Hell-fire & Brimstone

Camel hair, wild honey, Hell-fire and brimstone…If you’re reading this post then you know exactly who I’m referencing; John the Baptist.

Pastor’s today, including me, could (and should) learn a lot from this wilderness preacher. Granted, his office and calling are different than ours given that his coming was prophesied of hundreds of years in advance, his conception was miraculous, and he was filled with the Holy Spirit from birth but it is from his ministry and preaching that we can learn and grow.

One Hit Wonder

John had one message, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). It’s not that this is the only line he preached but that this was the central message every time he addressed the crowds. This was John’s task “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Lk 1:17). This was it…He had no other material; like Deep Blue Something singing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, John only had one tool in his tool-belt.

But did you notice that the people flocked to John?

One Offensive Preacher

We don’t really have much, by design, about exactly what John said when he preached but what we do have wouldn’t fit very well into the “Church Growth Model”, the “Seeker Sensitive Model”, or a “Felt Needs” emphasis. He didn’t mince words or try to be crafty, indirect, or politically correct. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you of the wrath to come” (Lk. 3:7)? is not exactly the “Softly and Tenderly” approach we most often see today.

But did you notice that the people flocked to John?

One Pointed Preacher

John’s preaching was personal. He addressed not only specific people groups and occupations but specific sins that needed to go. John’s preaching was political. He addressed the rulers of his day and called them to repentance, publicly, for their specific sins (without fear of losing his 501c3). And John’s message was always pointed at holiness.

First, his preaching was pointed at the Holy One, himself, Jesus Christ. From “I am not worthy to untie” (Lk. 3:16) his sandals to “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). John was not concerned with how he was viewed in the public eye but that his hearers knew who the Christ was and that He alone could save them.

Second, his preaching was pointed at personal holiness as the evidence of regeneration. In short, if repentance from sin meant that your life would be marked by godliness, holiness, or Christ-likeness as we might say today, then if that was missing John warned clearly of the “unquenchable fire” that awaited you. Apart from a life marked by holiness, there was no evidence of salvation and it was not words that would convince John but your walk.

But did you notice that people flocked to John?

Our Pulpits Today

Why did people flock to John? Plainly, because they can have their ears tickled anywhere, and they actually do everywhere. Inherently, humanity knows we need to make right the wrongs, serve up justice, and that we’re going to be judged by God. People can have their ears tickled during TV commercials, what they need is to know the Truth; and we know it!

In spite of John’s singular message, as offensive as it was, and as unpopular as it was to those who were not concerned with living for YHWH, it was effective! It was effective! It was effective!

The message of the Gospel is a one hit wonder, it is an offensive message, it is personal, & it, always and only, points one to Christ with the assured result of holiness. The Gospel is the power of God to salvation…I think I’ve read that somewhere.

Our pulpits don’t need new and exciting, fresh and relevant, contemporary additions to draw in the new age. Our pulpits need the Gospel; unadulterated, unfiltered, strong, and without apology.

May we, pastors and laity alike, be found by God to be more like John, committed to the One who gave us the message and unconcerned with making the message palatable for those who need that same message that saved us!

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The Doctrines of Grace in Five Minutes

I was teaching a Sunday School class a few years ago at my former church and at the end of the study a man approached me and said that this was the first time he had heard the doctrines of grace taught in years. Unfortunately, his experience is not a unique one. Growing up and attending church my entire life I can’t recall a time that I was ever taught these truths. It wasn’t until I attended Bible College at Trinity College of Florida that I was introduced to the rich truths of the doctrines of grace. I believe a great deal of people attend church regularly and are never taught these amazing truths.

Allow me to briefly share the doctrines of grace with you.

We must start with God because He is where it all begins. God is sovereign in salvation. That is, salvation belongs to Him (Jonah 2:9) He controls it. The Bible makes it clear that God chose those whom He would save before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). This election was not a result of any merit within us, but was solely by the grace of God (Romans 9:11-13).

If God were not to initiate a relationship with us we would never come to Him on our own (John 6:44). In fact, the Bible makes it clear that we were dead in our sin and utterly unable to move toward God in our sinfulness (Ephesians 2:1). God had to remove our dead heart and give us a heart that beats for Him (Ezekiel 36:26) or else it would never happen. To come to a saving faith in Christ is all the work of God. He chooses, He calls, He justifies, and He glorifies (Romans 8:30). By His amazing grace, and by His grace alone, sinners are made right with God.

This salvation is extended to many, but not all (Mark 10:45). Christ died for His elect (John 10:11). His blood does not cover universally the sin of all, or else all would be saved, but rather His blood covers only a particular people. These are God’s elect, given to the Son for salvation and they will respond in faith (John 6:37). Those who respond in genuine faith toward Christ will persevere to the end (Philippians 1:6). Nothing can separate the believer from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:31-39).

The doctrines of grace ultimately point us to a greater worship of God for what He has done for us through Christ.  We can take absolutely no credit for our salvation. It is completely the work of God on our behalf.  All glory to Him.  All praise is to Him.  All honor is for Him.

Lifestyle Evangelism?

 

Many professing Christians think godly living is all the evangelism others need from us. They misquote St. Francis of Assisi, saying, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.” In actuality St. Francis never said this. The sad reality is that many are quick to find spiritualized statements like this to justify their disobedience to Christ’s command. St. Francis of Assisi actually did comment on this issue though. His first biographer, Thomas of Celeno, quoted him saying: “The preacher must first draw from secret prayers what he will later pour out in holy sermons; he must first grow hot within before he speaks words that are in themselves cold.”

That seems more in line with God’s Word.

Scripture is clear that salvation is always connected to the preached Word. James says God, “brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18). Peter says we are, “born again…through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Pet. 1:23). In the parable of the four souls, Jesus taught the impossibility of growth apart from sowing the seed of God’s Word (Mark 4). But the clearest Scripture on this is perhaps Paul’s argument in Romans 10. He states, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written,“How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:14-17). Paul’s quadruple “How” question clearly is rhetorical. Paul is saying that without gospel proclamation there can be no justification.”

Godly living is vital, but is insufficient to save a soul from God’s just wrath against sin. Only faith in the message of the Gospel can save. The only hope for the lost is that the saved share the Gospel with them: his sinless life, his substitutionary death, and his victorious resurrection. Those who try to avoid Gospel evangelism are trying to separate the inseparable. The very Greek word euangelion or Gospel is in our word evangelism. Tell people the only message that can save them, and don’t assume people understand it if you don’t share it with them.

The “Share the Gospel by Your Life” Lie

Enough is enough, really.

Have you heard it? Perhaps you’ve said it. Maybe you’ve even taught it or preached it…“You don’t have to share the Gospel with words. The most powerful Gospel is shown by your actions.” Putting it very simply and plainly, that’s nonsense. And it’s worse than nonsense when it comes from pastors, teachers, and preachers; the ones called & supernaturally equipped by God to take His Word about salvation from His wrath through Christ’s substitutionary atonement and share that Word with a world of people condemned unless they believe the Gospel and repent (Mark 1:15).

The Gospel must be presented with words. The Gospel is only fully presented with words. The Gospel comes from the Word and the Word is powerful & effective (Isaiah 55:11; Romans 1:16; Hebrews 4:12-13).

Paul writes to the Romans that belief comes from hearing and hearing comes through preaching and preachers are sent to do just that, proclaim the Good News of God’s salvation (Romans 10:14-15). And just in case the Romans, and we for that matter, didn’t get it the first time he summarizes those verses and repeats himself in verse 17 when he says, “Faith comes through hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.” Note that Paul does not say “preach the Gospel and use words when necessary.” Can you imagine if Paul would’ve evangelized the Gentiles with that lie? He’d have been a happy-go-lucky, kind-hearted, forgiving, polite, tent maker who never saw a single person saved from their sin and given eternal life.

Yes, we need to live the Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ never, and I repeat, never leaves a life unchanged. Yes, you can observe, through actions, a difference between someone who is a Christ follower and someone who is not.

But being kind does not share that Jesus Christ died to pay your sin debt and that he rose from the dead for your justification (Romans 4:25).

