Keeping Freedom

As we approach Independence Day in the United States, I like to think about the Declaration of Independence and the inalienable rights that it acknowledges God has endowed for all people. The founding fathers of the United States placed their emphasis on freedom. Even continuing to today, it’s still somewhat of an experiment: Just how free can a people be? The concern is, of course, that when people have too much freedom, it results in anarchy. Just look at a room full of uncontrolled children to see how freedom can go wrong!

Our Scripture passage from Galatians also speaks to this tension. The body of Christ at Galatia had Gentiles coming into the fellowship, which is good, but they were bringing their unregulated lifestyles with them, which was introducing chaos into the body. In a case like this, humanity’s first instinct is to start making rules, setting laws, trying to bring the unruly members under control. But Paul says, this isn’t necessarily the answer. He challenges the Galatian church that it’s not about rules and laws, but rather about freedom.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:1

There’s a one-two punch to the Gospel, the coming of Jesus Christ. The first punch is the Cross of Jesus Christ, which deals with sin and judgment and wipes our slates clean. Through this, we are set free from the fear of judgment and condemnation (Romans 8:1). And this is wonderful, but it can’t stop there. We don’t just leave it at freedom. “Woohoo! Eat, drink, and be merry! Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!” No, unmitigated freedom results in licentiousness, which is a problem. We may try to combat the licentiousness with law, but that is trying to introduce an external force to solve an internal problem. The problem of licentiousness is in the heart, and that can’t be solved through regulation or governance. It never has worked, and it never will.

This is where the second punch comes in. God deals with the internal problems of the heart through the infusing of the heart of every Christian with his own Holy Spirit. The fundamental solution to all of the problems in our society and world is not a legal or political one, but rather an internal transformation that comes by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit inside each believer. This is how a people and a nation can be transformed and live in a state of harmony.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Galatians 5:16-18

The law and the flesh feed off of each other. If you really want to go to war against the flesh, you don’t do it with law, you do it with Spirit.

Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Galatians 5:24

This is the urgency of the mission of the Church in our day. We don’t need more political solutions. We need the Gospel to spread throughout our nation and world. We need the Spirit of God directing people to live together in righteousness and peace.

Each of us are individually called to apply to our own lives the one-two punch of the Gospel — to live in the freedom that comes from being forgiven, and to walk in the Spirit of God and bear his holy fruit. If we can get that into our own hearts and the hearts of our children, the strong hands of rules, laws, and government become unnecessary. Instead, we will have a taste of heaven on earth. This is what the Lord is offering his Church, both now and forever. Accept it today.

The Spirit of Truth

A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

On this Trinity Sunday, when we consider the unfathomable truth that our God is three persons in one, I’d like to spend some time thinking about the third person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. The wonderful promise of the Holy Spirit came when Jesus went to go be with the Father. Jesus was on earth for a little while, but then when he ascended back to be with the Father, he sent the Holy Spirit to be his representation on earth.

Jesus is at the right hand of God advocating for us in the heavenly realms, but that’s not a close enough relationship for God. He wants the Holy Spirit here on earth to not only dwell WITH us, but to dwell IN us. How amazing!

In John 16, Jesus told his disciples that they wouldn’t be able to bear all the things he needed to tell them at once. So he would send the Holy Spirit to guide his people into all truth, and teach us all that he wants us to know.

I love the name Jesus gave to the Holy Spirit in this passage: The Spirit of Truth. In fact, the Holy Spirit is the author of our written record of God’s truth – the Bible. (See 2 Peter 1:21.) The Scriptures teach that there is a direct connection between the Spirit of God and the Word of God.

When Christ came to earth, the Word of God was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14), but then after Christ departed the earth, now in these last days, God wants to pour out his Spirit on all flesh (Acts 2:17). That means WE, the carriers of God’s Spirit, are now the Word made flesh. What a privilege!

Compare the words of Paul in his letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians:

…Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always.

Ephesians 5:18-20

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

Colossians 3:16

Do you see the similarities in terminology there? Paul seems to be saying that being “filled with the Spirit” and letting the “word of Christ dwell in you richly” is the exact same thing! We are the embodiment of the Word of God when the Spirit of God fills us. We manifest the glorious nature of God.

