Archive for the month “April, 2014”

The Kingdom of God on Earth

I am convinced that there is a unifying theme that holds the entire Bible together, introduced in Genesis 1 and fully developed in Rev 22. That theme is the Kingdom of God. To support this idea, we need only examine the first proclamation of Jesus following his baptism and wilderness testing.

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”(Mat 4:17 ESV)

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mar 1:15 ESV)

“I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.” (Luk 4:43 ESV)

I suggest that there is not much meaning to this message if those who were listening had no idea what the Kingdom of God was. The Jews knew that Messiah would be the king, that they were his people and that he would rule them on the earth. The prophets frequently teach these truths. The masses were convinced that Jesus was that king, as indicated when they hailed him Son of David (the fulfillment of the promise to David that one of his descendants would rule on God’s throne forever (2 Sam 7:12-13). But I want to take a moment to put this truth in the context of the entire storyline of the Bible, beginning with its inauguration in the lives of Jesus’ first disciples.

First – the Kingdom of God is not of this world.

So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (Joh 18:33-36 ESV)

There must be a spiritual dimension to the Kingdom of God.

Second – There will be a time when the Kingdom of God will physically envelop this world.

Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years. (Rev 20:6 ESV)

Jesus, the Christ (anointed King), will reign on earth for a thousand years, a period known as the Millennium.

Third – Meanwhile, the Kingdom of God is present in the lives of those who believe.

According to George Ladd, Theology of The New Testament, the Kingdom of God is not the church, but the church (those who believe) enter into it. As such, the church (believers) is the instrument of the Kingdom of God as it carries on the ministry of Jesus (Matt 10:8; Luke 10:17). The church is also the custodian of the Kingdom of God, since Jesus gave Peter, and all who confess Christ (as he did), its keys. Therefore, the future reign of Christ during the Millennium breaks into the present through the followers of Jesus. It is already here (Matt 12:28; Rom 14:7), but it is not yet here in all of its fullness (Matt 25:34; 1 Cor 6:9-10). Therefore, as Wayne Grudem says in hisSystematic Theology (pg 864), believers “will know some measures of victory over sin (Rom 6:14; 14:17), over demonic opposition (Luke 10:17), over disease (Luke 10:9). They will live in the power of the Holy Spirit (Matt 12:28; Rom 8:4-17) who is the dynamic power of the coming kingdom.” But we can look forward to a time when the Kingdom of God will indeed reign over all of creation in the New Heaven and the New Earth.

This is certainly Good News worth proclaiming in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the outermost parts of the earth.

The Reality of the Resurrection, Part 2

Last time, I introduced the idea of push-back from critics of Christianity regarding the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Today I will present what I suggest is the strongest counter argument to these critics, and that is the testimony of individuals whose saw him alive and then the transformation of people whose lives have been changed by the living Jesus.

I wonder how many of us remember who won the World Series in 2011, or in 2012? How about who won the Super Bowl in 2009? I suspect that most of us cannot answer these questions but some of us who are sports trivia experts most certainly can. But how can those of us who can’t, be sure about the truthfulness of those who contend that they can? The answer is that there are so many people still alive who watched each of these championship games that any suggestion of the wrong champion would be quickly corrected. All one would need to do is ask someone who saw the games. In the time following the crucifixion of Jesus, there were many individuals who saw him alive. The Bible records many who are specifically mentioned:

Mary Magdalene – John 20:14; Mark 16:9
The women who went to the tomb – Matt 28:9-10
Peter – Luke 24:24; 1 Cor 15:5
The disciples on the road to Emmaus – Luke 24:13-33
The Apostles, Thomas absent – Luke 24:36:43; John 20:19-24
The disciples, Thomas present – John 20:26-29
The seven disciples by the Lake of Tiberius – John 21:1-23
500 followers on a Galilean mountain – 1 Cor 15:6

The reason that the story of the resurrection spread and was not able to be silenced is that there were people who were there and who saw the risen Jesus. It is very difficult to simply call so many people flat-out liars – especially, as we noted last time, since critics could not produce any evidence to the contrary.

