Is Allah a Bad Word?

Scripture is abundantly clear, with multiple other passages supporting the command Jesus gave. I was specifically hit recently by what Paul said to the church in Rome, right after the discourse on the lostness and depravity of humanity in Romans 1. Starting in chapter 2:1; “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?” And he said that to the church!

I would like to pose 3 questions that can help us turn around our natural attitudes towards quick judgment and cold attitudes towards other people, which will give us better sight in which to see the awesome ways God is working in the world. I would like to pose those questions by sharing how God spoke to me during my recent trip to Jordan. First, though, let me give you some background information on the country.

  • Jordan is 97% Muslim believers.
  • Christianity, however is legal and respected (it is, though, illegal to convert).
  • Arab culture puts a huge priority on hospitality. It would bring shame on a family not to welcome you in and treat you well.
  • Jordan is in a unique situation in that they really have no natural resources and must rely on tourism for their main financial impact.
  • Because of that, Jordan has become the centrally located open door in the region, because they allow most everyone in.
  • Jordan has a big history of hospitality, being the first to take in Palestinians in the 60s to Syrians today. Though they try to give immigrants/refugees opportunities to thrive, with the job market the way it is, it is nearly impossible for outsiders to get a work permit, if it means taking a job from a true Jordanian.

I will honestly admit to being a bit nervous about travelling to the Middle East. There were definitely prayers on my behalf (and from me) and counsel on being careful – with some people not wanting me to go! It is a conflicted area, and obviously we hear a lot of scary news from that region of the world. Basically, my guard was up. And it had to be torn down before I would be able to see what God is doing in Jordan.

  1. What is the antidote to being judgmental?

I believe the answer to that is education. It is so easy for us to judge others, especially when we only know part of the story. Almost always, once the rest of the story is heard, our judgments change. Consider a few examples where I learned what Muslims were actually like as people; and that Muslim does NOT equal Isis.

  1. What is our motivation to practice a better way?

Jesus says that in the same way we judge, we will be judged. And he taught us to pray in Matthew 6 to ask God to forgive us in the same way we forgive others. Those can be dangerous words to pray if you tend to be judgmental. Practicing non-judgmentalism can lead to opportunities for God to be glorified.

  1. How do we practice discernment without being judgmental?

There are still going to be things that you have to make decisions about. Making judgments in life is not something a person can avoid. The denomination has to determine, on a 5 year basis, whether or not a mission field is worth the cost of investment. Every site is reconsidered every 5 years to see if God is bearing fruit in that location. We have to make decisions – but can where does judgmentalism end and discernment start?

So What?

When you find yourself being judgmental, here are 3 things you can do to overcome the temptation.

  1. Seek education. If you find yourself judging a particular group of people or culture (or anything), seek to learn more about it. Look for opportunities to talk with people and learn from them. That can give you a better understand and the ability to see real faces instead of ideologies.
  2. Practice forgiveness. We all tend to hold grudges and turn them onto other peoples or groups. Even if it is just between you and God, practice forgiveness over those who impacted you negatively.
  3. The difference between judgment and discernment is wisdom. Seek wisdom over anything else. I encourage you to incorporate Proverbs into your daily Bible reading plan. There are 31 chapters and usually 31 days in each month. Read the chapter that corresponds with that day.

Three Men, Three Hearts

Isaac (v1-5)

Reinforces his trust in God by repeating blessing. He may have had his ups and down in his walk with God, but Isaac stays steadfast here at the end by giving fully to Jacob the blessing.

the unusual phrase a company of peoples adds a new richness to the promises made to Abraham and Isaac. In the word company, from the root ‘to assemble’, the Old Testament term for the church or congregation makes its first appearance, bringing with it the idea of coherence as well as multiplicity.

Esau (v6-9)

Marries two Hittite (Caananite) women (26:34-35), which shows him not waiting for God to lead (like He did for Isaac and Jacob in their spousal searches)

Seeks parents approval and adds to his sins by getting a third wife…from Ishmael. Though he is seeking to find favor and probably forgiveness from his parents, he was not looking for it from God and only went from bad to worse by picking this third wife from a family that was left out of the main line of promise.

Jacob (v10-22)

Jacob obeys and goes (maybe partially out of fear, but he obeys)

Jacob recognizes God’s contact with him during the dream. He knows it is God.

Jacob chooses to trust and follow; setting up the altar as a spot to worship when he returns. He sees his place in the promise and leaves himself something to come back to and praise God for.

Jacob’s reply is often condemned as mere bargaining; yet it was as thorough a response as he knew how to make. It expressed profound awe (16, 17), a preoccupation first of all with the One who had been encountered, not with the things that were promised. From this it issued in homage and in the vow to pledge himself in covenant. The vow was no more a bargain than any other vow (the ‘if’ clause is inherent in the form).

He sees God as the giver of all things and doesn’t hold ownership, but sees his role as a steward with a responsibility to return it to God.

SO WHAT?

The effectual revelation of God’s protective presence and promised blessings for Christians will inspire devout and faithful worship. Those who fully realize God’s gracious provision, those whom the Word of God has powerfully impressed, will respond with consecration and commitment. Where there is no reverential fear, no commitment or no devotion, there is probably very little apprehension of what the spiritual life is all about. Like the revelation to Jacob, the written revelation of God makes people aware of the Lord’s presence and prompts them to a more abundant life.

In other words, is your heart open or closed? To a heart open to Jesus, blessings and promises will flow to us like a raging river. To a closed heart, no matter what a person does, they are only heaping burning coals on their head. The promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are repeated, and even magnified, to believers today. As we are told in Hebrews 13:5, God promises to never leave nor forsake us. Ephesians 1 tells us that we are blessed with EVERY spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms; chapter 3 says that God will do immeasurably more than all we could ask or imagine. Romans 8:31 says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

You may be struggling with some sin or a situation that is out of your control, but if you are already in relationship with Jesus, then these promises are already yours. If you are open to Jesus this is available to you too; all you need is to begin a relationship with God. It works like this:

  1. Recognize that God IS…. (holy, perfect, the creator) and that God loves you; in fact, He created the world just so that He could love and be in a relationship with you. Psalm 139
  2. Admit that you have sinned and realize that sin is what separated you from a holy God. Romans 3:23
  3. Agree that Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection really happened. Choose to trust in that sacrifice for you to make you right with God. Hebrews 9:11-14
  4. Reach out to Jesus through prayer and introduce yourself, confess your sin and ask for His forgiveness. Once is enough. Romans 10:9. You are then in a relationship with God and He will lead you through the rest of your life. Those promises I mentioned earlier become yours. IT ALL STARTS AT THE INTRODUCTION. The Holy Spirit in you becomes the guarantee of the inheritance we all have in Christ. Ephesians 1:14

Breaking Down Barriers of Self

Thankfully, God works with us inside each step of our obedience. Abram obeyed and went (thus, going all-in); and we see God leading Abram on a path of a righteous life. Though he believed and it was credited to him as righteousness, he still had a faith journey to walk, much like we learned about in the 1 John series. God had to break down Abram’s stubbornness and reliance on self, which we see in numerous stories between chapters 12 and 22. Yet in our text today, we see Abram growing a ton while dealing with this situation with Lot. He was given an opportunity to grow through the consequences that came because of him bringing Lot in the first place.

  1. Abram finally obeyed that command in letting Lot go, doing so in a generous and loving way. This is when God tells Abram to lift his eyes and see all around – all that land will be his with descendants that cannot be numbered. A reminder of the promise.
  2. God responds by lifting Abram’s eyes to see the promise (vs. Lot who chose on his own to go to Sodom) in 13:10-13. Sodom–known for its exceeding wickedness (13:13). We see of the city’s problems in 14:2-4, where the King of Sodom and some of his city-state king friends rebel against the bigger King over Elam (farther to the east). This ends up with the evil kings losing and Lot being captured in the war, thus needing Abram’s help.
  3. Abram then wins a major battle of vengeance for the coward kings of Sodom and Gomorrah (they run away and hide during the battle) and recognizes God’s thumbprint in this victory with the arrival of Melchizidek, King of Salem. Abram doesn’t know who this guy is, but Abram recognizes his faithfulness to God and sees a choice before him: either take from the King of Sodom or give to the King of Salem. We can understand this a little better by reading Hebrews 7, but the Israelites (as the intended recipients), nor Abram knew who Melchizidek was at the time. To Abram, he saw Mel as the one whom God approved as opposed to the king of Sodom and ultimately saw this is a choice between righteousness and sin. Abram chose wisely.

God does not rely on our obedience to accomplish His plans, but works with us on this journey. He patiently walked with Abram as he realized his mistakes and started to make better choices.

  1. Despite all the steps forward, Abram takes a step back. He complains that God hasn’t given him an heir and his main benefactor is a servant in his house. God’s response is to show him His promises still apply by laying out the details of God’s promise to Abram (ch. 12) in ch. 15.
  2. 2 questions: what were the terms of the contract? And why all the animal slaughter?
    1. Terms: the terms of the promise never change and create a clear line all the way to today – with Abram’s seed leading to Jesus, all in the world are blessed by His grace. Those who join Abram’s family (place their faith in Jesus) get to partake in the complete promise made through this covenant.
    2. Why animal slaughter? That was the cultural tender for a legal contract at the time. Two people entering an agreement would take those animals, slice them in half and create a path to walk through the middle of them. The consequence of breaking the covenant/contract was that they would be like those sacrificed animals. It’s gruesome, but important.
      1. What is most important to note here, though, is just who walked through the path. God puts Abram into a deep sleep, then God alone walks through the path. This shows that these promises are not dependent on Abram, but on God alone. There is nothing here for Abram to fulfill. It means this covenant is unconditional; God will bring it to pass fully on his own, regardless of what Abram or his descendants do.