But being polite does not share that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and that no person will ever be in God’s presence unless they come through Christ (John 14:6).

But being joyful does not share that Christ bore in his body your sins and that by his wounds you can be healed (1 Peter 2:24).

But being nice to people does not share that their good works and their best obedience is not the measurement of God’s satisfaction of them and that their best effort will never earn them eternal life (Galatians 2:15-16).

You may be asking, “Where is this blog post coming from? Why the aggression about this topic?” Honestly, I expect this from the world. I expect the world to say things like “don’t worry about telling people about Jesus,” but I don’t hear it from the world, I hear it and read it regularly from the Christian community. Church, and church leaders, we need to stop believing and stop propagating this lie! We need to repent & tell everyone about the forgiveness of sins through Christ alone.

Christian:

“…do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord…” (2 Timothy 1:8)

“…what you have heard from me…entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also…” (2 Timothy 2:2).

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season…” (2 Timothy 4:1-2).

“…the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it” (2 Timothy 4:17).

May you find yourself in the company of Jesus Christ who “must preach the good news of the kingdom of God…for [he] was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43).

May you find yourself in the company of the Apostle Paul who was “eager to preach the gospel” to a people he had never met before (Romans 1:15).

And may you find yourself as an answer to Christ’s prayer as he prayed for laborers to harvest God’s people (Matthew 9:38).

Don’t get sucked into the lie that the Gospel is best presented by your way of life. The Gospel is best presented with the Word of God, coming from a life that has been changed by God, bearing witness to the power, love, grace and mercy of God found only in the cross of Christ.

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive…”—The Gospel of Jesus Christ, from 1 Corinthians 15:3-6

The Avalanche of Sin

“It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. 3 And David sent and inquired about the woman.” (2 Samuel 11:2-3a) (Read the entire chapter here). Things only went downhill for David from there.  Author and Pastor John Piper once said, “Avalanches of evil begin with a single pebble of sin.”  This truth could not be seen more clearly than in the story of David from the verses above.

According to the text late one afternoon, as David was presumably lounging around his palace all day, he decided to get up and take a walk out onto the king’s roof top. Once outside his eyes fell upon a beautiful woman as she was bathing.  Now in that moment, he could have decided to hide his eyes and turn away, but rather than leave it alone, he chose to indulge himself and inquire about the woman.  Once he found out who she was, he arranged for her to come over to his house.  Upon her arrival the text tells us that David slept with the woman.  You can see already how this situation has turned from bad to worse very quickly. It does not take much for sin avalanche.  Not only had David’s lust turned into premarital sex, but to make matters worse, both David and the woman he had slept with were married.  The snowball is increasing in size as this sin grows bigger and bigger.

Not long after David and Bathsheba’s affair, Bathsheba sends word to David that she is, in fact, pregnant with his child. This news seems to trouble David as he is now in fear of being caught in his sin.  So he attempts, unsuccessfully, to get Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, who is out in battle, to come home and to sleep with his wife so that no one would think anything of Bathsheba’s pregnancy.

However, when David’s first attempt at cover-up failed, he decided to have Uriah put in the front lines of battle so that his death was sure.  This was his second attempt at covering up his sin (and we find out later it failed as well 2 Samuel 12).  So what started with lust ended in adultery and murder.  Rather than nipping sin in the bud, David allowed his sin to grow, and it quickly grew out of control. And the same thing can be true for us. We can play with sin and play with sin and think we are doing just fine, but before we know it things can get out of hand and our sin has ruined us. Sin can ruin our reputation, ministry, even our lives. And if we continue in it without repentance it will lead us to hell.

There is no such thing as a “small” sin.  All sin is rebellion towards God and can lead to “avalanches of evil.”  We are to set our eyes on Christ and live for Him, leaving our sin behind.  John Owen once wrote, “be killing sin or it will be killing you.”  Let’s strive every day, by the grace of God, to treasure Christ above all else and to snuff out our sin before it burns out of control.

The good news for David is that his story didn’t end there. By God’s grace he realized his sin (2 Samuel 12:13) and asked God for forgiveness (Psalm 51) and although there were consequences to his sin (2 Samuel 12:7-14) ultimately David was forgiven.  David was well aware of God’s forgiveness for sin (Psalm 32:5) and we can be sure, by God’s grace, he was forgiven from all of it. What great news.

And the good news for David is also good news for us. There is forgiveness for sin. Complete forgiveness.  That does not mean that there are not consequences for sin and we should take it lightly – sin is dangerous – but by God’s grace all our sins can be forgiven when we admit our fault and turn to Jesus (Psalm 32:5; 1 John 1:9 ). Praise God for His grace and mercy toward undeserving sinners like you and me.

Gospel Fueled Change

In Peter’s first letter he spends a great deal of time setting down the foundation for why we as believers should live holy lives. He reminds the church of the need to grow up in the faith and not become stagnant. In the first ten verses of chapter two he helps reorient our focus to the reality of who we are and our relationship to Christ and one another. A couple weeks ago I walked us briefly through some of the direct application of living out the faith as sojourners in a land that is not our home, and how our lives should look different than those around us, and more importantly than our old lives. Today I want to briefly reminds us of the foundation of our Hope and the cause of our changed lives that comes only through the power of the Gospel not through human effort.

So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good

Peter opens with the reality that our lives are now marked by a change in desire. No longer do we desire the things of the world or do we mirror the attitudes of those around us, rather we desire the pure spiritual milk of God’s word. This is seen in the concluding passage of 1 Peter 1:25 where Peter reminds us that the gospel has set us free from sin and death and gave us the hope we have today. It is from this driving force that the desire to put away all malice and long for the joy of God’s word springs. From the Gospel hope we are now called to put away the old life with all of its vices and anger and strive hard after God, for it is only from growing in the faith that these things are possible. We know that healthy and physically maturing people don’t indulge constantly on Doritos and hot dogs, when someone sets it in their minds to grow healthy they long towards the things that will bring that to fruition, like a healthy diet and exercise. The same is true of spiritual life; we cannot indulge on the things of the flesh and expect that growth and maturity will simply take place. We are called through Christ’s power to yearn for the hope that brings spiritual maturity, the true spiritual milk.

For If you have tasted the joy of the Lord and savored His goodness why would you want anything else. Sometimes it seems we need to be reminded how good God is and how appetizing the Gospel’s message is to our soul. If you have tasted the goodness of God, like a nice porterhouse steak, (or some eggplant type dish thing vegans must enjoy), then you know how satisfying He is. How He fills your stomach with life and hope everlasting. Peter is then asking us the question why aren’t you longing for that every day. Why do you keep running back to the attitudes and hostilities of the world that will leave you empty and starving. If the Gospel has taken root, then eat the only thing hat will truly satisfy and grow you into maturity, Jesus Christ & His word.

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

Once we have evaluated our desires, we are asked by Peter to see ourselves through the lenses of Christ. Here Peter is encouraging us to see our growth in maturity in light of the fact that we are like Christ. He was the true living stone rejected by humanity, so too are we living stones who are rejected by humanity. The world rejected Jesus and we should not be surprised that it will reject those who look like Him. Therefore we should not be shocked when the world rejects us, but rather we should see all the more clearly that we are not alone in being rejected. Rather, we are a part of a living temple being built together, into Christ. The rejection of the world should build our spiritual unity as believers, and as our unity of spirit grows so too does our witness, and as we mature in Christ we will continue to turn our hearts over to him, preparing our minds for action and seeking to live our lives in a manner that seeks to glorify God and not our flesh.

 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. 11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.

Finally, we are grounded in the reality that we have a new identity as heirs with Christ. Just as you grew up physically and learned about who you were and where you came from, so too as we grow into Christ we learn who we are in Him and what that means for us.  We learn more and more about our identity and the family that we now have been given. We also begin to see that within our new family we have been given a new occupation as priests proclaiming the greatness of God who set us free from our own sinfulness. As such we call others to experience the greatness of our God who has changed us and given us a lasting home in his presence. We proclaim to the world the mercy of God, the hope of heaven, the living stone rejected by the men.

