Life in the Father’s House: A Meditation on Luke 15:11-32

28 Oct

Ours is a day of disconnection and uncertainty. We are more connected than ever through technology but also more isolated and lonely than ever. There seems to be no unifying purpose to life and where there is no purpose there is no hope. So it is in view of these realities that we turn to Luke 15 today in search of hope.

Luke 15 (New American Standard Bible) . . . 11 And He said, “A man had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. 13 And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.14 Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. 17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ 20 So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”

May the Lord bless the reading of His Word.

I think in this room today there may be many younger brothers and sisters and many older brothers and sisters which line up with the sons in this story. The younger brother is the one we call the prodigal son, the wasteful one. But the fact is both brothers were lost. The younger brother is just more obvious about it. He’s done with his family. He wants his share of his father’s estate, about 1/3 of his father’s possessions. This is something that wasn’t supposed to come to him until after his father’s death so basically he is telling his father that he wishes the father dead. And his father gave him his inheritance. He went far away and wasted his life, spending all his money on fleeting pleasures and ending up in poverty. He has to go feed pigs on a farm. No one helps him. No one is there for him. He chose the path of independence and now he is living with it. He is longing to eat pig slop he is so hungry. And then the Bible tells us in verse 17 that he came to his senses. He realizes out here on his own he is worse off than even the lowliest hired hand on his father’s estate. So he comes up with a plan. He will go back and apologize to his father and ask to be made a servant.

There is another brother. He asks for nothing. He serves faithfully. He keeps all the rules. He is an achiever. He’s got what it takes to get the job done. He’s the kind of guy you want to work with. But don’t cross him. He’s got a mind like a steel trap and he doesn’t suffer fools. He remembers what his younger brother did, how he dishonored the father, how he went away to live for himself. He’s not going to do that. He’s going to be good. He’s going to make his way with the father by being the exact opposite of his prodigal brother. He’s going to measure everything and make sure he’s doing it right.

These two men illustrate two ways people try to find their way in life. Timothy Keller says some people try to find life by being very bad and some try to find life by being very good. I don’t know which side you lean to. Maybe you are a person who just never quite fits in. You are a little rebellious and you like it that way. You don’t see why everybody is so uptight and you don’t see why we all can’t just have a little fun once in a while. Maybe your pursuit of pleasure has led you into some rocky relationships or put you in some tough spots but at least you lived, you know. Some of you may be trying to find life through pleasure.

Others here may be consummate elder brothers. You are convinced that playing by the rules is the way to go and you’re not real patient with people who don’t play by the rules. You’re convinced that if more people just had the self-discipline and drive that you have that the world would be a better place. In the end, your hard work and determination puts you just a cut above everybody else, especially above those foolish people who spend their money on lottery tickets and beer. Some of you here may be trying to find life through performance.

Everyone who tries to find life through pleasure will be ultimately disappointed, as will those who seek life through performance. Why? Because both are self-centered and both are alienated from the father. The younger brother saw no value in the ways of the father, so he went away and wasted his life. The older brother saw value in the father’s ways, but saw following them as a path of exalting himself, of thinking highly of himself. His place in the father’s house was not rooted in a loving relationship with his father but in how he could build a track record with his father to make him feel good about himself.

Are you trying to find life through the pursuit of pleasure or through performance? Thinking about yourself is important. But thinking about the father in this story is far more important, because the father here is clearly a picture of God.

The perceptions we have of God in our culture are accurately reflected in this picture of the father. We tend in our culture to think of God as a little outdated, a little behind the times. We think of Him as old and not really with it. Both brothers thought they were smarter than the father. But what we find in Luke 15 is a father completely in control of his faculties. We find one who knew the hearts of his sons through and through. More importantly, the father knew his own heart, a heart that beat with love, mercy and compassion.

The father didn’t wait for words of confession from the prodigal son. The father ran for him and embraced him and kissed him before he even said a word. The text even implies that the father was looking for him, as it says that he saw the young man “while he was still a long way off.” The young man’s confession, while nice, is almost ignored by the father, who immediately sets into motion the full restoration of this son to his status in the family. The son gets a robe and ring and shoes and a party not because he is deserving but because the father is gracious. “My son was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.”

The first verse of Luke 15 tells us that many tax collectors and sinners were gathering to hear Him. These words must have been like sweet music to their ears. They had all come out of a Jewish background. We would compare them today to people who had been in church as children. Many of you probably grew up in this church or one like it. But now you only come for funerals because of shame or because you feel judged. These tax collectors and sinners had a connection to the family of God but they turned away. They went their own way. And Jesus is telling them here, the Father welcomes you home. Come home. You’ll be received. You’ll be restored. And we’ll all rejoice. The Father says the same thing to you today if you identify with that prodigal son. It isn’t first and foremost about getting back into church as some sort of religious duty. It is first and foremost about coming home to your heavenly Father through repentance and faith.

The older brother needed salvation too. He was confident he was in the father’s house but he was really just as selfish as the younger brother, but in a different way. When he learns of the father’s acceptance of the younger brother, he is infuriated. He will not go in, he will not have anything to do with the party or with his father. He is deeply wounded because the father reached out a healing hand to his prodigal brother.

But I want you to note what happens. His father goes to him and begins pleading with him. The father doesn’t show compassion only to the miserable sinner, he also shows it to the insufferable “saint.” He shows it to the pleasure-seeker and the performer, to the one who thinks he finds life through being very bad, and to the one who thinks he finds life through being very good. Because both brothers need what the father can give: grace. Both the younger brother and the older brother need to know the same thing: through the father’s love I am accepted, through the father’s love I have a home.

The father won’t let the older brother go without reaching out to him. And when the older brother tries to distance himself from the family, accusing the father of killing the fattened calf for this “prodigal son of yours” the father won’t let him get away with it. No, son. “You have always been with me, and all I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” You are brothers who are both in need of my grace and that is what binds you together, that is what makes you family. It is as if the father tells us, “My love for you, not your lack of love or your dutiful love, is what makes all the difference. You have both blown it, and the only thing that will make it right is if I set it right through an act of my own compassionate will.”

You see, there was another group of people that day there listening to Jesus besides the tax collectors and sinners. It was the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The consummate elder brothers. The dutiful ones. And they weren’t even listening well. Luke 15:2 tells us they were grumbling about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them. But I am sure that some of them, when Jesus told his story about God’s outrageous grace, were listening very intently. And I am sure they heard in his words an indictment of their lives. The one who were so busy looking down on everybody else had their own issues. Life is not about being very bad or being very good. It is not about pleasure or performance. Life is about coming home to the Father’s house. Whether you’ve been away for a long time or whether you’ve been around the whole time, you need to come home today. He is waiting for you. He is looking for you. He is pleading with you. He has paid the price for you through the perfect life and atoning death of His Son Jesus. Come home. Drop the need to have it all together. Drop the urge to tear it all apart for the thrill of it. Come home. Tax collectors and sinners are welcome. Pharisees and teachers of the law are invited. Everyone in between is welcome. Let the truth of St. Augustine’s famous quote ring in your hearts today, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

John 14 “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” Thomas *said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” Jesus *said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

So let’s celebrate today. Let’s celebrate a God who so loved us that He gave His only begotten Son that we might have eternal life. Let’s celebrate because we were dead and have been made alive, were lost and have been found. Let’s celebrate that God loves Pharisees and sinners, elder brothers and younger brothers and He invites us today to enter into the fullness of life that is found in Him.

Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things”

17 Oct

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
― Wendell Berry, The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

Pastor on a Sunday Night

14 Oct

There’s a kind of tired that comes on a Sunday night.

Different than any other day.

The tired that comes from wrestling and waiting.

High moments of praise, life change, satisfied.

Walls of Jericho unbelief, only God can bring them down.

Hope and sorrow flow together, tired bones fall into bed.

Resting in sweet sovereignty.

Aware of weakness, longing for endless day as the darkness falls.

Aware. I am still with You, and You with me.

Were I not here in this church You would not leave me.

You do not call me “pastor,” you call me “son.”

You’re my home.

Can these bones live?

You know, Lord.


Expanded Notes on 1 Samuel 1-7

26 Sep

I just couldn’t get it all in on Sunday. There is always more to say than can be said. When I am done, I am always surprised how much time has elapsed (it is always later than I think).

Recently, we have been reading through 1 Samuel as a church. This is a powerful book but because of our reading schedule we have only been allotted three weeks to preach through the book. There is more than I can possibly cover in three weeks, so in this post I give the first section of the book a more extended treatment. I hope it will be of benefit to you.

First Samuel breaks down into a three point outline I would summarize like this:

  1. God’s Prophet (1-7). Main character: Samuel (along with Hannah, Eli and his sons)
  2. Man’s King (8-14). Main character: Saul (along with Samuel and Jonathan)
  3. God’s Man (15-31).Main character: David (along with Saul and Jonathan)

If I were to give a one sentence summary of 1 Samuel, I would say this: God humbles the proud and gives grace to the humble for His glory and the fulfillment of His promises. Let’s focus this morning on the story of Samuel.

The book opens with a barren woman grieving her condition as she is provoked by her rival. Readers of 1 Samuel would immediately think of Sarah and Hagar, of Rachel and Leah, barren women in rival relationships. Barren women play a pivotal role in God’s plan of redemption: Sarah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah and even Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. I believe there are two reasons God works in this way. One is to show that the fulfillment of God’s promises is God’s doing and two is to encourage us to believe when we come to the gospels that when a virgin is told she will conceive and give birth to a son, nothing is impossible to God. Our emptiness, our inability is no obstacle to His working. It is in fact when we get in the way and try to take charge of everything that we most hinder His working. God delights to make something from nothing but He won’t often work with people who think they’re really something. So we have here the first glimpse of God’s work among His people, exalting the humble and humbling the exalted.

In verses 9-11 Hannah went to the entrance of the temple where Eli was sitting. She began to pray and weep bitterly. Hannah vowed to the Lord that if He would give her a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord all his days and no razor would touch his head.

Hannah’s prayer is an invitation to us to intimacy with God. She uses the very same language that God had used when speaking of His people in slavery in Egypt. Hannah believes that the God who sees the affliction of all His people can see the affliction of one. So her prayer is intimate. Her prayer is also God-centered. She doesn’t pray for her son to be great or powerful, she simply commits him to God. Hannah’s prayer is an example also of fervent freedom. She is pouring out her soul to the Lord. She feels an intimacy with God that allows her to do that. Many of us pour out our souls to people but keep God at arm’s length. God welcomes us in our distress to come to Him. Prayer is God’s calling for us to humble ourselves and be honest with Him, to look to Him for help, to depend on Him for everything. James 4 says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” The principle of humility exemplified by Hannah is made explicit in the book of James: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” This is one of the major themes of 1 Samuel.

So as Hannah is pouring out her heart. Eli watches her pray and he sees the movements of her mouth and thinks she is drunk and he tells her to put away her wine. Hannah insists that she was just pouring out her soul to the Lord in her distress she urges Eli to receive her and Eli blesses her and she goes away encouraged. Hannah worships the next morning and then goes home and the Lord blesses her with a son whom she named Samuel. Then we see in verses 21-24 Elkanah goes up for the yearly sacrifice but Hannah does not go but stayed behind to wean Samuel. After he was weaned Hannah brings Samuel along with a sacrifice, to the temple of the Lord. At the end of the chapter they bring Samuel to Eli and Hannah tells him this boy was the answer to her prayers. She dedicates Samuel to the Lord there.

When we come to chapter two, we see Hannah’s song of thanksgiving in verses 1-10. She rejoices in God’s goodness, in God’s lifting up of the humble and His humbling of the arrogant. The prayer of Hannah points us to Christ in two ways. First, it is very similar to the prayer Mary takes up in the gospel of Luke, showing that Mary probably had Hannah’s story in mind when she prayed. Second, Hannah sees her life as being part of a bigger picture of God’s redemption. She sees her victory as a sign of God’s greater victories. If God can redeem my barrenness by giving me a son, is this not a proof that He will be faithful to His bigger plans for His people. Hannah sees herself as part of God’s great working in the world. I wonder if we often lose sight of the fact that we are part of a bigger story than just our own story?

One more observation before we leave Hannah’s prayer. Do we not see here again that the sovereign hand of God cannot be hindered and that He can take trials and turn them to gold? Penninah nagged and mocked and scorned Hannah over and over. And God used this mockery to drive Hannah to an utter dependence on Him. God worked through the evil intentions of Hannah’s rival for her good. What trials might God be using in your life to work out His plan, to draw you closer to Him?