But I suggest that there is an even stronger reason to believe the truth of the resurrection, and that is the transformation of the lives of those who believe. The Bible tells us that when a person places his/her faith in Jesus, they are united with him not only in his death for the forgiveness of sins, but also in his resurrection for the empowerment of their lives (Rom 6:5). The living Christ actually comes to live in them and he then empowers them to live to the glory of God. The disciples were transformed from fearful deserters to bold and courageous defenders of Jesus (Acts 4:13) who were willing to sacrifice their very lives for the truth of the resurrection. I suggest that this is one of the strongest evidences of the validity of the resurrection. People will go a long way to scheme and plot to promote something false that is to their own advantage. But promoting the truth of the resurrection did nothing but jeopardize their lives. Who would actually die for a cause they knew was founded on a lie? But let’s think about those who were not contemporaries of Jesus. Let’s think about the millions – yes, billions – of people whose lives have been transformed over the last 2000 years, many of whom met the same fate of martyrdom as did Jesus’ original followers. I realize that there are religious martyrs who are not Christians, but the numbers of Christian martyrs dwarfs those of other faiths. Then there is the modern testimony of people who live in countries where Christianity is outlawed and who testify that Jesus appeared to them and offered them personal evidence of the resurrection (see also Acts 7:54-60; Acts 9:1-6).

Yes, Jesus rose from the dead and, yes, he lives in us who believe, and his living presence is available to all who will receive him. I close with the prayer of the Apostle Paul that many will experience the power of the resurrection of Jesus.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph 1:16-23 ESV)

Reality of the Resurrection

I trust that you had an inspiring worship experience with your local church family last Sunday and that the truth of the resurrection of Jesus is still ringing in your mind. We all know that this biblical truth is a reality every day of the year, but this is the season to give ourselves to special reflection on it. It is also the season for Christian critics to attempt to convince us that it is all a religious fairy tale. I have observed that the History Channel promotes many programs that attack the integrity of the Bible and its version of history, although there are also at the same time programs that seem to defend it. I guess that is the role of historians. My own observation, though, is that the HC slants toward skepticism. One of the latest attacks on the historicity of the Bible is a work by author Bart Ehrman in his book, How Jesus Became God. World Magazine published a very helpful article by New Testament scholar Michael Bird and some of his colleagues that addresses Ehrman’s suggestions in their work, How God Became Jesus. (I haven’t read either of these books yet, but plan to get them as soon as I can.) My point is this: the debate on the historicity and reality of the resurrection of Jesus goes on. I bring up this debate in order to introduce the topic of my posts this week. I would like to share some of the most common attacks on the resurrection and give a short suggestion on how we might respond.

Let’s start with the original spin on the empty tomb: the disciples stole the body during the night.

While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day. (Mat 28:11-15 ESV)

Let’s examine the practical reality of this possibility.

Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. (Mat 27:65-66 ESV)

Roman guards were the most disciplined soldiers in history. Falling asleep on the job was punishable by death. That is why the Jews had to assure them that if word got to the governors, they would be their advocates.

Further, the Gospels record how Peter denied Jesus and how the other disciples (except John) fled in fear of the Romans. Are we to believe that they would risk their lives by attacking Roman soldiers and pulling off the robbery of the body of the most publicized “criminal” in the land? Virtually impossible!!

There are two variations of this idea. One is that the Romans and Jews removed the body. The second is that the women disciples went to the wrong tomb. But both of these suggestions are absurd, given the upheaval that the preaching of the disciples caused to the country. A simple way to squelch this new religion would be to produce the body!

Another proposed explanation, known as “the Swoon Theory,” is that Jesus was not really dead, but when he was placed in a cool tomb, he became revived, freed himself from the burial cloths, rolled away the tomb, overpowered the Roman guard and escaped. This explanation is almost more impossible than the first. Notice the evidence that Jesus was actually dead by crucifixion.

Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. (Joh 19:31-34 ESV)

Two facts attest that Jesus was dead. First, the soldiers verified it. These men were vocational executioners. There is no way that they would ever pronounce one of their prisoners dead if there was any doubt. Second, but just to make sure, they thrust a spear in Jesus’ side and out came blood and water, the separation of which is a medical proof of death. John, not having pathology training, would have no idea of this medical phenomenon, which gives confirmation that it was an accurate testimony and not a fabricated spin in order to promote a hoax.

