillment in the gospel — the good news about the kingdom of God and of Jesus, God’s anointed King.
Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things!
His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.
(Psalm 98:1)
The gospel is not just a new song but the new song, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. Jesus began His ministry by announcing the gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The gospel is the ultimate expression of God’s purpose for the world, from beginning to end: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:1-2).
The LORD has made known His salvation;
His righteousness He has revealed in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His mercy
and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
(Psalm 98:2-3)
In the gospel, God has brought His salvation into the world not only for Israel’s sake but for all the nations of the earth. That is why, after the resurrection but before He ascended to His throne at the right hand of the Father, Jesus said to His disciples, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 28:18-19). And the apostle Paul, even as he was under house arrest in Rome, teaching and testifying about the kingdom of God, said, “Therefore let it be known to you that the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles [Gr. ethnos, nations], and they will hear it!” (Acts 28:23-28). Add to this the intriguing fact that the Hebrew word for “salvation” in Psalm 98:2-3 is yeshuah, which in name form is Yeshua, the Hebrew name for Jesus.
Shout joyfully to the LORD, all the earth;
Break forth in song, rejoice, and sing praises.
Sing to the LORD with the harp,
With the harp and the sound of a psalm,
With trumpets and the sound of a horn;
Shout joyfully before the LORD, the King.
Let the sea roar, and all its fullness,
The world and those who dwell in it;
Let the rivers clap their hands;
Let the hills be joyful together before the LORD.
(Psalm 98:4-8)
In announcing the good news about King Jesus the Messiah throughout the earth, God has revealed His salvation to the nations. It is cause for celebrating with shouts of joy and loud praises to God. Even creation itself is depicted as getting in the act — the seas roar, the rivers “clap their hands,” the hills are full of joy — because its own redemption is at hand. “For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21).
For He is coming to judge the earth.
With righteousness He shall judge the world,
And the peoples with equity.
(Psalm 98:9)
The Lord Jesus has ascended to His throne at the right hand of the Father, where He rules and reigns with all authority over heaven and earth. But there is coming a day when He will return to judge the world. Paul spoke of that day in his sermon to the philosophers on Mars Hill, in Athens. He proclaimed to them the God they did not know, that He has “appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man [Jesus the Messiah] whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

Often, when people think of God judging the world, they imagine a hail of fire and brimstone raining down and leaving behind a scene of death and desolate ion. In that portrayal, God judging the world means God destroying the world.

Not so. As we saw above, creation is not waiting to be destroyed and put out of its misery. It is waiting to be delivered, set free from the bondage of corruption, to experience the glory and freedom of the redeemed as God brings His plan to completion. When King Jesus comes to judge the world, it is make everything in the world the way it was always meant to be. His righteousness, which is to say, His rightness, sets everything right.

That is the joyful anticipation of the gospel. The kingdom of God has come into the world, with Jesus as God’s anointed King. And when He returns the kingdom will be found in completeness —heaven on earth — the will of God being done on earth just as it is in heaven.

Let all the earth come and sing and shout for joy because of this good news.

Tuesday, July 2, 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.
  • The Bible speaks much about the love of God, but it also speaks much about His holiness and justice, about hell and judgment. Can we explain it all out, about how all this comes together in God, or how it all plays out? I expect not. There are a number of things God has given us to know, and apparently a number of things He has not. Can we live with not knowing exactly how His love and judgment work together? Can we live with the mystery of what He has not given us to know and go with what He has given us to know?
  • God can certainly teach us things in the midst of sickness and poverty, and even bring good out of them. But the teacher He has appointed for us is the Holy Spirit, not sickness and poverty.
  • God is not glorified by our sickness but by healing us in Jesus’ name. He is not glorified by our poverty but by the provision He has made for us according to His riches in glory in Jesus the Messiah. Our sickness and poverty do not please Him, but faith pleases Him. And faith is a matter of believing God, taking Him at His Word, even concerning healing and provision. In the midst of sickness, He is pleased when we believe Him for healing. In the midst of poverty, He is pleased when we trust Him for provision.
  • A man many appear to be prospering outwardly, but if he is not prospering in his inner being, his outward prosperity will not endure. When it folds, he will fold with it. But a man who is prosperous in spirit will endure even if all outward prosperity be taken away.
  • Jesus is the True Light who gives light to every person who comes into the world, so that no one is without a witness that is adequate to lead them to salvation. The real question, then, becomes about how they are responding to that witness. God will not hold anyone accountable for more light, or less, than He has given them.
  • The gifts of the Spirit were not meant to be merely “validation for the message.” They are manifestations of the kingdom. Jesus didn’t heal the sick and cast out demons because He needed to validate His message ~ He was manifesting the kingdom of God on earth.
  • The kingdom of God is the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven. There is no sickness in heaven, so the manifestation of the kingdom of God on earth in regard to sickness is healing. Likewise, the manifestation of the kingdom in regard to demonization is expelling the demons.
  • Many people today, including many Christians, think of hope as speculation: “Maybe so. Maybe not. We’ll see.” But in the Bible, hope is a matter of expectation. Hebrews 11:1 tells us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for.” That is, faith is the substance, or underlying reality, of what we are expecting. Faith is believing the promise of God, expecting that it will eventually come to pass. The facts of the world (the way the world is at present) must eventually line up with the truth (the promise God has made). Faith is expecting it to be so.
  • I have been single and I have been married. I’ve known both sides of the coin. No doubt, the responsibilities inherent in marriage and family shape the way I look at life. I am committed in particular relationships in this life (till death do us part, in regard to marriage, and my children will always be my children). I am not just Jeff, I am somebody’s husband and somebody’s father, so following and honoring Christ in those roles is very important. My wife and my children are the ones Christ has set before me, and if I am going to be faithful to Him I must be faithful to them.
  • God is a God of order. But our order is not necessarily His. So what sometimes might seem out of order to us is just God establishing His order. Likewise, if God’s ways sometimes are confusing to us, it is because we started out confused and God is trying to straighten that out in us.
  • There are many facets to the gospel and many ways to reach out to people with it. The best way is the one that is needed at the time by the person you are reaching out to. But the more we understand the bigger picture of the gospel, the more we will understand what it means in a particular situation. DISCLOSURE: I am still learning the gospel and I expect it will take me the rest of my life.
  • I don’t understand the bigger picture of the gospel to mean that people are basically good. People are basically broken, and that brokenness manifests is so many ways. The good news of the bigger gospel is that Jesus does not just address God’s wrath toward our sin, but He defeats all the powers that stand against us and hold us in bondage, and restores us to God’s original purpose in creating us in this world (Genesis 1:26-28). It is a healing, not just of ourselves, but of our relationship with God, with each other, of creation and our relationship with creation. The bigger gospel means that not only is my brokenness healed, but that healing can begin to manifest now, in this life, bringing forth the fruit of the Spirit. We go from faith to faith and glory to glory. The darkness is fading away because the true light is already shining. I love the bigness of the gospel because it is the solution to my brokenness.
  • Life is not fair. But God is faithful.