The glorious Trinity is one of the greatest mysteries. God is one, but God is three. Our Godhead is a glorious fellowship of worship and love. No person of the Trinity is focused on himself, but they are continually loving and lifting up each other. And into this marvelous and mysterious communion, God has invited us. It’s breathtaking!

This is not merely a future reality. God has brought us into that fellowship today. The overflow of the love that the Father has for the Son and the Son has for the Spirit and the Spirit has for the Father, has also been poured into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Set your hearts to dwell on this gift that has been given to us not just for a season, but for all eternity!

All These Things

At the end of the Gospel of Luke, the phrase “the things” is used several times to refer to all of the events surrounding the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Luke 24:18-19, Jesus is speaking to the disciples on the Road to Emmaus, and the events of the week are referred to as “the things.” Later in the chapter, Jesus is speaking to his disciples and says to them, “You are witnesses of these things” (verse 48).

“These thing” are wonderful things, and a lot is contained in them! It can be overwhelming and too much for us to take in, but like the disciples, Jesus can “open [our] minds to understand” (verse 45).

When we celebrate the Ascension of the Lord, let’s consider two things. First, the departure of Christ from this earth, which took place at the Ascension, means that his power is distributed to all those who believe in him (verse 49). This occurs through the sending of the Holy Spirit, which took place at Pentecost. Through his departure, Jesus gives both the responsibility for his mission and his power to complete it to all those who believe in him. This means it’s not just pastors or priests who are the ones doing the work of Christ – it’s all believers!

Second, when Jesus ascended into the heavenly realms, he brought humanity into heaven to dwell beside God forever. Through the fully divine and fully human person of Christ, God and man were brought together FOREVER. Both the prophet Daniel (chapter 7) and the apostle John (Revelation, chapters 7 and 19) were given visions of a multitude of humanity worshiping God forever in heaven, with a human – Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man – sitting on the throne at the right hand of God!

The practical implication of this for us is phenomenal. We can bring all of our hopes, concerns, challenges, and difficulties to Christ, where we find grace and mercy to help us in our time of need. As the Son of Man, he can understand and sympathize with us. But as the Son of God, he grants us the power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen and enable us to overcome all difficulty and accomplish his work in this world.

The Sheep Know Their Master’s Voice

Sermon from John 10:22-30

The Feast of the Dedication mentioned in our text is referring to Hanukkah, a celebration of the liberation of the Jewish people from a tyrannical ruler. So the people of Jerusalem at that moment had freedom on their minds as they pondered the unwanted rule of Rome at the time this story takes place.

The Jews in the temple expressed their dissatisfaction when they approached Jesus in an unfriendly way: “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (verse 24). It seems as if they are blaming Jesus for their unbelief, as if their lack of faith is somehow His fault.

But He had been telling them plainly for a long time who He is, and He replies to them with that very truth: “I told you, and you do not believe” (verse 25).

Jesus goes on to say that it’s not because of His lack of truth-telling or His lack of demonstrating His power that they do not believe, but it is because they are not of His flock. He says that sheep know their shepherd, so if these people were of His flock, they would know Him.

In our culture today, most of us don’t have the chance to see a real shepherd in action to be able to envision how sheep follow them, but we can draw comparisons with our pets. My own dog, Walter, is a great example of how an animal will obey their master but not someone else. When we moved into a new home a couple weeks ago, Walter got loose and was running around the yard. One of the movers was trying to help by calling him to come back in, but Walter completely ignored the stranger. However, when I called, “Walter, come,” Walter came immediately, and he obeyed my command to go in the house. What a good dog! And this is a picture of how the sheep will obey only their shepherd and not a stranger.

The sheep of Jesus’ flock know their Shepherd. They recognize His voice, and they follow. Why? Because of the intimate relationship between a shepherd and his sheep, between the Lord and his people. He is, amazingly, both a mighty King – the Son of David, the Divine in flesh – AND he is our beloved Shepherd.

He says of His sheep, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (verse 28). What a wonderful promise! What blessed assurance! We are perfectly safe in our Shepherd’s hands. All we must do is hear His voice and follow Him.

Do You Love Me?

Sermon from John 21

I love how the Lord has a sense of humor. Sometimes He just seems to play little funny jokes on us. One moment like this was recorded in John 21 after His resurrection. The Resurrected Christ does a trick where He provides His disciples with a miraculous catch of fish before they realize it is Him, and it is this miracle that reveals to them He is there. So they rush to join Him on the shore and enjoy a meal together.

