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God's Will is Life

Sunday, August 18, 2019

“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?”
(Ezekiel 18:23)

The above passage (cf. 33:11 along with the Lord’s self-designation in Exodus 34:6-7), is one of the most beautiful affirmations about God’s character in all of Scripture. These rhetorical questions directed toward God's suffering people expect a clear “No” and “Yes” answer respectively. Here is God’s emphatic declaration: “Just so we’re clear Israel, I want you to live and not die!”

Why does the Lord have to speak so explicitly here? Shouldn’t his desire for life be obvious? Shouldn’t we know that the Creator delights in his creation living and not dying? Shouldn’t Israel especially know that not only is God rooting for them but that he has a purpose for them that requires them to live?

Well, considering God’s stark denunciations of the wicked and the terrifying descriptions of his wrath upon them found elsewhere in the prophets, it’s at least understandable that one might be tempted to answer the first question (“have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?”) with a “Yes.” Wickedness is so repulsive to God, as outlined with such poetic and legal force by Ezekiel, that one may come away from a text believing that God would love to wipe Israel from the earth as we might take pleasure in swatting an annoying gnat from our face.

But, according to Ezekiel 18:23, this is far from the truth!

Many who superficially read the Old Testament find within its pages an angry, vengeful God who does nothing but punish sinners. “Why isn’t he more loving like the God of the New Testament?” This tragic misunderstanding has led many to picture God as an unjust monster who "takes pleasure" in dealing out retribution.

To be fair, the chances of opening your Old Testament and finding God angry with Israel or a some other nation, perhaps even threatening to punish them, is actually pretty good.

But is this a balanced view of God? Let me put it to you this way. If a neighbor was walking by your house with the windows open and heard your child screaming, “Stop hurting me daddy!” while you were trying to remove a splinter from his hand, would that scream be an accurate representation of your relationship with your child? Should those who heard such screams conclude that you enjoy punishing your children? Surely not!

God must remove the splinter of wickedness from his people precisely because he loves them. His moral integrity combined with his love simply will not allow unrepentant sin and the damage it leaves in its wake to continue unchecked. But make no mistake, the exercise of punitive justice gives him no pleasure at all.

In fact, what pleases God is that moment when a sinner repents which liberates him to exercise his unique and divine ability to grant the gift of life (Lk. 15:7; Rom. 6:23). Giving life to his creation is his favorite thing to do. It has been his greatest “pleasure” since Genesis 1.

Even when we, like Israel, make enemies of God (Rom. 5:10) he gives an advanced warning of danger (Lk. 13:3; Ezek. 3:16-21; 33:1-10). And what is the point of a warning if not to give those in danger the chance to escape? (Ezek. 18:32) In passages like Ezekiel 18:23, God is pleading for the wicked to see their desperate situation and to turn their lives around before it's too late.

In our wickedness, we face a God who warns us with no pleasure at all that the “soul who sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:4). But if we turn to him in repentance, we face a God who promises with pleasure that the soul who repents shall live (Ezek. 33:11).

Jesus Died for Our Sins

Sunday, August 11, 2019

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.”
(1 Corinthians 15:3)

The phrase "Jesus died for my sins" comes so readily to our lips but what do we mean by it?  Hopefully we mean the same thing the apostle Paul meant when he used the same words. When Paul gives his boiled-down gospel story (1 Cor. 15:1-4) he adds the key phrase, "in accordance with the Scriptures." Now, this doesn't simply mean Paul could find three or four proof texts in the Old Testament that speak of the Messiah dying for our sins, e.g. Isaiah 53. More than that, what "according to the Scriptures" means is that there is an entire biblical narrative that has anticipated his sacrificial death.

This is the grand story of how the Creator God is rescuing the world from sin. This narrative is shaped largely by the history of the nation of Israel; their Exodus from Egypt; formation as a nation at Mt. Sinai; inheritance of the land of Canaan; disobedience to the covenant; their exile and return from Babylon. Israel was to bear God's solution for the world (to "bless all nations" and undue the curse, Gen. 12:3; cf. Ex. 19:5-6) but tragically they became part of the problem. The rescuers needed rescuing! The life boat was sinking!

The Messiah arrived on the scene when Israel had hit rock bottom. He came as an Israelite to deal with the problem of sin once and for all. The biblical authors speak of Jesus "bearing" our sins in his body, particularly while he died on the cross (Isa. 53:4, 11; Mt. 8:17; 1 Pet. 2:24). One of the clearest passages that helps us to wrap our minds around this sacrificial death is Romans 8:3-4:

"For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."

Having said "there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (verse 1), Paul states that God "condemned sin in the flesh". There is no condemnation for those who are "in Christ" because God has passed that sentence  of "codemnation" onto "sin" itself. Interestingly, Paul doesn't say God "condemned Jesus" but rather God "condemned sin in the flesh" or body of Jesus.

This makes sense in light of the previous chapter, Romans 7, where Paul sees God giving the law of Moses in order to lure sin into one place where it could be condemned. That place is the body of Israel's representative, who is also humanity's representative, Jesus.

