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God's Gracious Initiative

Sunday, October 13, 2019

"But God..." These two words changed everything, quite literally. They were written by the apostle Paul to the Ephesian church about 2000 years ago. What makes this word-pair so powerful is the context in which it was used. Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians explaining God’s eternal plan that was coming to fruition in Jesus (Eph. 3:10-11).

In chapter 1, Paul pointed out both WHERE God is completing His plan (“in Christ”) and WHY God is completing His plan (“for the praise of His glory”). In chapter 2, he begins to answer HOW God is going about fulfilling His eternal purpose in Christ. God's work begins with regular people like you and me (“you” 2:1).

YOU WERE

• Dead

• Trespassing

• Walking in sin

• Following the sinful course of the world

• Living in the passions of your flesh

• By nature children of wrath

• Separated from Christ

• Alienated from the commonwealth of Israel

• Strangers to the covenants of promise

• Without God

BUT GOD

• Is rich in mercy

• Loved us with great love

• Made us alive together with Christ

• Saved us by His grace

• Raised us up with Christ

• Seated us with Christ in heavenly places

• Recreated us in Christ for good works

• Made us part of His eternal plan

• Is making us His spiritual masterpiece

NOW

• You have been brought near to God by Christ’s blood

• You have been given access to the Father’s grace

• You have been given access to the Father’s power

• You are a member of God’s household

• You are at peace with other Christians

• You are at peace with God

• You are being built into a holy temple for God’s glory

“But God...” These two words changed everything. Whoever you are, these words give you the right perspective. Wherever you are, they define your purpose. Whatever you face, they give you hope.

In Ephesians 2, Paul demonstrates our hopeless and lifeless situation to emphasize God’s unmerited initiative, favor, love and power toward those who believe. Because of “but God” we who were children of wrath are children of obedient faith. Because of “but God” we who were dead are now living in Him. Because of “but God” we who were languishing in the spiritual gutter are raised up with Christ to rule in heavenly places! You are now God’s masterpiece! You are called out of past ("you were") to live in view of God's future ("now") as His rescued and renewed person and God is the one who made it all possible.

Wounding and Healing

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Part of the preacher’s vocation is to make personal application from God’s word to the listening audience. He is not merely to present the information accurately, though that is an essential aspect of his duty (Titus 1:9; 2:1), but he must also persuade, challenge and inspire the hearers to grow. (Acts 18:4)

Many preachers become intoxicated with the ascetic pleasures of gaining Biblical knowledge and mistake it for spiritual growth. They assume everyone who comes to worship the Lord is vitally interested in who the Jebusites were. It’s easy to fall into the trap of presenting a bunch of information and calling it preaching.

But Paul commanded Timothy “to reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:2) You get the strong sense that Timothy’s heart was to be fully invested, not only in his study of God’s word, but also in his delivery of it to the church.

This requires making application, showing the audience how to apply God’s word in their lives. The preacher who ends the sermon with, “May the Spirit of God apply this to all our hearts, Amen!” probably doesn’t have a clue how to apply the text himself. It is much easier to  inform than to persuade. This is because preaching persuasively requires an engaged heart and may call for wounding the audience a bit - two activities that are rarely comfortable and always costly.

This is why persuasive sermons are both draining for the preacher to present and draining for the listener to hear. Because the goal is not merely the acquisition of Bible knowledge but to produce a real change in behavior and attitude, it takes listening with all your mind, heart and soul to truly benefit. (Jn. 16:8)

Knowledge alone makes arrogant (1 Cor. 8:1). For knowledge to be fruitful, it must be enjoined with active faith and love (Gal. 5:6; Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:4; 1 Thess. 1:3; Jas. 2:18-22). The goal of growing in knowledge is growing in character, transformation of life (Rom. 12:1-2). Part of the role of Scripture is to teach, reprove, correct and train us to live as God's renewed people (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

One man said the job of the preacher is to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Someone else once said the job of the preacher is to “break the hard heart and heal the broken heart.” Likewise, the prophet Jeremiah’s task was to “pluck up and to break down, to overthrow and to destroy” but also “to build and to plant.” (Jer. 1:10) Notice the balance. In other words, he was to wound and to heal, to sting and to sing, with God's message.