We have been Chosen, we have been set apart, we have been made Holy, and we have been given a home. These things were given to us we never earned them nor could we. God in his infinite grace bestowed them on those whom He called out of darkness and who through His grace have called upon the name of His Son. Before you can begin to evaluate how you are able to living in a dying and sinful word, you must first remember and know that you are His and that all that you are is found in Him. Before Peter begins a long discussion on living out the faith in a world that will mock, ridicule, and at times persecuted you, you have to know who you are and whose you are, so that you may live out the faith in response to this good news and in a way that reveals it to others.

 

Can You Explain the Gospel?

There are many questions we have to answer each day: what will I wear to work or school? What’s for breakfast? Lunch? And dinner? What project should I tackle first? How will I respond to this e-mail?  How will I accomplish this task? What will I say to this co-worker? How will I help this customer, client, or student? How am I going to pass this exam when I didn’t study?

There are many questions to answer each day.

But what if someone were to ask you today for a definition of the gospel, how would you respond? What is the gospel? How do you put it into words? The answer to this question is of vast importance. The gospel is the central message of the Christian faith and is something that all Christians should know by heart. So what is the gospel?

The short answer: The good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection on behalf of sinners (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

To answer the question more fully allow me to explain.

It is important to know that the word “gospel” means “good news.” The gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ. But before the good news becomes good news we must first know the bad news. The bad news is that all have sinned (Romans 3:23) and the penalty for that sin is death (Romans 6:23). We have sinned against an infinite God and we deserve an infinite punishment. There is nothing that we can do to fix this, no good work or righteous deed can take away the punishment we deserve (Romans 3:20; Titus 3:5). This puts us in a bad position. We have sinned, we deserve punishment, and we cannot make amends for our wrong doing.

But the good news of the gospel is that God sent His Son Jesus into the world (1 John 4:10) to live the life that we were supposed to live but failed (1 Peter 2:22), and to die the death that we deserved in our place (Romans 5:8). Then three days later He rose victoriously from the grave defeating sin and death (1 Corinthians 15). He then ascended into heaven (Acts 1:9-11) where He rules and reigns at the right hand of the Father (Ephesians 1:20-23) and will one day return to judge the living and the dead (John 5:27-29).

And now all those who by grace turn from their sin and put their faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) in Jesus’ redemptive work will escape from that judgement, be forgiven of all their sin (Colossians 2:13-14), and will live for all of eternity with God (John 3:16). That is the gospel! That is the good news that we are to cherish each day. That is the good news that we are to share with this lost world.

The gospel is not only good news, it’s the best news! Let us never forget what God in His mercy has done for sinners like us.  Let your heart rest and rejoice in the graciousness of God.

Philemon Part 4: Confident in Grace

We’ve looked into this letter for 3 weeks now and today as we finish walking through Philemon we’ll focus our attention on Paul’s closing remarks in v21-25. 

Paul is Confident of the Grace of God in Obedience (v21)

v21 says, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” The first thing that ought to rise in your heart after hearing such a sentence is the question, “WHY?” Why is Paul confident that Philemon will not only obey his request and welcome in his runaway slave Onesimus unconditionally and wholeheartedly, but how can Paul be confident that Philemon will do even more than asks? I think, Paul’s confidence is not that he trusts in Philemon to obey him, but rather that he trusts in the work of God’s grace in the heart of His friend Philemon. What I mean by this is plain: Paul is trusting that the grace of God at work in the heart of Philemon will lead to what the grace of God at work in the human heart always leads to – obedience. Paul is so confident in God’s work inside the heart of Philemon that Paul is expecting Philemon to go above and beyond what he is asking him to do. Whether this means that Paul expects Philemon to send Onesimus back to him to continue alongside him in ministry, or that Philemon would free Onesimus from slavery we can’t be sure of. What we can be sure of from this v21 is the one thing we see, Paul is confident that the gospel of grace at work in human heart will lead to obedience.

Does this seem like a hard concept to you – that grace leads to obedience? I think that personally for many years I had trouble with this idea, that placing the two realities of grace and obedience together in unison doesn’t mesh well together, and so for many years I had a sort of false dichotomy at work within my own understanding. From people I’ve talked to this isn’t rare to me but seems to be common experience that we all naturally either want grace or we want obedience, we don’t want them together. We wrongly think that if we’re to live our lives under the banner of God’s grace we shouldn’t be concerned about obedience because God’s grace covers all our sin regardless of how much there is to cover. Or on the other side, we wrongly think that if we’re to live lives of obedience to God’s Word we won’t be concerned with God’s grace because obedience is all about being disciplined enough to do the right thing no matter what and that type of resolve is merely something I can create on my own.

Yet, if we merely hang onto grace we’ll have a deficient view of what the Christian life is supposed to be lived like. When God draws us to Christ He always draws us toward Christ and away from sin. God calls us out of sin, wickedness, and darkness to live new lives by His strength walking in the light, in obedience, and in holiness. Having this false dichotomy at work within us makes us miss the grand reality that when God through the power of the Holy Spirit works His grace into the human heart, obedience to the gospel is always the result. Thus, the realities of grace and obedience should never be separated but always held as they really are – inseparable. Paul is confident to expect such living in the life of his friend Philemon. Remember v8? Paul is asking Philemon to do what the gospel requires him to do. How can he confident that Philemon will actually do this in v21? He trusts in the power of God’s grace at work in the hearts of His people.

Paul is Confident of the Grace of God in Prayer (v22)

See the power of prayer. Paul in v22 states that God, through their prayers, will graciously give him to them. In this we see that our prayers in and of themselves contain no special power, save only for the grace of God working through them. Because of this we have such a special hope in prayer, for by our prayer, things really could change. Not because of anything in us, or that when I pray for you I bank on some kind of pastoral prowess in prayer – no, I have nothing of the kind. Rather, the power and therefore the privilege of prayer is seen not in the person praying, but in the Person being prayed to. Who are we speaking to? God Himself! With God all things are possible, and through prayer we offer up our desires to God, for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies.

There’s something about prayer that doesn’t feel sexy right? I mean if you were to ask 100 churches about how they plan to reach their communities with the gospel, 99 of them would probably respond by giving some sexy ministry philosophy saying “We’ve got this strategy, we’ve got this vision, we’ve got this outreach director, we’ve got a kicking praise band, etc., etc., etc.”

Where is the congregation willing to seek the face of God in prayer? Where are the people who understand that we’re at our strongest when we’re kneeling before our Father?

It’s nothing sexy, or showy, prayer doesn’t really contain much flair, but tell me this – what is more powerful than coming before the throne of God to adore Him and ask Him to give us the cities we live in? We don’t know if Paul was ever released from his chains to visit Philemon to see how things really played out in this situation, but that’s not the point here. The point is that without being told about that they are praying for him, Paul knows this Colossian church is praying for him, and that God by hearing their prayers may move in power and free Paul from his chains. His confidence in the grace of God through prayer is stunning to see, and from seeing it we should be rebuked for our prayerlessness, and freshly give ourselves to the pursuit of God in public and private prayer.

Paul is Confident of the Grace of God, Just (v25)

v25 is the end of this small letter and in it Paul says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

v25 is almost the exact same as the end of Paul’s greeting back in v3. These two verses (v3 and v25) form bookends to this book. The lesson here is that as Paul began with the grace of God, he wants to end with the grace of God and by so doing teach the Colossian Church and teach us, that the Christian life begins and ends with the grace of God. For while the sinner is lost wandering aimless in sin and darkness, God’s grace pursues, chases, grabs, and saves! The same grace that started our salvation in the beginning, sustains our salvation throughout our life, and finally secures our salvation in the end. Grace at the birth, grace in-between, and grace at the close.

We shouldn’t expect Paul to end any different either…grace gripped Philemon, and now if grace is to really get to the ground and make a difference, he must give the grace he received to someone as unworthy as he himself is – Onesimus.

6 Ways to Stay Humble

An old country song goes like this: “Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.” Most of us would not put it so bluntly, but we all find it hard to be humble. The problem with us is that we forget who we are in the grand scheme of things. We must remember that we are but dust created in the image of God and made to display His worth. One particular passage of Scripture is thoroughly helpful in turning our eyes off our own navels and onto God’s glory: Philippians 2:5-11. By meditating on the gospel in this text, even the most prideful among us will be leveled low.

