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Gospel Greetings

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me, to the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Galatians 1:1-5

We tend to think of the opening greetings of the epistles as routine formulas. We usually skip over them to get to the body of letter (and we certainly don’t preach on them!). While these opening greetings may seem routine to us, there is a depth to them that often goes overlooked. Paul usually foreshadows his discussion in the opening verses. Consider his greeting to the Galatians.

He’s a little edgy in introducing himself. In the very first verse, he defends his apostleship because some considered him a sub-apostle and disregarded his authority. He also subtly counters the ‘Jesus-plus’ heresy the Galatians had been swallowing. This was the idea that we need more than the gospel to be right with God (i.e. the Law of Moses). There is something conspicuously absent here as well that we see in every other opening of Paul’s letters: his  customary prayer of thanksgiving. The Galatians need a kick in pants not a commendation, so he launches right into the problem.

In his greeting, Paul sets these blessings before them so that they recognize what they are forfeiting by walking away from the simple gospel. We can look at Paul’s greeting positively to show us what we have in Christ and to motivate us never to wander from him but rather to seek him more deeply.

First, the bounty of the gospel (3) in the blessings God gives. Notice the source of “grace” and “peace” are God the Father and God the Son. Have you ever noticed that grace always precedes peace? This is because one is a result of the other. We can only enjoy peace after we’ve reconciled to God through Christ (by grace). These blessings are continually available to us because are in constant need of them to sustain us through weariness.

Second, the wonder of the gospel (4a) in the love God shows. At the mention of “the Lord Jesus Christ” and his being “raised… from the dead” we are reminded of his perfect love which he expressed when he “gave himself for our sins.” Who could discount such love shown at such price toward such people?

Third, the liberty of the gospel (4b) in the freedom God wins. Jesus gave himself not just as an expression of love but as an act of power to “deliver us from the present evil age.” We were all in the grip of spiritual bondage, powerless to escape. But when Jesus was “delivered,” we received emancipation to live as we ought. Did you know that the word “delivered” is the same word translated “betrayed” in 1 Corinthians 11:23? Who betrayed Jesus? Judas, for money; Pilate for fear; the Jews for envy—but the Father for love!

Finally, the plan of the gospel (4c) and the will God executes. God’s love and power exhibited in the gospel were “according to the will of our God and Father.” That is, it was always God’s plan to rescue his people in this way. When Jesus was “delivered” on the cross, it seemed to be a divine blunder. Israel’s Messiah rejected by the ones he came to save? God must have miscalculated! But Paul affirms the cross was always the plan. In other places, he and other New Testament authors carefully show how Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). The resurrection (mentioned in v.1) is, of course, what explains the cross. By raising Jesus from the dead, God vindicated his plan, his name and his Messiah, as well as giving hope to those who believe. To him “be glory forever and ever. Amen!”

Born Again

Saturday, September 09, 2023

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

John 3:5

Today, especially in America after the evangelistic crusades of Billy Graham, it is common to think of “born-again Christians” as different than other Christians. Born-again Christians, it is thought, come from a more broken or wayward background. They have a checkered moral past. They are those who have hit rock bottom and have “seen the light” or have survived some traumatic experience and “got saved.” While these kinds of dramatic spiritual turn-arounds can and do happen, we may be left thinking that being “born again” is only for certain people. But the way Jesus uses this phrase in John 3:1-15 will not allow such a narrow interpretation.

Who must be born again? (1-3) Everyone! Consider who Jesus was speaking to. Nicodemus was no immoral, downtrodden social outcast. He was a well-to-do, morally upright, highly educated teacher of the Law and influential member of society. He belonged to the strictest sect of his religion (Pharisees) and even held a seat on their ruling council (Sanhedrin). Yet, for all his achievements, Jesus said he had to be “born again” before seeing, let alone entering, the kingdom of heaven. Just because someone’s life looks in order on the outside doesn’t mean they are right with God.