After we leave Hannah’s prayer, we begin to see a contrast drawn between Samuel, the boy dedicated to the Lord, and Eli’s sons Hophni and Phinehas, grown men who were priests but were unfaithful to the Lord. We may bemoan the condition of our society but when the leadership of God’s people is morally corrupt, then a nation is really in trouble. This was the case with Israel at this time.

Chapter 2 verses 12-17 show us that Eli’s sons were scoundrels who dishonored God. They did not know the Lord. They take portions of the meat of the people when they bring it for sacrifice. They even threaten to take meat by force if the people will not give it to them. They abuse their religious authority. They were, then, deeply dishonoring to the Lord.

Verses 18-21 tell us that Samuel, on the other hand, is prospering in the Lord’s service. Eli is well pleased with him. Eli blesses Hannah and she has other children and Samuel grows before the Lord.

So we get here a glimpse of Samuel prospering in the Lord. And we get one last glimpse of Hannah, blessed by God, now with a house full of children. God will not fail to reward us when we dedicate our lives to Him.

Verses 22-25 take us back to Eli and his sons. He is hearing all the evil his sons are doing, their misuse of the Lord’s offerings and their sexual immorality. The news is all over Israel. Eli, now an old man, goes and pleads with his sons about their behavior. But his sons do not listen to him, because God wills to put them to death.

Eli’s greatest mistake was that he only talked to his sons instead of removing them from service. The news of their immorality was everywhere so it wasn’t like he was just finding out about what they were doing. Eli let open sin linger far too long and everyone was hurt. Open sin is a failure of humility. If I am going on in a pattern of sin, whether sexual immorality or lying or whatever, it shows that I have little regard for God and do not believe I will be judged. A humble person, on the other hand, will hate their sin and be quick to repent and seek to change patterns that lead to sin.

Verse 26 tells us meanwhile that Samuel was growing up and was growing in the Lord. It is instructive to me that while all this craziness is happening with Eli’s sons God is just working steadily behind the scenes to raise up Samuel. It is slow. It is steady. But over time God is doing His work of making a godly man. So when the time comes for Hophni and Phinehas to be removed, Samuel is right there waiting to lead well. The downfall of the sons of Eli begins with chapter 2 verse 27.

A man of God comes to Eli and prophesies against him for his failure to restrain his sons. As the priest Eli was held accountable for their failure and his whole house will be judged for his failure to walk rightly before God. Eli’s family will lose the priesthood and his sons will die on the same day and a faithful priest will be raised up, who will walk before God always. What difference might there have been, at least for Eli, if he had dealt with the sin in his midst instead of being passive and just pleading with his sons? This is so tricky because sometimes our desire to do something about a situation of sin in the church is self-righteous bluster. We get on our high horse and act with pride ourselves. But I think too often we are so concerned with sparing people’s feelings that we don’t act with love. We need to love people enough to warn them about their sin. Israel’s spiritual well-being was being hindered by the open sin of her leaders. In the same way, churches are often spiritually stifled by the open sin of leaders and members. So search your own heart today and be quick to repent of sin. But we must not be afraid to deal with broader issues of sin in our midst because it hinders the work of God. Whether our church is large or small is a secondary issue. The first issue is, are we healthy? Healthy things grow. Unhealthy things die. Churches die because not from a lack of the latest techniques and all the bells and whistles. Churches die because they are not healthy. Healthy churches deal with sin in their midst. To fail to do so is a failure of love. The hard truth is Eli didn’t love God or his sons enough to remove them from the priesthood, and in the end they lose their lives.

Against the backdrop of judgment at the end of chapter two there is the contrast of chapter three, verses one through three. Not many words and visions from the Lord but Samuel received such a vision. Eli was blind (no vision) but the lamp of God had not gone out (there was still hope). This hope was going to come through the boy Samuel.

The Lord speaks to Samuel and Samuel says “here I am,” thinking Eli had called him but Eli says no I didn’t call and sends Samuel back to bed. This happens again. Samuel didn’t understand because he did not yet know the Lord. Then it happens a third time. Eli realizes it is the Lord and tells Samuel to go back and if it happens again to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” We find here a wonderful picture of the patience of God. He will lead us along until we understand. He will not cast us aside when we can’t make sense of something. The issue is, are we walking with Him in humility? If we will come humbly before God day by day, we will find an endless stream of patience from His loving hand.

So the Lord calls to Samuel once again and Samuel hears from the Lord that he would judge Eli’s house because of Eli’s son’s actions and Eli’s failure to rebuke them. There would be no recovery for Eli’s house.

God lovingly and graciously called Samuel to Himself and called Samuel as a prophet. What a privilege to speak God’s Word! But the first word he has to speak is a word of judgment against Eli’s house. The man who had lovingly cared for Samuel all these years must be confronted with his sins. A good preacher or Sunday School teacher will not have a one-sided message. If we teach or preach the Bible, there will be great words of comfort but also words of conviction. If a message is all conviction week after week, that teacher just has an axe to grind. If a message is all comfort with no conviction, you have a fearful, man-pleasing teacher on your hands. Many have said, and I think they are right, “Good preaching comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” This aligns with the whole theme of this section of 1 Samuel. If you have a humble heart, you will love the things of God and be delighted to worship with His people and even when you can’t understand what He is doing you will seek to trust Him. But if you have a proud heart church will be a drag and you will look around you and wonder why all these people can’t get it together and you may even have a few suggestions for God about how He could do things better.

What must have been going through Samuel’s mind in verses as he went to sleep knowing he would have to face Eli the next morning? In verses 15-18 Samuel has to deliver this difficult message, which he does reluctantly. Eli submitted to God’s will.

So we see God’s judgment on Eli and his sons. In their pride they had dishonored God and done things in their own way. They had perverted the true worship of God and served themselves. In contrast, we read these words about Samuel in chapter 3, verses 19-21 – “The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there He revealed Himself to Samuel through His word.”

So by the time we get to the end of chapter 3 we see the promise that the proud will be brought low and the humble Samuel is growing in the Lord and he is beginning to be seen as a leader among the people of Israel.

God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. God Himself models that humility through sending His Son Jesus, who emptied Himself and humbled Himself and always lived with a heart of humility before the Father in His earthly life. Our calling is to trust Him and walk in humility before God all our days. But what does it look like to walk in humility? AW Tozer gives us several good principles for living in humility:

  1. Get thoroughly dissatisfied with yourself.  Complacency is the deadly enemy of spiritual progress. . . . When speaking of earthly goods Paul could say, “I have learned to be content,” but when referring to his spiritual life he testified, “I press toward the mark.”  So stir up the gift of God that is in you.
  2. Set your face like a flint toward a sweeping transformation of your life.  Timid experimenters are tagged for failure before they start.  We must throw our whole soul into our desire for God. . . .
  3. Put yourself in the way of the blessing.  It is a mistake to look for grace to visit us as a kind of benign magic, or to expect God’s help to come as a windfall apart from conditions known and met.  There are plainly marked paths which lead straight to the green pastures; let us walk in them.  To desire revival, for instance, and at the same time to neglect prayer and devotion is to wish one way and walk another.
  4. Do a thorough job of repenting.  Do not hurry to get it over with.  Hasty repentance means shallow spiritual experience and lack of certainty in the whole life.  Let godly sorrow do her healing work. . . . It is our wretched habit of tolerating sin that keeps us in our half-dead condition.
  5. Make restitution wherever possible.  If you owe a debt, pay it, or at least have a frank understanding with your creditor about your intention to pay, so your honesty will be above question.  If you have quarreled with anyone, go as far as you can in an effort to achieve reconciliation.  As fully as possible, make the crooked things straight.

But at this point 1 Samuel shifts from God’s exalting Samuel’s to the story of judgement against the proud.

The story shifts to Israel going to battle against the Philistines and suffering losses, with 4000 men dead. In chapter 4, verses 3-5, the elders of Israel are dismayed at their defeat and decide to take the ark from Shiloh into the camp. Hophni and Phinehas agree and go with them. When they arrive with the ark there was a great celebration.

Israel wants to involve God but they do not inquire of God. They do not seek His guidance on what to do. Instead they bring the ark into the midst of the camp. It sounds so spiritual. It seems so religious. But it is wrong. God never told them to do it. It is yet another example of designer religion. Israel does not want to worship God and receive all things, good and bad, from His hand. They want to control God and try to make His hand move the way they want, so that they will have victory over the Philistines. And we can do the very same thing. We can treat prayer this way. We can treat the devotional life this way. We can treat church involvement this way. We do what we do not so we can know God but so that we can have the benefits we think God will provide us. Pastor and teacher Dale Ralph Davis says, “Whenever the church stops confessing ‘Thou art worthy’ and begins chanting ‘Thou art useful’ – well, then you know the ark of God has been captured again.

The Philistines hear the shout in the Israelite camp in verses 6-11 and are terrified. They know God has delivered Israel from Egypt and fear his power. But they talk among themselves and decid to man up and face the battle. They were successful, killing 30,000 Israeli soldiers and taking the ark and killing Hophni and Phinehas. God doesn’t honor Israel when they try to do things their own way, even when they involve God in it. God will allow us to fall flat on our face even if it makes Him look bad. But God often uses these falls to bring us to the end of ourselves so that we will lean on Him with our lives.

In verses 12-14 a man of Benjamin flees the battle lines and tells the people of Shiloh what had happened and they send up a cry of grief. Eli hears them and asks what happened. The man comes to Eli and tells him. Eli was very old and blind and the man told him all that had happened. When he mentioned the ark, Eli falls off his seat and breaks his neck and dies. His 40 year leadership of Israel ends in tragedy. All of this looks like tragedy. But in the end, this was best for Israel. God is removing corrupt and damaging leadership and replacing it with the faithful leadership of Samuel. I feel sympathy for Eli. He seemed to be more godly than his sons, but in the end he was unfaithful too because he did nothing about his sons. God’s grace often comes through judgement.

At the end of chapter four, Phinehas’ wife, was about to give birth. She is dying in childbirth and when she hears about her husband and about Eli but especially about the ark, she says to name her son Ichabod, for the glory had departed from Israel, since the ark had been captured. The tragic ending of chapter four forces us to face the issue of whether the glory has departed from our own lives or from our church. Avoiding the question won’t help us. We should be careful not to confuse activity with God’s presence. God says to one of the churches in Revelation, “You have the reputation of being alive, but are dead.” So that which looks vibrant and powerful may not actually be marked by the presence of God. The glory had departed from Israel long before the ark had been captured. And in fact the capture of the ark would be a part of what God would use to draw His people back to Him. This is one of this truths we must always remember: the eternal God never stops working. If you feel your life empty of God’s glory right now, if you feel God has written “Ichabod” over our church, don’t just mourn and grieve over it, let that grief push you to repentance. Realize that God will restore those who humble themselves and live on Him alone. God may withhold His glory until we get right with Him.

Things are bleak when we get to the start of chapter five. In verses 1-5 the Philistines take the ark and put it in the temple of Dagon in Ashdod, setting it before a statue of Dagon. The next morning the statue had fallen on its face before the ark. They set him up right again. The next day he falls again and his head and arms fall off leaving only the trunk of Dagon intact.

God will not be mocked. God shows not only Israel but also the Philistines that He can’t be manipulated. He is supreme. He is the only true God. Their god Dagon fell down before the true God. And he couldn’t even get up again by himself. The irony in the fact that the Philistines had to put their god back together again would not have been lost on the first readers of this book. God is not a lucky charm. He will not be mocked.

So in verses 6-7 the Lord strikes Ashdod’s people with disease and they were desperate to get rid of the ark because they saw God’s dominance over them and over Dagon. The Philistine leaders decide to move the ark to Gath, but they too were struck by the Lord with tumors. Then the Philistines send the ark to Ekron and the people of Ekron were fearful of the ark coming to them. So they gather the leaders of the Philistines and ask them to send the ark back to Israel. Meanwhile the turmoil and death and disease continue.

Chapter six opens with the ark in Philistine territory, but not for long. After seven month, the Philistines ask their priests and diviners what to do with the ark and how they could send it back. The priests say not to send it back without a guilt offering. They suggest gold tumors and gold rats to symbolize the plagues that had fallen on them. They see this as an effort to appease God so He might turn away His wrath. They tell the Philistines to do all this and hook the ark to a cart with two cows carrying it. Their calves were to be penned up and the cows sent on their way. If they go into Israel it would be a sign God had done all this but if they did not then it would be clear to them that God had not done it.

The Philistines set up a situation where the cows would not naturally head straight for Israel. They were cows with calves back home. They wouldn’t want to leave them. They’d never been hitched up under a yoke before. Surely this would be a problem. The Philistines set up a situation where there will be no doubt about the fact that God was leading the cart.