So What?

We see God clearly leading Abram on a journey of faith; NOT a decision of faith. Yes, Abram believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (15:6), but as we all know, that doesn’t mean all our choices after that are perfect. Faith and obedience with God is a journey and Abram is walking his path, tripping and falling on his way. Yet that doesn’t deter God’s plan for him.

Look at this from the Israelites perspective sitting on the plains of Moab ready to enter the promised land. They are fully aware that they have not been fully obedient either; if they had, their wilderness journey would have been 38 years shorter. They have dealt with the consequences of their sin just like Abram did and are on the cusp of physically receiving the promised land God walked through that covenant path to guarantee. God holds his promise true and fulfills it to completion regardless of our obedience. As Paul says in Philippians 1:6, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

The Plague of Our Passions

The Power of Pleasure

How about Lay’s potato chips? I bet you can’t eat just one. Allow me to pose a question to you to ponder. What have you done that you just had to do again? In America, we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but that pursuit of happiness is certainly not an American tradition. The search for our desire, our passions is as old as the human race. In the Book of James, we see him talk about it to the early Christians that have been dispersed—removed—from the promised land and scattered throughout the known world.

These Christians have been given a job to do – share the Gospel with those they meet, but as we have seen throughout much of this book so far, their actions are not lining up with their calling. In chapter 4, James gives us a pretty clear understanding of why their Gospel footprint has not left a mark, and we will see that it has to do with that very pursuit of happiness.

What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you think that the Scripture speaks to no purpose: “He jealously desires the Spirit which He has made to dwell in us”?  — James 4:1-5

James 3 ends with the visual of Heavenly wisdom leading to a righteous life and peace flowing out from the Christian; chapter 4 starts off with the truth that those Christians are not living up to that potential.

Why We Fail

I would like to discuss a concept called Text vs. Framework. This is important because it is something that we all do. We all have our framework and we bring it into every passage we read, even every situation we walk in to. Your framework is your presuppositions, prejudices, perspective, etc… In other words, you see things through your unique lens; a lens that was colored specifically by your life experiences. Take me, for example. No matter what, I have a really hard time rooting for any football team in the Big 10, save Nebraska. We were all taught to root for the conference as a whole, but I spent so many years of my life being a fan of the Big 8/Big 12 that it is still hard for me to root for the Big 10 in important games, even if Nebraska has nothing to do with it. Yes, my team is now in the Big 10, but my framework makes it hard for me to adjust to the new situation. The fact is, other Big 10 teams playing well is good for Nebraska now, regardless of whether or not I am happy about it.

The text part of this simply means to take the text as it is, not as our framework perceives. Usually, with this passage, we read the first part of James 4 and automatically assume that he can’t be talking about us, because we don’t do those things! Do we? Looking at the text directly and looking into the meaning of the words as originally written, it is clear that James was writing to Christians that were fighting among themselves and it was leading to violence and murder!

A Christian History of Violence

It’s Christians that were lusting and committing murder; being envious and fighting among themselves. Christians don’t have because Christians don’t ask, and we don’t receive because we are selfish and adulterous! That can’t be about us, can it? A brief look through history tells a disturbing story about Christians and violence…

  • The Holy War
  • The Inquisition
  • Slavery
  • Westboro Baptist Church

Within the last few weeks and especially since the election violence has been significantly on the rise. There are numerous viral videos of people being hurt/beaten up for talking about God, or even over the person they voted for. And on top of that, people are posting their approval and inciting others to do the same!

The seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Spinoza observed: “I have often wondered that persons who make boast of professing the Christian religion—namely love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men—should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues which they profess, is the readiest criteria of their faith.”

Bringing it to the Personal Level

Yet I am still bringing my framework into this a little. James is not talking about “Corporate Christianity” or all Christians as a group. That’s not what the text is saying. James is bringing this all the way down to the personal level. We have issues at the corporate level, yes, but it all started and James is focused down here at the personal level. What he is saying is this: You do not have an effective gospel footprint because you are too busy trying to live your life with a foot on both sides of the fence. It is our personal pursuit of pleasure that is causing the problem. Is pleasure your end goal?

Power of Marketing for PleasureIt is these passions that wage war against your members. The Greek word there simply means what is pleasurable, or what makes you happy. It doesn’t start with murder, it starts with desire, for something even as simple as an extra potato chip. I bet you can’t eat just one! James’ language here is rather harsh, but the point is all the same. Whether it is that extra chip or murder in the first, this is all purely and completely SIN.

In our lives, on the personal level, we are ineffective for the Gospel because these things that we are seeking, along with trying to be good Christians are in reality at war with our faith. We all have these temptations in some way or another – no one is immune. It could be money, companionship, power, fun, an escape, anything. It is our desire to have pieces of what the world has, yet not completely be of the world. This is why these marketing slogans are so powerful – because they know how the world makes decisions! That emotion to have, to enjoy is so strong. Yet, James is saying here that doesn’t work. We can’t love our personal comfort on the same level as we love God, because if we do, then we by definition have put comfort on the top spot, because God calls us to put Him at the top – alone.

It is these passions that cause us to fight among ourselves. These passions are what make us friends of the world and hostile towards God, therefore motivated by our selfishness and quick to quarrel. We’ve all seen it; a discussion among Christian friends that turns into an argument; an argument that turns into a fight; a fight that causes a rift. Whether you are arguing over the color of the carpet, the air conditioning, theology or ministry activities, it doesn’t matter. If we are arguing and fighting, then there is a reason, and it is most likely not about that topic. Please note, there is a difference between peaceful disagreements and debates. We can disagree on things – that is not the point. The point is how easy it is to escalate – and we escalate because of that sin; that friendliness with the world. I challenge you to ask yourself: are you ready to give up whatever pleasure is in your life for your relationship with God?

A Way to Wisdom and Peace

James, however, does not leave us in this place of emotional pain. He offers us a way out; steps to success. And as for “how to’s”, this one is pretty clear and direct.

But He gives a greater grace. Therefore it says, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you. – James 4:6-10

God is jealous for us; James is not the only one to make that statement. He desires us and is willing to give us what we need in order to overcome. His grace. We, however, have to act. As Indiana Jones had to learn in the search for the Holy Grail, “only the penitent man will pass”. The penitent person is someone who is humble before God and kneels. How do we humble ourselves before God? Take a look at this list:

  • Show and read through list on the screen
    • Submit to God – do what He says – not what you want to interpret or the framework you want to perceive. American Christianity has done so much damage to the true church because they re-write what God says.
    • Resist the Devil – fight those temptations!
    • Draw near to God – seek Him out! Put effort into your relationship with Him.
    • Cleanse – get far away from your sin. Don’t look at it or leave it close, but block it away, step back from the ledge and get it out of your mind. This does not mean saying your piece and washing your hands of something.
    • Mourn/Repent – let the effect of your sin hurt! When you are truly broken over how you hurt someone, you feel it – it is the same with God. Take a look at Psalm 51 in regards to David’s mourning over his sin. Then make sure to turn from those ways.
    • Humble yourself – be conscious you are the presence of the great God. Consider yourself as less than those around you. Posting on social media counts as your “tongue”. Do your words there promote peace or do they rile people up?

This is the pathway on which we can move towards holiness and live with our feet on the right side of the fence. Only then will our footprint truly be a Gospel footprint. These instructions, however, are not an end state to aspire to. They are living, daily tasks for overcoming the sin that still weakens us. You are not “there” if you have done all these things, because there is always tomorrow. Remember, Paul says you are being perfected to completion at the day of Christ in Philippians; you are not there yet.

You Aren’t Done Yet

It is that very reason why James finishes up this section with a warning.

Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge of it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor? — James 4:11-12

After a while, a person working hard on their spiritual life with Christ can see great success with those six steps above. In fact, after a while, the can start to attain a good level of Christian maturity, wisdom, and success in Gospel impact. It does, however, leave us vulnerable to another pitfall – judgmentalism. We need to be clear, here. James is not contradicting Jesus from Matthew 18, but rather our “holier than thou” attitude and putting down another person because of their sin. We are called to confront our brothers and sisters when caught in sin, yes, but we are NOT to gossip about, to talk down about them, or to be harsh. In fact, true Matthew 18 confrontation is gut wrenching and heart breaking, because it can only come from a true love—motivation to restore, not condemn; thus there is pain for the one who has to confront. Condemning someone, slandering someone, hating someone, is what James is referring to; and that is a huge trap to fall into. By doing that, we are actually setting ourselves about the law, therefore above the law giver, God.

“We should probably identify the law here also with that wider body of teaching, focused especially on the teaching of Jesus, that James considers authoritative for Christians. How is it that ‘judging’ a fellow believer involves ‘judging’ this law? Since James contrasts ‘judging the law’ with ‘doing the law’, he apparently thinks that failure to do the law involves an implicit denial of the law’s authority” (Moo, D. J. 1985. James: An Introduction and Commentary [Vol. 16, p. 156]. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press). We deny the law’s authority and instead, place ourselves in that spot. We need to remember that God is the One with the ability to save and destroy, and that we are among those who are trusting in Him to save us. Putting ourselves in His place would be a bad idea.