To stay in a humbled position…

Feast your eyes on the matchless glory of Christ (vv. 5-6)

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…”

Paul ascends to breathe the air of Mount Everest in this ancient hymn of the church. He speaks of Jesus’ divinity and equal status as God with the Father and Spirit. By bringing us to heaven, Paul reveals the amazing condescension of Christ coming to earth and the cross. Getting a fresh look at the majesty of Christ always has the effect of humbling the believer’s pride. When Isaiah saw the Lord seated on His throne, he cried out, “Woe to me!…I am ruined. I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). When Peter saw Jesus’ glory in the fishing boat, he fell on his knees before him and cried out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). Make it a practice everyday to behold Christ’s glory in His Word and carry it with you. This will put a check on your prideful moments during the day and remind you who you really are apart from Him. Before you open your Bible, pray with Moses, “Show me your glory, Lord” or with the psalmist, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things from your law.”

Contemplate Christ’s humbling Himself in the incarnation (v. 7)

“…but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men…”

The steps toward humility are not upward, but downward. Christ stepped down into this world, humbling Himself greatly for us. We must follow Him if we wish to be properly humble. We would be wrong to assume that in the incarnation, Christ was subtracting certain aspects of His divinity in order to save us. It isn’t subtraction going on here, but addition. Stephen Wellum, in his book, God the Son Incarnate, helps us see this when he writes, “Paul’s point then, is not that Christ exchanged the ‘form of God’ for the ‘form of a servant’ but that he manifests the ‘form of God’ in the ‘form of a servant.’ The text says nothing about Christ emptying his divine attributes. Rather, he empties himself by adding to himself a complete human nature and a willingness to undergo the agony of death for our sake and for our salvation.” Wellum quotes theologian Donald Macleod, who also informs us by writing how Christ, “had glory with the Father before the world began (Jn. 17:5)…He possessed all the majesty of deity, performed all its functions and enjoyed all its prerogatives. He was adored by his Father and worshipped by angels. He was invulnerable to pain, frustration, and embarrassment. He existed in unclouded serenity. His supremacy was total, his satisfaction complete, his blessedness perfect. Such a condition was not something he had secured by effort. It was the way things were, and had always been; and there was no reason why they should change. But change they did, and they changed because…Christ did not insist on his rights.”

The thought that this glorious a subject would choose to undergo birth as a human baby with all the limitations of life in this fallen world is truly astounding and ought to keep us ever humbled.

Think over the servant-hearted nature of Christ (vv. 7-8a)

“...taking on the form of a servant…”

It was this divine Sovereign who dwelt from eternity past in perfect fellowship with the Godhead who stooped to wash the filthy feet of the disciples. God’s Agent of creation who lit the fire of a million blazing suns with His powerful words washed a mixture of sweat, dirt, and animal feces off the feet of fishermen. In one of the key passages in John Mark’s account of the gospel, Jesus defines His mission in this way: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)

Behold the wonder of Christ crucified for sinners (v. 8)

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

The lowest step was not the manger. It was the cross of Calvary. Keith and Kristyn Getty, ponder the wonder of the cross in their song Gethsemane, when they write:

“What took Him to this wretched place,

What kept Him on this road?

His love for Adam’s cursed race,

For every broken soul.

No sin too slight to overlook,

No crime too great to carry,

All mingled in this poisoned cup ‚

And yet He drank it all,

The Saviour drank it all,

The Saviour drank it all.”

The first place we all must look in our struggle with pride is the cross. As low and despised as the cross was, John presents it as the place where Jesus reigns in the fullest extent of His glory. We see at the cross so many things: the ugliness of sin that it would crucify God’s Son, the wrath of God against sin, and the love of God in Christ for sinners that He would go to such an extent to save us.

Worship the now exalted and glorified Christ on bended knee (vv. 9-11)

Therefore 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.”

Once we come to this point, we are properly humbled. We realize we are nothing and Christ is worthy of all the glory. Now that we are on our spiritual knees where we belong, Paul reminds us that Christ’s pre-incarnate glory has been restored and he promises us that one Day every soul will acknowledge it. Paul’s phrase comes from Isaiah 45:23 where we see this One to receive all glory is none other than the only God Himself. We must make it our aim each moment of the day to keep our spiritual knees bent. Christ will receive all the glory and we must give it to Him through our daily lives.

Get busy serving others in the name of Christ

It would be easy at this point to be so eclipsed and engulfed in this glorious gospel that we forget that it carries with it everyday ramifications. The gospel is never given to us so that we can simply bask in its light and forget the world outside. Christ didn’t die to simply make us worshipers, but to make worshipers of His glory through us. Christ humbled Himself to serve us so that we would follow His lead and humble ourselves to serve others too. Look for humbling and lowly acts of service Christ may be leading you toward. It may mean doing something uncomfortable for you and yet the very doing of it will help you flesh out this gospel theology. There are widows around us who don’t see God’s love in action. There are neighbors around us who wonder if there is such a thing as authentic love. Whether it be a mission trip, a chance to work in the nursery, or the opportunity to bring food to a hurting family, only we will give an account to God for how we practically live out this gospel. But whatever we do, we must carry the humbling gospel message with us and serve out of this glorious news.

The Gospel Never Retreats

There sat the world’s most outspoken Christian evangelist, chained to two Roman guards behind a locked jail cell. If most of us found ourselves in Paul’s shoes, we’d have thought for sure this was a sad day for the Gospel. “Poor Gospel”, we’d think. “Your days of victorious spreading have now come to a screeching halt. I guess I might as well just retreat to the cold recesses of this cell and silently go over some memory verses to reassure me. There’s no point trying to preach now.” Yet the Apostle Paul knew better than all this. He wrote to the church of Philippi, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Php. 1:12-14).

We may be tempted to see such circumstances as hindrances to the gospel spreading, but Paul saw them as opportunities which served to advance the Gospel. Paul knew that God often allows the troubling trials into our lives for His own divine purposes. Paul knew after watching Stephen’s martyrdom that persecution has a way of lighting a fire under God’s people to spread the Gospel elsewhere. It was Paul’s travel companion Luke, who wrote, “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles…Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:1b, 4). So God could even use the terrible stoning of one of His own children to get the gospel beyond the confines of Jerusalem. An early Christian named Tertullian was right when he stated, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

What does this have to do with me, you may wonder. While you may not face much persecution for your faith at the moment, you probably do encounter “trials of various kinds.” In order for us to “rejoice” with Paul or “count it all joy” with James, we must understand that God allows all this to advance His Gospel, not send it in retreat. His Gospel knows no such thing as retreat. We must see every screaming toddler, every financial burden, every unexpected doctor’s call, and every natural disaster as events guided by the hand of our sovereign God to advance His Gospel. We must learn to behold the invisible King of glory as He sits on the throne of heaven, guiding all things according to His perfect counsel. All human authorities from ages past to today and into the future cannot stop or silence His gospel. North Korea’s emperor says, “No evangelism allowed!”, and South Koreans send thousands of Bibles into their territory via giant balloons. China says, “No other churches authorized!”, and hundreds of millions of Christians gather with greater earnestness in underground churches and in houses. As Paul said to young Timothy, “I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!” (2 Tim. 2:9). No chains can hold back the gospel from going forth.

What should this mean for us?

Rejoice when you encounter obstacles that seem to stand in the way of Gospel advancement.

Rejoice not in the obstacles themselves, but in the God who secretly works through them and despite them to accomplish His purpose of spreading His glory.

Rejoice as you consider that God is currently making a way in your personal life and in the Church universal to extend His Gospel to those He will redeem.

Rejoice as you consider the words of Christ when he said, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd…My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:16, 27-28). Rejoice as you believe the promise, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14).

May we keep our mind’s eye on the multitudes John saw around the throne praising the Lamb who purchased them with His blood (Revelation 7:9). Then, let us put on the armor of God and commit to advance Christ’s Gospel, come what may. Since the Gospel never retreats, may we never retreat in declaring it until the trumpet sounds and our King comes to rescue us. 