In verses 10-12 the Philistines do what the priests said and the cows go straight to Beth-Shemesh. In verse 13 the people of Beth-Shemesh are harvesting their wheat when they see the cart. They rejoice and take the cows and offer them to the Lord. The Levites come and take the ark and the articles of gold and put them on a stone there. The Philistine leaders see all this it and return to Ekron. All this sounds like a happy ending, until we get to verse 19.

When we get to the end of chapter 6 we find that the Lord strikes down some of the men of Beth-shemesh who look into the ark. There is some dispute in the Hebrew manuscripts about how many men died, but some clearly did. But why? The text says they looked into the ark. In some way, they looked at the ark in a way that was inappropriate, that violated God’s law regarding the care of the ark in Numbers chapter 4:1-20. And so they died. God is no respecter of persons. Those who deal inappropriately with Him will be judged, whether they be Philistines or Israelites. But the really interesting part of this chapter is the question they ask, “Who is able to stand before this God?” And I believe the answer is, “Nobody.” But those who fall before this God will find mercy. We can’t do our own thing with God. But if we come to Him in the way He requires, we find mercy and life and hope. It is not because He is picky, it is because He is powerful. We can’t trifle with such power. We would not allow a three year old to drive us home from church today, because they can’t handle the power of a car. But the people of Beth-shemesh did not understand this. Instead of humbling themselves, the people of Beth-shemesh were not much different from the people of the Gerasenes who, when Jesus casts out the legion of demons from the man none of them could control, beg Him to leave town. I believe we often want the benefits of God but we don’t want God Himself. We want just enough of God to feel comfortable but not enough to feel conviction or make any changes. And this pride of heart is the very thing that keeps God from being our all in all.

The men of Kiriath-Jearim in chapter 7 verses 1 and 2 take the ark and have it for 20 years but it was not a good time. It was a time of mourning. So in verses 3-5 Samuel calls Israel to repentance and promises that if they would leave their foreign gods, God would deliver them from the Philistines.

Israel had been humbled in their circumstances. But now would they be humble? Samuel calls them to more than just mourning their sin, he calls them to real repentance. Real repentance is sorrow over sin backed by active steps to take a different path. So Samuel calls Israel to forsake foreign gods. Instead of getting God to serve us, we come to God with our exclusive allegiance. That is the heart of repentance, turning back to God. How our churches, including this church, need to turn back to God. But you know, it is not easy to truly repent. The gods of the Canaanites were attractive. Promises of material blessing, sexual fulfillment, and physical health were promised by the gods. Meanwhile, the true God promised blessing on His terms and demanded utter loyalty. The first commandment: no other gods before me. The second commandment: No making idols. The third commandment: treat my Name with the reverence it is due. The foundation of our lives is how we relate to God. But the promises of the gods scratch us where we itch on a more immediate level. And so for our day, the promises of the gods of entertainment and success and power are so alluring to us. And in our pride we see these things as superior to knowing the true God. Repentance is when we loosen our grip on idols and cast them away and take hold of God for His own sake, without any demand but with a plea for His mercy and a desire to live in His presence.

In verses 6-10 Samuel gathers Israel and Mizpah and fasts and Israel acknowledges their sin. But the Philistines hear they were at Mizpah and plan an attack. Israel was afraid and ask Samuel to continue to pray for them. Samuel offers a lamb as a burnt offering and prays for Israel and God answers his prayer, thundering against the Philistines and driving them out from Israel. Israel had a great victory over the Philistines.

Here there is no magic use of the ark. There is nothing but turning to God in prayer. Israel has been humbled. And God exalts Himself and blesses them by winning the battle. We are so accustomed to trying to reason our way through problems. How rare is it to find a man or woman who will live in utter dependence on God. Sometimes God has to take our props away so that we will lean on Him alone.

In the aftermath of the victory in verses 11-14, Samuel takes a stone and sets it between Mizpah and Shen and calls it Ebenezer, “hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” The Philistines were not a trouble to Israel anymore during Samuel’s leadership. Israel takes back land Philistia had taken and even has peace with the Amorites.

We are told to be mindful of, to remember, what God has done. We are prone to forget. We are not to live in the past but we are to let the past comfort us in the present and assure us of the future. God is faithful. And He is good.

Chapter seven concludes with Samuel judging Israel all his life, doing a yearly circuit throughout the land. And he would always return to Ramah his birthplace, where he would worship the Lord.

God may bring us Mizpah moments of revival, but he also has us on the yearly circuit throughout the land. Both the moments of revival and the consistent teaching of the Word are important.

The first seven chapters of 1 Samuel tell of the work of God through the raising up of faithful Samuel and the judgment of unfaithful Eli and his sons Hophni and Phinehas. God works on a national level to bring Israel to faithfulness through their trials with the Philistines. God brings judgment on both the Philistines and Israelites for their rival gods and their resistance to trusting in the true and living God.

Today, are you the center of the universe, or is God at the center? Are you willing to confess and forsake sin and submit your heart and life to God?

Study Notes on Ephesians 1:3

17 Jul

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,

We now transition to the body of the letter. And we open with this magnificent sentence in Greek which runs from verses 3-14. You heard that right. Verses 3-14 is one long sentence in the Greek text. It is the second longest sentence in the New Testament, a sentence of 202 Greek words. So though our English translations sometimes break this sentence into parts for the sake of clarity in English, remember that this whole section is one sentence. The fact that it is one sentence means that Paul intended it to be read or heard in a very connected way. So we will be trying to understand throughout how this section fits together and how it fits into the big picture of the book of Ephesians as a whole.

In terms of the section itself, there is a basic structure here. There is a general statement of praise – “blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” followed by the general reason for praise – “who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” So verse 3 lays out the reason for the paragraph – praise to God, and the basic grounds for that praise – because we have been blessed in Christ. From there the sentence proceeds to show us specifically how we have been blessed. The three specific ways we have been blessed revolve around three aspects of God’s work and the three persons of the Trinity and three periods of time. The first ground of God’s blessing (1:4-6) is election and the focus there is the good plan of God the Father given before the foundation of the world. Election – Father – Past. The second reason we are blessed (1:7-12) is redemption and the focus there is on the good work of the Son which is presently ours. Redemption – Son – Present. The third reason we are blessed (1:13-14) is inheritance and the focus there is the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the focus is on the future blessing of the inheritance. Inheritance – Spirit – Future. Now within this sentence there are, of course, senses in which all the persons of the Trinity are at work. So the work of election is not exclusively the work of the Father, for example. Since we worship ONE God in three persons, it makes sense that there would be overlap and interplay. Yet there is at the same time a certain emphasis in the ministry of each person of the Trinity. Along with this Trinitarian focus there is a threefold repetition of a phrase . . . “to the praise of His glory.” We will get into the meaning of this phrase when we come to it in the text but let me just say for now that Paul’s insertion of this phrase seems to do two things: first, it gives the whole sentence a heightened sense of praise. Chapter 1 really can be divided into two parts: praise (1:3-14) and prayer (1:15-23). There’s not much better to do with our lives than praise and prayer. So this phrase reminds us of the blessing and joy of praise. But in addition to this flavor of praise, this phrase reminds us that while this sentence enumerates God’s blessings to His people and that this is a cause for praise, ultimately all these things have happened for the praise of God’s glory. In other words, election, redemption, inheritance and all the rest are about God, not merely about us.

So on the whole, this sentence opens the book on a note of praise. This is fitting based on the contents of the book and is a good pattern for us. We could probably all benefit from less time trying to solve the world’s problems and more time cultivating the grace of praise.

So let’s get into the text itself now. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,

Blessed. This Greek word, eulogntos, sounds like our English word “eulogy.” We think of a eulogy as a speech given at a funeral but at its core the word carries the idea of thanksgiving for the life being remembered. Here in Ephesians we have a statement of praise to God for His work of salvation in its many facets. You may notice that this word appears in three places in this verse. The major note of this verse is that of blessing, or praise. Yet the blessing is different in each of the three cases. The first is a statement of praise to God, the second and third describe the blessings we receive from Christ and the location of those blessings, which we will look at in more detail in a moment.

With all this said, let me say that I believe this verse is also significant for its Jewish flavor. This language of blessedness is common in Jewish literature and common in the Old Testament. The book of Psalms in particular uses this formulation several times. Jewish people were taught to pray this way. There were in the first century a series of prayers called the “Eighteen Benedictions” that Jews were taught to pray morning, noon and night. These prayers were all headed by the words “Blessed are you, Lord.” So it appears here that as Paul adopted a common Gentile greeting in verse 2 and reshaped it theologically, now he is doing the same with a common Jewish expression of praise. He uses this same phrasing in 2 Corinthians 1:3 but interestingly, Peter also uses this phrasing in 1 Peter 1:3, meaning that it is at least possible that by this time this phrase was a common one in Christian usage. Based on the Jewish background of the apostles, it is not surprising that they would adapt existing Jewish forms of prayer and language to bring the saving work of Christ to the forefront. In Ephesians 1:3 we are brought  right back to the point Paul is making in this first theological section of the book, namely that through Jesus the universe has been fundamentally reshaped: individual salvation gives us one blessing after another, there is one people of God from Jew and Gentile, the height, and depth and breadth of God’s love has been realized. Causes for praise abound in the New Covenant.

be Here the word “be” is supplied, it does not appear in the Greek text, it is just understood. For clarity in English most translations add it here.

the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ  this phrase tells us that the blessedness goes to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. In other words, praise to God. God the Father is the source of every spiritual blessing. The God and Father are not two separate beings. The definite article — “the” – applies to both the word God and the word Father. But notice we have handled the whole phrase here because the God and Father is inextricably linked to our Lord Jesus Christ. This linkage serves at least two purposes. First, Christ is exalted as God through this linkage (as well as through the descriptor “Lord”) and second Christ’s is exalted as instrumental in the praise that goes to God the Father. In some sense (which we will see going forward) the praise that belongs to God the Father comes through His work through Jesus Christ. Notice here it is not Christ Jesus as in verse 1, but Jesus Christ. The emphasis here is not on His saving work as the major note but on His Lordship, His rule. This ruling nature is another mark of divinity, of equality with God. Jesus is Lord. He is Lord in contrast to the ruling Caesars, he is Lord ruling and reigning with God the Father. Praise God. And He is our Lord. He is the Lord of all who believe. He is not simply ours in the sense of possession but He is ours in the sense of our submission. We yield allegiance to Him first and foremost. He is Lord. Somebody sent me an order of service the other day from another church and their July 1st service began with the National Anthem, included the Pledge of Allegiance, contained a patriotic sing-a-long and otherwise made America the center of the service. There is nothing wrong in and of itself with an appreciation of country but it should never compete with our allegiance to the Lord. Our citizenship is in heaven. Jesus is our Lord.

So we praise God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But why? Because He is the One who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,

who has blessed us in Christ The Father and the Holy Spirit are essential to the work of God in our lives, but Christ is the center of this passage. In these first 14 verses, Christ is mentioned some 15 times. The phrase ‘in Christ’ or ‘in Him’ is used 11 times. This is so encouraging because all our lives apart before we were saved we were not ‘in Christ’ we were ‘in Adam.’ In Adam we were in sin, under the wrath of God, bound by futility, destined for hell. This reality will be further explained in chapter 2. But the contrast is being implied here at the outset. We are in Christ, we are all through faith in Christ. And that is the place not of curse but of blessing, because Christ has borne the curse. The ESV puts the words “in Christ” at the front of the sentence but they are actually at the back of the sentence in Greek and in many English translations. I think the ESV sounds better in English but just wanted to let you know that.

The focus now shifts to the what of the way God has blessed us through Christ? with every spiritual blessing There are two aspects to note here, seen in the word ‘every’ and in the word ‘spiritual.’ The word every points in the direction of what were are going to see in the next few verses and what we have already hinted at, namely that the blessings of Christ are varied and numerous, encompassing God and His work past, present and future. These varied blessings are spiritual blessings. This may be a contrast to the old covenant realities that many of the blessings of God were material. Land, cattle, a good harvest, etc. were among the blessings promised under the old covenant for those who were faithful to God. When the Old Testament prophets looked toward the new covenant they looked to a spiritual reality that would change everything, particularly realized through the Holy Spirit’s work in the human heart. So Ezekiel and Jeremiah both speak of the work of God in the heart and their words describe how God will put a new spirit within us. Material blessing and the provision of God are not entirely done away with, as we see in the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus calls us to not worry about material things even as He promises their provision when we seek first the kingdom of God. It is clear to me that the blessings enumerated here in verses 3-14 are mostly spiritual blessings. And it is telling to me that many people looking at this reality would count the spiritual blessings inferior. If you would count land or a good harvest of more value than eternal redemption, there is a failure to understand the reality of existence. But because these spiritual realities are only now realized in part, we can have more trouble seeing their worth. There is another aspect of this as well. I believe these “spiritual” blessings not only have to do with the realm of spirit as opposed to the physical, it also has to do with the work of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament promises of the new covenant pointed to the Holy Spirit work, the book of Acts revealed His work and the epistles confirmed His work. The nature of these blessings is found in the fact that they are spiritual, of the Spirit, applied by the Spirit.