No one’s achievements can save them from spiritual death; no amount of earthly power or prestige can gain a person access into God’s kingdom. Access comes only through the new birth.

How is one born again? (4-8) The word “again” is purposefully ambiguous. It means both “a second time” (as Nicodemus interpreted it) and “from above.” Jesus probably meant both. It is a re-birth but a rebirth “of water and the Spirit.” In the Old Testament, God promised to pour out his Spirit like water into the hearts of people to renew their inner life (Isa. 32:15; 44:3; Ezek. 36:25-27; 39:29; Joel 2:28-29). It is in water baptism that we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the washing away of our sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16). Thus this double-sided rebirth (“of water and the Spirit”) is the entry point of God’s kingdom. And just as the effects of the wind are evident, even though the wind itself is invisible, so the effects of God’s Spirit will be evident in the lives of all those who are born again (8).

Where is one born again? (9-15) Though Jesus rebukes Nicodemus’ confusion (after all, he was supposed to be a teacher, 9), the issue was not intellectual. His failure to believe (“receive our testimony”) was much worse than his failure to “understand.” Jesus reminded Nicodemus of the story when God sent a plague of poisonous snakes as punishment for Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness (Num. 21). Moses was instructed to make a bronze serpent and attach it to a pole. Whenever an Israelite looked at the serpent he was healed. Therefore, the serpent was God’s means of physical healing. Jesus drew a parallel to himself: the “Son of Man” will also be “lifted up” with a similar outcome. Humanity as a whole has been smitten with the deadly disease of sin. The only remedy is to look upon the “Son of Man” when he is “lifted up” on the cross for all to see. The evil serpent that infected us with sin injected his death-dealing venom into Jesus on the cross. But he carried that poison into death to provide us with life! Therefore, to be “born again,” to “enter” God’s kingdom and receive “eternal life,” we must come to the cross and embrace our Savior by faith.

Some are baptized only to emerge from the water as themselves; the Spirit is absent. Even dead people have birth certificates. It’s being alive that counts, the evidence of the new birth. Being born again requires the Spirit. On the other hand, some think baptism isn’t necessary and that they can be born again without it; the water is absent. Jesus speaks the truth when he says “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

God Has Plans For Us

Saturday, August 26, 2023

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Jeremiah 29:11

Jeremiah 29:11 is one of the most quoted and claimed promises in the Bible. We find it printed on pretty calendars, on coffee mugs, and even on interior walls of some homes. It’s easy to see why this precious word of assurance from God captivates believers. But do those who quote it understand its context? This is a surprising word of hope given to a nation under God’s judgment.

In Jeremiah’s day, Israel was suffering exile in Babylon as a just punishment for their flagrant rebellion against God. Jeremiah, who lived in Jerusalem, sent a letter to the exiles telling them to settle into their new lives in Babylon: “seek the welfare of the city… and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:4-7). After warning them of the dangers of false prophets (Jer. 29:8-9), Jeremiah wrote that after seventy years God would rescue them from captivity and bring them back home to Jerusalem (Jer. 29:10). Then comes the word of assurance in verse 11. Despite the exiles’ present suffering, God’s ultimate purpose for them was for good (“welfare” = shalom) not evil.

Note that the “you” in verse 11 is plural (“you all”) not singular. In this text, God is not promising an individual plan for each person but rather a plan for his people as a whole. We see that plan worked out through history when Israel, far from dying out in obscurity in Babylon, returned to their homeland exactly as God promised.

Israel’s “future and hope” was bound up with God’s promise to bless all other nations through them (Gen. 12:3); their survival was crucial to God's ‘big picture.’ The proper response to such grace was not gleeful celebration or mere relief—“Everything is going to turn out okay, so let’s party!”—but heartfelt repentance and renewed devotion to God. When Israel would turn to God with all their heart they would find him and be restored (Jer. 29:12-14; cf. Deut. 4:29-31). At the end of those seventy years, Daniel, living in captivity, did exactly what Jeremiah said and led his people to earnestly seek God and his restorative grace (Dan. 9:1-19).