Now, notice a detail about Jesus’ burial.

Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. (Joh 19:39-40 ESV)

Seventy-five pounds of burial spices. That’s a lot of burial spices. To suggest that Jesus could free himself from this cocoon is incredibly naïve.

Finally, historians tell us that when a victim is crucified, many of his bones are dislodged from their joints (see Psalm 22:14). Have you ever had a bone go out of joint – a shoulder, an elbow, a knee? Even if he would somehow be revived – he would be virtually immobile!

In my next post, I will share one more theory and then draw some practical applications related to the truth of the resurrection.

A Note on Fasting

The issue of self-control with food is huge in our culture. The food industry knows that there is a limited market for their products, so instead of attempting to gain more customers, they attempt to get their current customers to consume more. The fast food restaurants offer super sizing. Buffets are increasingly popular. Friday night fish fries (very popular in WI) offer all you can eat. Not only an increase in the amount, but there is an attempt to get consumers more emotionally attached to our food. Here are just a few advertising slogans:

“Help yourself to happiness – Golden Corral
“Come hungry. Leave happy.” – IHOP
“Hershey’s Bliss”– (chocolate bar) Hershey Co.
“Every dinner should feel this good” – Stoufer’s
“There’s a lot of joy in Chips Ahoy!” – Kraft Foods
“A big delight in every bite ” – Hostess Twinkies
“Give the Cool Whip, get the love” – Cool Whip
“Unwrap a smile” – Little Debbie Cakes
“Life’s better the Milky Way” – Mars Candy Co.
“Comfort in every bar”  – (Milky Way) Mars Candy Co.

Then there are the soft drink slogans.

“Don’t you feel good about 7-Up”
“Feelin’ 7-Up”
“Red Bull gives you wings” – Red Bull
“Obey your thirst” – Sprite
“Have a Coke and a smile” – Coca Cola
“Coke adds life” – Coca Cola
“The joy of Cola” – Coca Cola

All around us, our culture screams eat more and drink more. Yet at the same time, there is the emphasis on body image. Diets are everywhere. Famous media doctors promote miracle weight loss pills. There are a myriad number of exercise machines that promise incredible results in only 20 minutes, three times a week (they don’t emphasize the fine print which says that diet and exercise are also required).

So how does a follower of Jesus process the cries of our culture with the clear teaching of the Word of God regarding the misuse of food and the virtue of self-control? One clear habit is some form of fasting. Notice the words of Jesus.

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Mat 6:16-18 ESV)

Jesus says “…when you fast…”—he assumes that fasting is a regular part of our spiritual discipline. Fasting is mentioned right alongside prayer and giving. Now, most of the time when someone mentions fasting, the image is of Jesus who went 40 days without food. I don’t think this is the norm; in fact I’m certain of it. I do think the norm is some regular practice of self-denial for the purpose of developing and nurturing self-control. Paul says in 1 Cor 9:27

But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1Co 9:27 ESV)

He is not describing some sort of physical abuse of his body. I think it is likely he is describing self-discipline in his physical health – which could very well include fasting. My own practice is to deny my body lunch on Wednesdays. There is no particular reason why I chose Wednesday – it just fits my schedule. I have also participated in several seasons of prayer and fasting that lasted for as long as three days, but those are special experiences. The point is this – when my body asks for food on Wednesday about noon – I say NO! I train my body to submit to me, not the other way around. And in this way I practice self-control.

So instead of more food, I train my body by giving it less. And in that way, I develop and nurture self-control with food. Perhaps this is worth considering as you deal with a culture that encourages more and more food.

Gluttony and Spiritual Discipline, Part 2

Last time I suggested that gluttony is the misuse of food and that we can overcome this sin by learning self-control. The foundational passage for this concept is 1 Cor 9:24-27, where the Apostle Paul compares the discipline of a follower of Jesus to the discipline of an athlete. Then he reminds us that the athlete works for a prize that is perishable, but the follower of Jesus works for a prize that is imperishable. This puts our discipline in the realm of spiritual pursuits, thus the idea of self-control as spiritual discipline.