 

The Gospel is for Christians Too

Many of us have been taught that the gospel is the ABC’s of Christianity; the building blocks of the Christian life so to speak. But is this really the case? Is the gospel only the entryway into the Christian life? We may say that understanding the gospel is useful, but only for the purpose of evangelism, but God’s Word sees things quite differently.

In 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul makes the argument that the gospel is not only the entryway, but the very lifeblood and heartbeat of the Christian faith. In fact, Paul reminds fellow believers in the church at Corinth that the gospel is, “of first importance.” He writes, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”

Remember That You Received the Gospel

When we reflect on our initial reception of the gospel it does a few things: it reminds us of our former lost condition, it stirs up Godward gratitude in us, and it instills within us a desire to plant the gospel seed everywhere we go. Do you remember the day you were converted? You don’t need to know the exact point you were given a new heart in Christ, but you do need to reflect on the fact that God did give you a new heart. In the Puritan prayer book The Valley of Vision, one prayer entitled, “The Dark Guest” states it this way: “The memory of my great sins, my many temptations, my falls, bring afresh into my mind the remembrance of thy great help, of thy support from heaven, of the great grace that saved such a wretch as I am.”

Paul encourages the believers in the church at Corinth to remember the circumstances surrounding their reception of the gospel. Paul had evangelized Corinth around the mid 50’s A.D with the support of fellow tentmakers Priscilla and Aquila, and the continued efforts of Apollos. After a church was formed in Corinth, there were a number of serious problems Paul had to address, yet despite all these, he turns his attention to the most important thing to which they should focus: the gospel. When an unbeliever repents and receives this gospel, it is nothing short of a miracle of the grace of God. We all would do well to remember with reverence and gratitude to God the fact that we received this gospel in the first place. We can adopt Paul’s words in Romans 6:17-18, “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

Remember That You Stand In and Are Being Saved by the Gospel 

The gospel is not only the message we first received upon conversion, but also the very foundation “in which” we “stand.” We don’t simply get into good standing with God through faith in the gospel. We stay in good standing with God through faith in the gospel. We get saved, stay saved, and will persevere to end time salvation through faith in the gospel alone. If our standing before God is based on our performance, we are standing on a shaky platform indeed, and such a platform will soon give way to God’s judgment. The professing believer who moves on from the gospel to moralism is not moving closer to God but further from him, and is in danger of missing the gospel altogether. As believers, we must understand that our only hope as sinners before a holy God is faith in the gospel. The gospel must be the daily foundation of our hope and joy and peace before God. Because the gospel is to be our mainstay and our lifesource and our confidence, we must preach it to our hearts each day. We must let it’s glorious truths sweep over our souls time and time again until our lives are one long, continuous expression of faith in it alone. There is no salvation outside of gospel salvation, therefore we need to live in and breath in the gospel each day.

Remember That the Gospel is of First Importance

Paul says the gospel is “of first importance.” There are a lot of important things about the Christian life that the Apostles mention throughout the New Testament writings: holiness, missions, prayer, obedience, good deeds, service to God and worship of God. Yet we must not confuse the fruit of the Christian life with the root of it. Without the gospel having its primary place at the foundation and as the lifeblood pumping throughout the church, nothing else matters. A Christian or a church which elevates the fruit of the Christian life above the root is in serious danger, just as a man choosing to live in a house without a proper foundation. To remove the gospel from the center of our everyday lives individually and corporately is as foolish as a doctor removing all the blood from his patient and expecting that patient to keep living.

So then, what is the content of this gospel?

Paul gives it to us: the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

Yet one can believe that Christ lived, died, was buried, and rose again without believing the gospel. The gospel isn’t just the statements alone, but faith in the work behind the statements. To believe the gospel is not to believe that Jesus died for sinners. To believe the gospel is to believe that on the cross, Christ became my substitute dying in place of my sins and to believe that His work on the cross is sufficient to save me. To believe that Christ was buried and rose again is not to believe the gospel. To believe the gospel is to believe that Christ’s bodily resurrection from the grave means He will raise me from the grave after I die.

The issue is not whether we have ever believed this gospel at some moment in the past, but whether or not we are currently living by faith in this gospel alone for our salvation. After all, outside the gospel, all other ground is sinking sand.

Killing Jesus!

In the concluding chapter of the Book of Mark we are introduced to Jesus’s rejection and eventual execution by the hands of the Romans, but what is so interesting about the text is the fact that He stands alone. Throughout the course of some 18 hours Jesus goes from having a crowd of merry men to no one. He goes from being a celebrated possible messiah to an executed rebel. As the story unfolds in the Gospel texts we see His followers fall away and as they do those who stand opposed to Jesus become more emboldened, but have you ever stopped to think how these same attitudes that existed with Jesus in the presence of his disciples still exists within us.

It is easy to say that if Jesus was alive today we would stand and defended him, but that is the very thing peter Said before Jesus told him of his eventual desertion. Why do we somehow think we are more spiritual or better than those who have gone before us, in the concluding narrative of Mark’s Gospel (14:43-15:15) we are introduced to a series of events, each feature a rejection or desertion, and each coming from a variety of motives; So today I would like us to briefly examine theses six groups and how their attitudes can infiltrate ourselves and the church.

His Betrayer: In Mark 14:43-46 we see the betrayal of Jesus by one of the Twelve; Judas. Now of course none of us would like to think of ourselves as Judas, who would; there is a reason no one names there child this. However, If you think about it, the attitude of Judas can often be seen in the church by those who feel they are being disenfranchised, by the church. Here in lies an attitude that believes that the church owes them something and as long as the church is doing what they believe to be filling there needs then everything is awesome, but when the church “changes course” or no longer meets their expectation they take it as a personal affront and attack on themselves. We betray Jesus when our own mission and goals supersede, to the point of division, His mission of reaching the lost and making disciples through the church

Those Who Have Fled: Now many of us may not associate ourselves with Judas, but the other 10 who flee may hit a little closer to home. After Jesus is arrested the remaining disciples (aside from Peter) flee into the unknown for fear that they too may be arrested. Here we see an attitude that is tough on the surface about faith and trust in Christ, but when the pressure mounts it is easy to fall away and flee. While you won’t deny the faith you won’t take a stand for it either. In a modern context this would be to say that your faith is a Private faith. In fear of facing the cost of standing strong for Jesus when it could cost us something we shrink back out of fear. We flee from Jesus when we fear what the world might think about us.

The Denier: The next major event in the abandonment of Christ is the outright denial by the very one who first stated that Jesus was the Christ, Peter. In the gospel of Mark we see that Peter didn’t immediately flee with the others, he followed behind the crowd and traveled to the court of the High priest. What seemed like a victory for standing with Jesus soon turns sour when he is confronted about his relationship to Jesus. Unlike those who simply fled Peter goes on the defensive, at first by feigning to not understand the question to outright attack as he swears curses upon himself. Here we see a perfect illustration of one who stands strong in the company of brothers and sisters, but when the world presses in with its own accusation, they deny the whole truth. This is an attitude that creeps in to the church where we love to be bold on Sunday mornings but Monday through Saturday the faith seems to not exist.  We Deny Jesus when we reject who He is openly to a dying world for fear of what they think about us.

While the first three groups were made up of those that should have followed Jesus the concluding three groups are made up of those who by nature are hostile to Jesus, just as we once were when we lived apart from Him, but these attitudes as well can find themselves re-rooting themselves in our own hearts at time.

Religious Leaders: The religious leaders in the text see the teachings of Jesus as a threat to their power and stability. He defies their religious understandings of the Torah and seems to pose a threat to their very way of life, as he offered hope and salvation to the Gentiles, as well as the Jews. In our modern context we see this is in every major religion (including the segments of the Christian faith). Those who prefer their way of truth and righteousness apart from Christ. This is saddest when it is seen in the context of the church. For when these attitudes take hold in the church we see a shift from turning people’s hearts and minds to Christ and on to ourselves. It is a shift that tells people they can earn their salvation, not that they are in need of a savior. It teaches that the way to truth is through morality and self-discipline, not through the cross of Christ alone. We can become like the religious leaders when our faith becomes solely about us and not about Christ and the Cross.

