Where holiness is tested

How many of you like tests? This past week, the students at my school  finished their last midterm exams before summer break. As a student, I always hated those kinds of tests. To this day, I have nightmares of them. I always have these weird dreams of having a test day, and suddenly realizing I haven’t even been attending class all year long. I don’t know why I have these stupid dreams. When I was in university I was a great student! I always attended my classes.

Now probably for most of of us, we don’t face very many written tests anymore. But it doesn’t mean we are no longer tested. Every day we face tests in our lives, and one is the test of holiness.

I think we often think of that test in terms of personal things: struggles with anger,  lust, or other private sins which only we know about.

But our biggest tests in holiness often take place in our relationships. Especially when we have been hurt.

It’s one of the main reasons that some Christians hop from church to church. Or in some cases, they leave the church entirely.

You see, in a sense, it’s easy to be a Christian by yourself. To focus on reading your Bible, or praying, and doing all sorts of religious things in private. It’s much more difficult to live a holy life when you have to deal with other people, even when they are Christians. In fact, often times it’s even more difficult when you are dealing with Christians because you have much higher expectations of them.

But holiness is not something that can be truly achieved by hiding in your house, avoiding other people. You need to get out of your house, and take the test.

I think the writer of Hebrews recognized this. He said,

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

I don’t think he was saying, “Hey, be at peace with everyone. And by the way, be holy too.” I think there’s a link between the two. You cannot truly be holy if you are not doing everything you can to live in peace with the people around you. And without holiness, you will not see the Lord.

Jesus talked about this as well. We have been looking at the Sermon on the Mount. And near the beginning of it, he said,

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matthew 5:8)

What words surround that verse? Words about our relationships.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy… Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (5:7, 9)

Often times when we think about peacemakers, we think about helping two friends reconcile when they’re having problems. But being a peacemaker also means that you work for peace in your own relationships. Part of that is showing mercy to people. Forgiving them when they wrong you. Giving them second chances. And showing them love even when they don’t deserve it.

What happens when we don’t do this? Our hearts start to become clouded and stained with bitterness. And when that happens, our holiness becomes polluted.

So as we look at Jesus’ words today, I want you to think about your relationships and ask yourself, “Am I holy in my relationships? When I think about my relationships with my spouse, my coworkers, with people at church, with my ex-spouse, ex-boyfriend, ex-girlfriend, people I used to go to church with, is my heart right?”

Let’s take a look at the test Jesus gives.

Take a look at Matthew chapter 5 verses 38-39.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (38-39)

When Jesus talks about eye for eye and tooth for tooth, he is quoting from God’s law. These words are found three times in God’s law, and many people know the law today. But I wonder how many people really understand it? Many Jews in Jesus’ time certainly didn’t. Many of them thought that this was God giving them permission to take revenge on those who hurt them. But that’s not what God was commanding at all.

Actually, this law was for the judges of Israel. You see this especially clearly in Deuteronomy chapter 19:15-21. We won’t read it now, but if you want to, please look it up when you go home. God was telling the judges of Israel, “When you judge cases, make sure the punishment fits the crime. If someone knocks out another person’s tooth, don’t kill the attacker. That’s too much. Make sure the punishment is fair.”

And most times, this law wasn’t kept literally. Instead, many times the person who sinned had to make some kind of fair payment to the victim. (Exodus 21:18)

So that was the intent of the law. It was meant for judges. How many of you are judges in the Japanese courts? None of you? Then this law does not really apply to you. But there is a principle you can take from it when you’re dealing with your kids. When your kids do something wrong, make your punishments match the wrongdoing. Don’t overdo your punishments.

But anyway, as I said, the problem is that many Jews in those days, and many people today for that matter, look at this law and think, “Well then, it’s okay for me to take revenge when someone hurts me. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”

But Jesus says, “NO. When someone hurts you, don’t look for revenge. Instead, if someone slaps you on the right cheek turn to them the other cheek.”

I’ve mentioned this before so probably many of you remember this, but Jesus is not really talking about physical abuse here. How many of you are right-handed? Look at the person next to you. Now don’t hit them, okay? But think, “How would I hit this person’s right cheek, not their left cheek, their right cheek, with your right hand? It’s kind of difficult right? The only real way to forcibly hit them is with the back of your hand. But that’s more of an insult than an attack. And it was the same in Jesus’ day. It was considered a terrible insult to be slapped with the back of someone’s hand.

And so Jesus is saying, if someone insults you, if they wound you with their actions or words, let them. Don’t take revenge. Instead, forgive.

Now let me make a very important point of clarification here. There may be some people here that have been victims of domestic violence. Some of you may be experiencing it now. Jesus is NOT saying, “Just let them abuse you.” Again, he is not really talking about physical abuse as much as he is talking about personal insults you receive. If you are in physical danger from someone, get away from them. Put physical distance between you so that they cannot hurt you.

You see, forgiveness doesn’t mean that you allow people to keep hurting you. Forgiveness is not saying to that person, “What you’re doing is acceptable.” Nor does forgiveness mean that you automatically trust them again after they betray you.

“But Bruce, didn’t we read earlier that we are supposed to be peacemakers?” Yes, but we are also called to be wise. And it’s not wise to trust someone who shows no signs of genuine repentance. To make every effort at peace means to confront people with what they did to you and to seek reconciliation. And if they repent, peace can be restored. But as long as they don’t repent, there can not be true peace between you.

But whether or not peace is possible between you, you are called to forgive. And that goes not just for abuse, but for any kind of hurt you receive from people, whether it’s verbal wounds, betrayal, or whatever else it may be.

I said before what forgiveness doesn’t mean. But what does forgiveness actually mean? It’s letting go of anger. It’s letting go of your bitterness. And it’s saying to that person, “I no longer judge you. I no longer condemn you. I release you of your debt to me.”

Now that’s easier to do when you confront a person, they admit they’re wrong, and you start to see them change.

It’s much harder when they refuse to admit they’re wrong. Or when they admit they’re wrong but nothing ever changes. But even if they never admit they’re wrong, even if they never change, Jesus commands us to forgive. Why? Because he did so for us.

Take a look at chapter 6 verse 12. This is part of what we call “The Lord’s prayer,” but actually it’s a prayer for us as the Lord’s disciples. It says,

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

Jesus then said this,

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (6:14-15)

Ouch. Those are hard words. And it’s so easy to try to say, “Jesus was just exaggerating right? Jesus didn’t really mean that, did he?”

But remember: The debt you owe God is immeasurable. Their sin against you is a mere drop in the ocean compared to your sin against God.

Do you understand that? Do you really believe that? When you sing, “Amazing grace,” and call yourself a wretch, do you really mean it? Or in your heart of hearts do you still think, “I’m not so bad”?

If you don’t understand the depth of your sin, you’re going to find it really difficult to forgive others when they hurt you.

You know some sins that people commit against us are very light. I’ve had people say, “Bruce, I’m sorry I did such and such to you. Will you forgive me?” and actually what they did really didn’t bother me that much. So it was easy for me to say, “Sure, I forgive you.” Those kinds of things are easy to forgive. It’s the deep sins that are committed against us that are the true test of holiness.

The wrongs against you, that when you think of them, and you think of the person that did them, your stomach instantly starts to knot up. Anger, hurt, and tears, all start to well up in an instant. Or for some of you, you’ve gotten past those emotions, and you’ve just become cold. Your heart is ice towards that person. Does anyone here understand what I’m talking about?

It’s so easy to say about them, “That person is an absolute wretch.” But when you start thinking those thoughts, look at your heart right at that moment. Look at the bitterness, anger, and hatred that is there. Look at the coldness that dominates your heart when you think of that person. How do you think God sees it?

Do you remember what we said several weeks ago? Anyone who is angry with their brother or sister, who kills them in their hearts, are worthy of God’s judgment. How often do you let your anger boil in your heart toward those who hurt you? How often, because of your hurt, do you lash out not only at them, but at other people around you?

Do you want God to forgive you for those ugly feelings, thoughts and actions? Then you need to forgive the person that hurt you.

“But Bruce, they don’t deserve forgiveness!” No they don’t. But neither do you. You deserve to go to hell for every ugly and bitter thought you’ve ever had. You deserve hell for every ounce of unforgiveness that stains your heart.

“But Bruce, you don’t understand what they did to me. It’s only natural for me to feel this way.”

I’ll be perfectly honest. Maybe if I were in your situation I would think it were natural too. But to hold anger, bitterness, and unforgiveness in your heart is still sin. And when you look in the mirror every morning, is that what you want to see in your face? Is that what you want others to see?

Think about Jesus for a minute. He was perfect. He never did anything that was wrong. And yet he was betrayed by one of his best friends. He was lied about. He was beaten and whipped. He had a crown of thorns beaten down on his head. And then he was crucified. While he was there, his enemies mocked him. “If you’re really God’s Son, come down from that cross!” How did Jesus respond? Did he hold all the bitter and angry thoughts you do when you’re hurt? Did he lash out at those around him because of his hurt? No.

Peter tells us,

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.  (I Peter 2:23)

In short, he forgave. In fact, while Jesus was on the cross, he said,

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.  (Luke 23:34)

That’s what our response is to be to those who hurt us. Not bitterness. Not anger. but loving and praying for them. Take a look at Matthew 5:44-45.

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

“That you may be children of your Father in heaven.” We saw that earlier didn’t we? “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” And part of being a peacemaker, is loving and praying for those who hurt you. Those are not just the ideal words of a dreamer. Jesus lived those words. On the cross, he prayed for those who hurt him. Our trouble is so many times we don’t pray for those who hurt us. If we pray at all, we pray about them. “God, do you see how horrible he is? Do something about him!”

But Jesus doesn’t say to pray about them. He says to pray for them. What do we pray?

Look at Jesus’ prayer. “Father forgive them. They don’t understand what they’re doing.”

So many times people hurt us because they don’t really understand what they’re doing. Many times abusive men are abusive because they themselves were abused when they were kids. Many times people have had experiences that wounded them, and now without knowing why, they act in similar ways to hurt the ones they love.

So pray for understanding. “God help them to understand what they’re doing and why. Help them to understand the pain they’re causing me and others. Help them to understand the hurts they have that are causing them to act this way. And help them to turn to you so that they can find healing and forgiveness in their lives, like you’ve given me.”

But don’t just pray for understanding for them. Pray that you can understand them. Pray that you can understand their hurts and why they do all they do. Because when we truly understand people, that’s when we start to feel compassion for them. It’s why Jesus could pray as he did on the cross. Because he saw our pain. He saw our hurts. And he knew exactly why we acted as we did, even when we ourselves did not understand why.

Prayer leads to understanding. Understanding a person allows you to having compassion for them. Compassion then allows you to show them mercy. And an understanding, compassionate, merciful heart, will set the prisoner free.

But here’s the thing and it’s an important truth. “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” (Lewis B. Smedes)

You see, there’s something you need to realize. I said before what forgiveness is and what it isn’t. Now let me tell you what it does and doesn’t do. It doesn’t necessarily cause the person who hurt you to change. Sometimes by God’s grace it does. But not always. Many of the people who saw Jesus on the cross never did repent. But forgiveness sets you free. It sets you free from the bitterness and anger that binds your heart. It frees you from that knot in your stomach that you feel every time you think of that person that hurt you. Forgiveness sets you free.

Some of you here today may feel you have a right to be angry. That you have a right to be bitter. Maybe you do. But that anger and bitterness will will eat you up if you do not forgive.

True holiness is tested when we are hurt. Is forgiveness easy? No. Is it natural? For people like us who are broken by sin, it is totally unnatural. And so if we’re ever going to forgive, we need the supernatural help of God. But the good news is, we have it. That supernatural help is available for us. But we need to ask.

Forgiveness may take time. Depending on the depth of your hurt, it make take years. But the choice to forgive can start now. Will you make that first step today?