John Stott says, “The teaching of verse 3 is thus to seen to be extremely important. Christians are Trinitarians. We believe in one God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. We affirm with gratitude and joy that God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing. That is, every blessing of the Holy Spirit has been given us by the Father if we are in the Son. No blessing has been withheld from us. Of course we still have to grow into maturity in Christ, and be transformed into his image, and explore the riches of our inheritance in him. Of course, too, God may grant us many deeper and richer experiences of himself on the way. Nevertheless already, if we are in Christ, every spiritual blessing is ours. Or, as the apostle puts it in Colossians, we ‘have come to fullness of life in him.’

The verse concludes with addressing the issue of where these spiritual blessings are to be found. And the answer is in the heavenly places,

Now this phrase is interesting. When we think of heaven, we usually think of the eternal dominion of God. We think usually of the future. But notice here the spiritual blessings appear to be ours already. And they are in the heavenly places. Now this could be something different than what we normally think. It may be that Paul is contrasting the spiritual with the earthly. In other words, Paul may be saying that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ in the spiritual realm. So are these heavenly places referring to the future reality of glorification or is it referring to our present life? Well, it refers to all of it. In a sense, Paul is reminding us that our union with Christ is so real and so sure that we are already united with Him in the heavenly places. Our future is secure and even now the Lord Jesus intercedes for us. Yet, in this present life we experience union with Christ, we enjoy fellowship with Him, we are empowered by Him.

Bryan Chappell helps us understand what is going on here. “On our family vacations, we enjoy going to a cabin that adjoins a deep set of woods. At certain times of the year the woods are so dense that when we have been out hiking, it is difficult to find the path back to the cabin. As night closed in during one such hike, we knew that we would not be able to spot our regular landmarks. So we began to angle through the woods in the direction we thought the cabin was. It got darker and darker; no familiar landmarks came into view. The children assumed that we were lost. I kept a brave face, as if I knew where we were, but ultimately I turned around to tell them the real situation. But just as I turned, a light from the cabin caught my eye. In the dark and dense woods we had actually walked past the cabin, but seeing the light, I knew we were safe. We were not yet inside, but the light meant that we were already safe and secure. What was my reaction to being ‘home’? Relief, and peace.

It is a similar reaction that Paul intends for us. He does not promise that we will never have to walk through the dark and dense woods. Trials are still here, disease still comes, finances are still hard, jobs and relationships remain difficult, and next steps may remain uncertain, but in Christ we are already home. We do not have to worry that there will be no place for us or that our God will not receive us, because He has already united us to His household through His Son and included us in His purposes. This gives us the confidence to be courageous in the face of opposition whether inside or outside the church.”




Study Notes on Ephesians 1:1-2

17 Jul

As we begin to look at the text of the book of Ephesians tonight, we open with the greeting, a feature prominent in many letters from the ancient world. The greeting normally was composed of three parts: a statement of the identity of the author, a statement of the identity of the recipients and a wish of blessing or greeting from the author to the recipients. Paul follows this pattern in Ephesians but infuses his greeting with Christian meaning. Let’s read it together, see how it breaks down and then see how it ties into the rest of the letter . . .

 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,

To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Let’s look kind of phrase by phrase through these verses to get the lay of the land.

PAUL – Here we find the author of the letter, and like Galatians and Romans, Paul is named in the greeting as the sole author. This is a little bit surprising in Ephesians since we might expect Timothy to be named as a fellow worker in the greeting, as he is in other prison epistles (Philippians, Colossians and Philemon). We might especially expect Timothy to be named since he would have a ministry as an elder in the church in Ephesus. Yet he is not named here. We can’t know the reason why. There is just not enough information to even speculate. It will have to be sufficient to say that Paul is named as the sole author. Of this Paul I trust you already know much. A Hebrew of Hebrews from Tarsus, raised and trained under the Pharisaic strain of Judaism, a fastidious observer of the law. A man who, observing the nascent movement to Jesus among first century Jews, was alarmed and offended. A man who joined in the offense of the Jews at the preaching of Stephen, holding the cloaks of the men who went off to kill Stephen by stoning. A man who, in his offense at the followers of the way, made it his aim to pursue and prosecute and persecute Christians. A man who, while on his way to carry out persecutions in Damascus, was blinded by a great light and encountered by the risen Christ, who asked Paul, “why do you persecute me?” So identified in Christ with the sufferings of His Church that when Paul picked on the followers of Jesus he was picking on Jesus Himself. Jesus revealed Himself to Paul that day and Paul was led to a man named Ananias who reluctantly received this persecutor into his home even as God told Ananias of the special call and mission he had put on Paul’s life to be His messenger to the Gentiles. The epitome of Judaism, the epitome of one who can see, is blinded and sent to the Gentiles. And so much of Paul’s appeal to the Gentiles springs from this very truth. If one who persecuted Christians now praises Jesus, if one who was convinced of the sufficiency of Judaism now relies on the sufficiency of Christ, what of my gods, what of my idols? If one who had little to gain on this earth because he follows Jesus and much grief to receive instead, should I not consider this Christ? Paul’s own story was a powerful part of his ministry and should continue to be so for us today. We should never skip over just precisely who it is that is writing these letters, what his former life was like. There is not only the aspect of transformation, for which we praise God, there are also the theological underpinnings of Paul’s life, wherein we see that his statements about the insufficiency of the law to bring salvation and the insufficiency of Jewish ritual to bring peace come out of a background which had tried these things and found them wanting in comparison to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus the Lord.


An APOSTLE. Here we have an intentional title. At its core the word means “one sent, an emissary.” Here it is intended to enhance Paul’s authority in the eyes of his readers. Paul is not just a leader in the church, not just a missionary, he is an apostle. As such he is tied to those who established and founded not just the church in Ephesus but the Church worldwide. The apostles were those who had been eyewitnesses of Jesus who were then commissioned by Jesus to establish His Church, the gathered people of God. Paul was an unique apostle because his eyewitness account of the risen Jesus is from the Damascus Road. It was through that event that Jesus also commissioned him. This is in part probably why Paul calls himself elsewhere “the least of the apostles” and “an apostle untimely born.” His experience of Jesus was different that the other apostles. But it was no less legitimate. This reality that Paul was an apostle should cause the readers of the Ephesians to take special notice of his message. It is also important for us to remember that Paul calls himself an apostle when we reflect on three passages in Ephesians which highlight the importance of the apostles to the early church (2:19-21; 3:1-10; 4:11-12).


Of CHRIST JESUS. Paul is not an apostle unto himself. He is an apostle that belongs to Christ Jesus. Paul’s identity is not rooted in his knowledge or his past spectacular experiences. Paul’s identity is rooted in Jesus. This focus on identity is seen most clearly in his letter to the Philippians (1:21; 2:5-11; 3:7-14). Many people have written about the word order in Paul when it comes to Jesus, how sometimes he says “Jesus Christ” and sometimes “Christ Jesus” or sometimes just one name or the other. I think in this case the most likely significance with the word order is that Paul is pointing to the identity of Jesus, namely that He is the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior. In a letter that will center so richly on the blessings of salvation (1:3-14; 2:1-10 for example), Paul makes it clear from the outset that the one who secures the blessings of salvation is the Savior Jesus.


By the WILL OF GOD. This phrase is a re-affirmation of Paul’s authority. A fuller statement of the idea of this verse is found in Galatians 1:1 where Paul asserts that his authority comes not from man nor through any man but through Jesus Christ and God the Father. So this phrase simply makes it clear that Paul’s ministry is from God and through the will of God and for the glory of God. Bryan Chappell says Paul’s statement that he ministers according to the will of God is his defense, his offense and his confidence. His defense in the sense that he can defend his authority to the church by rooting it in the will of God. His offense in the sense that he has been commissioned as an apostle by God to push against the darkness of this present evil age. His confidence in that Paul knows whom he has believed and is persuaded that He is able to keep that which Paul has committed. Paul is confident that He who began the good work will complete it. Paul is confident that God is faithful. The will of God gives us this sense of confidence. The will of God further gives us a sense of purpose. Therefore, where we see in the Word of God things that call us specifically in the will of God (our Sunday morning sermon from last week on 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 is an example) we can move forward with confidence that God will honor that course. One of the places we see this confidence in Paul is in Ephesus in the book of Acts. We read in Acts 19:11-30 . . .

11 And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. 13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.”14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this.15 But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all[a] of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 17 And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. 18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices.19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver.20 So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.

21 Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, “After I have been there, I must also see Rome.” 22 And having sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.

23 About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way.24 For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. 25 These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, “Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. 26 And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. 27 And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.”

28 When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel. 30 But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him.

Did you notice that last line? Paul was ready to rush out into the crowd when they were on the verge of rioting. Why? Because he was confident in the will of God. Paul faced an overwhelming opposition with great confidence.

Chappell says of this, “We may face similar cause for despair, such as decades of abortion acceptance in our culture of promiscuity. Yet when we believe that the Word of God has spoken and that it is the will of God to use His people to overcome the greatest challenges, we will not only still dare to speak – we will also bother to speak. When we face the consequences and devastation of generations in poverty, we still fight for justice because we know the Savior we serve still delights in mercy and ministers His grace through it. When we face unbelief, ridicule, and long resistance to the gospel in our own families, we will not give up because of the faith that God’s Word can be on our lips. We will believe that God’s will in choosing us as His servants is our defense (even though others know our weakness), our offense (even though others may say we have no right to speak) and our confidence (even when there’s little likelihood of change from a human perspective).”

To the SAINTS – In calling the believers in Ephesus “saints” Paul is using a term that had often been used in the Old Testament to refer to the people of God (Psalm 16:3; 34:9; Daniel 7, etc.). The people of the old covenant were called “holy ones” because God had chosen them and set them apart. They were to reflect His holiness through their lives (Leviticus 11:45). In the new covenant, this language was adopted by Luke (Acts 9:3), Jude (Jude 3), John (Rev. 5:8) and the author of Hebrews (Hb. 3:1). But nobody uses the language of saints more than Paul. Most of his letters greet believers as “saints” including Ephesians. It is important to remember here that when Paul uses saints, he is not referring to a group of elite believers, as the word is often used today. Sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church is probably the most obvious expression of this kind of thinking. But when Paul used saints, he was thinking of all true believers. He even used the term to refer to churches that were less than stellar in their attitudes and actions (Corinth) but were still composed of those who had trusted in Jesus Christ for salvation. The significance of Paul’s use of this term for the Ephesians though should not be lost on us. Markus Barth says, “Paul bestows upon all his pagan-born hearers a privilege formerly reserved in Israel for special servants (especially priests) of God.” And we too, through the work of Christ, are saints, set apart to God’s person and purpose.

In EPHESUS – The fact that these saints were in Ephesus should not be passed over lightly. As we said last week, Ephesus was an important city in Asia Minor and the center of the cult of Artemis, a cult of pagan worship complete with sexual immorality and greed as notable elements. It was a place of pervasive sin. These believers were plopped down in the midst of a crooked and twisted world, yet their location was a part of their identity. Yes, they were saints. But they were in Ephesus, not a saintly place. Chappell wrestles with this in his commentary . . .
“For how could there be ‘holy ones’ in a placed where politics, philosophy, economics and religion all intertwined to capture an entire culture in pervasive sin? This is a question not only for Paul’s day. For once we face the pervasiveness of sin around us and in us today, we too may wonder if there can be any holy ones where we live. Can there really be saints, consecrated ones, in a culture of pervasive sin? At one level the answer must be no. For if materialism pervades a culture, how can even Christians not misplace priorities about work, money, time, and family? Can a mother of small children not on occasion feel victimized by them for denying her a better career path? If pornography surrounds u, how can even those whose marriages are healthy and whose morals are right not be tainted by impurity? In a religious culture that worships numbers, affluence and size, are there any who are not guilty of pragmatism for the sake of success or envy of those who apparently have more than we? In a political culture convinced that human power is a path to glory, have any escaped the lust for power? In a culture where sin is pervasive, there are none who are untouched, but that does not mean sin is overpowering. By some measures our challenges will always appear pervasive and overwhelming, but through the gospel we should also realize that they can be overcome.”