Remember: Friendship with the World is Hostility Toward God

What is the point of all this? James 4:4 – friendship with the world is hostility toward God. If we want to leave a Gospel footprint, do we think our witness is any good if we look just like the world? No – we need to stand out as different. We need to be a light in the darkness, which is done through our lifestyle, not just our words! Non-Christians can see the bickering and fighting inside our doors and are turned off by that. We have to be different, and James here brings it back to the ground level. In order for any of this to work, we have to have our own lives in the right place – and not just today, but to consistently be working on that throughout the journey of our lives.

Let us be thankful that God, who punished Christ on our behalf, now gives us the Holy Spirit. For we could not accomplish that list by ourselves, but this is only possible with the work of the Spirit in you and me. Turn to Him, trust in His work, let Him work in you; only then will your feet be firmly planted and you’ll be able to leave a Gospel footprint.

Philemon | An Exercise in Removing Roadblocks

I was recently challenged to pray for those who have hurt us, such as with the example of praying for Muslims in response to the 9/11 attacks. I think one of the toughest parts about that, however, is that in order to truly pray for another person (or people), there has to be a significant level of forgiveness that you have reached with them. In other words, can we pray for Muslims with a pure heart if we still hold grudges against them? I don’t think so. Let me share a story I heard of that happened a few years ago; it will bring this down to the personal level.

In Iran, it is standard practice for families of murder victims to oversee the execution of murderer of their family member. They are also given the choice to pardon the offender. Such was the fate of a young man who had already served seven years for killing 17-year-old Abdollah Alinejad in a street fight, according to The Associated Press.

In May 2014, Samereh Alinejad watched as a noose was slipped around the neck of Bilal Gheisari, her son’s killer. This was her chance to have the vengeance she’d waited seven years to have. Instead, she and her husband stepped forward at the last minute and removed the noose from his neck. Gheisari’s death sentence was commuted and he will finish serving a 12-year prison sentence instead.

Forgiveness is a powerful thing. But how does that play out in life? Sure we all would like to have the love in our hearts as shown by the Alinejad family, but is that practical? In fact, I wonder how Onesimus felt walking up to the front door of the house of his master (whom he ran away from), preparing to face the wrath of Philemon. How confident did he feel in his chances of being forgiven? Today we are going to take an in-depth look at the Letter to Philemon and see what true forgiveness is all about.

PHILEMON BACKGROUND

Why was this such a potentially volatile situation? Let’s dig into the background and find out.

  • Onesimus was a slave (bondservant), but worse a runaway slave. Evidence shows that he skipped out on Philemon and his work, along with possibly stealing goods at the same time. He became a believer and worked with Paul.
  • Slavery, as discussed in the NT, was not like we understand it now. People were not really kidnapped or forced into slavery. When a person needed money, it was common for them to sell themselves into slavery for a time so they could earn the money they needed to pay back their debt. It was a choice and a way to make an income. It was a voluntary giving up of certain rights for the monetary gain. In fact, that term could possibly be used for people who are tied to long-term jobs now.
  • Paul had never been to Colossae. He heard of them, and was a father of their faith because of those whom came from him to found the church there, but he was not directly involved.
  • Onesimus, along with Tychicus, were the ones who delivered Paul’s letter to the Colossians (Colossians 4:7-9). Research seems to show that Philemon lived there, meaning that Colossians and Philemon were delivered to the same city at the same time.
  • Since Paul had never been to Colossae, it stands that he most likely had never met Philemon, and the language used in the letter asserts that premise.
  • Colossae, as a city, was well past its prime. Income inequality had become common place, as most of the trading opportunities had moved on to nearby Laodicea. That probably added to the sting Philemon felt when betrayed. Philemon, as the owner, was fully within his rights to do as he saw fit to Onesimus.

With that background in mind, we need to put ourselves in the Philemon’s shoes. After all, the letter was written to him, so we need to understand him as best as we can so that we can come to the best response for us.

IMAGINE PHILEMON SEEING ONESIMUS WALKING TOWARDS THE HOUSE – I bet that he immediately went to pulling out the punishment or torture equipment and was going to make extra sure Onesimus couldn’t escape again! With retribution for Philemon that close at hand, how hard would it have been for you to stop and read this letter that Onesimus hands to you?

ARGUMENT OF WORDING

Paul knew this letter had to be worded perfectly and he setup an argument in this letter that makes an amazing case for the benefit of everyone. Most Bibles have this book laid out in a different structure, but let me offer a way of looking at this letter that might make more sense.

  1. Building Rapport with Philemon | v4-9
    1. REPEATED WORDS – familial language – Paul was pressing, starting with the first verse a strong family connection between him, other workers in Christ and Onesimus. 7 times in this letter a familial term was used to describe someone, including Onesimus. Another 6 times Paul used descriptive words that are almost as strong as family, such as fellow worker, or partner.
    2. KINDNESS – Paul’s tone here is different than we are used to from him. His tone is gentle and his words uplifting – the opposite of his usual direct nature. He knew he couldn’t just tell Philemon what to do, he had to make him want it.
  2. Persuasion Argument | v10-19
    1. APPEAL OVER COMMAND – Paul makes a significant distinction of not telling Philemon what to do, but to ask (even though Paul would have the authority to command).
    2. PRISONER/SLAVE – the other set of repeated words refers to being locked in – whether it be prison or slavery, of which Paul uses to tie a direct line from Paul to Onesimus, and references freeing him from his ties, just as Christ freed us from our ties to sin.
    3. FINAL COMMANDS – the commands at the end of the letter are for Philemon to see Paul as he looks at Onesimus and treat him as such.
  3. Emotional Appeal | v20-22
    1. CONFIDENCE – Paul ends it with confidence that Philemon will do the right thing.

So what was Philemon’s intended response? He was to take Onesimus back and forgive completely, holding no charge or grudge against him. What Paul wanted from Philemon is pretty clear. The question is, how do we understand the application for us (our intended response) through the instructions for Philemon?

TRAVELING INSTRUCTIONS

  • Forgiveness does not consider the grievance | Notice what Paul does NOT talk about in the letter. Onesimus’ sins are not discussed. We can infer a few things, but it really doesn’t matter. That’s not what is important. Forgiveness is an action that takes place inside the offended and is not dependent on the offender’s actions.
  • Forgiveness is not about the offender | While a refusal to forgive would have been a hindrance to Paul, as it seems he had future plans for Onesimus, that’s not the reason to call on Philemon to forgive. Take a closer look at verse 20 – Paul wants benefit from Philemon. Philemon must get past this “roadblock” for him to be useful (as Paul says in other places). Philemon is the one at the fork in the road – Onesimus was already faithful in delivering the letter. It was the wronged party that had to deal with the anger in their heart and let go.

I had to be able to forgive God and my parents for having this disease. Though no one was actually to blame, as it was no one’s fault, I had to be able to forgive so that I could get past that roadblock and grow in my relationship with the Lord. As we prepare to pray and finish up our time here today, I ask you to consider who you may be holding a grudge against. Regardless of who was right, regardless of how serious it was, regardless of how long ago it may have been, I believe God is calling you to let it go. Forgive, let your heart be free, and open yourself back up to the Lord. Consider Paul’s argument for forgiveness and the depths of what Philemon had to forgive – not to mention the depths Jesus went to in order to forgive you – so that you can let go of anger in your heart and turn your eyes back on God.

Gospel Footprint: Who Are You?

gospel footprint

gospel footprint

As a fan of The Lord of the Rings, I enjoy getting into conversations with other fans and discuss their favorite characters. When people talk about characters like Sam and Frodo, they usually focus on their innocence and devotion as reasons for loving the story. For those fans of Gandalf, they usually resonate with his wisdom and strategy used in the fight against evil. Then there are those fans of Aragorn. His fans focus on how Aragorn grows into the man that ultimately leads the whole world against Mordor, along with his skill during the fighting. Yet, to be a fan of his seems odd, being that he spends so much of the story hiding who he is and trying to run away from his destiny.

We learn through the story that Aragorn was fully aware of his lineage and what it meant to be the last in the line of the kings of Gondor. It was that knowledge that led to fear of himself, and that fear led to him changing his name and becoming an unknown loner roaming across the countryside.

Aragorn is introduced to the audience as a failure; an anti-leader. He was someone who couldn’t stand up to responsibility and did all he could to hide the reality of who he truly was. Maybe that is why his fans argue for him so passionately; his condition is relatable. We’ve all been there; failure and the desire to hide (at least) parts of ourselves because we don’t think we can live up to who we think we are supposed to be.

Our Similarities to Aragorn

The goal of every disciple is to leave a gospel footprint. Yet, I think that those of us who are Christians (those who have placed their faith in Jesus) tend to live this way more often than we know, specifically in regards to our function and purpose in connection with the world around us. Let’s open up the Scriptures today and see what God tells us about who we are.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. Matthew 5:14-16

Jesus had just finished talking about the blessings that come with what we know to be a sanctified life, rich in Him. He spent 11 verses saying what we had as Christians, including blessings and expectations of persecution. He then focuses in to tell them what that means. He tells them who they are. Let’s be clear on it, and if you gain nothing else out this, please catch this. Jesus was NOT pleading with them to be witnesses of His message, nor was He telling them what they SHOULD be doing. He said you ARE the light of the world; you ARE a city on a hill. Let me put it this way: regardless of what you may be doing or any effort on your part to hide, if you are a believer in Jesus, then you are a missionary. You are living with the light of Christ in you, no matter how hard you may be trying to cover it up.