This week is the time of year when we remember the final week of the life of Jesus which climaxes with the resurrection. One of the great truths of the resurrection is that it reinforces the inexorable union between the physical and the spiritual. Christianity makes no dualistic distinction between the body and the spirit. The resurrection is a physical resurrection, thus it unites Jesus with a literal and physical body forever. Our faith is a holistic faith, so self-control is important not only with spiritual pursuits but also with physical pursuits such as food.

But like many other areas of the Christian life, we tend to look for easy ways to accomplish difficult tasks, and learning discipline with food is certainly one of them. “Just give me three rules to follow, 10 foods to eat and a list of foods not to eat and I’m good to go.” Isn’t that just like us Americans! Three steps to success, four keys to overcoming, two principles for freedom. We want formulae that will “get ‘er done!” But self-control is not like that, especially when we deal with the misuse of food. Every day is different. Some weeks we are on the road, some weeks we are on vacation, some weeks we celebrate the holidays, one weekend is a wedding reception, another is a church potluck. It is not realistic to have a set of rules for every circumstance – that’s legalism. Self-control with food is a lifestyle.

Self-control with food does not mean that we never eat anything that is especially rewarding to the palate. Paul warns us about people:

who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, (1Ti 4:3-4 ESV)

According to 1 Cor 9, Paul might add, “and we receive it with self-control!”

One health coach laments:

Eat that %#!* cookie. Whatever that magical, desirable, unforgettable food is that you dream about marrying just to eat at the altar, eat it. Eat some of it, that is. If it’s cookies that get you going, eat a cookie. Eat one delicious cookie, savor it, really appreciate it and acknowledge it for what it is — an indulgence and a treat. Then put the bag away and go on your merry, cookie-high way.

My wife is training me. Instead of eating a double scoop waffle cone, we opt for a McD ice cream cone – small! It is increasingly popular to go out to dinner with your spouse and order one entree and share it. At home, we are beginning to eat till we are full – then stop. Last week I actually took food off my plate and put it into Tupperware for another day! That practice used to happen only at restaurants!!

Granted, there are circumstances when certain foods must be strictly avoided. Addicts have to be militant in order not to fall into the trap of living out of control. I have often said, “If you can’t stop, don’t start.” But that is an individual circumstance. Generally, self-control allows us to freely enjoy food, but to avoid the misuse of food. This is characteristic of a lifestyle of spiritual discipline.

Gluttony and Spiritual Discipline, Part 1

This week during my sermon series I examined the final of the Seven Deadly Sins by venturing into the minefield of gluttony, which I define as the misuse of food. This is such a sensitive issue because we immediately associate it with body shape. But that is not the only indicator of gluttony. I see three misuses, and they are common to people who are overweight, underweight or just the right weight. We misuse food when we find ourselves addicted to certain types of foods, such as carbohydrates, sugars or food additives like NutraSweet. We need not be trapped in the very serious extreme of eating disorders (Anorexia, Bulimia or Binge Eating) to be classified as addicted to certain foods. We might crave carbs, or find ourselves eating carbs even when we are not hungry. The giveaway is that we will manipulate circumstances or overlook dangers just to satisfy our craving or, when we stop eating, we experience some form of withdrawal. We also misuse food by eating emotionally. We turn to food for comfort when things get tough, which is understandable because something that tastes good is a welcome relief from our pain. We also eat emotionally when we are bored. How many times do we simply stroll over to the fridge just to see if there is something there that catches our eye. There is nothing better to do, so we eat! Finally, we misuse food when our eating affects our health. First, pure and simply – we  overeat. We just put too much food in our bodies and our bodies are not designed to handle it. The result is high blood pressure, diabetes, and blood counts that are out of whack! And, if that is not enough, we eat the wrong foods – foods with high fat, high sugar, and calories with no nutrition. Our bodies are paying a toll!!!

The Word of God helps us with the misuse of food when it warns us of making food our idol.