And are FAITHFUL IN CHRIST JESUS – This word translated ‘faithful’ in the ESV is taken by most commentators and some translations as “believing” or “who are believers.” This is the way the Bauer Lexicon, the major Greek lexicon, takes it. They hold that it has an active force and is not looking so much at the track record of behavior among the Ephesians as at the trust they have placed in Christ. Faith is a major theme in Ephesians (1:13, 15, 19; 2:8; 3:12). Where I want to land in this phrase though is not in the discussion over the translation of the first words but in an emphasis on the last words. These believers are “in Christ Jesus.” Paul has set up a deliberate contrast here in the two phrases he has just laid before us. On the one hand these saints are “in Ephesus” on the other hand these believers are “in Christ.” They have a physical home but they also have a spiritual home through their union with Christ. They may be surrounded by sin but they are secure in Christ. This is the secret to living in a pagan world in holiness: our union with Christ. Yet we live in the world. Stott captures these ideas nicely, “Paul’s description of his readers is thus comprehensive. They are ‘saints’ because they belong to God; they are ‘believers’ because they have trusted in Christ; and they have two homes, for they reside equally ‘in Christ’ and ‘in Ephesus.’ Indeed all Christian people are saints and believers, and live both in Christ and in the secular world, or ‘in the heavenlies’ and on earth. Many of our spiritual troubles arise from our failure to remember that we are citizens of two kingdoms. We tend either to pursue Christ and withdraw from the world, or to become preoccupied with the world and forget that we are also in Christ.”

Let’s finish up tonight by taking a look at Paul’s classic greeting in verse 2 . . .

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul uses this greeting in many of his letters but it may be that he uses it with greatest significance to the rest of the book here in Ephesians, for both grace and peace are prominent themes of the letter.

GRACE to you – Paul replaces the common greeting of the day, charein, with a word with a deeper Christian meaning, charis, “grace.” Clinton Arnold says, “Paul could choose no better word than ‘grace’ to characterize the heart of his gospel message and, in fact, the heart of his theology. For Paul, God’s grace was the defining characteristic of the new covenant: “for the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all (Titus 2:11). The term itself was well-known in the Graeco-Roman world and was often used to denote the favor of the gods or the emperor toward people.”  But Paul probably also had in mind the old covenant concept of grace seen in Exodus 34 in the description given of God as gracious and kind and slow to anger and abounding in faithful love for His people. Paul believed in grace. He used the word almost 100 times in his letters. Grace is God’s favor to sinners through no merit of their own, secured through the merits of Christ, whose perfect life and atoning death God accepted as a sacrifice in the place of sinners. And the grace that saves also sanctifies. As Titus 2 says, this grace has appeared that we might say no to ungodliness and live upright and godly lives in this present evil age. The reminder we need for our lives is the one the Lord gives us in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you.” We are not under law but under grace. Grace will be a major theme in Ephesians, most notably in 2:5, 7, and 8 along with 4:7.

and PEACE – Here is the Jewish greeting, the shalom wish. It is especially appropriate in Ephesians, where Paul spills much ink explaining how Jesus has abolished the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile to bring forth one people of God, that his greeting contain elements which would put both groups under the same umbrella. In the midst of a pagan world, the saints in Ephesus needed peace. In a mixed church of Jew and Gentile, the saints in Ephesus needed peace. But most of all, before a holy God, these former idol worshipers needed peace. Thankfully, that peace comes to them through the Lord Jesus Christ. One of the chief promises of the New Covenant is the promise of peace. Ezekiel calls it a covenant of peace. Isaiah says it will be inaugurated by the Messiah, who is called ‘the Prince of Peace.’ Zechariah says it will be established by a humble king who will ‘come and speak peace to the nations.’ The angels announce at the birth of Christ, ‘peace on earth to men on whom His favor rests.’ Jesus announced in the Upper Room, ‘peace I leave with you, my peace I give you.’ And of course Paul has dealt with the issue of peace with God most powerfully in Romans 5:1, “Having been justified by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” In Ephesians, peace is seen supremely in the way the gospel brings peace among Jew and Gentile, making the two one and tearing down the wall of hostility. Altogether, grace and peace are referenced 20 times in Ephesians. So Paul’s greeting here may be more intentional than in his other letters. The very themes of Ephesians flow from this simple greeting in verses 1 and 2.

Finally, we see tonight the last phrase . . .

from GOD OUR FATHER and the LORD JESUS CHRIST – Here the emphasis in on two of the three Persons of the Trinity. The Spirit will later receive great attention in Ephesians, making the book one of the most deeply Trinitarian books in the Bible. At this point, the emphasis is on the Father and Son as the source of grace and peace. The focus on the Father here is that He is God, in contrast to the false gods of Ephesus, and that He is OUR Father, we are part of His family. Those who were far off have been brought near. The focus on the Son here is that He is Lord, in contrast to the Emperor, and that He is our Savior, who opens the way to life with God.

Stott sums all of this up very well when he says, “Finally, before leaving the introduction to the letter, we must not miss the vital link between the author, the readers and the message. It is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. For Paul the author is ‘an apostle of Christ Jesus’, the readers are themselves in Christ Jesus, and the blessing comes to them both from God our Father and from . . . the Lord Jesus Christ, who are bracketed as the single spring from which grace and peace flow forth. Thus the Lord Jesus Christ dominates Paul’s mind and fills his vision. It seems almost as if he feels compelled to bring Jesus Christ into every sentence as he writes, at least at the beginning of this letter. For it is through and in Jesus Christ that God’s new society has come into being.





Sermon: Jericho

17 Jul

In our day of high technology we might think that military battle has changed. In some ways it has. To be sure, in Joshua there were no drones or missiles. There were no battleships off the Mediterranean coast. It was just man-to-man combat. But even today, military leaders study the battles of history, because there are principles there that are unchanging. With the people of Israel, as the returned to the land God had promised them, they used two tried and true strategies. First, they divide and conquer. Jericho was in the heart of the land. By cutting through the middle of the land and establishing strength, the peoples of the land would be weakened and become more subject to defeat at Israel’s hand. Second, Israel’s strategy is to claim the high ground. They go into Jericho which is at the foot of the hill country. From Jericho as a base they can go up into Ai and from there they can go into all the hill country and have the military advantage. So the things Israel did were not unusual on one level. They were strategies that were tried and true even in that day. But when we actually read Joshua chapter 6, we find that the way they carried out this well-worn strategy was highly unusual, because it was all directed by God and involved God’s miraculous intervention.

As Christians, we don’t look particularly different from the rest of the world. We all do many of the same things the rest of the world does: we eat, sleep, get dressed, work, travel, manage money, have families, go to school and all the rest. But there is in the life of a Christian to be a pattern of life that is unique. This pattern is laid out in the account of the battle of Jericho but it appears all through the Bible and is still at work in our lives as well. The pattern works whether we are in the battle of Jericho or whether we are in the battle of school or whether we are in the battle of the office or whether we are in the battle of parenting toddlers or teenagers or whether we are in the battle of aging. There is a time-tested, Holy Spirit-inspired pattern for living which we would do well to remember: it is simply this . . . God Gives the Word, God Gives the Way, God Gives the Win.

GOD GIVES THE WORD     Look at Joshua 6:1-2 . . .

Now Jericho was shut up inside and outside because of the people of Israel. None went out, and none came in. And the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and mighty men of valor.

In Jericho, God gave the word to Joshua. He gave it in the form of a command and a promise. The command had been the long-standing call of God for the people of Israel to go back from Egypt into their God-given land and conquer that land. The promise was that the Lord would be with them and that they would be successful. This theme of command and promise runs all throughout scripture. This is how God works. He calls us to His purposes and gives us His promises. Our calling first and foremost is to trust Him. This is what Joshua and the Israelites did at Jericho. This is what we are to do in our lives. When we see a command of God that is for us in the Bible, we should trust God enough to walk in that truth. It is true that we are not under law but under grace but it is also true that Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commands.” Jesus’ chief commands to us are to believe on Him and to love God and one another. But the New Testament is filled with specific ways we can love God and one another and though we are not under the Old Testament law, it too is filled with God-inspired wisdom for living. So the question is not only will we believe the Bible is the Word of God, the question is will we really listen to what it says and walk in its truth? I know there are people today who take the Bible literally but they don’t take the Bible seriously. Jesus really did say what He said for our sakes. His sayings should not be quarantined for some other age. The apostles wrote letters to churches which were intended for the saints through all the ages. And the Old Testament, as Paul reminds us, was written for our instruction. So we are to hear and heed the commands of God by faith. But the other part of that well-worn biblical formula is true as well, with the command comes a promise. The reward of obedience is real. God rewards faithful obedience. When we walk in His ways we reap life and strength and blessing. When we wander from His ways we reap weakness and confusion and defeat. This is why Israel in obedience had victory over the larger city in Jericho but in disobedience was thrown into confusion and defeat in the tiny town of Ai. Remember this truth. Command and promise. God Gives the Word.

 GOD GIVES THE WAY        Look at verses 3 through 5 . . .

You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus shall you do for six days. Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. And when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people shall go up, everyone straight before him.”

God gives the way for His commands to be fulfilled and His promises to be unleashed. When we read of His way in Joshua 6 we should be struck by the oddness of His ways to our way of thinking. No weapons, no siege works and military posturing. Just a march around the city, the blowing of trumpets, the presence of the ark. But with it the promise of a miracle. Walls will fall.

The ways of God are foolishness to the unspiritual person. God’s seemingly strange ways are on display all through the Bible. Noah builds an ark before an incredulous audience. God calls Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac and Abraham is willing until God intervenes. God elevates the slave Joseph to second in command in Egypt. God calls Moses at 80 years old to lead Israel out of Egypt. Gideon has this huge army to square off against the Midianites until God tells him to whittle it down to 300 and gives him a strategy that involves torches and breaking pitchers. Over and over all through the Bible God’s strange ways are on display. And nowhere is this more evident than in the coming of the Lord Jesus Himself. God comes to us as a baby, a baby. A baby born to a family of lowly means, a baby raised in an obscure place. A baby who is the Son of God yet who had no form or majesty that we should look at Him and no beauty that we should be drawn to Him. A King who has nowhere to lay His head. One who controls nature and demons and disease and death and yet submitted Himself to death, even death on a cross. The God-Man, who cried out in agony “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?”

Hallelujah, what a Savior! God Gives the Way. Jesus, who said, “I AM the WAY and the truth and the life, no man comes to the Father except through me.”

God Gives the Word, God Gives the Way and finally . . .


Look at verse 20 . . .

20 So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city.

God gave the win. This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. If you will believe God’s Word and follow God’s Way you will have God’s Win. This doesn’t mean of course that all in your life will be blessed according to your desires or definition but it does mean you will be blessed. You will be blessed with deeper and fuller intimacy with God. You will be blessed with a heart that can see and savor God as never before. You will be blessed with stability of heart that can take both the hardships and joys of life with a right perspective of humility and hope. God defines the win but it is indeed a win. God can define wins better than we. We sometimes think something is a win when God knows having that thing would destroy us. I don’t want my wins, I want God’s wins for me. And I know that if I trust in God’s Word and follow God’s Way I will experience God’s Win. In fact, even my losses will be wins because God will work in all things for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. The dividing line between the miserable and the mighty in faith is this message. To hear a Word from God and to know the Way of God and not walk in it is of all things most miserable. Like going to a weight loss seminar when you have no intention of changing your diet. You see the success stories, you hear of the exciting changes but deep down you know you are just going to keep eating Twinkies. That is the life of many people in churches all over America today. I suggest to you that the perpetually discouraged person has faltered somewhere along the line to believe that God gives the Word, God gives the Way and God gives the Win.

If you are discouraged, defeated, burned out, broken down or otherwise just inwardly drained this morning, I encourage you to carefully consider the pattern we see in Joshua 6: God gives the Word, God gives the Way, God gives the Win. In thinking about your life, is your heart in alignment with these three truths? Or is your faith failing at one or more of these points? This is the issue that you need to settle in your heart and re-affirm in your mind day by day. Today I will take seriously what God has said, I will follow the steps He has given me for my life, and I will experience His victory on His terms for my eternal good, for His glory and for the blessing of others.

Nowhere is the truth of this passage clearer than at the cross. God gave the Word before the foundation of the world that He would redeem a people for Himself through the sacrifice of His Son. God gave the Way: in the fullness of time God sent His Son born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those under the law. It looked foolish to many. Many said he had a demon. His own family said He was crazy. But Jesus set His face like a flint to obey the Father. This was His mission first and foremost: obedience to the Father. And God gave the Win. Through suffering, through death, through the empty tomb, God gave the Win. It was difficult a road of suffering that led to victory. And so it will be for us. Wins are costly. Our victory cost the life’s blood of God’s Son and our daily victories cost us death to self. But they are victories. As we partake of the Lord’s Supper today, remember this word from Joshua 6 and from all the Scriptures: God Gives the Word, God Gives the Way, God Gives the Win.  We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. Amen.