I’d like to take a deeper look at what it means to be a Christian; to be one who carries the light of Christ in their lives. This directly fits into our developing definition of DISCIPLE and what it means to grow closer to Jesus in our daily lives. Let’s look at 3 questions that can help you determine your footprint and how to take the next step.

Qualifications of a Missionary

“Who can resist his will? Who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use” (Romans 9:19-21)? The point here is that your designation; your place before God is up to Him. He declares you valuable and measures your worth, which He paid for in blood. Your calling is not yours to determine, but His.

God is the giver of gifts through the Holy Spirit and determines who receives what. Yet it is clear that we are all called to do the work of an evangelist, regardless of our spiritual gifting (2 Timothy 4:5). We are instructed to give out of what we have received. This is a precedent that started long ago with the calling of Abraham.

“And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). God is the protagonist; the main character. It is God who declares and determines and calls us to obey. Abraham, despite all of his shortcomings, becomes a hero of the faith ultimately because of what happens in chapter 15. “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Please note that this was not the generic belief has no impact on one’s life, but with Abraham, belief meant obedience. Abraham trusted God and stepped out.

What qualified Abraham and today qualifies us is our trust. If we believe in God and whom He has sent, then we are part of God’s family and called to pass that blessing on to other people. That’s really it. While you may have to pass through rigorous testing, education and experience to become a paid missionary, that doesn’t matter in this context. Becoming a missionary only requires one qualification: trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins. If you are a believer, then you are a missionary. You carry the Holy Spirit inside you and are therefore the light to the world.

Whether or not we feel like we are ready or deserve it, this calling is on God to give, which He does to every believer. This was the case back when the exiles started returning from Babylon as well. They had just faced many years of punishment and were finally getting the chance to head home in Zechariah 8.

Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Let your hands be strong, you who in these days have been hearing these words from the mouth of the prophets who were present on the day that the foundation of the house of the Lord of hosts was laid, that the temple might be built. For before those days there was no wage for man or any wage for beast, neither was there any safety from the foe for him who went out or came in, for I set every man against his neighbor. But now I will not deal with the remnant of this people as in the former days, declares the Lord of hosts. For there shall be a sowing of peace. The vine shall give its fruit, and the ground shall give its produce, and the heavens shall give their dew. And I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things. And as you have been a byword of cursing among the nations, O house of Judah and house of Israel, so will I save you, and you shall be a blessing. Fear not, but let your hands be strong. Zechariah 8:9-13

God reminds them of their punishment and of the reputation they carried into exile, yet shows them they are to be the blessing to the nations. Remember this: regardless of where you are in your walk with God, as long as you have placed your faith in Him, you are a banner carrier of the Lord, you are the light of the world, you are the city on a hill and called to let it shine.

Hiding from Your Purpose

While there are countless ways for this calling to be worked out in each person’s life, there is still a strong desire to hide; to run away from our responsibilities. Yet this is why He saved us. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). Of course, God saved us because He loves us – that’s the whole point. Remember who the main character is? Is it us? Is it me? Am I the protagonist in my story? I certainly hope not.

God is the protagonist, and while He knows us and loves us by name, you, my friend, are not the only person He died for. He loved the world so much that He died for it. Each of us individually being a vessel for God to bless the world is the way God chose to work and by hiding from your calling, you are 1) being disobedient, and 2) losing out on the blessing of being that blessing.

And God takes this very seriously! Take what is said in James: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:14-18)!

By ignoring our calling, we are doing wrong by our Savior and actively disobeying our Lord. If opportunistic lepers in 2 Kings 7 realize the selfishness in hoarding God’s blessing, then we need to see it as well.

“Now there were four men who were lepers at the entrance to the gate. And they said to one another, ‘Why are we sitting here until we die? If we say, ‘Let us enter the city,’ the famine is in the city, and we shall die there. And if we sit here, we die also. So now come, let us go over to the camp of the Syrians. If they spare our lives we shall live, and if they kill us we shall but die.’ So they arose at twilight to go to the camp of the Syrians. But when they came to the edge of the camp of the Syrians, behold, there was no one there. For the Lord had made the army of the Syrians hear the sound of chariots and of horses, the sound of a great army, so that they said to one another, ‘Behold, the king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come against us.’ So they fled away in the twilight and abandoned their tents, their horses, and their donkeys, leaving the camp as it was, and fled for their lives. And when these lepers came to the edge of the camp, they went into a tent and ate and drank, and they carried off silver and gold and clothing and went and hid them. Then they came back and entered another tent and carried off things from it and went and hid them. Then they said to one another, ‘We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come; let us go and tell the king’s household.’ 2 Kings 7:3-9

Why Now?

Looking at the tragic state of our country and the world, this job of ours is 1) severely lacking in effort, and 2) needed now more than ever. The division in our country today is horrifying, and there is no such thing as righteous anger when it includes hurtful and hate-filled rhetoric.  A few weeks ago I shared a meal with a friend and listened to him as he slammed the liberal left and its policies — He spoke with anger as he talked against those who would impose their will or beliefs on other people. He became visually confused when trying to understand why people just can’t let people be. He decided for himself that he wouldn’t hold any position so that it wouldn’t affect any relationship he had. To him, this was love.

His world-view was filled with fear and hate. His version of love was to not get in an argument. More than ever we see how obviously lost this world is. No longer do we need to look in the secret places, but the hurt, pain and sin of this world is displayed—often with pride—for all to see! And everyone just wants to be accepted, loved, and pardoned for no other reason than that’s just what they think they deserve. Therefore, the safe move is to hide and run away from a calling that could get us in trouble with this world.

I responded back to my friend by asking him this question: If, for the sake of argument, there was a right answer to all this, and I had the answer, would sharing it with you be an act of love or of dominance/assimilation? He pondered for a moment and came to agree with me in that it would be an act of love. So I explained to him the passion behind many of those movements and used that as a chance to share Jesus with him. While he did not want to leave the comfort of “fence-riding”, he could see our discussion as friendship and not assimilation.

You are blessed. You carry inside your heart the light of the world. Jesus, on many occasions tells us what we should do with it. Our denomination pushes that even farther with our focus on the Great Commission. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). What will you do? Will you keep the light hidden and selfishly hold back those blessing for others? Or will you boldly go and obey, sharing your faith, talking about Jesus in a way that makes the message clear, but is done in love?

Aragorn eventually stopped running and accepted the mantle of King. He ran into danger instead of away, becoming the kind of leader that any of us would follow. He gave no regard for himself, but did everything for others. This life in the open is not a safe road, but it is the right road. This is our calling as Christians, as followers of Jesus, as His disciples. Pick up your mantle as missionary and live boldly a lifestyle that engages with this world in love. Pay no heed for yourself, but live for love, love with abandon and trust in the one who made that all possible. This is how you begin to leave a gospel footprint.

“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'” (Romans 10:14-15)!

Thanks to the Southeast District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance for help with the video in the video and the graphic.

From Death to Life: The Holy Spirit at Work

For Mother’s Day this year at our church, Pastor Greg talked about the love a mother has for her children during the message. With this being a Father’s Day message, we get to discuss punishment and death. I am not sure how these weeks lined up like they did, but even though we talk about some darker things relating to the passage for today, there is still a very strong river of love that flows through; it just might look a bit different than a mother’s love.

History on the Body of Death

It is hard to speculate exactly how well versed Paul was in regards to Greek history and torture practices, but his lament at the end of Romans 7 uses language that calls a very specific act of execution to mind. Originally attributed to Mezentius, an Etruscan king who most likely lived about 1100 years before Christ, the execution called “body of death” involved the criminal to be bound to the person they murdered; hand to hand, face to face, etc… forcing them to walk around tied and trapped to this dead body. Under penalty of death, no one was allowed to remove the corpse from the body of the condemned person. The consequences of this death were obviously very public and led to a slow, excruciating death. As the dead body decayed, it would seep onto and into the living person attached to it, meaning that the criminal was literally carrying around their own body of death.

“It proves a very appropriate ending to such an intense section of Scripture as Paul makes the connection from a merciful person who would condemn themselves by removing the binds of the criminal to our very own Savior, Jesus. It is with this imagery that Paul leads us into chapter 8 and introduces, in a significant way, the third member of the trinity into the work of sanctification.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” Romans 8:1-11

Requirements of the Law

We have learned throughout the last few chapters that the law can do little else besides shine a light on our sin and show us our need for a redeemer. God, however, does much more by sending Jesus to condemn sin in the flesh, so that the law can be fulfilled. Just as Jesus says in Matthew 5, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). The law, though insufficient to answer the problem of sin, still holds true as a requirement for God in terms of us humans. The crucifixion of Christ was the culmination of the punishment God required for our sins. God did not just “let it go”, but fully and completely condemned our sinfulness. He just took it out on Jesus; much like this story I heard a while ago.