For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.  (Phi 3:18-19 ESV) (italics added)

It also reminds us that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that we should respect and honor it as such. (1 Cor 6:19-20)

So what is the key? We cannot simply stop eating! The answer is self-control. Notice how the Apostle Paul instructs us in this discipline.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.  (1Co 9:24-27 ESV)

The heart of this passage is Vs. 25. Just as an athlete learns self-control, so followers of Jesus Christ learn self-control. Applied to the misuse of food, there are two helps in this discipline. First – FOCUS ON CHRIST MORE THAN FOOD. The misuse of food is encouraged when we center our lives around things of this life. I am convinced that the best way to be free from any type of sinfulness is to focus on something else. Vs. 26 tells us to pursue an imperishable prize. I suggest that the way to control physical cravings is to nurture an appetite for higher cravings. Then, when the craving comes – we have a ready alternative. Notice some biblical word pictures.

Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! (Psa 34:8 ESV)

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation– (1Pe 2:2 ESV)

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. (Joh 6:35 ESV)

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. (Isa 55:1-2 ESV)


But I discipline my body and keep it under control

Fasting is more than an occasional or seasonal activity. I would suggest that fasting is a way to discipline our physical bodies. To tell it NO when it says “Feed me.” This way we learn the discipline of self-control. I want to commend many of you who have observed Lent by making a conscious decision to fast from something. This is a great way to practice self-control and a super way to establish a habit. My encouragement is that following Lent – maintain the discipline of fasting as we move forward in our discipline of self-control with food and we will begin to avoid the misuse of food.

But self-control is not a legalistic activity. It is not fraught with rules, regulations, minute formulae for what to eat and how much to eat. Self-control is freedom and not legalism. I will deal with that issue in my next post.

The Grass May Be Greener

We’ve all heard the phrase, “The grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” I have two thoughts about that phrase. First, the grass may be greener but it may be sinful. Looks may be deceiving; in fact, they usually are. Sin in any of its expressions, whether it be greed, anger, or lust, presents us with the perception that our lives would be so much better if we indulged. Sin tempts us with the lie that we would feel so much better if we had that “thing,” or if we let out all of our emotions, or if we indulged in that pleasure. If we only had what was on the other side of the fence, we would find satisfaction and fulfillment and significance. But the truth is that any time we cross a boundary that God has given us, the high lasts only for a short time, actually a very short time. That is the lie of pornography or adultery. That’s the lie of materialism. Sin appears to satisfy, but all it really does is create a greater hunger. The grass may look greener, but it may be sinful.

But I have a second thought about this phrase (the grass is greener on the other side) and it deals with the issue of envy. The truth is, the grass on the other side of the fence may be greener but it may not be sinful. It may be greener, but that means it is simply different, and it is different by God’s design. Just because the grass on the other side of the fence is greener than it is on our side of the fence doesn’t change the fact that the grass on our side of the fence may still be green. Envy is wanting God’s goodness to others while ignoring God’s goodness to me. Greener is not always better. In fact, if it is not God’s will for us to have greener grass, greener is never better. This truth is illustrated in a conversation between Jesus and Peter, recorded in John 21.

We all remember that Peter denied Jesus three times, so after the resurrection, Jesus made a point to restore him by giving him a renewal of his call to ministry – “Feed my sheep.” Then he reveals to Peter that during the latter part of his life, he would suffer an ignominious death by which he would glorify God (Vs. 18-19), a statement that reveals that the grass in Peter’s life, even though difficult, is nonetheless green, as it always is when we have the opportunity to glorify God. Enter the temptation to envy.

Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who had been reclining at table close to him and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me! (Joh 21:20-22 ESV)

Peter was just commissioned to the highest privilege under heaven – feed the sheep of Jesus. How many have received that privilege? And this privilege was given after Peter failed miserably, not once but three times. I’d say that Peter’s pasture was very green. Yet, instead of being overwhelmed with the grace and restoration of Jesus, Peter is concerned about the call of John. So Jesus gives Peter a lesson in envy. “Peter, your grass is green and John’s grass is green. You graze in your green pasture and John will graze in his green pasture. The bottom line – “You follow me.”

The temptation of a musician (which I have some experience being) is to compare my talents and abilities with the talents and abilities of others and to conclude that since I am not as proficient as someone else is, there is no place for me. The same is true of pastors and teachers. If we can’t preach and teach like those we hear on the radio, we may as well not teach. Or worse yet, we have to learn how to teach and preach like they do. That is simply envy. The truth is, the grass may be greener on the other side of the fence, but that doesn’t mean it is better and it certainly does not mean that our grass is not green.