Sermon: Joshua’s Seminary

17 Jul

          I hope you have been doing your daily Bible reading and that you were blessed in reading the first five chapters of Joshua this week. As we get Back to Basics in 2018, Bible reading, prayer and meditation should be an important part of your life as a follower of Jesus. So I hope you will read the scriptures each day, and think about what you read, and pray it back to God, along with your other requests. To be honest, reading the Bible is not very helpful without meditation. If you don’t spend some real time prayerfully thinking about what you read, most of the time Bible reading won’t strengthen you spiritually as it should. So just a word of encouragement.

          Now today’s message is going to be unusual because I am not actually going to talk this morning about the chapters you read this week. Instead, I am going to talk about the things Joshua experienced leading up to the time when he assumed leadership of Israel in Joshua 1. So I’ve called today’s message Joshua’s Seminary. We are going to look today at the training God gave this man for leadership. In so doing we will have a better grasp on the book of Joshua and, Lord willing, we will gain many insights into our lives as followers of Jesus. God’s training is not just for those who go to school formally. God wants to teach us all through the school of life to follow Him. His school unfolds over a period of years. God work in our lives isn’t time-restricted, He can work right now into your lives things that may not become apparent until many years from now. So this is a message about God’s ways and work in our lives.

          Joshua’s story starts long before the book that bears his name. He experienced the events of deliverance in the book of Exodus. He saw the plagues against Egypt, he took part in the Passover meal and saw the blood of a lamb protect him and his household. He saw the angel of death strike the firstborn of Egypt. He ventured out with the people of Israel as they left Egypt. He saw God’s deliverance at the Red Sea. He walked through on dry land. In the fearful wilderness, he saw God’s provision of manna . . . and he saw the challenges of leadership Moses faced. He saw sinful human nature on full display in the people of Israel. Joshua was there, seeing all these things. But we don’t meet Joshua formally until Exodus chapter 17. He is a military leader of Israel’s armies, going out to face the Amalekites, a people who had expressly opposed not only the nation of Israel, but the living God. A nation which God opposed because of their rebellion against Him. So our first introduction to Joshua comes in a battle that was both physical and spiritual.

And in that first battle in Exodus 17 God introduced Joshua to an important principle: the battle is the Lord’s. Yes, we are called to do things, yes, there are missions and callings God gives us, but without His empowering, it’s all in vain. You see that first battle in which Joshua was mentioned was the episode at Rephidim where the Amalekites attacked the Israelites as Moses sat on a nearby hill with the staff of God in his hand. When Moses raised the staff, Israel prevailed, but when his arms got tired and drooped, the tide of battle turned. In the end, Aaron and Hur came alongside Moses and held up his arms so that Israel won the battle. The truth of this victory was not to be lost on Joshua, and neither should it be for us. The battle is the Lord’s. We trust in His power to bring victory. This is supremely true of course in our salvation. We are helpless and hopeless without the Lord, lost in our sins, under God’s judgement, destined for hell. But God brings us victory through the sinless life and sacrificial death of His Son Jesus. Jesus died on the cross as a perfect sacrifice, bearing the penalty of our sins, bearing the wrath of God. When we turn from trusting in self and sin and trust in Jesus, God wins the battle, Satan is defeated and heaven rejoices. This lesson Joshua learned early on is an essential truth of life: Salvation is of the Lord! So we might call Joshua’s first Seminary class Principles of Spiritual Victory.

We encounter Joshua next in Exodus 24 at Mt. Sinai, after God gave the law to Moses. Here Joshua is with Moses among a group of leaders; Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 elders of Israel go partway up the mountain where they see a revelation of God’s presence and eat together in the presence of God. Then the Bible says Moses and Joshua were called up higher upon the mountain, to receive the tablets of stone, and there God’s glory was manifested. Exodus 24:17 says, “And the sight of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel.” So in this episode Joshua learned of the grace and glory of God. The God of the universe would condescend to be presence at a meal and share fellowship with these men, but in the next breath Joshua saw the blazing power of this God on the mountain. Theologians talk about God’s transcendence and immanence, that He is not like us but at the same time He is near us. Joshua learned this truth about God in a very personal way long before he led Israel. In this episode Joshua also learned another important lesson. Three of the men who went with him: Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, saw the same things he saw. They ate the meal in God’s presence and saw God’s glory on the mountain. And yet, each one of them turned away from the Lord in a significant way; Aaron through his involvement in the golden calf incident and Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s sons, through offering an offering according to their own designs in Leviticus 10, a sin for which the Lord put them to death. Joshua would see a very clear example of the fact that being in a position of leadership and even having great experiences of God’s power does not make you a godly leader. Aaron and Nadab and Abihu were priests of God, but their hearts were not right with God. It is a sobering fact that those who shared such intimate fellowship in God’s presence could rebel so deeply against Him. But is it not true that we have seen His glory? Is it not true that we are invited to fellowship with Jesus? So Joshua’s lesson should be ours: don’t presume a knowledge of God or experience of God guarantees a life-long pattern of spiritual maturity. And if you are a leader, don’t let your past real experiences of God blind you to your need to continue to walk closely and humbly with Him. Joshua’s Second Seminary class we might call: The God of Grace and Glory.

When we next meet Joshua it is in the aftermath of a national tragedy: the golden calf. Here Joshua, coming down the mountain with Moses after having received the tablets of commandments, heard the people in the valley after they had made the golden calf. As a general, Joshua’s mind turned to war. He told Moses, “I hear the sound of war in the camp.” But Moses said, “No, it is not the sound of war, it is the sound of singing.” Normally singing would be better than war, but not this time. God had told Moses what the people had done, and he knew this singing was the singing of an idolatrous people. These people had made a false god and attached the true God’s name to it. And, as always happens when we worship idols, they descended into immorality at the foot of the mountain, throwing a wild celebration of a false god, even as Moses was coming down the mountain with the stone tablets of commandments of the true God.

Joshua learned much through this event. He learned about the pull of idolatry and how we naturally turn toward worshiping false gods or trying to refashion the true God to suit our own desires. He learned about how easy it is for a leader to succumb to pressure, as Aaron was persuaded by the people to make the calf. But Joshua also saw the glory of true leadership in Moses. On the one hand, Moses threw down the stone tablets and had the calf ground to dust which he made the Israelites drink. There was in Moses the righteous anger of a good leader in response to the sins of the people. It is true that some preachers just preach with unrighteous anger, they are just letting off steam on those unfortunate enough to be hearing them. But a true leader will be grieved at sin in himself and in those he leads, and will express that grief at times in real ways. That was what I was feeling last week in the message from 1 Thessalonians 4 about sexual immorality. All last week I just felt the heaviness of the sexual sin that is all around us and how tragically it undercuts our intimacy with God. I grieve over so many lives here, including myself during some periods of my life, who could be so much more for the kingdom if they would align their sexual lives with God’s standards and turn away from worldly standards of sexual morality. So I urge you, if you haven’t read that sermon yet, to get it online and read it. But Joshua not only saw the intense desire for holiness that is evident in every good leader, he also saw Moses’ heart of love. Most people don’t associate the golden calf incident with love on Moses’ part but it is an episode of tender love, which would not have been lost on Joshua. You see, as I said a minute ago, before Moses ever got down the mountain, God told him what the Israelites had done. And God told Moses He would destroy the Israelites and begin again with Moses as a great nation. But Moses, with the love only a great leader could have, interceded for the people, begging God on the basis of His promises to Abraham to spare them. And God did spare them. Joshua saw here the tender compassion of a man who had every reason to just go along with God on this. Moses could have been the father of the nation instead of Abraham and rebellious people could have been rightly judged. Moses could have started fresh with a group of people who were not such troublemakers. But he does none of that. Instead, he lifts these very rebellious people up to the throne of God. My friends, would you pray for your pastors to be men like Moses? Would you pray that we would be committed to a life of holiness but also full of compassion for sinners? Would you pray that we would be men who do not first and foremost criticize church members, but intercede for them? Would you ask God to strengthen us to be men of prayer? What lessons Joshua was learning in these years of preparation. We might call Joshua’s third Seminary class: Spiritual Leadership.

          The fourth and final encounter we have with Joshua in the book of Exodus is found in chapter 33. We read there in verse 8, “Whenever Moses went out to the Tent of Meeting, all the people would get up and stand in the entrances of their own tents. They would all watch Moses until he disappeared inside. As he went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and hover at its entrance while the Lord spoke with Moses. When the people saw the cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, they would stand and bow down in front of their own tents. Inside the Tent of Meeting, the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Afterward Moses would return to the camp, but the young man who assisted him, Joshua son of Nun, would remain behind in the Tent of Meeting.” Now it is not clear cut as to why Joshua remained behind. Perhaps he was there to assist others who may have come by with a need to the Tent of Meeting. But regardless of why he lingered, think for a minute about the fact that Joshua was here with Moses at the Tent of Meeting. Consider the effect Moses’ intimate relationship with God must have had on Joshua. Consider how he must have been shaped by the prayers of Moses, by the wonder of the truth that God would speak with a man as a friend with a friend. Do you have anyone you can walk beside in this life, who could serve as a spiritual mentor to you? Maybe you could ask God to show you someone like that or bring someone like that into your life. Joshua’s fourth class we might call Spiritual Formation.

          Up to this point Joshua’s actions have been mostly positive, but in Numbers 11 he learns a hard lesson in leadership . . . 24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord. And he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and placed them around the tent. 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the Spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders. And as soon as the Spirit rested on them, they prophesied. But they did not continue doing it.

26 Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.”29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!” 30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

Joshua’s fifth class might be called . . . Leadership for the Glory of God. Joshua made the mistake of trying to defend Moses rather than honoring God. He thought that Eldad and Medad were somehow disrespecting Moses or trying to take leadership from him. But Moses was not offended. Moses was happy about any display of God-glorifying ministry. Moses did not feel like he had to do all the ministry. He had once felt this need to do it all early on, but his father-in-law Jethro told him the work was too much for him and that he needed helpers. Now Moses, in the maturity of his years, welcomes ministry from all the people. Joshua had not yet gotten to this point of surrendering the territorial instinct. He had not yet progressed spiritually to the point of seeing that while leadership is important, the contributions of all the people are equally important. I have struggled with this through the years. On the one hand, I am looked to as a leaders, and I am one of the people who gets paid, so I should bear a certain responsibility. But the life of the church must never be about me getting my way. It must never be about me turning everyone to my agenda. This is a hard thing to carry out because there really is a biblical calling to leadership but at the same time there is not a biblical calling to lordship. We are leaders, not lords, and the responsibility of God’s kingdom work rests on all the people of God. My hope for you is that this church would become a place where your gifts are expressed and your service is valued and that we would never be a pastor-centered church but would always be a Jesus-centered church.

Perhaps the most famous appearance of Joshua before the book of Joshua itself is his part in Numbers 13, where he was one of the 12 spies of Israel who checked out the Promised Land as the Israelites prepared to enter it. Of course most of you know the story. All of the 12 entering the land said it was a great and bountiful land, but only Joshua and Caleb recommended going in to take the land. The others turned away in fear because of the people who lived in the land. The people were persuaded by the ten to not go in. Joshua and Caleb responded with great faith . . . And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” I call this class in Joshua’s Seminary: Profiles in Courage. What a life of courage Joshua and Caleb lived before the people. In the aftermath of the statement they made, they didn’t see a great agreement with them. Instead, the people wanted to stone them. Even when almost everybody was against him, Joshua took his stand with God. May we follow in his steps in a world that does not value God’s Word and God’s promises.