There were two young boys, Ralph and Mario. Mario lived near some woods and brought Ralph over one day to play. Both of them aspiring handymen, they chose to spend their time in the garage, building things out of the available spare wood scraps. Mario was very careful to explain to Ralph that there was one major garage rule, a declaration not to touch his father’s hammer. It was daddy’s special hammer. Any other non-power tool that was within reach of the boys could be used for their creative aspirations, and there was even another hammer if they needed. Both boys were careful to avoid the special hammer and continued enjoying their afternoon. Later on, they decided to take their inventions out into the trees and see if they could find other scraps with which to build. Ralph packed up a bag of tools to take with them and thought it would be fun to bring along the special hammer. Mario had no idea.

Arriving home in time for dinner, Mario was mortified to learn that his dad’s special hammer was nowhere to be found in the garage. Ralph admitted to Mario that he brought the hammer and must have forgotten it in the haste to pack up and get back to the house in time. There was no way to go looking now and Mario could see his father’s car heading up the street towards their house. This would not be good.

When Mario’s father got home, Mario fessed up and admitted to losing the special hammer in the forest. His father, visibly upset, kept his composure but was very unhappy at Mario’s carelessness. He led Mario down to the basement and gave his son a stern lecture that ended in a particularly painful spanking. Ralph could do nothing but watch his friend take a whipping for a crime that both he and Mario knew was his fault. Yet Mario stayed quiet and took the punishment for his friend.

Jesus continues his statement in verse 20 by saying that, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). He fulfilled the requirements of the law through his death and resurrection. God punished sin and was satisfied in Christ’s sacrifice. Because Jesus unbound us from the body of death—our sin—through his death on the cross, we are no longer condemned to punishment. The Spirit’s work of regeneration (re-birth of our spiritual lives after being baptized into Jesus’ death) has set us free. Our death in Christ has ended our enslavement to sin and our new life in the Spirit has set us free to live for God.

A Deeper Look at What We Set Our Minds On

maggie

Maggie had set her mind on getting up to the top shelf. It took a couple of days, but she did it and hasn’t tried again since.

I find it worth noting that Romans 8:2 is the first mention of the Holy Spirit since 5:5, however he is mentioned numerous times throughout the rest of the chapter. This is because Paul is introducing us to the work of the Spirit in our lives as believers—as those who have been set free in Christ. To understand how this applies, we need to understand the context of Paul’s language. Paul uses the phrase “set their minds on” 5 times in verses 5-7. What does that mean? In our context, the connotation of that phrase means little more than studying a section out of a textbook. “If you set your mind on something, you can do anything.” We understand it to mean “focus”, which is strong, but how many of us can change our focus rather quickly? I have to be able to change my focus really quickly while at home, as each child, every 30 seconds, wants my focus on them individually. I wind up bouncing back and forth from one child to another and back again.

If we use that connotation to interpret this passage, our understanding of “setting your mind on” either the flesh or the Spirit can be something that changes rather often. In fact, if you take that thought process to its logical end, verses 5-8 can say that whatever your mind is set on when you die determines what happens to you. Or, if you sin and die before you can confess it, you are in trouble. All of a sudden our basis for reconciliation with God is based on the latest time we said “sorry” as opposed to Christ’s sacrifice being enough once for all. This is not what Paul is saying. He just spent the last few chapters laying out the argument for faith in Christ and his sacrifice being enough to rescue us from sin—our body of death. So what does Paul mean when he says “set your mind on” either the flesh or the Spirit?

In Colossians 3, we see a very similar discussion being laid out.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Colossians 3:1-4

Verse 2 is the same Greek word used in this section of Romans 8. The context and language of that time explain that phrase as a much stronger use than we understand it today. It indicates the full preoccupation of thought and will with a chosen and engrossing object. In other words, a good example of this is today’s world would be “obsession”. It has pulled you in to the point that you really cannot focus on anything else. This is how it should be in a healthy marriage; two individuals so “set on” each other that no one else can break their focus, no one else can distract them from each other. It is not a passing fancy but a life-long driver.wedding

By using this phrase, Paul is drawing a distinct line between Christian and non-Christian. If our minds are set on, or obsessed, with the Spirit (i.e. with God and following him in discipleship), then our lives are marked and bound up in Christ. If not, we are still enslaved and obsessed with our own sin and will reap the consequences of that obsession. We cannot please God if we are still trapped in sin; we cannot break that enslavement without death. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). It is the Spirit who gives us life.

The Spirit Gives Life

“You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:9-10). Herein lies the reality of the situation, thankfully to be concluded with a big promise. Though we have been reborn in Christ/regenerated in the Spirit, our physical bodies are still marked for death. Obviously physical death is still in the world. Christians die on earth. We all in this room will die; that is, unless Christ comes back first.

I see it like this: Christ, as the merciful friend, gave up his life to unbind us from our bodies of death. He cut the bonds. Our physical bodies, however, still bear the disease and death we contracted while the bonds were still tied. This is why our physical bodies are decaying. They will all die, but we will not be stranded. Our souls are immortal, given new, eternal life through the Spirit during the act of regeneration. God promises that with the Spirit alive in you, he will give life to our mortal bodies. We know from this passage, 1 Corinthians 15 and others that our physical bodies will be resurrected, transformed and glorified into perfected, eternal physical bodies. Eternal life is eternal physical life.

I think this also speaks to the physical regeneration work that God does in regards to physical health and the sustaining power he gives us. Since we are alive to do his work on earth, he is not going to remove us from this earth until our job is complete. That means, if you are alive today then God still has more work for you to accomplish.

How Do We Respond to the Offer of Life?

What should we do with this passage? Rejoice! If the Spirit is in you, God has promised you life and is working it in you this very day! Follow his lead and remind yourself regularly that you are dead to sin. If, however, you have not been forgiven of your sins and not experienced the Gospel work in your life; if you do not have the Spirit of Christ, then you do not belong to God.

Thankfully, Paul lays out simple instructions for changing your eternal living destiny, both now and in the future. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). Ralph accepted that Mario took his punishment for him in regards to the hammer; you need to accept that Christ took the punishment for your sins, and let him into your life.

A Long and Winding Road: The Path of Sanctification

wall of china

I have always wanted to visit the Mediterranean. The beauty of the sea and the landscapes; the history; the culture; they all call out a deep desire to travel. This desire is only frustrated when my wife and I are watching something that gives us a glimpse of that area, and she reminds me that she has been there. While it could be tempting to get a little jealous, it is actually quite amazing how many places Nita has been around the world. She traveled across 6 of the 7 continents in her years doing missions work before we met. She even lived in some of the most awesome locations! She has spent her time boating up the Amazon river, adventuring her own way through eastern Europe or even taking midnight jogs in India. It is not a good idea, however, to watch The Lord of the Rings with her – she will constantly remind you of her time living in New Zealand; she has been to all the locations from the filming of the movie!

Traveling has been a passion of mine as well, and an important part of our life together. There is something deep, and even unspoken about the life experience that comes with travel. It builds an understanding and deeper desire for the world as a whole, and a powerful wonder for the creation that God gave us. For those who have traveled, it gives a new perspective; a larger world in which to understand the beauty and creativity of God. It is one thing to imagine what the Great Wall of China looks like. It is wholly another to have walked it.

wall of china

Paul’s Reasons for Writing the Letter to the Church of Rome

I have found that I am not the only person with a desire to visit the Mediterranean. In fact, the book of Romans was born out of Paul’s desire to visit Rome, specifically, but his efforts to reach the city had thus been unsuccessful. Granted, he spent most of his life traveling around the Mediterranean, but he had never been to Rome, despite his deepest longings.

“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you— that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each others faith, both yours and mine. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.” ROMANS 1:8-15

For Paul, reaching Rome has a monumental goal. Even when he was finally on his way, he faced a harrowing sea storm and massive shipwreck leaving him stranded for a time on the island of Malta (see Acts 28). At the time of his writing the letter to the Romans, though, Paul had not yet made it there. His desire to visit those there, however, was so strong that he wrote the letter to the church in Rome as a detailed walk through of the Christian life in case he were never able to make it there in person. This is in part why Romans is largely considered the deepest and most detailed writing on the basics of the Gospel and what it truly meant to be a Christ follower. The book even outlines itself in three basic sections:

1) the problem of sin and the imparting of righteousness by God;

2) the Christian life and the Sovereignty of God; and

3) practical applications to a life of faith.

I would like to focus on the second section, the walk of our life with Christ and how that is affected by the first section.

The Stages of Salvation

In the second half of Romans 5, Paul lines up the illustration of the one-man representation. Sin came into the world through one man, Adam. We were in Adam when death came through sin. “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). We were in Adam when he sinned and therefore we are all sinners. Christ, however, was the perfect representative for us, as He was totally human and able to be an accurate sacrifice for us, but He was also totally divine, and therefore able to bear our sins and conquer death. The law, then, did not come into play to make us sinners, but to convict us of the sin we were already committing. “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” (Romans 5:20-21).

This point – the end of chapter 5 and the beginning of chapter 6 – is the point at which conversion happens. But before we can start into the way we need to live as Christians, we need to fully understand what happens at this point; what really happens in the moment at which a person places their trust in Christ. There are four specific things that happen when one person’s name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Allow me to introduce some $20 words.

JUSTIFICATION | The act of God to declare a person righteous. This is a legal term and official description of our standing with God. “…since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1). This is the act of forgiveness; God choosing not to count our sins against us anymore.