Understanding the context of this glorious promise helps us apply it properly to our lives. God’s plans for exiled Israel have been fulfilled. They paid the penalty for breaking the covenant with their exile and God comforted and restored them (see Ezra; Neh.). Now, under the New Covenant established by Jesus through which we enjoy the forgiveness of sins—another promise from the book of Jeremiah (ch. 31)—God wants us to know that he has plans for us as well, “plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Christians are also “exiles” of a sort (1 Pet. 1:1-2). Because this present world is not our true home, we live in constant tension within it. Though we are rejected by the world, we know that we are “chosen and precious” in the eyes of God (1 Pet. 2:4, 9-10). We have been called out of this world (Jn. 15:19) to live for the world to come (2 Pet. 3:10-13). Like the faithful pilgrims of old, we “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16), “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). By faith, we await the “New Jerusalem” where we will live together with God — and without sin, pain or death (Rev. 21:1-5).

Like ancient Israel, we know that the period of our current state of exile will end because God has promised to bring us to himself: “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:20-21). Like Israel, we are not to squander our time in exile with inactivity, detachment or despair. We are to seek the Lord and the welfare of our neighbors by praying on their behalf (Jer. 29:7). In Christ, God has given us “a future and a hope.” We express that hope by loving him and loving others.

A Different World

Saturday, August 12, 2023

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.

Genesis 1:1, 31

Amber is the fossilized resin of conifer trees. Sap runs from the tree trapping insects and plants then hardens over time, preserving whatever is inside, a process popularized by Steven Spielberg’s landmark 1993 film Jurassic Park. Sometimes tiny pockets of air also get trapped in the amber. When the gases within these microscopic air bubbles are analyzed, scientists find that the Earth’s atmosphere was quite different when the air bubbles were originally trapped. In fact, the atmosphere contained about 35% oxygen compared with our 21% today. This oxygen-rich atmosphere means that the simple act of breathing in the ancient world have would been exciting! Studies indicate that increased oxygen and higher air pressure (like that reproduced in a hyperbaric chamber) can reduce infection, heal certain diseases, decrease stress and even enhance stamina.

There is also evidence to suggest that the Earth was much warmer long ago and, if the air was rich with oxygen, the atmosphere would have been much more dense. All this would make it possible for large creatures to fly, such as pterosaurs like the Quetzalcoatlus which had a 50 foot wingspan and weighed over 500 pounds.

The late Dr. Kei Mori of Keio University in Tokyo experimented raising plants in nutrient-rich soil under special light using a mirror system which sent light through fiberoptic cables that filtered out infrared and ultraviolet radiation. This means the light the plants received was pure sunlight. His tomato plant grew 16 feet tall and produced over 900 tomatoes! The plant was then moved to a larger area with scaffolding to support it. The plant grew to over 30 feet tall, covered an area of over 900 ft² and yielded over 13,000 tomatoes over six months, a Guinness world record. They were a kind of cherry tomato but Mori’s were the size of baseballs. Could this environment of filtered sunlight, enhanced carbon dioxide, and nutrient-rich soil mirror the conditions of the early Earth? If so, why is our world so different and what accounts for the change?

There are many possible naturalistic explanations for these changes which science continues to answer. But we can also offer a theological reason which accounts for them: in a word, sin. When God created the world, it was “very good.” Humans were made to live forever in fellowship with God and in proximity to the “tree of life.” But the introduction of sin into creation caused death and decay to “reign” until the coming of Christ (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 5:12ff). Not only were humans exiled from Eden and the tree of life, creation itself suffered as a result of human sin (Gen. 3:17-19). Paul says it was “subjected to futility in hope” and is now “in bondage to corruption… groaning” in pain until it is set free (Rom. 8:19-22).