Pilate: Many look at Pilate in the text and see a conflicted man, on the one hand he clearly sees that the religious leaders are simply trying to kill an innocent man out of envy for his crowing support and his challenging of their way of life, but on the other hand he also has a country to run and a people to keep pacified. He was man who chose to do what was expedient, rather than what was just. This happens all the time when we reach out to an unbelieving world. They may clearly see the reality of who Jesus is, but also see the pressing realities of what it will cost them to act on the truth. Pilate doesn’t kill Jesus because he wants to, but because the alternative seems to high a cost. He even attempts to bargain his way out of the situation to no avail. There is no bargaining with Jesus, He is an all or nothing God. We become like Pilate when we feel the pressures of the world as more demanding then our faith in the righteousness of Jesus, and choose to give up the truth for the sake of expediency.

The Crowd: The crowd is the one group that will always get a lot of flack, and rightfully so, but what is so interesting when we stop and look at the crowd is that there overall goal seems to be to receive their “true messiah.” When they demand the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion Jesus we see that the crowd was once again rejecting Jesus because he wasn’t the messiah they wanted. The wanted a strong military leader, one who would overthrow Rome and return to them power and freedom. The people didn’t like the freedom from sin and death that Jesus offered they wanted power and military freedom from Rome. In this group we see a desire to create our own messiahs out weigh the truth of the Christ who offers true freedom. We become like the crowd when we would rather follow a messiah of our own creation then the Christ given to us by God who sets us free from sin and death.

WE ARE BARABBAS!

The second greatest figure in this gospel narrative, after Jesus, is Barabbas. Not because of who he is or what he had done, but because of who he represents. In that moment on that day he was set free from the bondage of prison and given a pardon from execution, because Jesus took his place. This is one of the greatest realizations for any of us, when we see that we are Barabbas. A sinner who deserved the just punishment due us, one who stood against God and the truth of His word, one who did not deserve another to stand in our place, and yet by the intervention of God we have been set free. We no longer carry the charges against us, we no longer carry the punishment that was due us, we have been set free because he has taken our place. We are Barabbas when we repent and believe and put our faith in Christ who takes our place!

The Six Glories of John 3:16

In 1917 pastor and hymn writer Frederick Lehman wrote the following words, “The love of God is greater far, than tongue or pen can ever tell, it goes beyond the highest star and reaches to the lowest hell; the guilty pair, bowed down with care, God gave His Son to win, His erring child He reconciled and pardoned from his sin…Could we with ink the ocean fill and were the skies of parchment made, were every stalk on earth a quill and every man a scribe by trade, to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry, nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky.”[1]

These words describe the beauty and wonder of the boundless and wonderful love of God. This love is revealed to us all over the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation we see a holy God in love choosing, pursuing, rescuing, changing, and keeping sinful men and women for the glory of His name. There are literally 1,000 places we could go to in Scripture to see this love revealed to us in manifold splendor, but there is one place which rises above all others. John 3:16 is the most famous, the most well known, as well as the most prized verse in the whole Bible. This verse is literally everywhere: from Tim Tebow’s eye black to the lips of every evangelist, from countless posters at sporting events to innumerable bumper stickers, from the pulpits of churches around the world the millions of Christians in those churches, John 3:16 is without a doubt a massive source of comfort and security. But while this is without a doubt the most well known verse of all the Bible, I also think it is also without a doubt one of the most misunderstood and distorted verses in all of the Bible. I believe this to be true because one can know John 3:16 without really knowing what it teaches. Everyone loves it’s big, grand, and universal scope, but no one gives a thought to how particular the verse is. 

See here the six glories of John 3:16

1) “For…”

This first word of the verse isn’t a throwaway word for it connects John 3:16 to the larger context of John 3. So in order to know what John 3:16 means we must see it in the context it comes to us. In John 3:1-15 we witness the evening meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus where Jesus unfolds the details of what He calls the new birth and what it means to be born again. It was difficult for Nicodemus to hear and embrace these things, he was confused and a bit appalled at what Jesus had to say, even after Jesus used earthly imagery to explain what He meant Nicodemus still doesn’t get it. Jesus then in v14-15 draws a parallel between His own Person and Work with the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness in Numbers 21. Then seemingly in order to drive that point home, we then have John 3:16 being the very next verse and the ‘for’ means that v16 is a continuation and implication of v14-15. But pause and ask, who said v16? Most red letter Bibles use red in John 3:3, v5-8, and v10-21, leading us to believe the famous words of John 3:16 were given to us from the lips of Jesus Himself. But, I differ in opinion here, and think that the evening meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus ended at v15, which would mean John 3:16 is where the apostle John’s reflection on this meeting begins.[2] And the first thing John has to say about this meeting has become the most famous verse in the entire Bible. This opening word, “For…” answers a question we have. What does this evening meeting’s dialogue ultimately mean? “For…” is the indication to us that the apostle John is about to tell us.

2) “For God…”

So John 3:16 is not only meant to be read and understood in the context of v1-15, but that the very next word is ‘God’ tells us that John 3:16 is first and foremost about God. Before this verse is ever about you or me this verse is about God. It tells us who He is, what He is like, and what He has done. “For God…” reminds us that there is a God who exists, that this world and we ourselves are not a cosmic accident or a result of chance, and that this God is not a distant God, but a God who is near to the creation and the creatures He has made. Many deny God’s existence saying He is a figment of our imagination similar to the tooth fairy, and just as we all grew up and out of our childish belief in the tooth fairy we must also grow up and out of our childish belief about God. I tell you today that God is not a mere symbol that mankind created and attaches meaning to. God is not a divine fairy tale character. God is not a figment of our imagination. What does John 3:16 say? The reality of John 3:16 is that before any of us existed, and before this world existed God was! The wonder of John 3:16 is that this God, who was and is fully sufficient, independent, lacking nothing, out of sheer grace created this world and every human on it so that we would glorify Him by enjoying Him forever. John 3:16 is rightly and surely a verse loaded with good news, but the first piece of good news John 3:16 gives us is this: “God is, and He has not remained silent.”[3] What then did God do toward this world He made?

3) “For God so loved the world…”

Just like a full size crunch bar gets better and better with each bite, so too, the glory and beauty of John 3:16 gets better and better with each phrase. We have seen that there is a God – holy, just, independent, gracious, and fully sufficient. We have seen that this God isn’t aloof from the world He made. We now see here that this God who made the world has a certain disposition toward this world, toward us, He loves. “For God so loved the world…” Two things are important to see here:

a) How we interpret the word ‘so’ is incredibly important to how we interpret this verse. For example most of us, being native English speakers, interpret the word ‘so’ to carry a meaning of intensity as when a husband says to his wife ‘I love you sooo much.’ This is a legitimate use of the word ‘so’ in English but this notion of intensity is not in view in the original Greek word here. Rather than intensity, the Greek meaning of the word ‘so’ is one of ‘manner’ which makes John 3:16 say something like, “For God loved the world in this manner…” or “For God loved the world like this…”

b) How we interpret the word ‘world’ is also incredibly important. John’s use of the Greek word ‘cosmos’ which means ‘world’ is an all-encompassing word that includes the entire created order. It’s not so much referring to individual people, but referring to all God has made. God, therefore has a loving disposition toward all He has made. Knowing this should then lead to us being surprised because this world is a fallen world. We believe that when our first parents Adam and Eve bit the fruit they plunged mankind into death, and the entire created order fell from its original position. Thus, ever since Genesis 3 this world has been a fallen world, filled with a humanity that is hostile to God, unwilling to submit to God, and rebellious to God. Yet, in spite of this continual rebellion and hostility God what? He loved this world? John 3:16 says so. That God would love a world like this, filled with sinful people like us, does not communicate our own value or worth – no – it communicates the greatness of His love that is characteristic of who He is.

But this poses a new question: how did God love the world?