REGENERATION | This is what Christians often refer to as the act of being born again. Regeneration is the receiving of a new heart and a new nature. It is the life of the Spirit breathed into us and the beginning of our eternal life. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

ADOPTION | With the gift of a new life, the act of adoption is the guarantee of our inheritance in Heaven. No longer are we outsiders or aliens in a foreign land, but we are granted the right to be children of God. In just the same way that Maggie now has a right to Nita’s and my belongings as our full and permanent child, we are granted “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…” (Ephesians 1:18-19).

SANCTIFICATION | This is our focus for today and the next few weeks. During our regeneration, we were given a new heart and are no longer slaves to sin, but have been freed to be slaves to righteousness. God has a purpose for us. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). In order to accomplish that purpose, our actions on this earth need to change. This is the work of sanctification, and although it starts at the point of new life, it does not end until our promotion into glory.

Sanctification is the sovereign act of God whereby He sets apart a person, place or object for himself in order that He might accomplish His purpose in the world by means of said person, place or object. It is totally an act of God, just like the other things that happen during salvation, but this one, unlike the others, 1) includes us in the process, and 2) happens in stages. This is where Romans 6 begins.

“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? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” ROMANS 6:1-14

Positional and Progressive Sanctification

The act of sanctification is fully the work of God, and it happens in two main parts. Positional Sanctification happens first, and that is God separating us out for His Holy purpose. Once we have died, we have been freed from sin and are given a new nature; death and sin no longer have control over us. Some of you may remember the suitcase example from last time I spoke. This is the same thing here. We have been separated from death; we have been separated from sin. The briefcase has been unlocked and God has removed it and its power from us. In one act of grace, we died, crucified with Christ and were changed forever.

This is very similar to the way Major League Baseball sanctifies the baseballs they use during games. In order for a baseball to be used during an official MLB game, it must be in proper condition. It can only be used once, and becomes unusable after hitting the dirt, leaving the field of play, or even at the behest of the pitcher (among other reasons). This is necessary to preserve the fairness and consistency of the game, making sure that each pitcher and each pitch is consistent and dependent only on the quality of the pitcher, and each batter has equal opportunity from pitch to pitch. They cannot use batting practice balls or ones from fans – not even ones directly from a store with the correct logos on it! The game balls are set apart by the team and umpires before the game and prepared in advance.

In the same way, God, through the act of sanctification, sets us apart from death and sin and raises us to new life in Christ, connecting us to Him and the Spirit. It is not until then that we can go about the work of God, as He has not yet prepped us for His work until then. This part of sanctification, Positional Sanctification, is done immediately at the point of conversion for a new believer. This is what Paul wants us to understand as He starts his discourse on the life of the Christian. “For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:10-11). We need to know this; to understand it. We have already been set apart to God, we are sanctified! That does not, however, mean we are automatically freed from bad habits, struggles, or normal mistakes of life. It means we are acceptable to God for use according to His purpose. Progressive Sanctification, or the next stage of sanctification, is where God, through the work of the Spirit, works to change our actions and our attitudes to be more like Christ.

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). This was the theme verse of my sophomore year of college at Crown. Paul wants us to understand that we are sanctified by God, but we still have work to do. Progressive Sanctification is the on-going, step-by-step grunge work of growing closer to God through His work in our daily lives. It is long and tedious; often leading us into situations where there are hard decisions and challenges that seem like a constant uphill battle, but that’s why Jesus gave us the parable of the narrow road and Paul encourages us in Philippians to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Paul later in that letter uses the example of life being like a marathon.

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” PHILIPPIANS 3:12-16

Paul talks about what we have attained, but that we are not perfect (himself included) and must continue to press own and make it our own.

“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” ROMANS 6:12-14

Progressive Sanctification is the day to day constant work to resist sin and obey God. Why? There are a few schools of thought as to why we do this and it really comes down to a simple opinion on semantics. The first approach says that God fully does the work of sanctification and we are really only called to trust and obey. This is because we have already been fully saved, and the Phil. 3:12 is referring to us working out the experience of that salvation through our lives. The other view says that the process of salvation has started, but is not fully complete until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6). Thus, we are working out/earning our treasures in Heaven in a step-by-step process. Simply stated, the first view says that we already have the fullness of the riches of His grace and our motive to grow closer to God is because He told us to. On the other hand, the second view says that while we are saved, it is actually a life-long process and our experience of Heaven is directly related to how much we live out His sanctification here on earth. However you see it, the motivation is to trust and obey.

Conclusion: Sanctification Requires Action

How do we do that? We have seen Paul refer to the Christian life as a marathon race, a job to work out daily, and a new life led by God all culminating our ultimate promotion the day we see Jesus face to face. Regardless of our motivation, our task, our life-long job is to resist sin and to present ourselves to God as instruments of righteousness. I would like to finish by discussing a few different ways to live that out in a practical day, and ultimately it all comes down to action.

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” JAMES 2:14-18

Going back to Ephesians, Paul makes it clear that we are God’s workmanship, not to sit around on our couches, but for a purpose to do good works, to make disciples, to love our neighbor, etc… Sanctification is worked out in the day to day actions we take. Each choice we make is an opportunity to trust and obey. So what are we doing to work towards that? Here is a list of practical things you can do to work out your salvation with fear and trembling:

  • Study the Bible | When was the last time you picked it up on your own? How can you expect to make choice to obey if you aren’t learning how to see them? Whether you have been a Christian for 50 years or 50 minutes, the Bible is the written Word of God and our source for illumination, allowing us to see the right way to go.
  • Prayer | By this I do NOT mean asking God for stuff. I mean opening your heart to Him, listening in the silence for His instructions and bearing your heart for the things in your life that you need His involvement in. This is not asking God to bless your food before you eat; this is going to your secret place and conversing with Him – both talking and listening. How are we to expect to know what he wants us to do if we aren’t listening to His voice?
  • Tithes and Offerings | Put your money where your mouth is. Do you spend your money on the things of God? That is more than simply giving money to the church; it is using the money God has given you for His purposes, of which there are opportunities to do so constantly throughout our days.
  • Service | There are opportunities to serve God all around us, inside the church and out. All one has to do is see the need around them every place they go – it doesn’t hide in the shadows anymore. Need and depravity are all around us. What are you doing about it? Do you know how many opportunities there are to serve this world through your church? We have a multitude of ministry opportunities available, from caring for infants in the nursery to working with children and youth, all the way up to elderly ministries. There are ministries for men and women and even the facility and grounds. There is no lack of opportunity for you to live out your faith right where you are.

Simply put, the application is to act. Obey and trust God to work through your obedience. Jesus wants us to yoke with Him. That means we need to do what He does – what He wants us to do. We’ve just listed out many simple and practical ways to take the next step, so your challenge is that. The challenge is to pick something off of the list above that you are not currently doing and to start doing it. Find a ministry to volunteer with; join a Sunday School class; read your Bible! Whatever it is, take a step – God is not asking you to do this all at once. This is a lifetime growth plan. But if you are going to move anywhere, you have to take a step. Happy walking!

The Darkside: Sin’s Engagement with the World

THE DARK SIDEI think we have reached an interesting crossroads in American culture. Causes abound for people to get behind some movement to create change for good. It almost seems popular now to join a cause or fight for others who may have it more difficult. Whether it is saving old buildings from being torn down by renovating them or making sure a service dog gets a proper retirement, there are GoFundMe pages for pretty much anything, and it is nearly impossible to scroll through your Facebook New Feed without seeing someone ranting about some problem or cause. It almost seems like our culture has taken a few positive steps ahead and is finally looking past ourselves and on to those whom we could serve, but I’m afraid it is merely a veneer, covering the reality of our current culture.

Take this for example; there is currently a GoFundMe page for someone trying to save the lives of two pit bulls. What the page doesn’t explain is that those pit bulls (along with their owner) are being prosecuted right now because of an attack on a person and the dog they were walking. What seems good on the outside may not be exactly the story taking place. Or how about this?

Last week in Seattle, according to Seattle Parks and Recreation, a man wearing board shorts entered the women’s locker room and took off his shirt. Women alerted staff, who told the man to leave, but he said “the law has changed and I have a right to be here.” “Really bizarre,” MaryAnne Sato said. “I can’t imagine why they would want to do that anyway!” Sato uses the locker room a few times a week, but she says this is a first for her. It’s also a first for Seattle Parks and Recreation. Employees report that the man made no verbal or physical attempt to identify as a woman, yet he still cited a new rule that allows bathroom choice based on gender identification (King5). This man has not been charged with a crime, and according to the report, has since done it again!

This ought to give us good insight into the reality of where we are at today as Americans. The last few years have been spent trying to defend everyone and not make anyone feel uncomfortable (which is impossible, by the way), which is where this Seattle law came from – anyone can go into any restroom they want as long as they admit to identifying with that gender. Miss Sato even said she couldn’t believe that someone would use the law for their own desires, yet this is exactly where we are.

We Have Changed the Definition of Good

As a nation, the outside actions may look like the choices people make are motivated by care, love, or some other kind of goodness (that, of course, depends on your personal point-of-view), but the reality is quite different. We have, as a nation, each become our own wolf in sheep’s clothing. Why?