Plant Group questions:

  1. Read Matthew 5:7-9, 38-39, 44-45, and 6:12-15. What connections do you see in these passages?
  2. What is the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation? (Hint: Which requires one person? Which requires two? Why?)
  3. Read Leviticus 19:17-18, and Matthew 18:15-17. According to these passages, what does it mean to be a peacemaker in your relationships? What does it not mean?
  4. Many people think it’s unfair to forgive others when they don’t repent. Why is it important to forgive even when the other person isn’t sorry?
  5. When you were listening to the message, did you start thinking of someone whom you have not forgiven? Pray for that person that hurt you. Don’t pray about them. Pray for them. And pray for your fellow members that God will help them to understand the people who hurt them and to forgive them.
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The heart of holiness (June 3, 2018)

How many of you are on social media? I like social media, but sometimes, I’ll see people post things that really upset me. And I have to just bite my tongue. Or I guess with Facebook, tie up my hands.

Recently I saw a post on Facebook. It said, “You Christians always condemn certain sins because the Old Testament says they’re wrong. Well, the Old Testament also says you can’t eat seafood. Or wear clothes with mixed fabrics. Or work on Saturdays. But you do those things, right? Then shut up!”

What was that person saying? “You Christians are inconsistent. You just arbitrarily choose which Old Testament laws you decide to keep and which you don’t.”

Is that true? How do we answer people like that? One famous pastor in the States recently came up with a very “interesting” solution: Just throw out all the Old Testament laws.

He basically said, “You don’t need to pay any attention to the ten commandments. In fact, thou shalt not obey the 10 commandments because they’re not your commandments.”

It gets worse. He said, “Peter, James, and Paul chose to unhitch the Christian faith from the Old Testament. They unhitched the church from the worldview, value system, and regulations of the Old Testament.”

Now let be me clear: this pastor wasn’t saying that you can just live anyway you please. He was saying that we are to live by the law of love. Love God with all your heart. And love your neighbor as yourself. That’s absolutely true. But there is no way to divorce the ten commandments from the law of love. There is no way to divorce the moral law of God in the Old Testament from the law of love. Jesus never did that. And neither did his disciples. In fact, they took the law of love from the Old Testament moral law.

Still, what do we do about all the other Old Testament laws? If we want to please God, are we supposed to keep every single law in there? What about those dietary laws? What about those laws about clothing? For that matter, what about the sacrifices they did? Why don’t we follow them? Have you ever really thought about that?

Recently, someone gave me this book, “The year of living Biblically.” For one year, this author did his best to keep every single command in the Bible. This of course included things like not coveting, lying, or gossiping for one year. But it also included trying to keep the Sabbath, the dietary laws, and the clothing laws. This guy even tried to stone a person who had cheated on his wife. (Well, he threw a pebble at him, anyway.) Is that how we’re supposed to live? Is that holiness?

Today we are continuing our “Steadfast” series, and we’re talking about what holiness looks like in our everyday lives.

One of Jesus’ disciples Peter, wrote these words,

But as the one who called you (God) is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; for it is written, Be holy, because I am holy. (I Peter 1:15-16)

In these verses, Peter was quoting from the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, where God told the people several times, “Be holy for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44-45, 19:2; 20:7). And in doing so, time and again, God told the people, “Don’t be like the people around you. You are to be different from them.” (Leviticus 18:3; 24-30, 20:23-26)

I find it significant that Peter quoted from the Old Testament because it shows the Old Testament is still relevant to us when it comes to holiness. But what exactly is our relationship with the Old Testament? How is it relevant to us as we seek to live holy lives? Let’s look at what Jesus has to say. Turn to Matthew 5, starting from verse 17.

“Don’t think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or one stroke of a letter will pass away from the law until all things are accomplished.

Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever does and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)

Here we see something very important: Jesus had the highest respect for God’s word. When he was talking about the Law and the Prophets, he was talking about all the Old Testament. And he said, I didn’t come to abolish these things, but to fulfill them.

What did he mean by that? Two things. First, he obeyed God’s law perfectly. Living as a carpenter for 30 years, and a preacher of the gospel for three, he never once broke God’s law. He kept all the positive commands of God, and never broke any of the negative ones. A lot of times we think of sin as doing the “Don’ts”. But it is also not doing the “Dos.” Jesus kept both.

Second, the Old Testament pointed to him. Did you know that there are over 300 Old Testament prophesies that point to him. And all of them were written hundreds of years before he was born. But not only that, many of the stories that we read in the Old Testament point to him too. The stories about Noah’s ark, Jonah and the big fish, and Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, all of them point to Jesus.

All the laws also point to Jesus. The sacrifices that the Israelites did pointed to him. They showed the people their need for someone to die for their sin. Their tabernacle pointed to him. It showed that God would live among them. Their civil laws pointed to him. They point to Jesus’ purity, his justice, and his love. And the moral law also points to his sinlessness.

Because all these things point to Jesus and are fulfilled by him, all of them need to be interpreted as Jesus interprets them. In fact, what you see at the end of the Sermon on the Mount is that all the people listening were stunned by the authority with which he spoke. He had authority because he was the author of all these things. And all these things pointed to him.

So if you ever wonder, “Why do we keep some laws of the Old Testament and not others, remember this: We follow the authority of Jesus. Because he is the one to whom all these things point.

If you want to know which laws still apply to us and which don’t, the easiest way to find out is to look at what Jesus taught. And then because Jesus taught his disciples what the scriptures mean, look at what they taught. If they say, “such and such laws don’t apply to you,” they don’t apply.

That’s why we don’t do sacrifices anymore. That’s why we don’t pay attention to food laws anymore. Because Jesus and his disciples specifically said, “These have been fulfilled in Jesus. They’re still important as pictures of Jesus and why he had to come. But you are not bound by them anymore.” But where Jesus and his disciples confirm the Old Testament laws, we are to obey them. Because they show us what a holy life looks like.

That’s why Jesus said none of these things in the Old Testament will pass away until all is accomplished. Until the day that Jesus returns, we will always have the Old Testament. We need it for two reasons. They testify to Jesus and why he came. They show us how to live. So we cannot just throw away the Old Testament. We need it. And Jesus says, if you try to toss it, you will be called the least in the kingdom of God. More, if you break the commandments as Jesus and his disciples taught them, and you teach others to do the same, you will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.

The very interesting thing is that when Jesus talks about holy living in this passage, he constantly points to the ten commandments. But he doesn’t just point to the ten commandments. He points to your heart. And he asks, “Where is your heart?”

You see, the heart of holiness is not just keeping a bunch of laws. It’s not just trying to find where the line is and finding out how close you can get to it without crossing it. The heart of holiness is a heart that belongs to God.”

That’s why Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” These two groups of people were very religious in Jesus’ day, but their hearts didn’t really belong to God. On the one hand, they tried to keep the letter of the law. But at the same time, they were constantly looking for loopholes in God’s law. And we’ll see that in the rest of the passage.

Take a look at verses 21-22

You have heard that it was said to our ancestors, Do not murder, and whoever murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you, everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Whoever insults his brother or sister, will be subject to the court. Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be subject to hellfire.

Jesus quotes one of the ten commandments here: Don’t murder. Now the scribes and the Pharisees said, “Hey we haven’t murdered anyone. We’re okay.” But Jesus says, “That’s great, but what’s going on in your heart? When you get angry, do you quickly let it go? Or do you let your anger burn against your brother or sister?” You see, all of us get angry at times. But do we hold on to it? What happens when we hold on to anger? We start murdering people in our hearts. We speak sharply with them. We cut them with our words. In some cases, we cut them off from our lives completely. Even if we don’t say it, we communicate with our actions and our attitudes, “I wish you were dead.”

And Jesus says, if you hold that kind of anger and hatred in your heart, you’ve broken God’s law. So he tells us in verses 23-26 that if you have broken this law and wounded people because of it, get things right. Don’t just go to church and pretend to be religious, giving offerings, praying, and worshiping. Get things right. How about you? Is there a relationship that you need to make right?

Take a look at verses 27-28.

You have heard that it was said, Do not commit adultery. But I tell you, everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Again Jesus is quoting the ten commandments. And again, he’s not saying, “Hey, the ten commandments don’t apply to you.” He’s saying, “Look beyond the literal words of the ten commandments, and search your heart. Are you committing adultery in your hearts?” Husbands, wives, have you ever looked at another man or woman and thought, “Man I wish I could be married to him or her instead of my spouse?” That’s adultery in God’s eyes. You are coveting that person in your heart, which is also against the ten commandments.

For men, porn is often a big problem. That too is committing adultery in your heart. And Jesus says, if you are struggling with that, cut it out. He says gouge out your eyes if it’s causing you to sin. Now, he doesn’t mean that literally. But he does mean, “be as extreme as you need to deal with your heart issues.”

Recently a Christian politician in the States was criticized because he had a policy of not having lunch or dinner with a woman alone, even if it was for business. People thought he was accusing all women around him of trying to seduce him. But he wasn’t saying that. He was saying, “I don’t trust myself. I’m sinful. And I know where my heart can take me if I’m not careful.” For him, he felt he needed to be that extreme to deal with his heart issue. Not all of us have to go that far. But when it comes to sin, all of us need to go as far as necessary in order to avoid it. Do you?

So many times, we take sin lightly in our lives. That’s why when we look at some of the Old Testament laws for how the judges were to deal with sin, we think they were too harsh. We take those sins far more lightly than God does. But God thought they were so serious, that he sent Jesus to die for them. Jesus didn’t just die for murder, or rape, or theft. He died for the times impure words come out of your mouth. For the times you said things that wounded another. For the times you told lies. For the times you were selfish. These things send people to hell too. We can’t take any sin lightly. And Jesus says, do whatever you need to in order to flee from sin. Again, where is your heart?

Let’s look at verses 31-32.

It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a written notice of divorce. But I tell you, everyone who divorces his wife, except in a case of sexual immorality, causes her to commit adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Some of you hear these passages, and they’re very painful to hear because you have experienced divorce. Let me first say what I think Jesus is specifically addressing here, and then I’ll say a few more things about divorce.

I think the main thing that Jesus is addressing here is still adultery. Now back in those days, husbands could divorce their wives, but wives couldn’t divorce their husbands. And if the husbands wanted to divorce their wives, they gave them a certificate that essentially said, “I’m dismissing you as my wife, and you’re free to marry whoever you want to.”

But Jesus is telling the husband, if you divorce your wife for illegitimate reasons, that certificate you gave her is essentially telling her, “Go ahead and commit adultery.” Because in God’s eyes, your divorce is illegitimate and she still your wife. And if she then goes and marries another, I will hold you responsible for her actions.

You see, when God originally created marriage, he designed it to be a lasting relationship, never to be broken. When he created the first two humans, Adam and Eve, they were not supposed to ever die. They were supposed to live forever as husband and wife. And even after they sinned and death came into the world, it was still his intention that they remain husband and wife until death parted them.

God’s intention for marriage has not changed since he first designed it. So if you break that relationship for no legitimate reason, and you join yourself with another, you have committed adultery in God’s eyes.

That brings up a big question. What are legitimate reasons for divorce? Sexual sin by your spouse is one, as Jesus points out here. Paul gives us another: our non-Christian spouse abandons us (I Corinthians 7:15-16). Are there other reasons that God thinks are legitimate? If there is, I can’t find one in the Bible. But more importantly, even if there are other legitimate reasons, I think it’s the wrong question to ask.

You see, no matter what your situation is, your first question shouldn’t be if there are ways to escape God’s design for marriage. That’s how the Pharisees thought. And that’s how they got so far off from God’s plan for marriage. They were infamous for how often they got divorced.

Your first question should be, “Is there any possible way to save my marriage. God, my heart is yours. What do you want me to do?” I’m not saying it’s always possible to save a marriage. But when both husband and wife have that kind of heart, a heart that’s soft to God, there’s hope. So where’s your heart?

I’ll leave this subject with this thought: Some of you here are divorced, and it wasn’t your fault. Your husband or wife cheated on you. They turned their backs on you. And if that’s the case, don’t condemn yourself. Because Jesus doesn’t.

But some of you are divorced because you hardened your heart against God, and you hardened it against your husband or your wife. If that’s you, and you haven’t repented of your attitude yet, I urge you to do it today. If you do, there is forgiveness and healing for you. God can turn even the ugliness of divorce into something beautiful. I have heard of more than one marriage that ended in divorce, only for those couples to reconcile.