Here is my challenge. Examine God’s blessing on your life and learn to appreciate it. Learn to want what you have. Thank God for what you have. Worship God for his grace and calling on your life. Then rejoice in what God has given to others. How boring life would be if all grass was the same color. May God free us from the sin of envy.

Lust and Holiness, Part 4

In my last post I opened a door that might create a bit of controversy. It may appear that I am not in favor of Christian accountability. But this is not at all what I am suggesting. Rather, I‘m attempting to clarify the concept of grace in the battle against lust and rescue well-meaning Christians from the misuse of accountability. I think Peter helps us when he discusses grace and holiness in the same passage.

set your hope fully on grace  (1Pe 1:13 ESV)

but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1Pe 1:15-16 ESV)

Here is how I think the two work together to create an awesome power in the battle against sin.

A common metaphor to describe the holiness of God is fire. The Bible describes God as a consuming fire, a fire that burns sin and sinners. Exodus 32 describes the wrath of God that burns against sinners so hot that it would consume them. When God judges Sodom and Gomorrah it is fire that rains down from heaven. Yet, at the same time, God is full of mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Psalm 103:8-9), a love that was demonstrated on the cross of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:8). When we realize that God could consume us with fire – justly, according to what we deserve – but instead he reaches out to us in love and forgiveness, the power to defeat lust begins to work in our hearts. So, as we practice accountability, here is what we do.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-25 ESV)

We stir up one another and encourage one other with the message of God’s grace and holiness. Here are some suggestions on how to have a healthy accountability group that helps us set our hope on grace.

So, how have you sinned this week? Here is how I have sinned this week.  Let’s review 1 Cor 10:13 – No temptation has overcome you but such as is common to man. Now notice 1 John 1:8 – If you say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. When we start off our conversations like that – it establishes that we are safe with one another. There is no arbitrary or man-made standard that we pretend to live by. It establishes that we all are in the same boat, no one is better than anyone else. We are all here only because of God’s grace. Peter instructs us – set our hope on grace!

Isn’t the cross of Jesus incredible? God is so holy that he can’t just let sin slide. There must be justice when he is offended – and sin offends God. And to be consistent with who he is, he is obligated to burn with the fire of his wrath in the face of sin. But not only is God holy, he is love. At Passover, the angel of death passed over every house that had the blood of the lamb on its door post. Then he created the OT sacrificial system where we learn that God provides a substitute and a representative to deal with sin on our behalf. Jesus – the perfect lamb, met the terms of the holiness of God, he himself is God, and he himself willingly, for the joy that was before him, went to the cross and paid the penalty for our sin. And he did that as our representative – for us. Peter instructs us – set your hope on grace.

Now, in the midst of our struggle, when we come to Christ, we not only receive the grace of his salvation, we receive the grace of his sanctification. The Bible tells us:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (2Co 5:17 ESV)

Sin is not who we are in Christ. God no longer looks on us as failures. He looks on us as his beloved children, heirs to all the riches of heaven. Not because of anything we could ever do, but because of his grace. We need to combat the lies and accusations of our enemy who tells us that we are losers, that we are a scourge to the name Christian, that we are unfit to show up in church. We must set our minds on the hope of grace. The truth is, God is a holy fire. He could have just burned you up when you turned on that computer. In fact, if we all got what we deserved every time we sinned, nobody would be here. It is only because of his grace that we even have the opportunity to receive his forgiveness.

So when we fail him, as a loving father forgives his beloved children, God forgives us. Set your hope on his grace – receive his forgiveness.

Finally, help one another replace our acts of sin with acts of obedience, which come from our heart.

But 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, (Rom 6:17 ESV)

How easy and powerless is it to conform to the law, to conform our behavior in order to please men and not God. How much more powerful is it to live in gratitude for God’s grace. Here is a suggestion on how to help each other replace sin with grace. The internet is the cause of so much stumbling. But it can also be a tool for building each other up. How about if we send each other daily e-mails and devotionals or written prayers for each other, or testimonies of how we were about to plunge into sin and then how God rescued us when we focused on his grace.

With these kinds of questions and discussion, this is the kind of accountability group I would stand in line to join!!