Sin brought suffering, disease and death into creation. Even after sin entered the world, humans lived much longer lives in comparison to today (see Gen. 5). Perhaps the reason for this longevity and robust health was due to factors such as lower radiation levels, increased air pressure, richer carbon dioxide, more nutrient-rich soil and a generally cleaner world. Noah’s flood would also have vastly changed the biosphere, making it difficult for many species to adapt to the new postdiluvian environment. But the further we got from the beginning, the more the effects of sin compounded until the human lifespan decreased, eventually leveling off to about “seventy, or if by reason of strength eighty” years, as Moses wrote (Psa. 90:10).

I realize some of this is speculative but the gospel is certain: Jesus came to grant us access to the tree of life. His death redeems us from the curse of sin and his resurrection secures our hope of eternal life. In him, we look forward to an even better world to come (Heb. 11:16; 2 Pet. 3:13), a perfect world in which there is no sin and we can live with God forever in perfect bodies (1 Cor. 15:42ff).

The Two Beasts of Revelation 13

Saturday, August 05, 2023

Revelation 13 retells the same story of cosmic conflict as the previous chapter but this time using the symbolism of Daniel’s animal visions (Dan. 7-12). Satan, depicted as a giant red dragon, summons two beasts which he empowers to be his agents of evil on earth. Having failed to destroy the Messiah he turns his destructive energies toward the church (12:12-13). But who or what are these beasts?

THE SEA BEAST = the war machine (13:1-10) — The first beast emerges from the “sea.” To Israel, a mostly agricultural and pastoral society, the sea represented the chaotic forces of evil which oppose God’s purposes. Violent and rebellious nations that threaten God’s people are sometimes described as tumultuous waves (Isa. 17:12; 57:20-21; 60:5). In Daniel’s vision, four beasts arise from the sea, each one representing a great kingdom: Babylon, Persia, Macedonia and Rome. The beast in John’s vision is Daniel’s fourth beast, which would be defeated after waging war against God’s people for a time (Dan. 7:2-8, 23-27), but is depicted as an amalgamation of the first three.

Therefore, this sea beast represents the Roman Empire. It possesses the tearing power of the “lion” (from the Babylonian empire), the crushing force of the “bear” (from the Persian empire) and the swift ferocity of the “leopard” (from Macedonia under Alexander the Great). The evil and might of Daniel’s first three beasts reaches its climax in the fourth, this “beast from the sea” which Satan uses as a tool to oppress God’s church. It possesses military strength and authority, symbolized by its ten horns upon which were set ten crowns, and malicious cunning, symbolized by its seven heads which bear blasphemous names (Rev. 13:1-2). This description signifies a government intoxicated with its own power, exhibiting total irreverence toward God and all that is sacred—Roman emperors took blasphemous titles for themselves and accepted, and eventually demanded, worship.

But this beast received what seemed to be a mortal head-wound which was then mysteriously healed to everyone’s amazement (13:3). This probably refers to the death (suicide) of Emperor Nero in 68 AD which plunged the empire into civil war and anarchy. After the “Year of four Emperors” (69 AD), Vespasian restored order and the Flavian dynasty began first with Titus, who reigned from 79-81, then Domitian, who reigned from 81-96. Nero’s bloodthirsty spirit lived on in Domitian and the persecution of Christians intensified to its historical apex.

The watching world marveled at the recovery of the empire and “worshiped the beast,” attributing to it divine qualities (Rev. 13:3-4). Though under the power of the dragon, God gave permission to the beast to do its worst: Rome was allowed to speak blasphemy against God and his church, to exercise authority for a period of time, to persecute and even kill the saints, and was given all those who would give their allegiance to it (Rev. 13:5-8).