For some of you, it’s too late for that. Your spouse remarried or you did. But let me tell you this. Your new marriage may have started illegitimately, but God can still redeem it. There was a man in the Bible named David who married a woman named Bathsheba. I can’t think of a marriage that started more illegitimately than that one did. David slept with a married woman, got her pregnant, and then murdered her husband in order to marry her. But when David repented from the heart, though there was judgment, God blessed that marriage. And through that marriage, guess who one of their descendants was: Jesus.

God redeemed that marriage. And he can redeem yours. But if you don’t repent, you’ll find that the very same attitudes that destroyed your first marriage will be the same attitudes that destroy your next. So again, the main question is: where is your heart?

We’re running out of time, so let’s look at one more example. Take a look at verses 43-45.

You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.

The first part of this, “Love your neighbor,” is from the book of Leviticus. But the part about hating your enemy, you can look hard and long in the Old Testament, and you won’t find it. Jesus wasn’t contradicting God’s law here. He was contradicting a corruption of God’s law. Basically, the scribes and Pharisees were saying this, “Hey, it says love your neighbor, so logically that means we should hate our enemy.” Why did they think this way? Because instead of looking at the heart of the law, and saying, “Who can I show God’s love to?” they tried to limit the law and asked, “Who don’t I need to show love to?” And they concluded, “We don’t need to show love to our enemies.”

We saw this kind of thinking in the story of the good Samaritan that Hide talked about a few weeks ago. The expert in the law asked Jesus. “Who’s my neighbor?” Basically, he was asking, “Where’s the line on who I have to love and who I don’t?” But if you look at Jesus’ answer carefully, he essentially tells him, “You’re asking the wrong question. Don’t ask ‘Who’s my neighbor?’ Ask, ‘Who can I be a neighbor to?’ And be a neighbor to everyone you meet. Even if they hate you.”

In this passage, Jesus adds to that thought. If you only love those who love you, how are you any different from the world? Anyone can do that. Be different from the people of this world. Be holy.” In fact, Jesus sums all this all this teaching up with words similar to the ones Peter quoted in Leviticus. He says,

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (48)

All these laws, the ten commandments, and the law of love that sums them up are to be kept, in accordance with the teaching of Jesus and his apostles. But again, the heart of holiness isn’t just keeping a bunch of laws. The heart of holiness is a heart that belongs to God.

Now some of you may be hearing all these things and you’re thinking, “This is impossible. I can’t do it.” You’re right. That’s why we need Jesus. That’s why we need the Holy Spirit in our lives helping us. You see, at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said this,

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs. (3)

Jesus doesn’t say, blessed are the super spiritual people, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. He says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn because of sin in their lives.” Why? Because the kingdom of heaven is for people like that. They are why Jesus came. To die for all their failures. But he rose again, and now if we give our hearts to him, he will transform it. And one day we’ll be like him. So Jesus encourages us:

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (6)

Where is your heart? Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness? Do you have a heart that longs to be like Jesus? Or do you simply not care? Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the religious person who is just trying to keep the rules, you will not enter God’s kingdom. God wants your heart. Does he have it?

Posted in 2018, Matthew, New Testament | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

But I still don’t feel like a saint!

Today, we’re continuing our “Saint” series.

I don’t know about you, but honestly, even after the first two messages, I still try to wrap my head around the idea that I am a saint. Saint Bruce? Really? Seriously? To me, it sounds like I have some kind of halo around my head.

As Hide said a couple of weeks ago, the Japanese word for saint gives the idea of someone who is perfectly pure and holy. For that matter, that’s what the word means when you see it in the Bible. “Saints” means “holy people.” Some modern English translations have even thrown away the word “saint,” and now use the phrase, “holy people.”

But even that has its problems. Fumi and Hide have mentioned that “holy” has the idea of “pure” or “completely different.” And so even after all these messages, some of you may still be thinking, “Okay, you say I’m a child of God. I can accept that. But I still don’t know how God or anyone else can call me a saint. I still don’t feel pure. I still don’t feel so different. How can you call me holy, how can you call me a saint when it means something so different from what I really experience?

But “holy” has another idea behind it. It also means “set apart,” and when it’s used in the Bible, it specifically has the idea of “set apart for God.”

Let me give you an example. In the Old Testament, the tabernacle and the temple were considered holy places. And everything in them, the altar, the incense, the bread, and everything else were considered “holy.” Why? Were these things somehow able to make a lot of good moral choices? Of course not. Things can’t make moral choices. Only people can. But they were considered holy because they were used solely for God’s purposes. They were his things, and no one else’s.

That’s what God means when he calls us saints. He’s not saying, “You are perfect people, living perfect lives. He is saying, “You are mine. You belong to me now.” So let’s make this crystal clear: “Saints aren’t perfect people. Saints are people who belong to God.”

We see this picture in the Old Testament. God called the Israelites to be his. He rescued them from slavery in Egypt, he led them through the desert, and when they were just outside the land he promised to give them, he said, “When you go into the land, smash all idols and altars that are there. Don’t follow after the gods of those lands.” Why not?

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deuteronomy 7:6)

In short, “I have set you apart to be my own. You belong to me now.”

Why did he choose them? Because they were better than the other people? No, he chose them out of grace. The Israelites didn’t deserve to be chosen by God. They were mere slaves when God rescued them from Egypt. And while they were in Egypt, many of them were not worshiping God. They were worshiping Egyptian gods. There was no reason for God to save them and make them his own people. Frankly, he would have been perfectly just to let them suffer and die in Egypt. But he saved them out of his grace.

It’s the same with us. God does not choose any of us because we are any better than the people around us. Every single one of us deserves to go to hell. Every single one. But God chose to save us and make us his people. He saved us and said, “You are now mine.” That is what it means to be a saint.

Now some of you might say, “Okay, great. But I still don’t feel like I’m a saint. All of you keep saying that being a saint is not about being perfect or keeping a bunch of rules. But if that’s the case, why did God give us the rules in the first place? Good question. Let’s think about those rules for a minute.

When God rescued the Jews from Egypt, God through a man named Moses gave the people many laws. That included ten basic commandments. Every other law he gave flowed from those ten commandments. But why did God give them those laws? In order to become God’s people? No, they were already God’s people. God had already chosen them and called them his own. The laws were to show them how to live as God’s people.

Without those laws, they would have had little or no idea on how to do so. Why not? Because like all of us, they were sinners who naturally did things that were wrong…and often didn’t even know it.

If you’re a parent, you understand that. I love my daughter Yumi. But sometimes, she just doesn’t think! She will run around in our apartment, giving no thought whatsoever to the people who live below us. So we are often telling her, “Yumi! Stop!”

That’s what many of the laws God gave the Jews were for. It was to tell them, “Stop. You don’t realize it, but what you’re doing is wrong. If you continue, you’ll hurt yourself, you’ll wreck your relationships with others, and most importantly, you’ll wreck your relationship with God.

If the Jews naturally did what was right, God wouldn’t have had to tell them all that. They didn’t and so God gave them the law. But there was a problem. You’d think that when the people saw God’s good law, they would say, “Oh, that makes sense. Okay, let’s do things God’s way.” Instead, it just increased their desire to sin. For some, they thought, “God is holding out on us. He doesn’t want our best. Why would he take away something we enjoy.”

Many people feel that way about sex. God says, “It’s best for you to wait until marriage. Keep sex within your marriage relationship.” But people hear that and feel like God is trying to take something good from them. They say, “If that’s what God thinks, forget it. I’m going my own way.” And they run even faster away from God.

Even when we’re not arguing with God, often times just focusing on the rule gets us thinking about the sin more. I can remember one time reading an article about the dangers of porn, and agreeing with it completely. But within an hour, my mind was going in totally bad directions. It would have been better not to have read the article at all. Before I started, I wasn’t even thinking about porn. But after reading the article, it was hard to get my mind off it. You might say, “Well that’s just human nature.” No, it’s corrupt human nature. It’s not how God created us and not what we are meant to be.

And as we look at Romans chapter 7 today, the apostle Paul talks about that exact problem. The law teaches us how to live as God’s people, but our human nature makes it impossible to keep it. So what’s the solution? How can we ever overcome sin and truly live as God’s people? Paul gives us a strange answer. We need to die to the law’s authority in our lives. Take a look at Romans 7 verse 1.

Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives? (1)

Here Paul lays out a very simple principle: when we die, laws lose their authority over us. We just passed tax season recently. Every year I have to pay taxes. But when I die, I don’t have to pay anymore. My wife might, but I don’t. I’m dead to it. Moreover because of my death, my wife becomes free from another law: the law of marriage. As long as I’m alive, she’s under the law of marriage and can’t marry another person. But when I’m dead, the law loses authority over her and she can be joined to another man. And in fact, Paul makes that illustration in verses 2-3.

And then he tells us this,

So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, that you might belong to another, to him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God. (4)

What does this all mean? Well, like I said, the law was originally for the Jews who were already in relationship with God. The point was not how to establish their relationship with God, but to keep it from disintegrating. The law taught them how to do that.

But because of human nature, they all failed to keep this law. As a result, their relationship with God was constantly disintegrating. But that was true not only for them. It’s true for every single other person that tries to keep God’s law in their own strength.

But when Jesus came to this earth, he lived a perfect life. He completely fulfilled the law. And then he died on a cross to pay the price for our sin. But as we have learned over the past few weeks, not only did he take the punishment for our sin, but Jesus’ perfect righteousness was then given to us.

It’s as if God threw away the torn filthy rags of our own efforts to be good, and put the beautiful robes of Christ’s perfect righteousness on us. And because God clothes us in Jesus’ righteousness, he no longer sees our pathetic and futile attempts to be good; he now sees us as perfect forever in his sight. So unlike the Jews, we don’t have to worry about our relationship with God disintegrating. Our relationship with God is settled forever.

Because of that, Paul says that we’ve died to the law. Don’t misunderstand me. It still tells us how to live as God’s people. But it no longer has authority to condemn us when we fail. Instead, we belong to another. To who? To Jesus. And so the way we live our Christian lives is completely different from how we lived before.

Paul says,

But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code. (6)

It says here that we don’t serve God through the written code, that is, through God’s law anymore. Instead we serve in the new way of the Holy Spirit. The Japanese translates it “we don’t serve using the “old letters (of the law),” but with the “new Holy Spirit.” That phrase “new Holy Spirit” may sound a little strange, but imagine walking into an old musty house no one has been in for years. You open the window, and a fresh wind blows in. The wind was there before you opened the window, but it brings a whole new air into the house.

Or imagine trying to study English or Japanese. I’ll give you two options on how to do it.

1. You can isolate yourself in a library with a bunch of musty old books that haven’t been touched in years and study by yourself.

2. Or you can have a teacher who when they walk into the room, it’s like a fresh breeze blows through the room. They smile, they laugh, but best of all they’re a great teacher. They explain things clearly. When you have questions or make mistakes, they don’t slap you down and call you stupid. Instead they’re extremely patient with you. Which do you want to choose?

That’s the difference between trying to follow God through keeping the laws in your strength, and having the Holy Spirit in your life leading and guiding you. He is like a fresh breeze that blows into your life and makes everything new. In fact the Greek word for wind in the Bible is the same word that is used for the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit isn’t wind. Nor is he some kind of impersonal force. He is God himself. God himself leads us into this new way of life. And that’s much better than just trying to keep a bunch of rules.

It’s as big a difference as trying to follow a map and someone actually leading you to your destination. It’s as big a difference as trying to figure out how to put furniture from IKEA together from their printed instructions, and having a carpenter right by your side taking you through the process step by step.

Think about it. A map has no heart that feels sorry for you when you’re lost. Printed instructions don’t see your frustration when you can’t figure out what they’re trying to say. And the law can’t help you to be good when you’re struggling with sin.

In fact, what the law does is condemn you when you do. The law is just. It is good in that it shows you the best way to live. But when you fail, it is cold, unfeeling, and puts you under condemnation.