The problem of sin has hit an exponential growth rate in this latest generation. With the open acceptance of sin and the refusal to publicly call it sin anymore, independent sin issues have given way to corporate sin permission. Basically, whatever is evil is not called evil anymore and whatever is right is now considered evil. Guess what, friends, this isn’t the first time this has happened. Let’s pray that He light a pathway through these next few chapters to give us some insight into how we can live a Gospel-centered life and not only navigate the murky waters of our communities, but also be a source for good.

In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground. And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” (Gen 4:3-12)

There are numerous other stories through these passages that could be looked at and referenced, such as the Nephilim, details on the flood, etc… but with this being an overview of sin’s engagement with the world, we don’t have time to go into all the details. You can read those on your own and see how they add to the exposition here.

Dueling the Sin Nature of Man

The duality of man is a difficult subject and intensely personal battle we all face. Cain was seeking the favor of the Lord, though He was not offering his first fruits, or the best he could offer, therefore the Lord chose Abel’s offering instead. Cain’s sin was rooted in his selfishness and desire to hold back the best for himself, yet his pride deceived him into real anger when he found out that Abel had the better offering – Cain seriously believed his offering would be accepted, despite its impurity. God still gives Cain a choice, a better option, yet with warning. Verse 7: “And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

When we allow the Gospel into our lives through the saving grace of Jesus, the old has gone and the new has come. That slave ownership to sin is dead, but we have not yet been perfected and sin still wages its war in us. Paul described that very battle in Romans 7. It is a lot like this. Imagine a  briefcase as my sin. Before I received the Gospel of Jesus, it was handcuffed to me and there was nothing I could do to put it down or get rid of it. It was shackled to me. Even when I wanted to do good or keep it at bay, the best I could do was hide it for a while. With Christ, he unlocks the handcuffs and frees us from the sin. It is no longer stuck to us, and its power to enslave is gone. We can, however, still pick it up and carry it along, yet all we need to do is put it down and focus on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith.

Sin is still right there and we can pick it up anytime we desire. This is why God’s offer/warning to Cain returns in Revelation 3:20; except this time it is directed to the church, to Christians, and it is Jesus knocking at the door. It becomes very easy as Christians, especially for those that have been following God for a long time and who have allowed Him to make changes in their life to become more like Jesus, to forget how close to sin we really are. No matter a person’s age or maturity level, that briefcase will still be right there, available for pick up. All you need is the right trigger at the right time. We are not that different from Cain, even as believers. We don’t get farther away from sin; we can become stronger against its advances, but don’t let yourself believe it’s not right around the corner waiting for you.

It is this ultimate reality that leads God to question this quest; to test Himself and His resolution.

A Glimpse into the Person of God

The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.

These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. And Noah had three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw the earth, and behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.

For behold, I will bring a flood of waters upon the earth to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven. Everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you. They shall be male and female. (Gen 6:5-13,17-19)

Allow me first here to make a specific note on a few theological items. First, we cannot look at God’s story using linear chronology. What this means is that, as we read the Bible starting from Genesis 1, it can look like God’s plan unfolded like this: Creation-Fall-Redemption. Simply put, that means that what happened is the way we read about it. God created the world, we messed it up, then He set about on a plan of redemption. However, from passages like Psalm 74:12-17, 1 Peter 1:18-20, Eph. 1:4 and others, God’s chronological order was Redemption-Creation-Fall. Basically it means that before the world was created, the Holy Trinity existed and knew they wanted to create humanity for the purpose of showing us how much He loves us. Jesus and the cross was the whole plan. That’s why He created the world.

Second, God is allowing us to see in verses 5-8 a glimpse into His “person-hood”; His emotions. Our sin grieved God to a point where He actually felt betrayed by us and wondered if the love of those who would follow him was worth the pain caused by everyone else. Verse 8 teaches us a profound lesson – but for Noah. All it took to save humanity was the return love of one individual. God’s whole purpose is love, and it doesn’t take much to get Him to notice. We see this kind of response from God again in Genesis 18. What we are given through this story of the flood and even of Sodom and Gomorrah is God defining for us His views on justice and mercy.

Verse 13 makes it clear that God does bring judgment down on the earth. Justice will be served; wrong-doing will be accounted for. However, that is not the end of the story. With the ark, God provides a remnant, a survivor and makes that survivor a promise – this will not happen again. Humanity will not be wiped away in one fell swoop. In the end, the sheep will be separated from the goats, but that is a different act. What God is saying to Noah is that God is merciful in His justice. That’s the key.

God is saying that justice and mercy are not separate terms; they are one in the same. They cannot exist without each other; for justice without mercy is revenge and mercy without justice is enablement. True justice includes mercy. This becomes clearer at the end of the flood.

God’s Definition of Mercy

And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, livestock, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind. Everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed on the earth 150 days. (Gen 7:21-24)

Noah is that mercy in the justice of the flood. This is the precedent that God is setting when He promises not to flood the earth again; no hasty decisions, no surprises. Each person will one day have to face God and account for their life; but His mercy is offered by way of a pardon in the person of Jesus. His mercy is time – patience. I can’t tell you how many blog posts I have read talking about the world today that end in “Come quickly, Lord Jesus”, and yes, I am all for that, but the reason that evil still exists in the world is purely a result of His mercy! See what Peter says here: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

God has allowed time to unfold and His return to be stayed not because He is off doing something else or doesn’t care anymore, but because He does! The longer He delays the more people have a chance to repent! If you all knew that in 1 hour the world would end and you would be in front of God, how different would that last hour be compared to the previous 23? Instead of being weary of the world around us and begging for His return, shouldn’t we take advantage of His patient mercy and make sure everybody has the opportunity we’ve had?

We are given a chance to be a force for good in this world. The Gospel in us, the hope of salvation and the only source for change is in us. God is holding back His return to give us time to share and others time to respond. The problem of evil in our world today is a gift of His merciful justice! No one is escaping punishment, but we are all given the chance to have our debts paid by Jesus. Yet the Gospel is even more than that; it is the power in us to make us Holy and strengthen us against sin.

A Christian’s Fight

Regardless, sin never strays far from us. Christian or not, it is still crouching at the door, waiting for an open opportunity to strike. It is weakened, in that once we choose Christ, it cannot re-enslave us, even though it can distract us. Those who are honest with themselves know all too well that sin can creep up anytime.

Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father and told his two brothers outside. Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned backward, and they did not see their father’s nakedness. (Gen 9:20-23)

Notice that sin did not die with the flood. As soon as the covenant with the rainbow was in place, Noah got drunk and Ham fell into corruption and gossip. Evil still exists; it is still there in you and won’t be fully gone until the day of perfection in Christ Jesus – the day you see Him face to face. What we Christians have today is a choice. We have options – we can pick that sin up if we want and will most likely have some earthly consequences to deal with; or we can go step by step and day by day, giving our life over to God and being asked to be filled by His Spirit. We can choose to do good, not for earthly reward, but to please our Lord and build up treasures in heaven.

Engage Sin or Engage God?

We can choose to be angry and disconnect from the world around us, or we can choose God’s pathway – to engage with the people around us and, through patience and mercy, stand up for God and show others the way to freedom. How does that look in our lives? We need to stop hating and ranting against what we don’t like and focus on solutions. Here is an example – I saw a Facebook meme recently that posed an interesting question. “If you call yourself pro-life, what are you doing for the orphans and homeless?” It can be so easy to take up the cause against abortion and fight to make it illegal again; yet being pro-life is much bigger than that, isn’t it? Jesus showed us the power of human touch and love through His miracles – how many lives have you touched lately? Many people have asked me how I can be a foster parent – they say that the fear of a child being taken away from them is just not something they can face. I agree with them – that is a terrible feeling, but that’s not the right way to look at foster care. People shouldn’t be afraid of a child being removed from their care, but of the countless children in southwest Florida alone that are going without love, food  and care tonight.

This is just one way to engage with the world and there are many angles on which to fight for Jesus through love and mercy. But the challenge today is simple: you need to be careful, because as God said to Cain, sin is crouching at your door, especially if you are not engaging with God.

God engaged with us when the whole world was at its most corrupted and defined true justice. He has chosen to make us His representatives today. I think there is a direct correlation between our passionate activity following God and the strength sin has to distract us. It will always be there, it will always try, but if we don’t have time for it because we giving all of our time to the Gospel, then there won’t be as many chances to pick it back up. What do you need to put in your life today that will help you stay strong against sin and be God’s mercy in the world?

What is Your Macguffin?

This weekend marks a wonderful milestone of the year. It is a special weekend, and not just because it is the 4th Sunday of Advent; it is officially the week of Christmas! But that is not all, friends, it is also the beginning of the culmination to an event 30+ years in the making: this weekend marked the release of Star Wars Episode VII! This is definitely something to be excited about (I plan to go see it this evening). And as much as I am excited for this, the 7th cinema-based installment, I am equally excited for recent news that another beloved Disney/Lucasfilm franchise is working on its next script. Yes, Indiana Jones himself is expected to return to theaters again in the near future. Granted, it took 20 years between the 3rd and 4th films, but there is still hope that the anti-hero who combines academia with action will be back soon. And, yes, sources say Indy will be played by none other than the original; Harrison Ford.

Why am I so excited about that? Because of its macguffin principal. Nobody handles a macguffin better than George Lucas did. What am I talking about? According to Alfred Hitchcock, who coined the phrase, “a macguffin is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a MacGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot” (Wikipedia). George Lucas takes the role of said plot device a bit further. George, on the other hand, believes that the MacGuffin should be powerful and that “the audience should care about it almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen”. With Indiana Jones, the macguffins are clear and vital to the story. In a clear good vs. evil chase to dominance, the macguffins that Indy chases are things such as the Ark of the Covenant and even the Holy Grail.