The power that breaks the chains of lust is grace.

Lust and Holiness, Part 3

I‘m dealing with the concept that grace is the power that breaks the chains of lust, and I’m suggesting that Peter describes this power in 1 Peter 1:13-16. But I wonder if anyone is asking the question, “Doesn’t Paul give us three steps to follow that will enable me to be on my way and live happily ever after?” Well, I suppose we might interpret his message like that, but it may be a bit simplistic. There are three steps to follow, and Paul describes them in 2 Timothy 2:22–Run from, Run to, Run with. But if it is that easy, why are so many sincere followers of Jesus struggling so much with sin? There must be something missing! I suggest that there is something missing and I’d like to illustrate it by discussing the last step – run with.

Counselors report that they have never worked with a man who was enslaved by pornography who successfully broke free without being in an accountability group. Accountability breaks the three-legged stool of accessibility, affordability and anonymity, for when you are accountable you are no longer anonymous. 2 Tim 2:22 clearly teaches accountability, so in obedience to the Word of God, we need to work on accountability. But when we meet with our accountability partners, what is it that really happens? Here is the testimony of one Christian leader.

Every week, before we meet, we fill out a sheet that asks a variety of questions: have I been faithful to pray for the men and women of the church this week? Have any of my financial dealings failed to be filled with integrity? Have I given sufficient time to my family? Have I fallen into any kind of sexual sin? Did I take a day off this week? Though this is a helpful way of examining my week, looking back to see evidence of sin in my life and evidence of God’s grace, I know that my heart is often motivated more by a desire not to confess sin to other men than it is to honor God. In other words, I am often motivated more by fear of man than I am by a fear of God.

What a subtle trap. Technically, we can rejoice if fear of man keeps us from being enslaved to sin. But is that really a solution that deals with the issue? I think not. There is the need for something more. But this is not the only trap. Here is another one. For those who genuinely fear God and come to their accountability group with genuine confession, there is often a neglect of Peter’s clear admonition to set our hope on grace. Instead, we focus on everything else. One leader even counsels men who are struggling to get free from pornography to actually avoid accountability groups.

Instead, link up with believers radically focused on encouraging one another in the gospel of grace. Well, maybe this is a bit of an overstatement against accountability groups, but the point is that often accountability groups turn into focusing on sin rather than experiencing the gospel of grace. You don’t just want a group that kills, but gospel-driven community that gives life. Men’s groups I’ve been a part of in the past tend to focus more on the experiences of failure the week before, not the event of God’s grace in the death and resurrection of Christ 2,000 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong: Christian relationships should engage in confession of sin (James 5:16), but they are also meant for encouragement in grace (I Thessalonians 5:14). The author of Hebrews reveals that the key to not being hardened to the deceitfulness of sin is daily encouragement, not an excessive concentration on sin (Hebrews 3:13). The use of accountability software between brothers to keep one away from online pornography is helpful, but grace-oriented encouragement between brothers is best.

These are the messages we often get in accountability groups. The motive may be good, but the execution leaves much to be desired, and even leaves out the real power. When Peter held his readers accountable for the lust and passions of their former way of life, what message did they get from him? Notice Vs. 13, 15 and 6

set your hope fully on grace  (1Pe 1:13 ESV)

but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1Pe 1:15-16 ESV)

In this passage Peter mixes God’s grace with God’s holiness, and therein is the power that breaks the chains of lust. I’ll elaborate on how those two concepts meld together next time.

Lust and Holiness, Part 2

1 Peter 1:13-16

Perhaps you remember the admonition of Paul in Romans 5:20-6:2:

Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Rom 5:20-6:2 ESV)

What Paul is saying is this: While it is true that if and when we sin, God meets us with his forgiveness, there is a problem if we are satisfied with this scenario. A life of sinfulness is simply not who we are. We have been justified. That old person outside of Christ is dead. We have a totally new identity – a new name, a new ethic, a new membership in a new community that gives us a totally new significance. Paul declares, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” How can we who are married still live like we are single? How can we who are born again still live like we are not? To sin so that grace may abound is simply an unthinkable suggestion.