This challenging balance between wounding and healing sets the preacher apart from the false prophets who preach “Peace! Peace!” when there is no peace. This false hope, God says, “healed the wound of my people lightly” and “misled my people” (Jer. 6:14; Ezek. 13:10). There are many beloved and popular Zedekiah’s of our day who prophesy only good concerning others (1 Kgs. 22). Jesus once warned, “Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for their fathers used to treat the false prophets the same way.” (Lk. 6:26) A preacher’s great popularity is usually purchased at the expense of his integrity.

A preacher’s role may involve confronting false teaching. Most false teaching is safely ignored but sometimes an influential person can persuade the weak to lose their faith (2 Pet. 2:18; Rom. 16:17-18; 1 Tim. 1:19; 4:1-3; 2 Tim. 2:17-18; 4:3-4). Paul, speaking from experience, said such false teachers “must be silenced” (Titus 1:10-11; cf. Gal. 2:11). There is a time and place for calling down error but, the preacher must remember, it is not every Sunday.

It is easy for preachers to lose the delicate, Biblical balance of wounding and healing. We may wound well but never heal; believing faithfulness in the kingdom is measured by the hostility and fervor with which we point our finger at others. But this kind of one-dimensional, negative preaching leaves a congregation starving and paranoid. The problem with calling out everything Jesus is against is that we never learn what Jesus is for.

The opposite problem can exist as well. It is easy for preachers to heal but never wound. This preaching is so shallow and syrupy it leaves a congregation starving and sick to their spiritual stomachs. It feels good to go to church every week but inside, the soul is atrophied and feeble, not “being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). A steady diet of spun sugar leaves a Christian spiritually weak, just one tragedy away from giving up on the Lord. 

A Biblical balance must be struck between wounding and healing. It is the burden of the preacher to learn how to wield “the sword of the Spirit” not only with accuracy but also with wisdom and love so as to both wound and heal, sting and sing, with God’s word (Acts 2:37-38; 3:19; 1 Tim. 1:5). Consider the words of the prophet Hosea (6:1-3):

“Come, let us return to the LORD;

    for he has torn us, that he may heal us;

    he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.

After two days he will revive us;

    on the third day he will raise us up,

    that we may live before him.

Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD;

    his going out is sure as the dawn;

he will come to us as the showers,

    as the spring rains that water the earth.”

A Legacy of Faith

Sunday, September 29, 2019

“By faith Enoch was taken up so that he would not see death; and he was not found because God took him up; for he obtained the witness that before his being taken up he was pleasing to God.”

(Hebrews 11:5)

Hebrews 11:1 begins with a description of faith as a positive response to God. We hope for what we don't yet have or haven't experienced yet (Rom. 8:24-25) but we're certain  we will experience it in the future because we trust God. When we believe in what we hope for and are as confident of it as if we already possess it, then we have  faith. Faith, then, is forward-looking to an unseen future (2 Cor. 4:14).

This assurance is what stands beneath and supports that hope of a better future. When we hope for something with faith, at the base of that hope is unwavering trust in God that He will bring it about. So biblical faith is something that connects an unseen future with the present, much like an anchor connects a ship to the sea floor. This kind of trust provides a strong motivation to endure the present, however difficult, until we obtain the promised future.

The next verse states, “For by it (this biblical faith) the men of old gained approval” (Heb. 11:2). The Hebrew writer has already said that God was not pleased by sacrifices of the Old Law (10:5ff) but He was pleased by the faith of His people even before the law of Moses was written (Rom. 4:9-15). He has also already outlined that those who did not possess genuine faith were not approved (Heb. 3:19). Chapter 11 is the positive flipside. Here, the writer gives some great examples of faith and calls the Hebrews to walk worthy of their legacy.

One such person who received the approval of God on the basis of his faith was Enoch. But where Abel was killed for his faith (Heb. 11:4), Enoch never died! Enoch was a descendant of Seth, seven generations removed from Adam (1 Chr. 1:3; Jd. 14). The only information we have about him outside of his genealogy is found in Genesis 5, “the diary of death,” showing the fruit of Adam’s sin which spread to all mankind (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 5:12). Story after story ends with the same phrase “and he died” (Gen. 5:5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20). But Enoch’s story interrupts the gloomy list of death with a curious statement: “and he was not, for God took him” (Gen. 5:24).