Bringing Movie Macguffins Down to Earth

With any good movie, there is a macguffin in some form or another. As we continue through this series at Cape Alliance Church in Cape Coral on the birth of Christ, let me propose this question to ponder: what is the macguffin in your life? And what does that have to do with Christmas? As we look into the visit from the wise men, we get a good look at the macguffin in the lives of not only just the wise men, but Herod as well—and God too. An understanding of macguffins gives us a profound understanding of why Jesus came “Down to Earth” and how that changes us. We look at a race against the clock in an effort to uncover the hearts truest passion.

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:

And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah;
For out of you shall come forth a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.'”

Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.” After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Matthew 2:1-11

How can we best define the word macguffin? Something that we cherish above all else; something that we would give everything to have; something that makes life worth living. Jesus made it a point to acknowledge that there are macguffins in everyone’s lives; take a look at Matthew 13:44-46. Everyone has them; the question is, what is yours? Jesus suggests to us that it should be the kingdom of heaven. “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). Of all the things that could be macguffins; even Christian-type macguffins such as ministry, missions, study, etc…; Jesus wants us to not care about any of that and put our focus solely on Him.

In Luke 10, we hear about the differences between Mary and Martha, sisters who were both friends of Jesus – and happened to have a brother named Lazarus. When Jesus came for a visit, Martha put all her effort into work: cleaning, cooking, etc… while Mary sat at the feet of Jesus, simply listening to Him. This, obviously, did not make Martha happy. She complained to Jesus about all the work that Mary was skipping out on. The response was certainly not what she expected. Jesus replied back to Martha that she was the one distracted, not Mary, for she was the one that had all these other things in front of her while Mary was totally focused on her Lord. This is not a typical reminder of the importance of people over tasks in our lives, though I would love to talk about that more in-depth, but a specific lesson that there is nothing—no possible macguffin—more important than simply being in the presence of Jesus.

The Wise Men’s Macguffin

This is what makes the wise men’s story so remarkable. Imagine all the work they had to do to seek out and find Jesus! These guys had to know their stuff. As wise men of the east, it is possible that they had connections to other wise men (or magicians as referred to in that time) of the past. In Daniel chapter 2 we see that Daniel himself, who prophesied about the coming Messiah was the chief administrator in charge of the wise men in Babylon. That connection goes back even farther to the character of Balaam in the book of Numbers. Though Balaam was called on by the Moabites to curse Israel, but because of God’s work in Balaam (a fun story for another time), he was only able to bless them. During those blessings, we get this verse (Numbers 24:17): “I see Him, but not now; I behold Him, but not near; A Star shall come out of Jacob; A Scepter shall rise out of Israel, And batter the brow of Moab, And destroy all the sons of tumult.” Let’s also add in this verse from Genesis that connects to the idea of a Scepter (Genesis 49:10): “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes; and to Him shall be the obedience of the people.” Thanks to Creation Today for some help on this history lesson.

Chances are actually more likely that the wise men in Matthew knew about these passages from the Torah more so than the one from Micah, which Matthew quoted. Had they known about the Micah passage, they would have had no reason to stop in Jerusalem, instead heading directly for Bethlehem. What does this mean? It means that these wise men had been looking for this, probably for a long time. In fact, it means they (and those in their order, maybe?) could have been looking for generations. This was their macguffin. They didn’t really know what to expect or exactly how it would all turn out, but they followed the signs, studied the stars and knew it was time to go when the star shone over Jesus as He laid in the manger. Obviously this means they were not there the night of his birth, but they saw the star that brought fear to the shepherds and ran to it. By their gifts we know that they knew who they were bowing to in front of that lowly manger.

Herod’s Macguffin

Herod had a different macguffin. While he certainly feigned desire to meet Jesus, he never had any intention of getting on his knees. We know that because 1) God warned the wise men to go by a different route, and 2) later on in the chapter we learn that because Herod didn’t know which baby this king was, he had all boys 2 and under killed. It was a horrendous massacre all so that Herod could feel unopposed in his seat of power. Take a look at Matthew 2:13-16. I am reminded of a line from the prologue of the Lord of the Rings.

“It all began with the forging of the Great Rings. Three were given to the Elves; immortal, wisest and fairest of all beings. Seven, to the Dwarf Lords, great miners and craftsmen of the mountain halls. And nine, nine rings were gifted to the race of Men, who above all else desire power. For within these rings was bound the strength and the will to govern over each race. But they were all of them deceived, for another ring was made. In the land of Mordor, in the fires of Mount Doom, the Dark Lord Sauron forged in secret, a master ring, to control all others. And into this ring he poured all his cruelty, his malice and his will to dominate all life. One ring to rule them all.”

Herod was deceived. Power was certainly his macguffin, but just like the 9 kings of men, he could not see that he was merely a puppet of the prince of this earth. Enslaved to his sin, Herod acted out of selfish maliciousness and while he was able to grasp his macguffin temporarily, it did not last long nor actually provided what he was ultimately longing for.

Many Macguffins, One Top Priority

We found out this past week that our little 2 year old, Maggie, was fully emancipated from her biological parents (given a 30 day appeal window) and we are now well on our way through the adoption stage. It is possible that she could be fully adopted by the end of January. We knew we wanted to call her Maggie ever since she first came to live with us, but that is, at this point, not her real name. When we signed paperwork this week to finalize our part of the process, one of the important pages included finalizing what we wanted her name to be. The name Maggie is a short version of Marjorie (which is what her official name will be, God willing). According to the memaggie-and-daddyaning of baby names, Marjorie means “pearl of great price”. It has always been a major goal in both Nita and my life to be parents and finding out that having biological children was not what God wanted for us was a difficult thing to process. He never wanted us to give up on that dream, and led us on a very direct path to becoming Maggie’s parents. With her as the first child we are adopting, we wanted to name her something that held real meaning to the importance of this journey to parenthood. Maggie being our “pearl of great price” perfectly defines the journey God is leading us on with her.

 

You see, we all have and are drawn to human macguffins; this is not necessarily a bad thing. To have a drive, something to work for, or motivating factors in our life is a natural part of being human. What I am referring to, though, is that pinnacle; the challenge as to what takes that #1 spot in your life. As much as I am absolutely in love with Maggie as her father, she is not even the most important woman in my life, let alone the most important macguffin. While it can be easy to forget that order at times, God is asking us to put Him first. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20). This passage is given to the church! This is for Christians! This verse specifically was given to the church in Laodicea who had become lukewarm in their faith. Without God as your macguffin, there is no real passion, no heat to your spirituality. This is what He wants for us – for us to seek out Him as our life macguffin.

God’s Macguffin

While God does not shy away from asking us to make changes like this in our life, there is one major difference with our God – and that is whatever He asks of us, He does it FIRST. He isn’t just asking us to hold Him as the top priority in our lives, but He shows us clearly that we are the top priority in His–FIRST.

O Lord, You have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
You understand my thought from afar.
You scrutinize my path and my lying down,
And are intimately acquainted with all my ways.
Even before there is a word on my tongue,
Behold, O Lord, You know it all.
You have enclosed me behind and before,
And laid Your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
It is too high, I cannot attain to it.

Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike to You.

For You formed my inward parts;
You wove me in my mother’s womb.
I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
Wonderful are Your works,
And my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from You,
When I was made in secret,
And skillfully wrought in the depths of the earth;
 Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;
And in Your book were all written
The days that were ordained for me,
When as yet there was not one of them.

How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
If I should count them, they would outnumber the sand.
When I awake, I am still with You.

Psalm 139:1-18

Jesus had your name on His mind before the world was ever created. He sought you out. He is gently romancing—wooing—you even now. “For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation” (Romans 5:6-11).

There is no doubt you are God’s macguffin. He came DOWN TO EARTH to live out his love for you. He left the very pinnacle of glory to become the lowest of the low, all so that you could see how much He loves you. He didn’t do it to be an example, nor did He do it to prove His power. He did it because He wanted to; you are worth it to Him. In Jesus, you are so loved that you are His macguffin – the pearl of great price.

SO WHAT?

What do we do with that? It is only because Jesus came down to earth that we have the ability or capacity to return His love. The challenge today, therefore, is very simple: is Jesus your macguffin? If not, what is in the way? What holds the priority in your life?

What about those who can say that Jesus is their macguffin? How does that live itself out in your life? Jesus showed you His love in that while you were still in your sins, He died for you. What actions are speaking for you? Paul tells Timothy to always do the work of an evangelist; Jesus himself said the harvest is plentiful. We are commissioned to spread the good news of great joy that will bring peace to all mankind. Have you spread news of that peace lately? Have you lived that peace out? Or has your life this season been more about harried shopping, road rage, unbreakable heat or crying over your bank balance?

We do not serve in order to receive goodwill from God, but serve out of love and a calling (which every Christian receives) to spread the good news of Christ. Remember Jesus, who, did not come down to earth to be served, but to serve, and give His life as a ransom for many. This is ultimately the point of the wise men’s story. Jesus loves us first and foremost – His trip to earth was not about Him, but only about us. We are His macguffin. Who, or what, is yours?

PRAY