And so when Paul looked at the law, and he looked at himself, and how powerless he was to keep that law, in frustration and anguish he cried out,

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? (24)

But then he said,

Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (25)

Thank God I’m not simply following a written code anymore. Thank God I’m following a living Savior who loves me and gave his life for me.

Paul then says in chapter 8 verse 1-2

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. (1-2)

Here I think the Japanese Bible gets Paul’s nuance a bit better. When Paul talks about the law of the Spirit and the law of sin and death, he’s not talking about a bunch of rules. He’s talking about two basic principles we face. The principle of sin and death is that we are powerless to overcome sin in our own strength and we deserve death because of it. But the principle of the Spirit is that when we live under his direction and leading, he empowers us to please God, and gives us life.

What does that look like, to live under the direction and leading of God’s Spirit? Paul tells us in verse 5,

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.

Paul says before we used to live according to the flesh. In other words, before we became Christians, we used to live as people in rebellion against God. We just did what we wanted, and didn’t care about what God thought about it. But Paul says that those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.

Then he tells us in verse 9,

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.

Paul here gives us the definition of a Christian. It’s not someone who was born in a Christian family. It’s not just someone who comes to church every Sunday, reads their Bibles, and prays every day. It’s a person who has the Holy Spirit living in them. How can we tell if the Holy Spirit is living in them? God has taken out their rebellious heart, and has placed in them a heart that wants to please him.

Now am I saying that Christians then live perfect lives? No, I’m not saying that, and neither is Paul. And he talks about that in chapter 7. We won’t read it today, but read  chapter 7 verses 14-23 at home. When you look at those verses, Paul clearly says that as a Christian, he wants to please God. He doesn’t want to sin. And he weeps when he fails at both. That’s the reaction of a person that is led by the Spirit. The person who is not led by the Spirit, either doesn’t care, or just makes excuses.

And so Paul warns us in chapter 8 verse 13,

For if you live according to the flesh, you will die. (13a)

If you choose to live for yourself, not caring what God thinks or constantly making excuses for your sins, it proves you really don’t have the Spirit of Christ in you. And you will be judged. But Paul goes on to say,

but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. (13b-14)

Again, it is those led by the Spirit who are true Christians. And step by step, led by the Spirit, a true Christian starts to deal with the sin their lives. And by his leading and his power, they eventually overcome.

It was funny, I was working on this message, and suddenly I heard a beeping noise from our bathroom. My daughter was calling and saying, “Daddy! Dry my hair!”

“Grrr!!!!!! I’m busy. Don’t you know I’m doing something important for God? I’ll do it later.”

The Spirit spoke. It wasn’t aloud, but it was clear. “Umm, Bruce, aren’t you writing about grace today?” “Uh yeah.” “That wasn’t very gracious.” “Right.” And I had to apologize to her for being short-tempered. That’s how the Spirit works.

That’s just a small example. Sometimes we…I struggle with much bigger things. And sometimes it can be so difficult to overcome sin in our lives. Because of that, Paul says often times we groan. We long for the day when all our battles with sin and the struggles and hurts of this world are behind us and we are made whole. (Romans 8:22-23)

But during those times, Paul says,

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people (the Greek there says “saints”) in accordance with the will of God. (26-27)

Do you ever feel lost when you pray? Do you ever even wonder if God is listening? During those times, the Holy Spirit is praying for you. The Father himself searches our hearts, and he listens to the Spirit’s prayers for you and me, because the Spirit prays in perfect accordance with the Father’s will.

That’s why Paul can say,

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (28)

Because the Spirit prays for us, because he prays in accordance with Father’s will, and because the Father loves us as his children, we know that God will work for our good no matter what struggles we’re going through.

And if that isn’t enough to encourage you, read the next few words.

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (29-30)

God knew you before the world began. He knew your strengths. Your weaknesses. He knew your past. He knew your failings. He knew your sins. And yet he chose you. For what purpose? So that you would be his. To transform you so that someday you will be just like his Son. Perfect. That you would be whole, emotionally, spiritually, physically, in every way. He knew you. He chose you. He then called you. He justified you, taking away all your sins and clothing you with Jesus’ righteousness. And the day will come when he will glorify you. Right now in his sight you are holy. You are saints. You are his. But when Jesus appears, we’ll have new bodies, new hearts, new minds. Bodies that will no longer struggle with aging, sickness or death. Hearts and minds that will no longer sin or even struggle with sin. That’s our confidence. That’s our hope.

We are saints. Not because we are somehow better than others. Not because we are better looking, or smarter, or anything else. But for reasons that we can’t even fathom, God in his grace chose us to be his own. And he will not stop working on us until we are complete.

There was a man named John Newton. He’s probably most famous for writing the song Amazing Grace. But he said something else that I think is just as important to remember. In short, he said, “I am not the person I ought to be, I am not the person I wish to be, and I am not the person I hope to be, but by the grace of God, I am not the person I used to be.”

Newton realized something important. Though we may struggle with sin, we are no longer slaves to sin or Satan. We belong to Jesus now. We are saints. Let’s say Newton’s words together.

“I’m not the person I ought to be, I’m not the person I wish to be, and I’m not the person I hope to be, but by the grace of God, I am not the person I used to be.”

Let me add one more thing to what Newton said. “I am not the person I will be.

Sometimes we look at where we are at Christians, and then we look at where we should be, and there’s such a big gap between the two. But know this: You will get there. The Holy Spirit will not stop working in you until you do.

And when Jesus appears and comes to take us to be with him, we will be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” (I John 3:2)

Plant group questions:

1. If you have time read all of Romans 7-8.

2. What did you read or hear on Sunday that made you say, “Wow! I never thought of that before.” or “That was a good reminder. I needed to hear that.” Why did you feel that way?

3. What did you read or hear on Sunday that made you say, “Ouch! It hurt to hear that. I need to repent.”

4. What did you read or hear on Sunday that made you say, “Huh? Why does the Bible say that?” or “What did the speaker mean?”

5. Have you ever had a time when you did something wrong and the Spirit spoke to your heart and said, “That’s the wrong way.” If so, what did you do? Why is it important to immediately respond to him?

6. “I’m not the person I ought to be, I’m not the person I wish to be, and I’m not the person I hope to be, but by the grace of God, I am not the person I used to be.” Can you say that about yourself? What changes can you see in your life since you became a Christian? What changes can other people in your group see in you?

Posted in 2018, Romans | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Encountering Jesus (March 4, 2018)

Today, we’re starting a series leading up to Easter, and we’re going to be looking at the final week of Jesus’ life before he went to the cross. And as we look at the scripture today, it’s very interesting to see how people reacted when he came into Jerusalem that week.

When I was a teenager, I came across a very interesting book. It was called “Joshua.” It was a fiction book, and it had Jesus coming back to the modern day world as a man named Joshua. And it imagined how people today would react if they met Jesus.

Of course it was fiction, and there were things I kind of thought, “Umm, I don’t think Jesus would have ever thought this way,” but it was interesting to think, “If Jesus were to walk in our neighborhood, how would people react to him. Let’s put it this way: if Jesus were to walk into Crossroad as a man named Joshua, and you got to know him, what would he be like? And how do you think you would react to him? Imagine he can speak perfect Japanese or English or whatever your mother tongue is.” Talk to each other for a bit. What do you think?”

What did you talk about? What was interesting about the book I read, was that the people in the book responded to Jesus the same way they responded to him 2000 years ago. Some loved him. And some utterly rejected him.

I think many of us would say, “I would love it if Jesus came down here in person. That would be great.” But remember: though many people loved Jesus, just as many if not more, were rubbed the wrong way by him. And the same is true today.

So as we look at today’s passage, I want you to think, how would you react to Jesus if you were to meet him. Is he what you would expect?

Let’s take a look at Mark 11, and see what happened. To give some background, Jesus is just outside Jerusalem, in a town called Bethany, and he gave instructions to his disciples to find a donkey’s colt and to bring it back to him. And that’s where we pick up the story today.

When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted,

“Hosanna!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (7-10)

That’s quite a welcome, don’t you think? And I’m sure as Jesus’ disciples heard all this, they got excited. “Yes! Now is the time! People are finally seeing Jesus as their king!” But as Jesus saw all the excited faces, and heard all the shouts going around him, he had a completely different reaction, and we see it in Luke 19:41-44.

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:41-44)

I have to think that part of what Jesus was talking about was something that God had said hundreds of years before through a prophet named Malachi. He basically said, “You claim you are seeking me, but when I come to you, will you really want me there? When I come visit the temple, can you stand before me? The truth is, I’m going to come and I will purify my people so that there will  be true worship in my temple. But for those who stand in rebellion against me, there will be judgment.” (Malachi 3:1-3)

And that’s what Jesus was probably thinking. Because despite all the cries of “Hosanna!” Jesus could see that in their hearts, the Jews were not really ready for him. He knew they would ultimately reject him and put him on a cross. And because they rejected their Messiah, because they rejected God when he came to them, eventually all of Jesus’ words came true when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

We see hints of this rebellion and rejection of Jesus over his next two days in Jerusalem. After looking over the temple courts that evening, he went back to Bethany to rest, but when he returned the next morning, look at what he did.

On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple courts and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, “Is it not written: ‘My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it ‘a den of robbers.’ (15-17)

What was going on? There was corruption in God’s temple. The priests had, for a cut of the profits, allowed merchants and money changers into the temple courts. The merchants were selling animals for sacrifice, and the money changers would exchange money for Jews coming in from foreign countries so that they could pay the temple tax.

What was the problem with that? There were two. First, the people were charged outrageous prices for the sacrificial animals and for the exchange “services.” The other problem was that this was being done in the part of the temple that Gentiles came to worship God. A Gentile is anyone who is not a Jew. And at that time, there were many Gentiles that believed in God, and they came to worship. But they were only allowed in this area of the temple. If they tried to get closer, they would be killed. But now, with all the noise from the animals, merchants, and customers, it was near impossible for them to do any kind of meaningful worship.

And so Jesus was furious. He said, “This place is supposed to be a house of prayer for all nations. It’s supposed to be for anyone who wants to know my Father. But you’ve turned it into a den of robbers!”

Jesus was quoting another prophet named Jeremiah here, and if you look at it at home, you’ll see some very interesting things. In Jeremiah 7, God is talking to people who were coming to the temple. They offered all these sacrifices to God, and these people were saying proudly, “This is God’s temple! God is here! We are safe here. God will protect and bless us.”

But God told them through Jeremiah, “All your sacrifices are not enough. I want your hearts. I sent my prophets to warn your ancestors about their sin, and they just got worse. And you’re not any better! You steal, you lie, you murder, you do all sorts of evil, and then you waltz into my temple and think you’re fine with me? You think you’re safe from judgment?

That may be what Jesus meant by a “den of robbers.” The word “robbers” there, can mean people who steal, and many people at the temple were being cheated by the merchants. But it can also mean political rebels. Often times we read that Jesus was crucified between two thieves. They were actually probably rebels against the Roman Empire. Anyway, a den of robbers was a place rebels went to hide out to so they could feel safe. For the Jews, they were thinking, “We’re offering these sacrifices to God so we’re safe now.” But Jesus was saying, “This place is not safe for you when you live with an attitude of rebellion against God.”

He says the same to us. If our hearts do not belong to him, if we are living in rebellion against him, nothing else matters. You can come to church every Sunday, you can sing songs, you can give offerings, you can serve in the church. But if your heart is not his, if you are instead living in rebellion against him, then all these religious things are meaningless to him. And we see that in the next few passages as the religious leaders actually question Jesus’ authority.

In verses 27-33, we find them waiting for Jesus at the temple the next day. And they said, “What gives you the authority to come blazing into our temple and causing all this chaos?”

Now Jesus could have said a lot of things. He could have said, “I’m God’s Son. I’m the Lord of this temple!” But instead he asks them a very insightful question. He said, “When John the Baptist came, was his baptism authorized by God, or was it just John trying to assert his own authority?”

Why did Jesus ask that? It goes back to the Malachi passage we mentioned earlier (It’s in Malachi 3:1-3). God said that he would send a messenger to prepare the way for his arrival. And Jesus had told the people earlier that John was that messenger. (Matthew 11:7-10) So now, Jesus was asking them, “Do you believe John was that messenger? You saw all that he did. You saw that when he came, people who had been terrible sinners repented. (Matthew 21:32) What do you think?