In the end, Joshua graduated God’s Seminary. In Numbers 26 the mantle of leadership was confirmed and in Deuteronomy 31 when Moses addressed the people he spoke words of encouragement and commission to Joshua . . . And he said to them, “I am 120 years old today. I am no longer able to go out and come in. The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not go over this Jordan.’ The Lord your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them, and Joshua will go over at your head, as the Lord has spoken. And the Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he destroyed them. And the Lord will give them over to you, and you shall do to them according to the whole commandment that I have commanded you. Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

If you read the first five chapters of Joshua, you will remember that the Lord’s word to Joshua was the same as Moses’ “be strong and courageous.” But notice Moses’ commission of Joshua was not based on Joshua’s goodness or ability. It was not based on Joshua’s importance. It was not based on anything in Joshua at all. Joshua was told to be strong and courageous based on two things: the presence of God (the Lord you God goes with you, He will not leave you or forsake you) and the promise of God (you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them). You can face your days with courage if you are mindful of Joshua’s Seminary. You may be facing difficult circumstances. Are you facing them in your own power or are you trusting in God for victory? Are you encouraged that you serve a God of infinite power and abounding grace? Do you as a Christian desire to walk in God’s ways through a life of holiness and love? Do you desire not only to walk in God’s ways but to walk with God? Will you walk humbly with Him, being willing to worthy to learn from your failures and mistakes in service? Will you live with courage, clinging to the presence of God and the promise of God? As God leads you through your life’s seminary, may you grow closer to Him through His Son Jesus and go in service to Him all your days.








Sermon — 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, Sexuality and Sanctification

1 Jul

1 Thessalonians 4:3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.


This section is most obviously about sexuality and the call of God on the lives of His people for holiness. But in back of this direct teaching is the person of God. God, the Lord, the Holy Spirit are mentioned over and over in these verses. Real Christianity is always God-centered. There is no area of life which is not touched by the Person and Presence of God. There is no area in the life of a Christian that is not to be subject to the Lordship of Christ.

In our text today, we hear the call of God for our sanctification, or holiness. This holiness in our passage is particularly connected to our sexual morality. Several weeks ago we looked at the Song of Solomon and talked about the need for a joyful Christian sexual ethic. Today is kind of the flip side of that coin. We will not find lasting joy in sexuality if we walk in sexual immorality. Holiness was the picture the Old Testament temple provided. It was a reflection of God’s presence and purity. Holiness was required. Cleansings and washings were prescribed, sacrifices were made. Purity was paramount. God’s nature has not changed but the Temple was just a picture of the new covenant reality that through Jesus’ death on the cross God has purified His people from their sin, counting the perfect life and the atoning death of Jesus in the place of all who trust Him. The dwelling place of God is no longer to be thought of as a building. The church building today is not the house of God. We are the house of God. We are God’s temple, believer by believer joined together to be God’s dwelling place. And as purity was a top priority in the Old Covenant so should it be in the New Covenant. What we have by virtue of our position in Christ God intends to work into our lives by practice, so that we grow in holiness, becoming what we are, a people purified by God through the dying and rising of His perfect Son Jesus. It is a sad reality that many professing Christians understand grace as being distinct from holiness. Nothing could be further from the truth. The idea that one can be saved by grace without a care for holiness is an absolutely false view of grace that is damning many people to hell. Sometimes in our eagerness to avoid teaching salvation by works, at other times in our eagerness to console ourselves about family members who made a profession of faith but have lived fruitless lives, we have separated salvation and sanctification. But the Bible gives us no place at all to do this. Our memory verse from June makes this clear, Colossians 2:6,7, “Therefore as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” We were saved by faith and we now walk by faith. And if we don’t walk in faith, if we live as a lifestyle in darkness rather than light, we show that we are not saved. This is a big part of what 1 John is about that some of us men are studying on Saturday mornings.

So this is a sobering message today. We need to be careful about comforting ourselves about our family members if there has been no evident spiritual fruit in their lives. This is not a denial of salvation by grace or of our security as a believer, it is just an acknowledgement of what the Bible teaches everywhere, namely that those whom God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ. Holiness is not an add-on to the Christian life for the really serious Christians, it is the reality of life for those who truly belong to God. Those whom God saves He will sanctify. Sanctification is where we begin in 1 Thessalonians chapter 4, verse 3 . . .

 The WHAT of Holiness: ABSTAIN from Sexual Immorality (4:3).

For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality;

To be sanctified is the opposite of being impure. The word ‘sanctification’ means to be set apart, to be godly. Because I belong to God through Christ I should reflect the family likeness. I always perk up when I see a Bible passage say, “This is the will of God.” When something is made explicit as the will God, I really want to take notice. Here the will of God explicitly stated is that we as believers is our sanctification and that this holiness is shown as we abstain from sexual immorality. The complete avoidance of sexual thought and action centered outside the marriage covenant is in view here and in many other places in the New Testament. In every list of sinful vices I can think of in the New Testament the issue of sexual immorality is mentioned, and it usually leads off the list. Paul makes an argument in 1 Corinthians 6 that sexual immorality is especially damaging as it is a sin against one’s own body. Jesus’ teaching on marriage, that it is to be a lifelong bond of union except in highly unusual circumstances and Paul’s teaching that marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church, all raise the stakes as to the significance of sexual sin. So sexuality is not the only issue of holiness we need to think about but it is a major one. Thus we are not wrong as Christians to speak about this issue in the church and hold out a biblical view of sexuality to the world. We are not obsessed with these things, we are just trying to be faithful to the focus the Bible gives them.

Sexuality is a watershed issue in our day, a dividing line between being faithful to the truth of God and being unfaithful. This is one of those issues that in the days to come will divide families and churches. It is already happening and it will only pick up steam in the next few years. At the core, the issue is this: where does my view of life come from? If your view of the life is shaped by the Bible, then you will hold to the view that sexuality is only properly expressed in the context of one man, one woman marriage and that other expressions or thoughts outside that boundary are sinful and put one under the judgment of God. If on the other hand your view of life is shaped by culture, then in today’s world you will hold the view that sexuality is properly expressed through the exercise of personal freedom. In other words, anything goes as long as I like it. As the old cliché goes, “What I feel makes it real, what I like makes it right.” So there is no limit, no boundary, except that which is put on me by society legally or culturally. The focus of the worldly view is self-gratification, the focus of the Christian view is God-glorification. Where is your view of sexuality coming from? If your view is being shaped by culture you will live an immoral lifestyle, you will not avoid sexual immorality. But if your view is grounded in Scripture, seeing sex as a good gift to be enjoyed within its boundaries, you can pursue holiness and honor God with your life. It is a watershed issue.

And it was a watershed issue in Paul’s day for the Thessalonians. This church was living in a pagan culture that coupled sexual activity with the worship of the gods. Many of the Thessalonian believers had come out of this background of casual sexual self-gratification. So don’t think this call to sexual purity was easy for the Thessalonians but difficult for us. The Thessalonians didn’t have an internet, but they did have all kinds of public sexual degradation. Sexual purity has never been easy. But we make it much more difficult on ourselves when we try to walk in two worlds, when we try to have a Christian exterior while inside we are being shaped by culture and our own sinful desires.

This is not a matter of Christian liberty. We are to abstain from sexual immorality. There is no wiggle room. This is not a matter of debate. Lustful thinking or acting outside of marriage between a man and a woman is sin and puts us under God’s judgement. This is the will of God. Have we forgotten the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God?” Could it be that if there is spiritual coldness in you: a lack of interest in church, a coldness to your prayer life, an emptiness to your Bible reading, weakness in your service for the Lord, a spirit of despondency, is it possible that these things are not the fault of other church members or your past experiences or your pastors or deacons? Is it possible that you are not seeing God because you are not pure in heart? Is it possible that your sexual sin is the thing that is most holding you back from a joyful walk with God? Does this sexual sin even call into question whether you have even ever really trusted in Christ? The stakes are high. As high as seeing God.

How do we abstain from sexual immorality? Look at verses 4 and 5 . . .

  The HOW of Holiness: Self-Control through the POWER of God (4:4,5).

 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; 

The first principle of sexual purity given in this passage is the principle of self-control. There is some dispute about what is said here. Some of your translations may speak of controlling the body and others may speak of taking a wife. The wording could point in either direction. Whether one controls his sexual passions through godly discipline or through taking a wife or husband rather than burning with passion, we see concrete ways in which we seek to turn away from sexual immorality. For some, marriage may prove a great help in the battle against sexual immorality. It is not true that marriage ends the battle with sexual immorality because we still have sinful tendencies and we are still surrounded by a world of immorality, but marriage can help. At the same time, self-control cannot be ignored. We need to remember when we talk about self-control that for the Christian it is Spirit-empowered. Galatians 5 tells us that self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. I am heartened that Paul teaches us that sinful sexual impulses can be controlled. We do not have to be like little boats tossed by the big waves of a sinful world. Paul doesn’t give us the specifics of how to win this battle consistently, but he does say God has given us the power to do so.  For me, it means God gives me the power to say “no” to watching something sinful on tv. God empowers me to not let my mind wander into lustful thoughts. But a part of God’s provision for me may just be the wisdom of not having cable movie channels or having filters on my internet or memorizing Scripture as a way to fight the unbelief that leads to lust. You probably have a different battle than me but you have the same Holy Spirit if you are trusting in Jesus. Trust Him to give you the power and wisdom to take the steps in your life to be holy and honorable rather than impure and degrading.

The end of verse 5 is a critical aspect of this passage. We are to live self-controlled lives, not like the Gentiles WHO DO NOT KNOW GOD. You see, this life of sexual obsession and sexual sin is a sure mark of a person that does not know God. Knowing God is essential to sexual purity. Sex is not about us it is about God. As Paul says in Titus 2, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us to say no to ungodliness and worldly desires and to be upright and self-controlled in this present evil age.”

Understand me. Sexual purity is only sustained by God. It is not rules, it is not simple self-discipline. As Paul says in Romans 6, we must yield our lives over to the Lord, Romans 6:13: “Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God … and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.”

And again, in Romans 6:19, Paul writes: “You used to offer the parts of your body in slavery to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer them in slavery to righteousness leading to holiness.”

Look at verse 6 . . .

 The WHY of Holiness — A WARNING to the Unrepentant (4:6).

that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you.

Some think Paul is changing the subject here, telling us that one should be honest in their business dealings. But the context doesn’t bear this out but seems to stay on this theme of sexual sin. Certainly adultery is the wronging of another, as you have relations with the spouse of another. But the actual person with whom you engage in immorality is also wronged through your sin. Even a person you think about in a sinful way is diminished in your eyes as you have made them an object of your desire rather than seeing them as a brother or sister in Christ.

The proof that the stakes are high is shown here in the threat of God’s judgment. Hebrews 13:4 says much the same thing, “Marriage should be honored by all and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the sexually immoral and the adulterous.”

The seriousness of this verse is also seen in the way Paul calls the Lord an avenger. There is a sense in which sexual immorality and sexual betrayal of others is fundamentally abhorrent to God.

The seriousness of this verse is also seen in the way Paul highlights the fact that he has had this talk with the Thessalonians before. It is true that the people in Thessalonica came out of a very immoral background, but this is also true of many of us. Some here lived in the passions of their flesh for years before they were saved. We may all need to revisit this sober warning of judgment from time to time. But this is not the whole story. Take a look at verses 7 and 8 . . .

God’s WORK for Our Purity and Our Response (4:7,8).

 For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.

There is a warning of judgment here which it is wise for us to heed. But there is also a word here about God’s calling for us. As the passage started stating God’s will that we abstain from sexual immorality so the passage ends with God’s call to holiness. God’s call is holiness. Impurity short circuits not only the vitality of our relationship with God but also derails the working out of God’s purposes in our lives. How many ministers in recent years with great gifting have been brought down through sexual immorality? I mentioned a couple of weeks ago three prominent Southern Baptist leaders who had been involved in immorality. Since I gave that message, three more professors and state convention workers in the SBC have resigned because of immorality. It is a tragedy. We must not play around at the edges of this. It applies to all of us, every church member, every pastor and deacon. Notice here that Paul says God has called US to purity, he includes himself in his statement. He is accountable too. It is possible and even likely that these men who have fallen, if repentant, are true believers. But oh how tragic the consequences of their sin. We are not under condemnation through faith in Christ, but there is a principle of sowing and reaping that Pastor Terry talked about a couple of weeks ago.

God calls us. He draws us. He saves us. But He does all of this to bring us into holiness. And He did this to draw us close to Himself. Notice, if you reject these instructions you reject not just the instructions but God who gave His Holy Spirit to you. Sexual immorality is a form of blasphemy. It is a form of idol worship and no man can serve two masters.

This verse is so important for our world today. To reject these instructions is to reject God. If someone has an issue with the idea that sexuality is only rightly bounded within one man, one woman marriage, their argument is not with me, it is with God.

If you look at these instructions and feel it is impossible, let me give you three grounds of hope: 1) Jesus was totally pleasing to God and totally fulfilled in His life on earth and never had sexual relations. Sex is not like air and water, regardless of what our culture says. 2) God has given you His Holy Spirit to empower you for this life. 3) Our year verse, Luke 18:27 – what is impossible with man is possible with God.

I want to conclude this morning in a detailed way. What does it look like for us today to abstain from sexual immorality as an important part of our growth in grace, our sanctification?