But then Jesus pulls Peter aside and He gets more serious. Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” Think about any close relationship you have… Why would someone ask that loaded question? That question only gets asked when there’s reason to doubt what the answer would be – the other person in the relationship makes a mistake, starts acting differently, or does something to harm the relationship. In this case, Peter had denied Christ three times.

So Jesus asks him, “Simon, do you love me?” (Note that He used Peter’s pre-conversion name here.) Peter is hurt and ashamed over his denial of Christ, and he says, “Lord, you know that I love You.” And Jesus asks him three times, to cut all the way down to the heart of the matter, addressing the three times that Peter denied Him. The Lord isn’t afraid to hurt us in order to cut through the issues that are keeping us from Him in order to bring us ultimate healing. Sometimes our pain has to get worse before it can get better.

But then Jesus doesn’t leave Peter in his pain. He provides him with a way to move forward: “Feed my sheep.” He’s inviting Peter to get back into the action of building the kingdom of God.

Nobody is going to love the flock of Jesus Christ more than someone who loves the Shepherd of the flock. However, humans tend to stumble, make mistakes that harm our relationship with God, and wander away to love other things more than God. So sometimes Jesus tests our love for Him in order to make us more fit for His ministry.

One interesting note about the original Greek of this passage in John is the use of two different words for love. Jesus was asking Peter if he loved Him, using the word agape, which is ultimate, unconditional, self-sacrificing love. But Peter only answered that he loved Him with the word phileo, which is brotherly love, a less passionate and devoted kind of love. Jesus asks Peter twice for agape, but Peter answers each time with phileo. But then, in what I think is a beautiful picture of grace, the third time Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?”, He uses the word phileo. Peter wasn’t able or willing to give Jesus agape at that point, but Jesus expressed that He was willing to receive phileo instead. He lowered His standard to meet Peter where he was.

Isn’t Jesus kind? He is willing to accept us where we are, to receive even the smallest amounts of love we can give Him. Yes, He wants us to love Him whole-heartedly, with an agape kind of love. But He is so kind that He won’t turn away even our phileo. He will work with whatever level of response we will give Him, and He will never remove His agape love from us no matter what.

Maundy Thursday

On Maundy Thursday, we meditate on two Passovers. The first took place in the Book of Exodus, where the firstborn of every living thing in Egypt was slain by the Angel of Death except for those who were passed over because they obeyed the Lord’s instruction to sacrifice a lamb and shield their homes with its blood. The people of Israel celebrated the Passover every year because this was such a miraculous and defining event in the history of their nation.

Many years later, Israel was once again celebrating the Feast of the Passover, and Jesus was in Jerusalem for the occasion. Jesus knew that His time had arrived, the time when He would become the Lamb who is sacrificed for the salvation of all those who would claim His blood. He was so full of love, that He was willing to make the sacrifice. Can our love go so far?

Jesus was also mindful that He was about to be betrayed by one of His closest friends. There were heavy things on His heart and mind this Feast of the Passover, but He was also fully aware that after His humbling and suffering and sacrifice, then He would be exalted to the highest place and given the Name that is above every name.

In the context of all of this, He does something very mundane. He stoops to wash His disciples’ feet. What an amazing act for the King of kings and Lord of lords! In the light of this example, is there anything that is too lowly for those of us who claim to follow Christ to do? Is there anything that is beneath us? If Christ can humble Himself, shouldn’t we as well?

There are two types of pride. The first is the type that can’t stoop down, that sees some things as being beneath them. The second type is a little more subtle, and it is the kind that Peter shows to the Lord when He wants to wash his feet. Peter says, “No, not MY feet!” This is a false humility where we wallow in our unworthiness and exempt ourselves from receiving the grace of God. When we look it in the face, this false humility is also pride. If Christ says that His sacrifice covers ALL, who are we to say that we are the only ones who aren’t good enough for it?

The word Maundy comes from the Latin “mandatum,” which means commandment. In the Passover meal with his disciples, Christ said he was giving a “novum mandatum” – a New Commandment (John 13:34) to love each other as Christ has loved us. No other religion has a New Commandment, which turns human pride on its head. Christ is exalted through service, suffering, and sacrifice, and so are His followers.