Jesus’ question put them in a terrible position. If they said yes, then Jesus would say, “John pointed to me as the Messiah. Why didn’t you believe him?” And that would have answered their question about his authority. But if they said no, they were afraid of the people’s reaction because the people all believed John was a prophet.

And so they said, “We don’t know.” Jesus replied, “Well then, you don’t answer my question, so I won’t answer yours.”

You can see here Jesus’ frustration with these religious leaders. Why? Because of their hard hearts toward God. Deep down, they had to know John was a prophet. They saw all the good that came out of his preaching with people turning to God. And deep down, they had to know that Jesus was right in his cleansing of the temple. But instead of repenting, their hearts only grew harder.

And so Jesus told them a story. He told a story of a vineyard that was rented out to some people. And when it was harvest time, the landlord sent some servants to collect some of the fruit from the tenants. But the tenants beat up all the servants. They even killed some of them. Then the landlord said, “I will send my son to them. Surely they will accept his authority.” But when the tenants saw the son, they said, “Now’s our chance. Let’s kill him, and then the vineyard will be ours.” They did so, and when the landlord found out, the tenants were judged and executed. (Mark 12:1-12)

What was Jesus trying to say? He was talking about Israel. In the Old Testament, Israel was often compared to a vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-7). And from that vineyard, God expected fruit. He expected the fruit of love from his people. Love toward him, and toward each other. But instead, they rebelled against him time and again and they oppressed each other. God sent prophet after prophet to them, but the Israelites beat them, and even killed some of them. Now God had sent his beloved Son Jesus to them. But they rejected him too. And because Jesus showed them their evil and hypocrisy, they even plotted to kill him. (Mark 11:18). That’s how hard their hearts were.

How about you? Do you have a heart that is soft toward God? Do you accept his authority in your life? Or do you question his authority as the religious leaders did?

That word, “authority,” is a tough one for many people to swallow. It was tough for people back in Jesus’ day, and it’s tough for many people to swallow now.

What does it mean to accept God’s authority in your life? Ultimately, it comes down to this question: what do you do with God’s Son? What do you do with Jesus? You see, the main fruit of a person who is a Christian, is that they welcome Jesus as their Lord and master. They’re no longer living for themselves. They’re living for him. So when you die, and you stand before God, the very first question he will ask is this: “What did you do with my Son?”

I asked earlier, how would you respond if Jesus were to appear in Crossroad? What do you think he would be like? Maybe some of you saw him as this really nice guy who was kind to everyone. And certainly Jesus is gentle and kind. But what happens when he also lets you know he is your Lord? That he isn’t some kind of genie that you can control? But that you need to obey him. Many people don’t like that image of Jesus. They want a God they can tame. But Jesus cannot be tamed.

I love C.S. Lewis’ the Chronicles of Narnia. You can find so many allusions to Jesus in those books. If you’ve never read them, please do. In those novels, there’s a Lion called Aslan who is a picture of Jesus. And one thing they say about him again and again is, “He is not a tame lion. He the king. He’s good. But he’s not tame.” And Jesus is not tame either. As his people, we are to submit to his authority.

The truth is though, we all fail to submit to his authority at one time or another. That’s what we call sin. Sin is not just doing things like murdering someone or robbing a bank. Sin is failing to submit to Jesus’ authority in our lives. And because all of us have failed to do so at one time or another, we deserved to die as rebels. But the amazing thing is that this Jesus, our rightful Lord, went to the cross to pay the price for our rebellion against him. We’re the rebels. He’s the king. But our king died for what we rebels did to him. We sing about it all the time, don’t we. “Amazing love, how can it be? That you my king would die for me.”

And that truth should shape how you see Jesus’ authority in your life. You shouldn’t see it as something dreadful to fear. Instead you should see the love Jesus has for you, and because of what he’s done for you on the cross, it should cause you to want to obey him. But what exactly should this obedience to Jesus look like? Let’s look at a few quick stories to see.

In verses 13-17, some of the religious leaders came up to Jesus and asked, “Hey Jesus, we know that you always teach what’s right, and you don’t care what anyone says. So tell us, should we pay taxes to Casear or not?

Why did they ask that? They were trying to trap him. If Jesus said yes, then he would lose the support of all the people that loved  him, because the Jews hated the Romans. But if he said no, he could get in trouble with the Romans as a rebel.

But Jesus wasn’t going to get caught in their trap. He said, “Show me a coin. Whose image is on it?” “Casear’s,” they said. And Jesus said, “Then give to Caesar what belongs to him. You use his money. Give it back to him. But more importantly, give to God what is his. Just as the coin bears Caesar’s image, and therefore belongs to him, you bear God’s image and you belong to him. Do you give to God what belongs to him?

A heart of obedience recognizes something very important. It recognizes who it belongs to, and it willingly gives to God what rightfully belongs to him. How many times do you hear people, even Christians, say “It’s my money, my body, my life.” If you are a Christian, you cannot say that. When God created us, we were made in his image. Now that doesn’t mean we look physically like God. God is spirit. He has no physical form. But God created us to reflect him. We think, we feel, we love, we create, we make choices. In all these ways and more, we bear his image. He imprinted his image on us from the time we were born. And because of that we rightfully belong to him and owe him everything.

That thought might sound scary to you if you’re hearing this for the first time. But let me tell you something. After nearly 40 years of being a Christian, I can say it’s worth it. If I had told God, “It’s my life! I’ll do what I want.”  I would probably still be in Hawaii. Because at first, I didn’t want to come to Japan. But by obeying God and coming, I’ve been blessed more than I can tell you. I wouldn’t trade these years in Japan for anything. And looking back now, I can’t think of one case where I would say, “Man I wish I had done things my way.” On the other hand, most if not all of my regrets in life come from holding things back from God and doing things my own way. ” How about you? Do you recognize who you belong to? And do you give God what is rightfully his?

Another group of men came to Jesus, the Sadducees. These were people associated with the priests. And yet, they didn’t believe all the Old Testament was God’s Word. They only believed that the first five books were. And that of course affected their beliefs about God and themselves. In particular, they didn’t believe there was a resurrection after we die. They believed you just live and when you die, that’s it. And because of that, they lived lives full of corruption and greed, and that’s why you saw all the merchants and money changers in the temple.

Anyway, they asked a totally stupid question of Jesus, and look at Jesus’ response.

Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? (24)

How about you? Do you know the Bible? Do you accept it as God’s word? Or like the Sadducees, do you pick and choose what you believe? Some people say, “Well, I like this part of the Bible, but I don’t like this part. I’ll accept this part, but I won’t accept that part.” But because they do that, they have terrible misunderstandings about God, about themselves, and how they should live. More than that, because they fail to obey his Word, they don’t know the power or work of God in their lives as they should. They come to church. They sing the songs. They maybe give their tithes. They go home. And they live the rest of the week for themselves. But they never truly encounter God in their lives. They never find the joy of living God’s way.

The fruit of a true Christian is one who loves God’s Word. Who understands God’s word. And who obeys God’s word. And as they do, they experience his work and power in their lives. Do you?

Another man came up to Jesus and said, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus answered,

“The most important one…is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (29-31)

Our final point, is that a heart of obedience always expresses itself in love. Love for God, and love for others. And the two are interlinked. For many people they say, “I love God, it’s just the people at church I can’t stand.” Have you ever heard someone say that? And for that reason, many people that claim to be Christians don’t go to church. But the apostle John says this,

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (I John 4:20-21)

How about you? Do you love those around you? It’s not easy sometimes. Some people, to be quite honest, are not very lovable. Do you know anyone like that? But like John says, “How can we say we love God whom we can’t see, if we don’t love our brother or sister whom we can see.” Is there someone you struggle to love? Is there someone you struggle to forgive?

Can I give you a hint on how to love them? Don’t put your primary focus on them. And don’t focus on trying to change your attitude. It doesn’t work. Trust me, I’ve tried.

“Gotta love him….boy, I can’t stand him! No, no, can’t say that! Sorry God. Gotta love him…Man, he’s annoying!”

Focusing on them and  trying to change yourself won’t accomplish anything.

Instead, focus on God. Focus on what Jesus did for you on the cross. Let what he did for you there soak deep into your heart. Reflect on how deep your own sinfulness really is. And then reflect on how much deeper the love God has for you is. And if you’re struggling to comprehend one or both of those things, pray that God will reveal it to you. Because that’s where change starts. Not with you. Not with your efforts to change yourself. But truly understanding how wide, and long, and high, and deep is the love of Christ for you. (Ephesians 3:18)

Plant group questions:

1. Read Mark 11:1-11, 15-19, 27-33. Then read Mark 12:1-34

2. What did you read or hear on Sunday that made you say, “Wow! I never thought of that before.” or “That was a good reminder. I needed to hear that.” Why did you feel that way?

3. What did you read or hear on Sunday that made you say, “Ouch! It hurt to hear that. I need to repent.”

4. What did you read or hear on Sunday that made you say, “Huh? Why does the Bible say that?” or “Why did the speaker say that?”

5. How much time do you spend confessing your sin, and also meditating on what Jesus did for you on the cross? How much time do you spend in worship, expressing your love for God, and bathing in his love? Why do these things need to be central to your life as a Christian?

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Remembering who you are

Who are you? Really? Japanese? Korean? American? African? An office worker? A teacher.  A missionary? A housewife? A student?

Are you single? Married? Divorced? Widowed?

Are you a person that has got everything together? Are you a person whose life is completely messed up?

Who are you? When you look in the mirror what do you see?

We started a series a few weeks ago called Refresh. And for a lot of us, we do need a fresh start. We look at ourselves in the mirror, and for whatever reason, we don’t like what we see.

And for a lot of us, the reason is that we’ve forgotten who we really are. So who are we? Really?

That’s a question that the Jews were facing. Because of their sin, God had turned his back on them, and allowed them to be defeated by the Babylonians, and they were exiled to Babylon for 70 years. And yet, God never truly abandoned them.

We saw a couple of weeks ago, that even in the midst of their exile, God had a plan. Their 70 years in Babylon was no accident. God told them, “Settle in Babylon. Raise your families. Pray for Babylon. And in 70 years,  I will bring you back. (Jeremiah 29:4-14)

When the 70 years were over, God did bring them back. We saw in Ezra 1-6 how God used the governor Zerubbabel, and the priest Joshua to lead about 42,000 people back to Jerusalem. And though they faced a lot of opposition, they were able to rebuild their temple, and to some degree reestablish their lives.

And now as we look at Ezra 7, about 57 years have passed since the temple was rebuilt.

But there was a problem. In a lot of ways, the Jews were still a broken people. If you look at the book of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, you see a lot of problems the people had at that time. They questioned whether God really loved them (Malachi 1:1-5). The priests’ worship had been reduced to a show, and they taught the people to worship the same way (Malachi 1:6-2:9). And as we’ll see later, many of their marriages were a mess as were their kids. (2:10-16)

Does this sound familiar? A lot of us come to God in a broken state. But then we hear the gospel, and we discover the forgiveness and the love of God. Suddenly, we have new life and new hope.

But then life hits us in the face again. Trouble comes. Hurt comes. Pain comes. And soon, we start questioning if God really loves us. Our worship of God becomes a show. Everyone around us thinks we have it all together. But our personal lives have become a mess. And the main reason is that we have lost our identity. We have forgotten who we really are. And because of that, we need to do what the Jews did: we need to rediscover our true identity.

How did the Jews rediscover their true identity? God sent them a man named Ezra.

Ezra was a priest, and if you look at verses 1-5 of chapter 7, you see his background. He was the descendant of the first high priest of Israel, a man named Aaron. Now at the time, Ezra was living in Babylon, but apparently, he had heard of the problems that his people were having in Jerusalem. And so he asked the king, Artaxerxes, for permission to go back to Jerusalem. What was his purpose? To help his people re-establish their identity. What identity? Their identity as God’s people. Look at what the king wrote to Ezra.