The body of Jesus, the only Israelite who perfectly kept the law (Rom. 8:3-4) and the only human who properly reflected the image of God (Heb. 1:3; 2:14-18) was a trap for the raging cosmic beast of sin (Gen. 4:7). He took sin and all of its death-dealing power to the grave in his body. Then, to circle back to Paul's summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, after "he was buried" Jesus was "raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures" (again, the story of the Scriptures anticipated this resurrection) opening up the eternal future of God's good purposes for creation. In the resurrection, Jesus came back to life but he left sin in the grave forever.

In Romans  6, Paul links our unification with Jesus in the act of baptism to this great story of the Scriptures. "We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." (Rom. 6:4) Through reenacting Jesus' death, burial and resurrection in baptism, we enter into God's new creation (2 Cor. 5:17) having "died to sin" once for all (Rom. 6:1) and cleared of all codemnation to be set free from our sins (Rom. 8:1-2).

That's what we should mean when we say, "Jesus died for my sins."

Good Leadership

Sunday, August 04, 2019

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

(John 15:13)

Some of the greatest stories of love and heroism are true stories in times of war. In moments of intense danger some people rise to the occasion in tremendous acts of self-giving love inspiring others to do the same.

Captain William Swenson is one such hero who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on September 8, 2009. He and his men were tasked with defending a group of Afghan government officials who were scheduled to meet with local village elders. The group was ambushed and came under heavy fire on three sides. Among many other things, Cpt. Swenson was recognized for running into live fire to rescue the wounded and pull out the dead. By sheer coincidence, one of the medics had a GoPro camera mounted on his helmet, capturing the whole scene on video. Cpt. Swenson was seen dragging a soldier who was shot in the neck to a helicopter when, just before leaving the man to rescue others, the captain bent over and kissed the wounded sergeant.

Stories like these impress upon us the great potential for love within all of us. These are the moments when God’s image (Gen. 1:26) is most clearly reflected in us. We are surrounded with plenty of examples of humans doing their worst but what makes the best come out in these heroes? Are they just better people than the rest of us?

I don’t think soldiers are inherently better people than civilians but an environment like the military that is built upon the virtues of loyalty, trust and sacrificial leadership is proven to inspire and motivate others. It is no surprise that the Biblical authors use military metaphors when describing discipleship (1 Cor. 9:7; Phil. 2:25; 2 Tim. 2:1ff).

Someone once said, "In the military awards are given to people who sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others, while in the business world bonuses are given to people who sacrifice others to benefit themselves." While this may be an unfair generalization to which there are many exceptions, there are notable parallels between the attitude of people and their work environment.

When war heroes are asked why they risked so much for others their answer is almost always the same: “They would have done the same for me.”  To routinely respond with such humility and confindence in others requires a deep sense of trust, loyalty and cooperation.

In the spiritual warfare we are engaged in (Eph. 6:12; 1 Tim. 1:18; 1 Pet. 2:11), there must be a similar circle of safety and trust where we cooperate to warn one another of impending danger and to come to one another’s aid. God’s model for this environment of spiritual safety and growth is the church, a kind of new covenant army (Eph. 4).

For others to become what God created them to be requires witnessing a positive example. People need to see the good in others for them to see the potential for good in themselves. We have the ultimate example in Jesus (1 Pet. 2:21) but we also have examples of mature Christians who are further along in their spiritual journey of discipleship called "shepherds" (1 Tim. 3; 1 Pet. 5). God blessed Dulles with three such men to help us grow into the people we were always meant to be (Eph. 4:11-16).

Leadership among God’s people is not a promotion or a license to boss others around (Mt. 20:25-28). Leadership is all  about positive, inspiring influence (Mt. 5:13). Paradoxically, leaders in the church lead by following Christ. Following Christ means serving others. Serving others means counting others as more significant than yourself (Phil. 2:3-4ff) That’s what Christ did for us so that we can do the same for others. Let us all lead by following!

Led In Triumph

Sunday, July 28, 2019

"But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere."

(2 Corinthians 2:14)

In this section (2 Cor. 2:14-17) Paul uses the metaphor of a Roman triumphal procession to describe his work as an apostle. He expresses his gratitude (“thanks be to God”) that God is able to display his magnificent power through Paul's weaknesses (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9-10). This emotionally charged illustration provides us with a beautiful picture of the victory we all share in Christ.

In ancient Rome, when a battle was won, the victorious general and the conquering army would lead the defeated captives through the city in a celebratory victory-march (although, from the captives' perspective, it was a death-march).

History records more than 300 of these “triumphal processions” between Rome’s founding (7th century BC) and the reign of Vespasian (1st century AD). The Emperor would ride a two-wheeled chariot pulled by a team of four horses through an ornamented triumphal arch with the defeated captives in tow. The arch of Titus, which still stands in Rome today, celebrates his conquest over Jerusalem in AD 70.

A triumphal procession would have been an amazing sight. A time for Roman citizens to celebrate the power of the Empire with pride, pomp and circumstance. There is nothing quite like it that happens today but  American sports,  with admittedly much lower stakes 'conquests,' can sometimes catch the spirit of it.