This is how the world can see that we are His disciples – by the way we pour ourselves out to love and serve others, the way He did for us.

The Curtain Has Been Torn

In the Temple of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus, there were three sections. The larger part that worshipers were able to enter was the outer courts. Then there was a private inner section called the Holy Place where only the priests could enter. Then the inner sanctum called the Holy of Holies, and none but the most holy were allowed to enter. Therefore, only God could dwell there, and a high priest was able to enter once a year on the Day of Atonement after special animal sacrifices and offerings for his own sin an the sin of the people.

Between the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place here was a large curtain that separated these two places. The curtain prevented access to the Most Holy Place where the glory of the Lord dwelt.

We see in the very beginning of the Bible (Genesis 3) and mankind’s relationship with God when Adam and Eve sinned, and they lost access to the Most Holy God. They were separated from God, and they were kicked out of the garden where God dwelt.

Ever since then, man has been longing to return to dwelling with God, walking in His presence and fullness like Adam and Eve did before they fell. Only in God’s presence can we find peace and rest. The Temple was the place where God and man could meet, but only by sacrifice could worshipers even enter the Holy Place, the outer courts of the presence of God. They were continually bringing animal sacrifices, over and over and over just to try to earn minimal access to God. It was an exhausting and ineffective way to live, because we know that “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4).

However, God had a plan to end that ineffective system. Christ Himself became our sacrifice, once for all, and His sacrifice opened the way for all of us to be restored in relationship with God. When Jesus died, “there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two (Luke 23:44-45). Jesus didn’t just pull back the curtain, He tore it right down the middle! He permanently opened the way for all of us to access the Most Holy Place, to be in relationship with the Most Holy God.

How do we respond to this powerful and wonderful truth? The writer of Hebrews tells us plainly:

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”

Hebrews 10:19-23

Think on this whenever you gather with the people of God. It is only because Christ gave you access to the Most Holy Place by His death that you are able to be in relationship with God and His people. When we lift our hearts in worship to the Lord, we are lifting them into the Most Holy Place, where Christ gave us access directly to the living God. Worship with confidence and joy, knowing that Christ permanently opened the way for you.

Attending to the Word of the Lord

The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus was “tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin.” Christ was tempted the way we are, yet our temptations are never as strong as His. That’s because we give in before they reach their full strength. Then temptation is no longer temptation, it’s sin. The extremes of Christ’s temptations are something we would never experience, because we are too weak. Yet He can sympathize fully with our own struggles with temptations. He is our example of ultimate endurance, and He is our source of comfort and mercy in our time of need. In order to find that comfort, we have to seek to draw near to His heart.

To understand better, let’s examine the wilderness temptation of Christ in Matthew 4. The first part of that temptation was to turn rocks into bread. The miracle itself of turning rocks to bread wasn’t the sin that Satan was tempting Christ to. It’s the trust in bread to fill Christ’s hunger that was the temptation. Jesus had to resist the temptation to believe that the bread itself was His greatest need, and we have to resist the same temptation. Humans are amazing at taking the most mundane things and believing they are of the utmost importance. But Jesus reminds us that “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every Word that comes from the mouth of God.”

The question is, are you present as you are hearing the Word of the Lord? Are you paying attention? It’s easy to live the church life and ignore the reading of Scripture, and we forget that the Creator of all things is lovingly speaking directly to us. Don’t get distracted, don’t zone out, don’t forget where life actually comes from.

It is an awesome responsibility to sit in the pews of the House of the Lord and have the King of kings and Lord of lords speak directly to our hearts and offer us His salvation. What a privilege that we don’t have to go to great lengths to search for the Word of the Lord. He gives it directly to us! What a gift! Don’t lose sight of how precious that is!

God makes His Word accessible and present to us. Pay attention!

Draw Near: Hebrews on Christian Worship

Now Available!

Let’s face it, the Christian life is hard. Relationships take work. Christians forget. Sometimes it is tempting to go back to the days when God was not the center of our lives—to backslide. We all are faced with tremendous pressures to drift away from intimacy with Jesus and the community of
the church. However, the Lord invites us to pay attention, to move forward, to draw near, and to live lives of worship.

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Draw Near: Introduction