Enoch did not “see” (or experience) physical death because he “walked with God” (Gen. 5:22, 24). The author of Hebrews understood this "walk" meant Enoch had faith. The Hebrew word for “walk” conveys the meaning of an ongoing, intimate fellowship (Gen. 3:8; 6:9; 17:1; Psa.1:1). Enoch had a great relationship with God. He walked by “faith” (2 Cor. 5:7) and because of this “he was not found,” by anyone on earth or by death itself. This was his reward (Heb. 11:6). By taking Enoch up and thus delivering him from death, God was testifying that He was pleased with him (Heb. 11:2). If we walk with God now we will be taken up to Him later.

What a great example! What a great legacy! It may seem strange that for all of Enoch's 365 years (Gen. 5:23) this is all the information we have about him. But the scarcity of information is precisely the author’s point. These few verses are all that we need to remember his legacy, and Enoch’s was a legacy of faith. He was a man who walked with God and was rewarded by being delivered from this life into the next.

By contrast, the next name on the list is Methuselah (Gen. 5:25-27). The only pertinent information about him was that he lived 969 years and had some children. Again, the little that is said is significant. Despite the fact that he lived more than the lives of 10 men today, nothing of eternal value is recorded! Instead of a legacy of faith, Methuselah’s legacy is one of a wasted life, albeit a long one.

Imagine that your genealogy was in the book of Genesis. Based on how you are living your life right now what would be the most outstanding characteristic? What would your legacy be?

"God Spoke to Me"

Sunday, September 22, 2019

“Son of man, prophesy against...  those who prophesy from their own hearts ... who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing!”

(Ezekiel 13:2-3)

The Israelites often encountered the problem of discerning between true and false prophecy. Some prophets were saying one thing and other prophets were saying another, yet both claimed to be speaking in the name of the Lord. How did they know who was right?

This problem must have been especially troublesome to unpopular though genuine prophets whose message was not well received by their contemporaries. Classic battles between false and genuine prophets are illustrated in the stories of Jeremiah (Jer. 28), Elijah (1 Kgs. 18), and Ezekiel (Ezek. 12-13).

The ancient Biblical authors kindly note the distinction between genuine prophets and false prophets but to those living in the moment the distinction was much less obvious. In the Law of Moses, God did equip His people with the tools necessary to discern truth from error. Deuteronomy 18:22 was a simple rule of thumb: just wait to see if the prophet’s words were fulfilled. If the prophecy never came to pass, then you have your answer. But some prophecies were too far distant for this rule to be relevant to the hearers. Another test, Deuteronomy 13:1ff, was simple enough. If the prophecy did not agree with the sound doctrine of the Law (for example, if it encouraged idolatry) it must be rejected and the false prophet must be dealt with.

The early church encountered the same problem. God’s Spirit bestowed the first century church with many gifts, chief among them was the gift of prophecy. God’s will for Christians was still being revealed at that time so this spiritual gift was a necessity for the early church to live and worship in the way God wanted (1 Cor. 12; 2:9-13).

But not everyone was telling the truth so a number of warnings and rules were given to believers to instruct them how to discern truth from error (1 Thess. 5:21-22; 2 Thess. 2:1-3; 1 Jn. 2:18-23; 4:1-3). To some extent, the proof was within the hearer himself, “he who is of God hears the words of God” (Jn. 8:47), that is, his ears are attuned to God’s voice (Jn. 10:16). Another significant test is the life of the prophet, as Jesus says, “you will know them by their fruits” (Mt. 7:16).

What about today? It is common for religious people to claim that God has spoken to them or that God has spoken through them. Any skepticism toward the mechanics of this process of “revelation” is usually met with quotations of 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20, “Don’t quench the Spirit! Don’t despise prophecies!” To which it may be wise to respond politely with the very next verse, “but test everything; hold fast to what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21)

The severity of judgment leveled against false prophets in the Bible should give sufficient warning to any God-fearing person who claims to exercise this gift. The Bible teaches that God’s inspiration of His apostles and prophets was both “verbal” (word-for-word) and “plenary” (every word is equally authoritative) (1 Cor. 2:9-13; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). Though the Bible was written by human authors, the words were prompted and guided by the Holy Spirit (1 Pet. 1:19-21).