Though there is some debate as to how Paul meant his metaphor to be understood, I believe the picture he paints goes something like this: Jesus, in defeating sin and death in the resurrection, is the victorious King of kings returning home from battle. He has conquered sinners by his love (Rom. 5:10) and parades his captives before the world as his trophies of divine grace.

Some, who were once Jesus' enemies, willingly submitted to his reign through the power of his divine love and resurrection and have been reconciled to him in the cross (2 Cor. 5:18-19; Eph. 2:3; Col. 1:21-22). Now, all those who follow Jesus by faith share in his glorious victory as they march, not to their death, but towards their eternal life.

And just as the captives in the ancient world scattered sweet-smelling incense as they marched along in the parade, Jesus' willing captives disperse the beautiful fragrance of the “knowledge” of him in every place as they live and share the good news of his victory. As Peter puts it, they "proclaim the excellencies of him who called [them] out of darkness into his marvelous light." (1 Pet. 2:9)

But Jesus was not only victorious over the repentant. In Colossians, Paul uses the same word "triumph" to describe God’s victory over enemies who persist in their rebellion against him. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” (Col. 2:15)

All things must eventually come under the reign of Jesus whether they like it or not. The resurrection and ascension sealed Jesus' kingly rule forever. Because his victory was universal all things must be brought under his rule (Eph. 1:20-22; 1 Cor. 15:25-27; Heb. 2:8).

By humbling himself to the point of death on a cross, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil. 2:9-10)

Jesus is the victorious general. He conquered our sinful hearts with His divine love and eternal life. Today, he leads us in triumphal procession before the world as his trophies of grace. And as we follow him by faith in this victory march we leave in our wake the fragrance of the gospel leading others to him. (2 Cor. 2:15-17)

Never Look Back

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

(Luke 9:62)

Someone once said, “I don’t want to live in the past, but it is nice to visit for a while.” Memories are like that: places we can go for comfort, instruction and renewal. It is tragic when, as we age, more and more of those precious memories slip away. But while we have them, memories are there for us to draw upon like water from a well.

Memory was a vital part of Israel’s corporate life and worship. God warned them of the danger of forgetting where they came from (Deut. 4:9, 23; 6:12; 8:11, 14, 19; 9:7, etc.). To prevent this, God designed Israel's worship to reenact the past through symbolic festivals, rituals, and sacrifices as a way to keep those memories alive. Sadly, all it took was one generation after Israel entered the Promised Land to forget their heritage and plunge the nation into ruin (Jdg. 2:10-11).

Memory is a necessary tool for us, so long as we are looking back at the right things in the right way. Like Israel, the people of God today are called to remember their past (Eph. 2:11-12) through retelling the story of their deliverance and taking part in symbolic actions like eating the Lord's Supper (1 Cor. 11:26).

But memories can also be poisoned and hinder our faith. For example, suffering in the present has a way of altering our memory of the past (Num. 11:4-6; cf. Ex. 14:11-12). This kind of mental distortion can even warp our minds enough to lure us back into old destructive habits that lead us away from God (Heb. 3-4; 2 Pet. 2:22).

Or we may be seduced into creating versions of the past that never existed. The Preacher exhorts those of us prone to creating these fantasy memories, "Say not, "Why were the former days better than these?" For it is not from wisdom that you ask this." (Ecc. 7:10) Contrary to the opinion of many, the past was not altogether better than the present. All it takes is reading the Bible, the newest documents of which are some 2,000 years old, to see that despite many  advancements people haven't really changed much.

Even if our memories are clear and accurate we can grow so fond of the past that we begin to mentally “live” in the past at the expense of our future. But faith requires us to look to things “hoped for” in the future (Heb. 11:1). Faith, by its nature, is forward thinking and is therefore forward acting. We live in accordance with the "new" person that Jesus has created in us through his resurrection (Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24). We are meant to live resurrected lives in anticipation of our bright future (Rom. 6:3-4). In Jesus' resurrection and ascension God's glorious future has come rushing right into the present so that we may taste the "powers of the age to come" (Heb. 6:5).

In the gospel which announces God's heavenly reign come down to earth we are invited to live as part of that kingdom (Mt. 28:18-20). Even though God's reign is currently contested (Heb. 2:6-8) we live in view of his victory over death experiencing all the spiritual blessings of that victory here and now (Jn. 5:24; Eph. 1:3). Yes, even though things aren't perfect now, we dare to live in “hope” for a brighter future where death will be no more (Rom. 5:3-5; 8:24-25).

Remember Lot’s wife who, after escaping from the destruction of Sodom toward God’s salvation, “looked back” and was destroyed (Gen. 19:26). We cannot afford to be like her - frozen in the act of looking backwards. An unhealthy fixation on the past will immobilize us in the present and cost us our future.

Our Lord demands this kind of single-minded, forward-looking devotion: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 9:62) When it comes to our commitment to Jesus, we never forget our past but we must also confidently progress toward our future with our eyes fixed on him.

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