You are sent by the king and his seven advisers to inquire about Judah and Jerusalem with regard to the Law of your God, which is in your hand…And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates—all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them. (7:14, 25)

In short, the king was telling Ezra, “Go and check on your people. Make sure that they are living as the people of God. Teach them the words that God has given you as to how to live.”

This was no Jewish believing king telling Ezra to do this. This was a pagan king. But that’s not all. The king also gave him gold and silver to buys animals to sacrifice to God, and he returned some of the things the Babylonians had taken from the original temple in Jerusalem when they had conquered the Jews. (7:15-18)

And so Ezra went back to Jerusalem along with about 5000 people. When they returned, they offered their sacrifices to God, and Ezra started to teach and lead the people in God’s ways. As he did, they started to remember who they were.

What is our identity? Like the Jews, we are God’s people. And when you are feeling broken like the Jews were, that’s what you need to remember. You are still God’s people. You may be broken. Your marriage a mess. Your family a mess. Your finances a mess. Your whole life a mess. But you are still God’s people. What does that mean, to be God’s people?

It means that you are a people chosen by grace.

Why in the world did God choose the Jews to be his people? It certainly wasn’t because they were better than anyone else. Their forefather Abraham had been an idol-worshiper. A liar. A coward. His son had been a liar and a coward too. His grandson had been a conman. Their descendants time and again turned their backs on God.

And yet, while not all these Jews could rightfully be called God’s people, some were. (Romans 9:6-8) And you always could tell who they were, because though they fell, though they were messed up, nevertheless, God in his grace worked in their lives, and in the end, they always turned back to God, and he gave them new life.

I don’t know about you, but there were many times in my life where I questioned whether I was a Christian or not. I first prayed to become a Christian when I was around 7 or 8, and I probably prayed to receive Jesus as my Savior a dozen times after that. Anyone here identify with that at all?

I don’t know why I was so uncertain. Probably a lot of it was that I was just not a very good Christian. My non-Christian friends would ask me, “Are you a Christian?” And I was so insecure, and afraid of their reaction that I would avoid their question. I had no boldness at all. I could also look at my life and see so many flaws and sins in my life.

But here’s what I can tell you as I look back on my life now. I can see that through all my uncertainty, God was working in my life. When I sinned, I felt guilty. I never became hardened to sin to the point that I didn’t care. I always cared. And as I look back, I can see God steering my life. I can see the people that he brought in my life to teach me his Word.  To teach me to become more like Jesus. To encourage me to get involved in ministry. To eventually bring me here to Japan.

I can tell you two things about my Christian experience. First, I have seen God work in my life. And second, I deserve none of it. God worked in my life even though I have struggled with sin. He worked in me even though there were times I ran from his plan. And he just kept drawing me near.

Even now, I am nowhere near the Christian I should be. I struggle with pride. I struggle with lust. I struggle to be the man God has called me to be. And yet, I can see that for some strange reason, God never gave up on me. And it gives me confidence that he never will.

That’s how it was with these Jews. They messed up so many times. But God continued to work in their lives. Not because they deserved it. But because of God’s grace.

How about you? Some of you may have given your lives to Jesus and been baptized. But you still question whether you truly belong to God. Let me ask you something. You may not feel like a good Christian, but can you look back on your life and see God’s grace and work in your life, drawing you to himself and leading you?

Despite the fact that you may struggle with sin, and despite the fact that you fall, do you still have a desire to please him? If so,  I would say don’t beat yourself up about your struggles. It’s not the people that struggle with sin that worry me. It’s those who don’t care. If you care about the sin in your life, I think that’s evidence that God is working in you.

And the thing to remember is, he doesn’t continue working in you because you deserve it. He works in you because he has chosen you as his child, and he loves you. And each day, whether you see it or not, he is pouring his grace on you. That’s what it means to be the people of God. So rest in that grace. You don’t need to earn God’s favor. You already have it. And he won’t stop working on you until you are completed.

The apostle Paul wrote this:

being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 1:6)

So as God’s people, then, how then do we live. I think we can find the answers in the passages we just read.

First ground yourself in God’s word. That’s what Ezra taught the Jews to do. But as you do, can I give you a hint as to how to ground yourself in his word? Always read it with a focus on the grace you have received. Let me give you an example,

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children. (Ephesians 5:1).

Question: What words impress you the most from that verse? For many people, it would be the words, “Follow God’s example.” In short, “I’ve got to do better to become more like God.”

But those aren’t the most important words in that passage. The most important words are, “as dearly loved children.” When you read, that’s where your initial focus needs to be. Not what you should be. But what you are. Who you are. You’re God’s beloved children. And it’s when you truly understand who you are, and the love God has for you, that’s when you start to desire to become more like him. We become like children wanting to please our daddy. We no longer fear disappointing or angering him. Instead, we love him, and want to be like him.

The second thing is to make your life a life of worship. The Jews offered sacrifices of animals. We offer a different sacrifice. Take a look at Romans 12:1.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. (Romans 12:1)

Let me ask you again: What words impress you the most from this passage? Again, it’s so easy to focus on the words, “Offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” And that’s important. We are to give our lives to God. He doesn’t want a dead sacrifice. He wants someone who has offered everything to him. That’s the sacrifice that pleases him. But if you focus on those words, “Living sacrifice,” you’ve again missed an extremely important point. God has shown incredible mercy to you.

What does that mean exactly? Two things. First, you are far more sinful and flawed than you even realize. I don’t about you, but that thought scares me. Because I can see some pretty ugly sins that I struggle with now. But what do I not see? What do others see in me that I don’t? What pride? What ungraciousness? What selfishness? And more importantly, what does God see that no one else does? God is a holy God. And he sees every single sin and flaw that we have.

If you think that you’re pretty good as a Christian, that you’re not so bad, then you don’t truly comprehend God’s mercy in your life. We are far more sinful and flawed than we know.

But the second thing mercy means is that we are far more loved and welcomed by God than we could ever hope. Than we could dream. That’s the mercy of God. Do you understand God’s mercy? That’s what you need to understand first. And then from that understanding of mercy, flows a heart of true worship. A heart that is overjoyed to offer themselves as living sacrifices. But how do we ever come to understand that mercy and love that God has for us? Let’s look a little further into the story.

Take a look at chapter 9, verses 1-2.

After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.”

What was the problem here? Probably, as Ezra taught the people God’s law, they noticed that God had told them not to intermarry with the people around them. Why? Because they were racists? No, because they were God’s people. And the main point was that they were to separate themselves from people whose practices are detestable to God. What did that mean? In those days, it primarily meant idol worship. And often times in their idol worship, the surrounding peoples would commit sexual sin and child sacrifice. And God said, “Don’t mix with people like that.”

Unfortunately, there were many that didn’t obey. In fact, from Malachi, it seems that people were actually divorcing their wives who loved God in order to marry these idol worshipers who didn’t. (Malachi 2:10-16)

What was Ezra’s response,

When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. (9:3)

As God’s people, we are to be separate from the sin that wrecks our relationship with God. We are to keep far from it. But how do you react when God reveals your sin? So many people take sin lightly. I think a lot of Christians know sexual sin is wrong, and they take it seriously. But it always amazes me when Christians can lie without blinking an eye. And they justify it by saying, “Well it was a white lie. It doesn’t really hurt anyone.” Or they have a problem with their temper. They simply can’t control it, and they say, “Well, it’s just me. I can’t help it.” When God reveals your sin, can you say that you are appalled by it. Or as the Japanese puts it, do you actually turn pale when you realize how God sees your sin?

It says something interesting in verse 4.

Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles.

Do you tremble at God’s word? Or do you take his word lightly? God said this to one of his prophets Isaiah.

These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word. (Isaiah 66:2)

When you read the Bible and God shows you your sin, do you tremble at the weight of God’s word? Or do you say, “Well, that was for the people back then. It’s doesn’t apply to me.” You will never understand mercy, you will never understand grace as long as you keep making excuses for your sin. On the contrary, your heart will start to harden to God. And the ironic thing is, many times you start thinking you’re okay, and then you start judging other people for their sins. But all the while, you shut yourself off to the mercy of God. You are more sinful and flawed than you even know. Can you say that? Do you really believe that?

Ezra did. Look at his words.

I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. (9:6)

Then he remembered God’s mercy to them.

But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage. Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem. (9:8-9)

God did the same for us. When we were slaves to Satan’s kingdom, God showed us mercy and rescued us. He gave us new life and rebuilt our lives. How then, can we go back to our sin? When you sin, do you think about these things at all? Do you think about the mercy God has shown you? If that mercy doesn’t drive you to repentance, then there is something seriously wrong.

You cannot claim to be a Christian and live in unrepentant sin. Because by doing so, you are spitting on Jesus and all he did for you on the cross. You’re saying, “I don’t care what you did. I’m going to live my own way.” That kind of attitude shuts you off from the mercy of God. And if you take that attitude, all that’s left for you is judgment. (Hebrews 10:26-31)

But for the Jews, God’s word and his mercy drove them to repentance. It says in chapter 10, verse 1-2,

While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites—men, women and children—gathered around him. They too wept bitterly. Then Shekaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel.

Two things to note here. They acknowledged their sin and how bad they were. But in the midst of it, they remembered grace. They remembered that despite their sin, there was still hope for them if they would only repent. Still, it was a miserable day. Ezra called all the people into Jerusalem to repent. And look what it says,

And on the twentieth day of the ninth month, all the people were sitting in the square before the house of God, greatly distressed by the occasion and because of the rain. (10:9)

I can’t think of a more miserable scene. Sitting in the pouring rain, mourning over your sin. But as they did so, they found mercy. They found grace. They turned from their sin. It took time. It took three months to deal with their sin. And it may take time for you to completely deal with yours. It may also be painful.

For these Jews, they needed to separate from their unbelieving wives and children. Now I am not saying that if you married a non-Christian, that you need to divorce that person. Paul gives us specific instructions for that situation in I Corinthians 7. If you have questions about that, please ask me after service.

But if you are in sin, you need to divorce yourself  from that sin. Whether it is sexual sin. Whether it is selfishness. Whether it is brutal words coming out of your mouth. Whatever it may be. God doesn’t promise, though, that sin and its consequences can be dealt with in a moment. It often takes time. And again it can be painful.

But from the moment you repent, there is grace. How about you? Have you had that moment? That moment of sitting in the rain, in tears because of your sin? Or do you still take your sin lightly?

Now some of you may be feeling pretty bad right now. But if you are God’s people, don’t lose hope. You were chosen by God by grace. You were saved by grace. And by grace, God will work in your life until you become the beautiful person he created you to be. God had his chosen people in Jerusalem. And he sent Ezra the priest to help accomplish his purpose for them.

But God sent an even greater priest for us. Jesus came and died to take the punishment for our sin. And because God became a man, he understands us. He understands why we struggle so much with sin. He understands our weaknesses. And because of that, the writer of Hebrews tells us this.

Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

Are you broken? Have you messed up your life? If you’re a Christian, remember who you are. You are God’s child. You are God’s beloved child. God has poured out his grace and mercy on you. So approach his throne with confidence. And he will make you whole again.

Small group questions:

1. Read Ezra 7:14,25. How did God use Ezra to bring lead the Jews back to Him?

2. Have you ever doubted whether you really are a Christian? If so, why? How did you become a Christian? In what ways did God lead you to that point? In what ways did he lead you after that point? If God in his grace chose you and worked in you then, what does that tell you about what he’s doing now? If you’re not a Christian, can you see ways that God is trying to bring you to himself?

3. Read Ezra 9:6-9. What did Ezra realize about the sins of the Jews? What did he understand about God’s grace toward them?

4. “You are far more sinful and flawed than you realize.” “You are far more welcomed and loved by God than you could ever imagine?” Can you say that you have really grasped these truths in your life? Why is it important to truly understand both these truths? How would it change the way you see yourself and others? How would it change the way you see God?

5. When you read Ephesians 5:1 and Romans 12:1, what words do you focus on? Why is it important to focus on who we are (God’s beloved children, and people God has shown mercy to) before we look at what we should be (imitators of God and living sacrifices)?