4) “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…”

How did God love the world? He loved the world that He gave to it. So God isn’t merely a God of who is characterized by love, but this love moved Him to give. What did He give? He gave that which was most dear to Himself, His one, unique, and only Son.[4] Now comes the larger question: why did He give His Son? Think of it like this. If you don’t like me, you could probably hide around the church until everyone left, pop out as I’m locking up and punch me in the face. There probably wouldn’t be very serious consequences to doing that, you probably could just leave like normal, go home and have lunch while I’m lying on the floor knocked out. Now contrast punching me in the face with trying to punch President Trump in the face. It is highly likely the moment you tried to get close enough to do so that a secret service member will take his gun out and shoot you. Why? He’s the President, there are very serious consequences and penalties to trying to harm him. But why is there a difference in punishment between harming President Trump and harming me? Because the nature of punishment is measured by who the crime is committed against.

Now come back to John 3:16. Remember, we have sinned against the highest One there is, God. And because we sinned against God who is the cosmic King of all, even the smallest of sins against Him is cosmic treason. Why then did God in love give His Son? To to live the perfect life we never could have lived and die the death we deserved to die. So Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, was given by God live for us, die for us, and wonder of wonders…the very thing we’re celebrating today…rise for us.

5) “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him…”

Wrongly, many assume John 3:16 says something like “For God so loved the world that God sent His only Son to save everyone.” The word ‘whoever’ truly is universal in its scope, but do you see how the verse places a condition on how to gain the benefits of Christ’s work? ‘Whoever…believes.’ The great and loving work of God through Christ is not doled out to everyone in general. No, it only applies to those who believe, those who trust, those who come to Christ clinging to Him as we would cling to a parachute while skydiving. This is none other than the ‘way of salvation.’ God doesn’t say He gave His Son to whoever obeys His commandments, or that He gave His Son to whoever does not sin, or that He gave His Son to whoever does not struggle with doubt or despair. No, He gave His Son to whoever believes. Charles Spurgeon once said it like this, “Faith, however slender, saves the soul.”[5]

I wonder, what are you believing in today? What are you trusting in? What are you clinging to? Perhaps some of you know the facts of the gospel, you may even believe that those facts are true, but you’re not believing in them one bit to save your soul. No, the life you’re now living is a life of unstable hopes and you’re looking to many other things in this world to give you stability and rescue from the evils you feel within your own fallen and sinful heart. If that’s you be challenged, hoping in the world or in other people will leave you distressed, only hoping in Christ will bring you rest. Or perhaps you’re discouraged and feel that you’re too weak or despairing to grab ahold of Christ by faith, that the pit you’ve fallen into is far too deep to get out of, so deep that the sun itself doesn’t even shine where you exist day by day. Be encouraged, for the smallest faith receives the same strong Christ as the strongest faith in the world.[6] Whether you’re barely entering your teens, in the middle of life, or gaining more and more of a grey head – ‘whoever believes’ is a call from God that has no limit!

6) “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

See here a contrast God intends us to see. The end of unbelief is the beginning of eternal suffering in hell, while the end of belief is the beginning of pleasure forevermore in heaven. This is not just a matter for the future. For all hard-hearted sinners who reject the Son of God will be hardened even more in this life, while all hard-hearted sinners who embrace the Son of God are softened and experience the spiritual blessings and benefits of the New Covenant Christ came to begin even now.

Citations:

[1] R. Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe, Preaching the Word Commentary, page 89.

[2] R.C. Sproul, John, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary, page 44. See also Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, page 228.

[3] See Francis Shaeffer, He is There and He Is Not Silent, Tyndale House, 1972.

[4] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, page 230.

[5] Charles Spurgeon, Immeasurable Love, sermon delivered on 1850 in the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

[6] Jared Wilson, There is No Faith So Little That it is Not Saving, For the Church Blog, accessed 4/13/17.

May Easter Weekend Smite Your Heart With Christ’s Beauty

At the end of Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings there is a scene to behold. Far into the dark and evil land of Mordor a solemn and weary Samwise Gamgee looked up into the sky, saw the clouds part, and beheld a single star. Tolkien describes this moment like this, “Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing; there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”[1]

In the evil and fallenness of our own present existence we often feel a similar despair, and may be tempted to lose all hope. But like the single star that smote Sam’s heart with a beauty that revived his soul for the journey before him, so too, there is one thing that can smite our hearts with a fierce beauty and revive us again – the good news, or the gospel of, Jesus Christ. “One new discovery of the glory of Christ’s face and the fountain of His sweet grace and love…” says Jonathan Edwards “…will do more towards scattering clouds of darkness and doubting in one minute than examining old experiences by the best mark that can be given a whole year.”

Being that it is Easter weekend, I want to remind you of great gospel truth. To see the wonders of the gospel I want to take you to 1 Corinthians 15:1-7, where we see two things: A Reminder of the Gospel (v1-2) and An Explanation of the Gospel (v3-7)

A Reminder of the Gospel (v1-2)

Here at the end of a long letter to the Corinthians Paul begins chapter 15 (which contains his famous defense of the resurrection) by reminding them of the gospel he had once preached to them. He says they not only received it at first in the past, but that they continue in the present moment to stand fast in it and are being saved by it. So for these Corinthians, and really for all Christians, believing in the gospel is part of our past, something that we at one time did. Whether it was from our parents, friends, a book, a preacher or however we heard it, we heard the gospel, felt convinced of it’s truthfulness, repented of our sin, embraced it by faith, and experienced the power of God in salvation – this is a past memory for all Christians. But notice how Paul is speaking here: belief in the gospel is not just something involving our past, it’s also something that has an ongoing present and future importance to us.[2]

Yes our past is settled, but because of the gospel our present is secure and our future is certain. Thus, we can hold fast to Christ amid the troubles of this world knowing that Christ has been, is, and always will be holding fast to us.

Note the “if” as v2 ends? After all the glory of receiving, standing in, and continuing to be saved by the gospel, Paul says “if you continue to hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.” There is a warning for us here, a call to examine how we first believed in Christ. We will only stand in and be saved by the gospel in the end if we received it correctly at the beginning, that is in true repentance and true faith. By this Paul means, if we cease to hold fast to the gospel in the present moment it is evidence that we, at first, believed in the gospel in vain. Or we can read this another other way – if we truly believed in the gospel at first, we will hold fast to it for all our days.

Well what is the gospel Paul is eager to remind them of?

An Explanation of the Gospel (v3-7)

Let me read these words again, so they wash over you afresh. “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”

Paul is eager to remind them that this gospel isn’t something he made up, but is a gospel he received from God. And more so, this gospel he’s about to explain to them carries first importance, it carries an unmatched prominence, so that nothing is more central or precious to the Christian than the gospel. But again I ask, what gospel? Beginning in v3 Paul explains the gospel through a series of propositions:

Proposition 1: Christ Died for Sins

That Christ died for sins carries with it some implied meaning Paul doesn’t explicitly speak of here. Firstly, for Christ to die for sins implies that the eternal Christ once came to us, that He in His Person bridged the gap between God and man. Truly God He became truly Man in His incarnation, He walked among us, He lived among us, He became and is now forever the God-Man. Secondly, for Christ to die for sins implies that man is in a desperate sinful condition and cannot save himself. I’m afraid this is a point many people leave out of the gospel because it is so unwelcome to the heart of man. If the bad news about ourselves is left out we not only have no true understanding of the good news, we have what amounts to a kind of gospel-lite where one learns how to be saved without learning why one needs to be saved. Thirdly, for Christ to die for sins implies that Christ died for sin. Which means He absorbed the wrath of God due to us, in His body, in our place, as our substitute. The wages of sin is death, and because Jesus drank the full cup of God’s wrath dying for our sins as the Old Testament Scriptures had foretold, we can have the free gift of eternal life.

Proposition 2: Christ was Buried

The culmination of the shame Christ bore for us was not just that He condescended and came to us, not just that He lived a life acquainted with sorrow, not just that He died on the cross for us, but that He was buried. That the very Author of life laid dead in a tomb is staggering. It shows us the ultimate end sin will bring us to if we remain in it. It shows us the truth that because He truly expired we can now truly be born anew. He embraced the chill of death that we could feel the warmth of new life.