First, we must reject as a matter of principle all forms of sexual immorality. We must say no to ungodliness. We must draw a line in the sand and define what is right and what is wrong from a biblical point of view.

Having carefully thought through these things, I can say without hesitation that the following principles should be characteristic of a Christian when it comes to sexuality. I haven’t seen every principle possible, but I believe I can biblically justify each of the things I am about to say. . .

When it comes to sexuality, a Christian is characterized as one who . . .

Rejects lust and affirms married love.

Rejects adultery and affirms faithfulness in marriage.

Rejects pornography and affirms a joyful sexual ethic in marriage.

Rejects living together without being married and affirms the biblical obedience of marriage.

Rejects sleeping together apart from marriage and any other sexual relations outside of marriage and affirms the beauty of sex itself within marriage.

Rejects fantasizing or setting our thoughts on people to whom we are not married and affirms the cultivation of a healthy marital relationship of mind, body and soul.

Rejects homosexuality in all of its forms and affirms heterosexual marriage as God’s pathway of obedience.

In the absence of marriage a faithful Christian affirms celibacy as God’s pathway of obedience.

Rejects the idea that our identity is tied up in our gender and affirms that our identity is found in Christ.

Rejects the notion that gender is self-constructed and affirms the truth that God’s design is two genders: male and female, made in His image.

Rejects the idea that life is about self-gratification and affirms that life is about God-glorification.

Rejects dating or marrying unbelievers and affirms the value of marriage between believers as God’s pattern of obedience for Christians.

Rejects divorce (with few exceptions) and affirms the permanence of marriage.

Rejects a spouse seeking sexual fulfillment outside of marriage when sexual fulfillment in marriage is not happening.

Rejects spouses withholding sexual activity in a prolonged way with one another except for an agreed upon time and affirms the joy of sexual activity as a blessing and a guard for our hearts.

Rejects flirting, immodest dress, crude jokes, cat-calls, all forms of sexual harassment, all sexual abuse and affirms the beauty and worth of married love.

Rejects all forms of media that stir sinful desires in the heart and affirms setting our minds on things above.

I truly believe that these things I have just mentioned are clear and biblical standards for our holiness when it comes to sexuality. These things are not matters of Christian liberty, they are truths that flow from God’s Word and His standards for purity. They are things that cannot be lived apart from the Holy Spirit’s power. There will never be complete obedience to these things this side of glory. But there should be substantial alignment with these things if we belong to Christ. These are the kinds of people we should be as followers of Jesus.

What if I am falling short in one or more of these areas? Let me suggest three things: 1) Repent. Turn away from these sin areas immediately and embrace the truth. Don’t live under God’s judgement. Draw near to God. Know that through faith in Christ you have forgiveness and His righteousness is counted on your behalf. 2) Take steps to get help/make changes. Talk to a friend. Confess to another brother or sister. Bring your life into the light. Sin thrives in darkness. Get counsel from a wise believer. Make physical changes to draw healthy boundaries. 3) Understand that God’s grace is greater than your guilt. If you have a marriage that split up, if you committed adultery, if you have yielded your heart to every manner of lustful thought in times past, know that you can be forgiven and restored and that through faith in Christ you are acceptable in God’s presence. Finally, may all of us exercise patience and kindness toward others in the spirit of Galatians 6:1. If this message is really taken seriously there will be much confession and change as a result. If someone comes to you wanting you to walk with them through change, be gentle with them. Treat them kindly, don’t be harsh with them.

If you need to repent today, you are safe here. You will be received and understood and prayed for and helped. Let’s get our lives into the light. Let me hear from you if you are defeated in this area. If you are a woman I will connect you with a trusted woman. Don’t fail to bring your struggles into the light.

Finally, understand that what we said earlier is true: this is a watershed issue. If you disagree with the biblical pattern for sexuality, I urge you once again to consider that your argument is not with me but with God and that He is all-wise. He really does know better than we what is right and good and true. There may be others here for whom this may be the start of a long battle. For still others this may be a critical step in a long-term victory. Understand that some hearing this message will insult me, if not publicly then privately. Understand that if you believe these things and live them you will be looked at, even by some in the church, as odd and intolerant. In the minds of some people you will be categorized with all the worst hate groups in our society. In your seeking to walk with Jesus you may be the most loving and kind person but if you say the wrong thing in the wrong way in our world, you will be hated and vilified. And I want to say to you, and to myself, take heart! Blessed are you! You’re just walking the path of the prophets and the path of the Savior.

Jesus is better than sexual immorality. Trust Him today to do His work of sanctification as you walk with Him.





Ephesians: A Brief Introduction

25 Jun

If you are studying Ephesians with us this summer, you may find this brief introduction helpful . . .

Ephesians: A Brief Introduction

One of the best books in the Bible for grasping a sense of what it means to be a Christian, Ephesians is a beloved book filled with memorable passages.

Unlike many of the other New Testament letters, there is no clear situation or problem in the church that Paul cites as his reason for writing. This matches somewhat the assessment of the church in Ephesus in Revelation. The church is commended for its practices but challenged that it has lost its first love. Though removed some decades from Paul’s writings, Revelation may nevertheless give us some insight into Paul’s motivation for writing Ephesians. Perhaps even at this early stage, the Ephesian church needed to be reminded of the riches they had in Christ and how appreciation of such riches should shape our lifestyle and make us people of joyful praise.

Many people regard Ephesians as deeply doctrinal (and it is) but this doctrinal focus results in deep practical applications. This little book of six chapters speaks to dozens of issues of everyday life application. Some have called Ephesians a theological song. To be sure, the atmosphere of praise that fills the book is an attraction for most readers. Ephesians is not trying to prove something to skeptics and it is not especially heavy-handed toward believers. Instead, the focus is on proclaiming the earth-shaking gospel with all its implications for living.

Ephesians moves through six chapters in prayer and praise and proclamation. The book is just 2500 words but it is power-packed by the Holy Spirit.


For the first 1800 years of church history, there was no dispute that Ephesians was written by Paul. But in the 19th century biblical scholarship took on a more critical and even skeptical tone. Authorship of many biblical books began to be challenged, Ephesians included. The chief reason for disputing Pauline authorship, apart from the fact that the vocabulary of the book is somewhat different from some of his other letters, is the difference between the account of Paul in Ephesus and his demeanor in the letter. In Acts, Paul had a deep, intimate, years’ long relationship with the Ephesians. They parted with tears in their eyes when Paul moved on in his ministry. But in Ephesians, there are no prolonged greetings, little in the way of personal reference and nothing much that denotes Paul’s personal involvement in the ministry of this church. This difference caused many authors to question Pauline authorship. But there could be many reasons for this difference other than non-Pauline authorship. The letter may have been distributed, as were some of Paul’s other letters, to multiple locales around Ephesus and so Paul kept it more general. It may also be that Paul wished to focus his attention in a special way in Ephesians on Christ and not on particular people. In addition, the intimacy in the letter may be said to exist in the heart of praise that overflows in Paul. He loves the Lord Jesus and he wants to share His glories with this beloved church. And as John Stott notes in his commentary, FF Bruce said, “The man who could write Ephesians must have been the apostle’s equal, if not his superior, in mental stature and spiritual insight . . . Of such a second Paul early Christian history has no knowledge.”


The church in Ephesus was the primary audience for this book, though it may have been distributed to other locales and through the preservation of the Holy Spirit it has, of course, come down to us. Early church history affirms this, as Irenaeus in his Against Heresies says the letter was written to the Ephesians. This is a reference from the second century, so it is early. A hundred years later or so Cyprian bishop of Carthage says the letter was to the Ephesians as well. Ephesus is the only place name that has ever been associated with this letter, but interestingly, three early manuscripts that have been found of the book omit the reference to Ephesus in verse 1. This has led many scholars to believe that the letter may have been a circular letter distributed among a number of churches in the area.


Ephesus was a large and important city in the ancient world, located in modern day Turkey (Asia Minor). At the time Ephesians was written, Ephesus and its immediate environs likely had a population of around 250,000. Ephesus was called the “Mother City” of Asia because of its influential status as a metropolis. It was a major port city for western Asia. In its part of the world at the time of Paul, Ephesus was the most important city, outstripped only by Alexandria to the south in Egypt and Rome in Italy. Ephesus had a diverse population (including a significant Jewish population). Because of its diversity and the Roman Empire’s desire for peace, religious tolerance was promoted in Ephesus as in other places in the Empire. However, in Ephesus this was especially difficult because of the city’s attachment to the cult of Artemis (or Diana). The temple of Artemis, just outside of Ephesus, was regarded as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Artemis’ influence was found all over Ephesus. Her image was on the money, games were held in her honor, banking was done in the city on the temple premises. Artemis was seen as a god of fertility and blessing and was seen as having authority over the spirit world. In Acts, Luke tells us that the gospel impacted the Artemis cult because many were turning away from it to follow Jesus. This caused a great uprising that nearly led to Paul’s death. So this atmosphere of spirituality pervaded Ephesus.

But the spirituality of Ephesus was not a biblical spirituality. When the new believers in Ephesus saw the power of God at work, they burned their magical texts, texts worth 50,000 days of wages according to Luke. It is important to remember than many people in Ephesus who became part of the church had been deeply involved in the Artemis cult. This explains perhaps why Paul focused on the unseen spiritual world so much in Ephesians.

There was a strong Jewish element in Ephesus, with some estimates saying as much as 10% of the population was Jewish. There is some evidence that some Jews in Asia Minor during this time practiced what is called “folk Judaism,” a blending of pagan and Jewish practice that again believed in magical unseen spiritual forces. So the Jewish-background audience of Ephesians could benefit from Paul’s discussion of the unseen spiritual world in chapter 6 as well.

We also have to remember that in the first century the Jews were under a lot of pressure from Rome politically. Acts talks about Claudius expelling the Jews from Rome in AD 49 and we know of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 clarifying expectations for Gentiles. Based on the things Paul talks about in chapter 2 there may have been Jew/Gentile tensions in the church in Ephesus.

But Paul is careful to emphasize in Ephesians that the big enemy is not other ethnicities nor is it the power of the Empire. The spiritual powers are the key focus of the book. We will be seeking to understand these and how they relate to physical powers as we look together at these things.


Paul mentions his imprisonment on two occasions (3:1 and 6:20) and this is likely Paul’s two year house arrest in Rome recorded in Acts 28. More than likely this imprisonment was in AD 60-62 and if it is the one referred to in Ephesians that would set the date for us. This would make it one of Paul’s later letters.


Unlike Hebrews, which we said was a sermonic document, or Revelation, which is an Apocalyptic document, or Acts, which is a historic document, Ephesians has all the classic marks of an epistle. There is a brief introduction, a body and a conclusion. There are also items found in Paul’s other letters like extensive prayers, household codes and extended theological discourses. In short, Ephesians is a letter.


Ephesians has a classic “Indicative/Imperative” structure. The first half of the book gives us the statements of truth about Christ which provide the theological undergirding for the second half of the book, the imperatives, which provide us with the implications of our theology. What we believe leads to what we do. Ephesians works according to this pattern.


Ephesians has several keywords which give us insight into Paul’s meaning in the book. First, there is the word “walk,” which is repeated throughout the book. This is an important part of Paul’s approach to application. In a way you can understand the book of Ephesians around this word “walk.” We’ll look at that as we continue in the study.

Another key theme of the book is the “mystery.” Interestingly, the mystery in Ephesians is different than the mystery in Colossians. We’ll explore about this too later in the study.

Still another theme, and one of the reasons I am so excited about Ephesians, is the theme of the Church. Paul emphasizes the Church throughout the letter. There is great value here for us as we walk as a local church in today’s world.

Another key theme is the gospel’s power to save and to unify Jew and Gentile under Christ. This will be a big theme we will explore.

The biggest message of the book is the transforming power of the gospel. The good news of Jesus transforms us personally, transforms human relationships from racial groups to families to the church.

Other important themes include an emphasis on prayer (prayers and verses about prayer take up a significant part of the book). There is also an emphasis on praise, particularly in chapter 1.

Finally, Ephesians may be the most Trinitarian of all of Paul’s letters in the sense that Father, Son and Spirit receive somewhat equal attention and emphasis. Romans is somewhat like this too and perhaps it makes sense that Paul’s two most theologically rich works would be his two most Trinitarian work. I hope we’ll be able to explore the significance of the Trinity in our weeks together.


The chief controversial passages in Ephesians today are the ethical instructions of chapters 5 and 6, particularly the instructions regarding husbands and wives and slaves and masters. We will take our time and face these issues thoroughly and head-on.

So I want to encourage you to come join us each week as we study this great book.


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