THE EARTH BEAST = the propaganda machine (13:11-18) — The second beast rises from the “earth” and resembles, at first glance, an innocent “lamb.” But its speech quickly gives it away, for its message is diabolical, nothing but lies and deception. Because it has swallowed the lies of Satan (12:16; cf. Jn. 8:44), this beast is later called “the false prophet” (16:13; 19:20; 20:10). It supports the Roman Empire by compelling people to worship it (Rev. 13:11-12).

The earth beast represents paganism and false religion, particularly the Roman imperial cult whose job it was to disseminate propaganda. Through its "two horns"—the Roman Proconsul (the appointed political power) and the imperial priests of the Commune (the appointed spiritual power)—the earth beast worked to compel the citizenry to worship the Empire and Emperor while the sea beast enforced it.

While the first beast attempted to control people through fear, the second exerted its influence through deception. The Roman propaganda machine bolstered its lies with false displays of power, pseudo-miracles to deceive people into making an image of the Emperor and worshiping it (Rev. 13:13-14; cf. Mt. 24:24; 2 Thess. 2:9-10). Anyone who refused to give their total, public allegiance to the Empire—symbolized by receiving the “mark” of the beast on their hand or forehead—was either “slain” or economically boycotted (Rev. 13:15-17). This “mark” was a kind of anti-shema; the “shema,” so named after the first Hebrew word in the prayer (“listen”) was the daily Israelite prayer of complete loyalty to God whose commandments they were to bind on their “hands” and “foreheads” (Deut. 6:4-9). The “mark of the beast,” therefore, was not a physical mark on one’s body but one’s public loyalty and support of the imperial cult.

Saints suffering under such beastly pressure were called to two things:


  1. The call for faithful endurance (Rev. 13:10) — Saints who were being taken captive and slain with the sword by the Roman war machine were simply told to persevere and refuse to retaliate against this evil. They were not to resist the government (Rom. 13:2; 1 Pet. 2:13) but remain faithful to God and fight with spiritual weapons (Eph. 6:10-18). If they were unjustly taken captive or slain with the sword for their faith, they must follow Jesus and continue suffering in innocence, entrusting themselves to him who judges justly (Rev. 13:9-10; cf. 1 Pet. 2:23). “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” (Rev. 13:10b; cf. 1 Jn. 5:4)
  2. The call for wisdom (Rev. 13:18) — In addition to being “innocent as doves” in their suffering, they were also to be “wise as serpents” (see Mt. 10:16). Following the description of the second beast which used words to deceive, saints were told to discern between truth and error. They were to “calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of man, and his number is 666.” (Rev. 13:18) Israelites would compute the numerical value of Hebrew words based on their constituent letters. Each letter possessed a value: Aleph = 1, Bet = 2, Gimel = 3, and so on. When the Greek words “Nero Caesar” and “beast” are spelled in Hebrew letters, they each add up to 666. In the numerology of Revelation, the number six symbolized ultimate (thrice repeated) creaturely imperfection in comparison to divine perfection (symbolized by the number seven). What does all this mean? Christians are to be wise enough not to be hoodwinked by the schemes of this beast. After all, behind this evil empire was a dark spiritual force pulling the strings, colluding with it and animating it. The “number of the beast” would signify to Christians that Rome belonged to Satan and would soon fall. So don’t put your trust in it!


In the face of the first beast’s violent persecution, the church was to endure faithfully and refuse to retaliate (Rev. 13:10). In the face of the second beast’s political and spiritual deception, the church was to be wise to the schemes of the devil (Rev. 13:18). Neither Rome nor any other earthly entity was the real enemy. God wants his people then and now to see that Satan works through earthly powers. Governments become beastly when they fail to protect people from evil and instead exalt their own power and economic security as false gods and then demand total allegiance. But they are merely tools under the influence of the evil one who wants to inflict as much damage as possible before he is “thrown alive into the lake of fire” (Rev. 19:20; 20:10). If we must suffer for our Lord, let us suffer innocently, faithfully and wisely!

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