Proposition 3: Christ was Raised

Wonder of wonders, when Jesus died, did He stay dead? No! He rose! He rose! This resurrection was the divine stamp of approval that the Father had accepted the Son’s sacrifice. This resurrection was the validation that Jesus was truly the Son of God in power. This one act sets Jesus apart from all others. Think of all other religious teachers what you will, there has only been and will ever only be One who rose from the dead. Where is Moses? Where is Mohammed? Where is Buddha? Where is Confucius? Where is Gandhi? Where is Mother Teresa? In the grave. Where is Jesus? Ruling at right hand of His Father, interceding for and building His Church. As they did of His death, so too, the Old Testament Scriptures told us Jesus would rise.

Proposition 4: Christ Appeared to Many

After rising from death, Jesus made public appearances to all the leaders of the early Church[3], and a group of 500 people who are, for the most part, still alive. You know what that’s called. Verifiable data. He came, He lived, He died, and He publicly rose.

These are Paul’s gospel propositions that he employs to explain the gospel to us.

I do wonder if on the surface of things some of you think writing to Christians about what the gospel is is as unnecessary as explaining what a hammer is to a group of carpenters.[6] But as Paul was eager to remind these Corinthians of the gospel, I’m eager to remind you as well.

A deep belief and embrace of the gospel and the kind of full life the gospel leads to is a mark of a healthy local church. Sure we gather together to sing of the gospel, to pray over and from the gospel, to hear preaching about the gospel, and to see the gospel in the sacraments, but has this gospel gotten into your soul? Has it reminded you of the propositions of good news? I pray it has, and I pray it continues to do so.

As that small star high up in the sky smote Sam Gamgee’s heart with beauty, may the gospel, may this gospel, ever smite your heart with the beauty of God.

 

 

Citations:

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, quoted in Ray Ortlund’s The Gospel, page 55.

[2] Stephen Um, 1 Corinthians: The Word of the Cross, Preaching the Word Commentary, page 259.

[3] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, page 296.

[4] Stephen Um, 1 Corinthians: The Word of the Cross, Preaching the Word Commentary, page 261.

[5] Christopher Ash has a book about this that’s worth reading, Zeal Without Burnout.

[6] Greg Gilbert speaks of this in the opening pages of his small book, What is the Gospel?

The Gospel for All: A Lunchtime Confrontation 

All-inclusive.

Who doesn’t love to see those words when you’re booking a cruise or going to a vacation resort? When my wife and I went on our honeymoon to Jamaica, we found out how amazing those two words can be. We could eat at all the Sandals restaurants and order whatever we wanted without paying the bill (except for that little bill I paid before we left the States). But then we encountered multiple people on staff at this all-inclusive resort who wanted a tip: the men who put our bags on the bus, the bus driver from the airport to the resort, the bag boy who brought our bags to our room, etc. All the sudden that “all-inclusive” feel was out the window. I felt a little cheated.

What is my point?

In our interactions with those around us, I’m afraid many of us who claim to believe an all-inclusive gospel for all sinners actually cheat some out of it. We freely and joyfully hold out the living water to those who are like us, while avoiding or withholding it from those who are not like us. Sometimes we even expect something more from them than we do from others before they can receive its benefits.

In Galatians 2, we encounter a rare scene where one Apostle publicly rebukes another for conduct that was, “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). What sort of heinous and ungodly actions were committed that warranted such a public rebuke? Sexual immorality? Drunkenness? Blasphemy? Nope. Switching lunch tables. 

Well at least that’s what it would look like from our perspective. What was so wrong with Peter’s decision to switch lunch tables? Can’t a guy eat with whoever he wants to at mealtime? And isn’t Paul’s open rebuke for something so trivial a little overboard? Maybe this reminds you of school fights in the lunchroom over the most ridiculous things. But Paul isn’t one to make a fuss over trivial matters, especially when it involves rebuking another Apostle. The truth is, Peter’s actions that day were far from innocent.

Jesus had called Simon to be his disciple and renamed him Peter (“rock”). Once a headstrong man with a foot-shaped mouth, Peter became a rock-like leader at Pentecost. Yet here, in a moment of personal weakness, Peter caved to the fear of man (Gal. 2:12b). Of all people, Peter knew the universal scope of the gospel. God had personally given Peter a vision of his intentions to save Jews and Gentiles through faith in Christ, and even sent Peter on the first apostolic mission into Gentile territory where the Spirit fell on those in Cornelius’ household (Acts 10). The issue of salvation for Gentiles became such a big deal that the leaders in Jerusalem called a council to clarify the matter (Acts 15). What was at stake in this council was the gospel itself. Was there hope for anyone outside Judaism? Is there any way possible for Gentiles to be accepted by God or are they all destined to hell forever? Thankfully, the council recognized the Spirit’s regenerating of both Jews and Gentiles and from there on the gospel message was freely offered to both.

Problem solved. Catastrophe diverted. But not quite. Peter knew the gospel was a message of free grace to all who will turn in faith to Christ, but like us, he struggled with national pride. He sometimes acted in ways that communicated another gospel. Not one of grace for all sinners, but one of judgment for those who don’t meet the mark through law-keeping.

Our scene plays out with Peter happily enjoying a meal with his new brothers in Christ from Gentile lands. Smiles and laughter fill the table as food is passed back and forth. Unity abounds and the Spirit is working. Then a door opens and everyone looks. In walk a group of angry-looking Jewish men adorned with their long robes and bushy beards. They look at Peter in disgust and glance with hate at the Gentile believers sitting beside him. The Gentiles move their eyes from these angry men to Peter’s reaction. And they see it. Peter’s demeanor has completely changed.

The once welcoming and happy Peter now looked fearful and serious. The encouraging conversation they were just having was cut short. Peter rose from the table as if he was a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He walked away from these Gentile believers like they all the sudden had contracted a contagious virus. No more eye contact, no more physical contact, no more friendliness. Then, to their dismay, Barnabas also followed suit. Then all the Jewish believers as well. The Gentiles all the sudden felt unclean all over again. The unity they once shared with Jewish believers was severed. Perhaps they thought to themselves, “I thought the blood of Jesus could cleanse all sinners. What about the gospel? Is it all too good to be true after all? If this Apostle and all his Jewish brothers now avoid us like the plague, then are we really forgiven and accepted by God?”

This simple scene of switching tables was presenting a serious threat to the gospel. Someone had to do something and fast. But who? It would have to be someone with the authority of an Apostle.

Enter the Apostle Paul.

The once diehard Jew who persecuted Christians, couldn’t sit still at this scene. He didn’t get up from the table when Peter did. When Paul saw this, he stood only to raise his voice so that all present could hear him. The echo of Paul’s voice through the dining area left everyone stunned in silence. “Peter! If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force Gentiles to live like Jews?” We can only imagine what was going on in Peter’s mind at this point. Perhaps Peter was rushed back to the scene where he had denied Christ for fear of a little girl and the rooster had crowed three times. He had done it again and he knew it. The pain of his foolish actions struck his heart like a sharp arrow and he probably felt he could run away and weep his eyes out all over again. Paul was determined to not only spare his brother Peter from a life dominated by fear, but he also was determined to reassure all Gentile believers that the gospel really is good news for them.

Paul shared this experience with the Galatian believers because he discovered that the old cronies who influenced Peter were trying to influence them to forget the gospel as well. Paul went on to explain to this church, “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified…for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:16, 21b).

What about you reader? You’d probably affirm that Christ came to save sinners from all walks of life and we should share the gospel equally with all people. But how does that play out in your life? Are there some that you avoid sharing this message with?

Christianity is an exclusive faith in that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. Yet Christianity is inclusive of all who would come to Christ, no matter race, ethnicity, or past lifestyle choices. Do all groups of people from all walks of life equally feel the same warmth of the gospel pulsating from your life towards them? Those who have engaged in homosexual lifestyles? Those of a Middle Eastern descent? Those of a darker complexion? Those who live on the “other side of the railroad tracks”? Or are you communicating a message to them that says, “You don’t measure up because you’re not the right ethnicity or you’re sins are too grievous or you’re too different”?

Revelation 7:9 tells us that God’s future kingdom in heaven is made up of people from all walks of life who are washed in the blood of Jesus. Let’s make sure we’re expressing the same gospel to those different from us as to those like us.