If pressed, contemporary “prophets” will explain their experience of receiving revelation as a vague feeling or a few disjointed words that require interpretation later. Whatever they are experiencing, it is not Biblical inspiration and does not fit the pattern of Biblical prophecy.

When "false prophets" are condemned in the Scripture it is not just their prophecy that is false but their heart, their character (2 Pet. 2:1ff). They may genuinely believe God is speaking to and through them but in reality they are "follow[ing] their own spirit" (Ezek. 12:3) instead of God's Spirit. God will allow people to believe a lie, even sending a deceiving spirit to false prophets to seal their condemnation (1 Kgs. 22:22-23; 2 Thess. 2:11-12). Let us, then, be very careful to speak only where God has spoken (1 Pet. 4:11). We can always be sure God is speaking to us through the Scriptures.

Spiritual Perception

Sunday, September 15, 2019

“Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.”

(Hosea 10:12)

Wynton Marsalis, the Pulitzer prize winning jazz trumpeter, once said of his role as a teacher at Juilliard, “If you want to learn, I can’t stop you. If you don’t want to learn, I can’t teach you.” This hits on the uncomfortable and mysterious Biblical truth of spiritual blindness. As much as we might like to believe otherwise, Scripture teaches there are some who simply cannot or will not see the truth for what it is.

Jesus said, “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” (Mt. 13:13) Jesus wasn’t speaking in parables to hide the truth from certain people. He spoke in parables “because” the truth wasn’t getting through to them in the first place. In fact, parabolic teaching is an effective way to increase learning but, fittingly, only to those who want to learn. The parables were meant to sift Jesus' audience into those who were fit or unfit for the kingdom.

Quintilian, a great Roman teacher of oratory said of some of his scholars, “They would no doubt be excellent students if they were not already convinced of their own knowledge… Blessed is the man who has the humility to know his own ignorance, his own weakness, and his own need.” Behind all fruitful learning is both the desire to learn and an attitude of humility (Mt. 5:3, 6). Being a student (or a “disciple”) requires acknowledging there are things we don’t know. A student is not greater than his master. This is hard because most of us see ourselves as enlightened and perceptive people. But we may be clueless to the spiritual reality of the condition of our soul or the nature of God’s kingdom or the identity of Christ.

The minds of some may already be made up. Even when such people read the Scriptures, they see what they want to see in them and not what is there. This blindness is not due to any lack of intelligence or ability to reason. It is a result of a heart that has “grown dull” (Mt. 13:15). There forms a kind of spiritual callous over the heart that keeps the truth from penetrating (Eph. 4:18-19).

God has given us charge over our heart (Prov. 4:23; Mt. 6:21; 12:35). Therefore, if we allow our heart to “grow dull” to God’s word we have no one to blame for this condition but ourselves. Jesus told a parable explaining the different attitudes disciples would encounter when sharing the gospel. (Mt. 13:18-23)

It is important to note that he called it “the parable of the sower” and not “the parable of the soils”. In other words, the parable is primarily meant to prepare disciples to expect to encounter a wide range of attitudes to the announcement of the kingdom. It's as if Jesus is saying when the gospel is rejected it may not always be tied to one’s delivery. It may simply be a reflection of the listener's heart.

With that being said, we’re all listeners too and need to examine the condition of the soil of our own hearts. When we listen to this parable, we are going to find ourselves in one of four categories. If you don't like where you fit into the parable, the mere fact that you can view yourself critically is a good sign.

But perhaps you know of someone who lacks spiritual perception and you have been praying for them to see and embrace the truth. Don’t lose hope for that person. The fact is, we don’t know if they are ‘locked in’ to that condition. The fallow ground of the human heart can be made ready to receive the good seed of God's word (Hos. 10:12). There does come a point when God will allow a person to reject his love (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28; 2 Cor. 4:3-4; 2 Thess. 2:11-12) but let’s not forget that he can also give sight to the blind (Lk. 4:18-19).

In the meantime, let us love our neighbor, speak the truth in love, and pray for the gospel to take root. Either way, we must sow the seed and leave the burden of results to God (1 Cor. 3:6).

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