But what about those of us who experience a chain to sin but we are not satisfied with it. Instead, we are completely conflicted. When this issue of lust raises its ugly head and ruins our relationship with our wife or husband or with anyone we might want to date, we experience it as a private war with ourselves and we know that God is not smiling on us. We want to break free but we seem powerless to do so. Here is a factor that is often overlooked. The chains of lust are broken when we realize the power of grace.

Before I share the passage of Scripture that describes this truth, I want to clarify what I mean by grace. Grace is certainly God’s undeserved favor for salvation. But grace is also God’s undeserved favor for sanctification – growth in Christian maturity – to use the term in this passage, Christian holiness. Sanctification is holiness or freedom from the dominance of sinfulness. Let me illustrate. Imagine a young woman who has a very close relationship with her father and, on her 16th birthday, dad takes her out on a special date and gives her a purity ring. As she begins to date, she always has this ring to remind her that she made a commitment to God and to her dad that she will remain sexually pure. But, as often happens in this fallen world, she got involved with her boyfriend at college and one evening they went too far. Full of shame and remorse, she called her dad and told him she was going to send her purity ring back to him. She was a failure. Here is what her dad said. “Sweetheart, do not send back that ring. You keep it and wear it and start a new season of purity in your life. I forgive you and God forgives you.” That is grace. That is grace that breaks the power of lust. Notice how Peter describes the power of grace.

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”  (1Pet 1:13-16 ESV)

According to Vs. 16 – The subject of this passage is holiness or freedom from lust. Vs. 14 -Challenges us not to live according to the passions (lust) of life apart from Christ like our old self. Vs. 15 – Challenges us to live according to the holiness of the Christian life – our new self. The main verb in this passage is found in Vs. 13, where Peter says to us, “set your hope upon” something. This is an imperative, a command. It tells us to focus on something that is worthy of your hope, a goal that when achieved will be wonderful. Hope is an expectation that is good.

Now, notice that there are several modifying phrases that clarify this command. “Prepare your minds” is a verb tense that speaks of a completed action (aorist participle). Peter says, “Get this settled once and for all in your thinking. Make this commitment. Decide right now – set your hope on something.” Then he says, “Be sober.” This is a verb tense that speaks of a continuous action (present participle). Always keep your thinking along this line. Renew your mind, remind yourself every day, as often as you need to. Now, putting these two thoughts together, here is the message of Vs. 13: “Make up your mind and continually remind yourself of this hope.” Make a commitment to keep this hope at the forefront of your mind all the time. Commit to think about this hope regularly and not forget about it.

So what is the goal of our hope? Vs. 13 says, “Decide right now and continually remind yourself to set your hope on grace.” Grace is the goal in our sight. Grace is the hope that drives all of our efforts. This is not the grace that brings salvation – although this is in view. This is the grace of a loving father who gives his daughter, who betrayed him and God, a second chance.

Vs. 13 continues, “The grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” This is a present tense (present participle). Even though in English, it appears that Peter is focusing on the future, the time when Jesus returns (the revelation of Jesus Christ), the grammar is a present tense, not a future tense. What does this mean? Peter is talking about the grace that is being brought to you now but will be brought to you in its fullness when Jesus returns. It is an already but not yet phrase. Here is the point. The already is no less real because it is not yet in its fullness. My love for my wife 40 years ago was profound and genuine and a powerful influence on my life. But it wasn’t even close to how powerful my love for her is now. And 20 years from now, it will be even more powerful. However, all along the way, it is powerful. God’s grace is powerful now, but it is not even close to how powerful it will be the moment He returns. When Jesus comes in the clouds and that trumpet sounds, and when the dead in Christ rise and we who are alive are caught up with him in the clouds, the power of God’s grace will be at its height. However – and this is the point – God’s grace is powerful now, powerful enough to break the chains of lust. John Newton says it well:

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Grace is a constant and present reality that will continue till Jesus returns. Set your hope on that grace. Make a decision that you will think about that grace all the time and not forget about it, especially when you are faced with the lusts and passions of the fallen nature. I am suggesting that Peter is telling us that the present reality of God’s grace becomes the power that breaks the chains of lust. Therefore – set your hope on it.

OK – but that is still a bit fuzzy. That still seems like a mind game. I’ll continue to unpack this concept in my next post.

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