Posted in 2018, Ezra | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

God revealed

Merry Christmas everyone. I’ve said this dozens of times before, and I’ll say it again, Christmas is definitely my favorite time of year. For me, I love the decorations, I love the music, and spending time with family and friends.

But as much as I love all those things, Christmas really comes down to Jesus, doesn’t it. The whole reason we celebrate Christmas is because two thousand years ago, he came to this earth as a little baby.

And normally on nights like this, in services like this, we look at passages in the Bible which talk about the birth of Jesus. But since we’ve just seen a Christmas play that showed us how Jesus came, I’d like us to focus this message on why he came.

Some time ago, I read this story of a teenage girl in the States who was really smart. She got perfect grades in high school. She had a perfect score in the national test for students who want to attend an American university. And she had a perfect score in her entrance exam to the University of California. Because of this, a reporter came to interview her, and he asked her several questions. And they were just normal reporter questions. But then he asked her kind of a strange question: “What do you think is the meaning of life?”

Now this girl may have been pretty smart for her age, but there are probably very few people that can answer that question well.

Her answer: “I have no idea. I would like to know myself.”

There are many people in this world who are like this girl. They’re smart, successful, perhaps well off, and yet they have no clue as to who they really are, where they came from, and why they even exist.

And so they try to find meaning in their lives. They try to find it in a job, in money, in a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife. But while those things may satisfy for a little while, their hearts start to feel hungry again. Dissastisfied. Empty. And they search desperately for something to fill that emptiness. Is that you?

One of the reasons Jesus came was to reveal. He came to reveal why you’re here, who you are, and who you are meant to be. But you will never discover those things, until you find out one important thing: who God is.

Some of you might be looking at me, and you’re saying, “Yeah, but Bruce, how can I know who God is? I can’t see him. I can’t hear him. I have no idea what he’s even like. How can I even know that he even exists?

Those are good questions. And they find their answer in that manger 2000 years ago. But before we can understand the manger, we need to go back even further, much further to the very beginning of time. Let’s look at John chapter 1 starting at verse 1.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. (1-2)

It says here that in the Beginning, before the world was created, before even time was created, the Word existed. What is John talking about, “the Word?” He’s talking about Jesus. Why does he call Jesus “the Word?”

Think about it for a minute. What do words do? They express who we are. If you were to watch me everyday, even if you never heard me speak a word, you could probably have some idea what kind of person I am. But if you never heard me speak, could you really say you knew me? Could you say for certain what is important to me? Could you say why I do things and what my motives are? Not really. You could guess, of course, but you couldn’t really say for sure.

But once you hear me speak, assuming that I speak the truth, you find out all kinds of things about me. You find out who I am and why I do the things I do. You find out how I think and what I value.

And here John describes Jesus as the Word of God. Jesus is the living expression of God himself. When we look at Jesus, we find out what kind of person God is. When we hear Jesus’ words, we hear how God thinks and what he values.

If you really think about it, that’s a pretty incredible thing to say about anyone. Can you imagine saying about anyone, “He is the pure expression of God. When you see him, you see God. When you hear him, you hear God.”

But John says it of Jesus. How can he possibly say such a outrageous thing?

For one thing, John tells us that Jesus was with God, specifically, he was with God the Father. The picture John is giving is that Jesus was face to face with the Father. They are in close personal relationship.

But not only that, John says that Jesus himself is God. He shares the same nature as his Father. And because he shares the same nature as the Father, that’s why we call him God’s Son. We’re not saying that God gave birth to a Son. They have both always existed from all eternity. But one of the reasons we call Jesus God’s Son is because they share the exact same nature.

So because Jesus is in close relationship with the Father, and he shares the same nature as the Father, he can express who God is perfectly.

John tells us more about Jesus.

He says,

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. (3)

If you look at the first book of the Bible, Genesis, you see something interesting. It says that God simply spoke things into existence. He said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” He said, “Let there be ocean, sky, and land,” and all these things appeared. Put another way, God created everything through his Word.

But John personalizes this Word. He says that Jesus is this Word that God created the world through. The Father spoke, “Let there be light,” and Jesus created light. The Father spoke, “Let there be ocean, land, and sky,” and Jesus created ocean, land, and sky.”

And John says that not only did Jesus create everything, he is the source of all life. In verse 4, he says,

In him (Jesus) was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (4)

I asked before what is the meaning of life? How can we find it? We can only find it by going to the Source of life. If you want to know the meaning of your life, you need to go to Jesus. Because as John says, he’s the light of all mankind. He’s the one that pierces our confusion as to who we are, why we’re here, and what we’re meant to be. Apart from him, you’ll always be stumbling around, trying to find out the meaning to your life.

John then starts to tell us what Christmas is all about in verse 9.

The true light, that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

Jesus isn’t some cruel God that says, “I know what will bring you joy, but I’m not going to tell you.” He came to bring light into our lives, so that we can find true life.

In fact, throughout history, God has revealed himself to us. But there was a problem. Take a look at verse 10.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

In other words, God has not been off hiding himself on another planet. He has always been here. The problem isn’t him; it’s us. People started looking at the sun and moon, and instead of praising God who made the sun and moon, they started to worship the sun and moon. Not only that, they started making idols out of wood and stone and started to worship these things they made. God is right here, right now, but so many people can’t recognize his presence. Instead they have so many distorted ideas of what God is really like.

And if you doubt that, just ask people in your family, your friends, your coworkers, “What is God like?” and you’ll probably get all sorts of answers, if they even believe in God at all.

God created this world, and most people still can’t recognize him.

So God did something special. He specifically revealed himself to the Jews. They actually heard his voice. They saw his handwriting. They saw him do so many miraculous things among them. But look at what happened, when Jesus appeared among them.

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. (11)

Of all the people you would expect to recognize Jesus when he came, it was the Jews. But when he came, they didn’t recognize him either. Not only that, they outright rejected him. They put him on a cross and crucified him.

But look at what John says in verse 12.

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision, or a husband’s will, but born of God. (12-13)

Although there were many Jews that rejected Jesus, there were some that believed. And Jesus gave them new life. But not only did he give them new life. He gives all those who believe in him new life too. All of us here have life. We were born in this world to our fathers and mothers. But Jesus gives us a new kind of life.

A life where we know where we come from. A life where we know why we are here. A life where we know our destiny. A life that’s full and worth living. The life of a child of God. Jesus came to reveal all this to us.

And John says in verse 14,

The Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (14)

In short, God became a man. This invisible God, this God we cannot see with our eyes, for a time became visible. And now through Jesus, we see God’s glory. More than that, we see his character, that he is a God who is full of grace and truth. Do you want to know what God is like? That is what he is like.

Can you imagine a God who lacked one or both of these traits?

Can you imagine a God who embraced lies and injustice? That would be terrifying. Can you imagine a God who embraced truth and justice, but had no love or mercy?  That would be terrifying too, because if you are honest with yourself, you’d admit that God would be able to find so many flaws in you. I know he finds a lot of flaws in me. And if he were not a God of grace and love, he would probably destroy you and me where we stand.

But in Jesus, we see that God is not simply a God that embraces truth and righteousness, but he’s a God of grace and love as well.

John says in verses 16-17,

Out of his fullness, we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (16-17)

Think about what that means for a minute. Out of his fullness. God wasn’t some lonely being that decided to create humans to cure his loneliness. He was already full. He was already whole. He had no needs whatsoever. But he made us so that he could share that fullness with us. He made us to share his love with us. He made us to share his grace with us. And it says here that in Jesus, we have all received grace in place of grace already given.

What does that mean?

Like I said, God had revealed himself to the Jews already. Hundreds of years before Jesus was born, God gave the Jews his law through a man named Moses. And through the law, God showed us who he is, and what kind of people he designed us to be. That was grace. He didn’t have to tell us any of that.

But when Jesus came, he gave us a grace that far surpassed that first grace. He actually dwelt among us. He showed us personally what our lives are supposed to be. And then he went to a cross and died for all the times we failed to be what God designed us to be. He died for all the times we turned our backs on God. He died for all the times that we hurt our family, our friends, and all those around us. We deserved to be punished. We were the ones who did wrong. But Jesus took our place. But how can you keep the author of life dead? You can’t. And three days later, he rose again. And now to those who believe in him, we find grace.

So through Jesus, we find out who God is. John says,

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (18)

No one has ever seen God in all his glory. But in Jesus, we see God in human flesh. He has made God known to us. And as he does so, we find who we are. Who are we? We are a people that were created for a relationship with God. God created us to pour all his love and life into us. We pulled away from him, we rejected him, and that’s why so many of us feel so empty. But to all who receive him, to those who believe in Jesus’ name, he gives the right to become children of God. And when we do, we find the life we were designed to have. We find the fullness and joy in life that comes from a relationship with God. That’s what Christmas is about. And that’s why Jesus came.

How about you? Do you know this Jesus? Do you know the life he came to bring us?

 

 

 

Posted in 2017, John | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Do you understand what you believe? Does it matter? (October 29, 2017)

When I was in high school or college, probably college, I remember walking home from church, and just praying, “God, if there is someone you want me to share the gospel with, let me know.”

I can’t remember what exactly I meant by that prayer. Maybe I was feeling super spiritual that day, and was ready to share my faith with anyone I met. As it turned out, just a few minutes later, I was passing by a bus stop, and a woman tried to hand something out to me: a Watchtower or Awake magazine. For those of you don’t know, those are the main magazines of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I can’t remember what I thought at that moment, but it was probably something like, “God, you can’t be serious. Her?” Anyway, I started talking with her, and one thing I figured out really fast was that I didn’t know nearly enough about my faith as a Christian as I should have. And so over the next several years of my life, I started to study it more, and I had some interesting conversations with Jehovah’s witnesses and Mormons that came to my door as a result. More importantly, I started to truly understand what I believed, why I believed it and it really shaped my life.

Today, we’re looking at I Corinthians 15, and as we do, I want you to think about these two questions: First, “Do I really understand what I believe? In particular, do I really understand what I mean when I say, ‘Jesus died for me and rose again?'” And second, “Why does it matter that I do understand? What practical significance does it have in my everyday life?”

Let’s take a look at First Corinthians 15 starting at verse 1.

Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel I preached to you, which you received, on which you have taken your stand and by which you are being saved, if you hold to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. (1-2)

Here Paul says, “People, I want you to remind you of this gospel that I preached to you. Why? Because this message that you received is what you have taken your stand on as Christans. It’s the very foundation of your life. More importantly, it’s the gospel that saves you if you hold on to it. And then he says, something interesting, “Unless you believed in vain.”

Those words “in vain” are very interesting, and you see it in the Japanese translation. The idea is that the person never carefully considered what the gospel message was from the beginning. They heard it and said, “Yeah, I guess I can believe that. That sounds reasonable.” But they never really thought about what it meant.

Many people who say they are Christians are like that. They say they believe the gospel. But it never seems to make a difference in their lives. It’s one thing to say you believe all these things. It’s another thing entirely to really think them through to the point that it actually changes the way you think and live.

That’s why Paul takes the time to remind the Corinthians and us about this gospel we believe. Take a look at what he says.

For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers and sisters at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one born at the wrong time, he also appeared to me. (3-8)

Paul says here, “When I gave you the message of the gospel, I didn’t just make this up. I received this from Jesus himself. And the very people who witnessed everything that Jesus did and taught confirmed it.” (Galatians 1:11-12; 2:2-7) What is this gospel?

First, Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures. What does it mean that Jesus died for our sins? What is sin? Sin is essentially rebelling against God. It’s saying to him, “I don’t need you. I’m not going to live your way. I’m going to live mine.” But by living that way, we hurt God, and we hurt the people around us. And if you’re honest with yourself, you can admit you’ve done that. But because we’ve done that, the Bible teaches us that we deserve death. Not just physical death. But eternal death, separated from God forever in hell.

Have you ever really thought that through? I said last month in one of our messages, that some people think God owes them something: a happy life, a happy marriage, etc. And I told you that God doesn’t owe us anything. Actually, that’s not completely true. God owes us hell. That’s what we deserve from him. Whenever you think, “I don’t deserve all the problems I’m going through!” remember, “Actually, I deserve hell. Because I have wounded God countless times, and I’ve wounded the people around me countless times as well.” When you think, “I deserve more from God!” Remember, “Yes, that’s right. I deserve hell.”

Tell me something: In your heart of hearts, do you really  believe you deserve hell? Or do you believe that you’re really not that bad? If you think that way, you don’t really understand the gospel. Because the gospel says Jesus died to take the punishment you deserve. But if you don’t believe you deserve hell, then what did Jesus die for? Nothing. But if you understand your sin, you start to truly understand God’s grace in your life: that through the cross, God gives us what we don’t deserve. Eternal life with him. A life with him that actually starts here and now. One in which, if you’ll follow him, no matter what trials or hardships you go through, you’ll find a peace and joy that only he can give. Not because you deserve it. But despite the fact that you deserve nothing but hell from him.

And all this was predicted in the Old Testament years before Jesus was even born. In Isaiah 53, the prophet Isaiah said this,

But he was pierced because of our rebellion,
crushed because of our iniquities;
punishment for our peace was on him,
and we are healed by his wounds.

We all went astray like sheep;
we all have turned to our own way;
and the Lord has punished him
for the iniquity of us all.

…he bore the sin of many
and interceded for the rebels. (Isaiah 53:5-6, 12)

We also see a picture of Jesus in the Old Testament sacrifices. In those sacrifices, we see the picture of a perfect lamb taking the sins of the people on itself before being slaughtered. The Jews even had a special holiday called the Day of Atonement that pointed to what Jesus would do on the cross. That’s why Paul could say that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. Time and again, the Old Testament Scriptures point us to Christ’s work on the cross.

Paul then says that Jesus was buried, and then rose again on the third day. Now, when we say that Jesus rose up from the dead, we don’t mean that he rose as a spirit. Sometimes people think that way, that just his spirit was raised. But Jesus was raised in his body. It was a transformed body, but it was his body that was raised, not just his spirit. And Paul says that was predicted in Scripture as well, hundreds of years before Jesus was born. So for example, David wrote this,

For you will not abandon me to Sheol (the grave); you will not allow your faithful one to see decay. (Psalm 16:10)

Jesus also pointed to the story of Jonah in the Old Testament, and said that Jonah was a picture of the resurrection as well. That just as Jonah was in the belly of a fish for three days, and came out alive , so Jesus would come out from the “belly” of the earth alive, three days after he was buried there.

And Paul says, that Jesus’ resurrection was witnessed by over 500 people, most of whom the Corinthians could still interview if they wished.

So this was the message that Paul and the apostles preached. But have you really thought about what it means to you that Jesus rose from the dead? What significance does that have for your everyday life? Many of the Corinthians had never really thought that through, and because of it, it affected their understanding of the gospel, and it affected the way they lived. Take a look at verse 12.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say, “There is no resurrection of the dead”?

Now all the people in the Corinthian church would say that Christ was raised from the dead. But despite this, there were those in the church that scoffed at the idea that we will rise from the dead too. From what Paul says later, it seems they had a hard time imagining it. Perhaps they were saying things like, “Oh, come on. We’re going to rise from the dead? What? We’re going to rise up as skeletons? All our skin will have decayed off our bones. And that’s if our bones haven’t already been reduced to dust in the first place.”

But Paul tells them this,

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is in vain, and so is your faith. Moreover, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified wrongly about God that he raised up Christ—whom he did not raise up, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Those, then, who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone. (13-19)

In short, Paul was saying, “People, think this through! Think about what you’re saying. You’re scoffing at the idea that we could possibly be raised from the dead. But if we can’t be raised, that means that Christ couldn’t have been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, this gospel we proclaim is in vain and so is your faith.

The word “vain” here is different from the one that Paul uses in verse 2. This “vain,” means “without essence or substance.” In other words, Paul is saying if Jesus is not raised, our preaching and your faith is totally without substance. It has no meaning at all. Why? Because of what the resurrection proved. What did it prove?

It proved that God had accepted the sacrifice Jesus had made (Romans 4:25). When God raised Jesus from the dead, he was saying, “Though you didn’t deserve it, you took the punishment of all these people’s sins. I accept that sacrifice for them. Now I will restore life to your body so that the whole world will know that I have accepted your sacrifice, and that now they have the hope of eternal life with me.”

That’s why Paul says that if Christ is not raised, we are still in our sins. If Christ is still dead, then it proves that God didn’t really accept his sacrifice, and we are still headed for hell. And all those Christians who have already died are in hell now. Here we are thinking that we’ll all be with God for all eternity, but in reality, we’re all still headed for hell if Christ is still dead. How sad is that.

Paul also told the Corinthians, “Not only that, think about what you’re saying about us, if you deny the resurrection. You’re calling us liars because we have testified to you that God did raise Jesus from the dead.”

Sometimes people in non-Christian universities, and sadly even in so-called Christian universities say exactly that. They say, “Well, Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead. The apostles weren’t really telling the truth about that. But hey, it doesn’t really matter. They meant their lie for good. They wanted to give people hope. They wanted to encourage people to live better lives. It was a “pious lie.” So it’s okay that they lied.

You look at Paul’s words here and you know exactly what he’d say to that. He’d spit on those words. There was no such thing as “pious lies” for Paul and the other apostles. For them lies were lies, and they would not accept their use in any circumstance, particularly when it came to the gospel.

Paul continues,

But as it is, Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. For just as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at his coming, those who belong to Christ. (20-23)

Back in the Old Testament days, there was a festival called the feast of Firstfruits (Leviticus 23:9-14). And in it, the Israelites would present an offering of the very first grain of the harvest for that year to God. They waved it before God as an acknowledgement that it all came from him, and as they did, they looked forward to the rest of the harvest to come.

Now Paul calls Jesus the firstfruits of those who have died and will be raised to eternal life. But here, it is God who presents the risen Christ for all to see to remind us that all life comes from him. Now when we see Jesus, we look forward to the great harvest of all Christians who have died and been sowed into the earth. And on that day, God will give all who have believed in Jesus new life and new bodies. So Paul tells us that just as Adam’s sin led to death for us all, Jesus’ death and resurrection gives life to all who will believe in him. When will this happen? When he returns to this earth.

And he will return. We won’t read it today, but Paul says that at that time, all things will be put under Jesus’ feet. In other words he will reign over all things. He’ll reign over all the people of the earth. And he’ll reign over death itself. Death will be a thing of the past. And then Jesus will subject himself to the Father and God will be over all.

Quick note here, because it is a point of confusion at times. We’ve taught the Trinity here before. That there is one God, and that within the one God there is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father. Yet there are not three gods. The Father, Son, and Spirit, together are the one God. How that works, I don’t know. But all are equally God. And they are all to be honored equally as God. And yet, there is a difference in their roles. And one of those differences that we see is that the Son is subject to the Father.

I talked about Jehovah’s Witnesses before, and one thing they always say is, “Well if Jesus is subject to the Father, he is obviously not God. He must be a lesser god. He’s inferior to God.” But that’s not true. The president of the United States holds a higher position than me. So does the Prime minister of Japan. But there is no way anyone can say they are somehow therefore more human than me. That they are more “man” than me. We are all equally human. And we are all equal in human dignity. Even if sometimes we don’t think so. I gotta say, I really shake my head at my president sometimes.

Anyway, Jesus is fully God as is the Father. But what we see in verse 28 is that he willingly subjects himself to the Father, and he will do so for all eternity. So if you’re ever talking to a Jehovah’s Witness, and they tell you, “Jesus said, ‘The Father is greater than I.’ (John 14:28) How can Jesus be God?” just remember, their roles are different. Jesus willingly subjects himself to the Father, that’s true, but they are still equally God.

But anyway, death is not the end for any of us. Jesus will return, he will raise us from the dead, he will reign, and most importantly, he will judge us all. And that gives the resurrection very important meaning to how we live our lives today.

Paul says, “You know, if the dead are not raised, I’m an idiot. I put my life in danger every day for the gospel. I’ve been thrown in prison, I’ve been whipped, I’ve nearly been killed. For what? If there is no resurrection,

 Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. (32)

Isn’t that true? If there is no resurrection, if there is no judgment, then why not just live how we want? And that’s exactly where the Corinthians’ beliefs led them. Paul said,

Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” Come to your senses and stop sinning; for some people are ignorant about God. I say this to your shame. (33-34)

One of the reasons that some of the Corinthian Christians were sinning the way they were was because they ultimately thought it didn’t matter. That they would never be judged for it.

Many people who call themselves Christians live that way today. Oh, they may believe in the resurrection, but they’ve never thought through what it means. What does it mean?

First, it means that Jesus is more than just a king in name. He truly is king because he reigns over everything, even death. Think about Japan and the emperor. How many of you truly think we owe him our total and utter allegiance? Probably none of you. Why? Because he is an emperor only in name.

Many people today treat Jesus just like that, as a king in name only. When it comes to their everyday life, they treat him as anything but a king. That’s why when he gives them commands that they read in the Bible, they can so easily dismiss them.

Do you do that? Is Jesus merely a king in name to you, or is he truly your king? Jesus said that on judgment day there will be many people who will say, “Lord, Lord. Didn’t I do this for you and that for you?” But because to them Jesus was only king in name, Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you.” (Matthew 7:22) What would Jesus say to you if he were to return today?

Second, it means what we do on this earth matters. Because we will be judged. We’ll be judged for if we truly had accepted Jesus as our king. And if we have, we’ll be judged for how we served him. What did we do with the gifts and responsibilities he has given us? Did we use our time well? What were our motives behind the things we did? All these things will be judged. If we did well, Paul tells us in chapter 3 we will be rewarded. If not, we’ll be saved, but all that we ever built in life, all that we treasured, all that we labored for, will be burned to dust. What will happen to your life’s labor when Jesus judges it?

But ultimately, what the resurrection shows us is that God loves us. And that he has awesome plans for us. And above all, the love God has for you should drive all that you do. Not fear that he will be disappointed in you. Not fear that he will punish you. Christ has already taken your punishment. And our resurrection from the dead will be the final proof of that. Remember, we deserve death and hell for our sin.

But Paul now says in verse 54,

Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Where, death, is your victory?
Where, death, is your sting?

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! (54-57)

When sin came came into the world, death came with it. And death had a terrible sting because we saw where it was taking us. God’s law was good and perfect, but it condemned us all to hell because none of us keep it perfectly. But Jesus lived a perfect life, and then died on the cross for our sin. And by doing all this, he fulfilled all the requirements of the law for us. Now when we put our trust in him, he not only takes away our sin, he gives us his righteousness, and we stand perfect in God’s eyes. That’s the love of Christ. That’s the love of God. And because of that we can rejoice. We can sing, “Death where is your victory? You have no victory over me. I may die here on earth, but I will be raised and live with my Lord forever.” Death has no sting anymore. Death is only the doorway to hope now.

And so Paul concludes,

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the Lord’s work, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (58)

God never promises us an easy life. Sometimes it’s very hard. But when you go through the hardest times, remind yourself: “God loves me. He proved that by sending Jesus to die for me. I am no longer condemned. I know I’m not condemned because God raised Jesus from the dead. And one day God will prove his love for me once and for all, by raising me from the dead, just as he raised Jesus.”

So don’t give up. Keep doing what you’re doing for the Lord, no matter what you’re going through. Because in the end, it will all be worth it. That’s the meaning of the resurrection. That’s the meaning of the gospel. Let’s meditate on that meaning everyday, until it really hits home with us. Because when it does, it will transform your life.

How about you? Do you really know the gospel? Has it really hit home with you?

Small group questions:

  1. When people go through hard times in life, they often question if God loves them. How does understanding the gospel message help us to see God’s love better? Think about what we deserve and don’t deserve from God.
  2. When you think about what you deserve and don’t deserve from God, how should it affect the way you treat people who annoy, anger, or hurt you?
  3. Read Luke 6:46. In your everyday life can you say Jesus really is your king? Or is he just a king in name? Why do you say that?
  4. For many Christians, their lives are driven by fear that God will be disappointed in them, or that he will punish them. What does the resurrection say about that way of thinking? What should drive your life? What drives your Christian life?
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