We Love a Good Redemption Story

17 Apr

In the last week or so, two great stories of redemption have come to us from the world of sports. On Monday, April 8th, the Virginia Cavaliers outlasted the Texas Tech Red Raiders to take the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Championship. The Cavs played some thrilling games in the tournament. Their game with Purdue in the Elite Eight was one of the best games I have ever seen. But after last year’s embarrassing defeat in the first round at the hands of the UMBC Retrievers, Virginia’s triumph a few days ago was sweet. This team went from being the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed to National Champions in one year. Most of the core players on the team who suffered through the loss in 2018 were back in 2019. Coach Tony Bennett, by all accounts a strong Christian, handled both the defeat of last year and this year’s victory with great class.

Then, this past weekend, at the Masters . . . Tiger Woods, consigned to the scrap heap of what might have been, put together a solid tournament and a poised final round to rise to the top of the golf world once again, winning the Green Jacket he had first won twenty-two years ago. Tiger’s problems on a personal level and a health level seemed to have him down and out, never again to win a major. But in the last year or so there have been little inklings. Then, victory.

We love a good redemption story. It is fitting that these two great sports stories happened around Easter. Redemption doesn’t get any better than the cross and the empty tomb. Our hearts long for redemption and our heart’s longings are satisfied in the dying and rising of the perfect Son of God, who paid the price we were not able to pay to purchase our pardon. We are free and forgiven because He was despised and rejected.

Then the third day . . . victory! Redemption has been accomplished. “Thine is the glory, risen, conquering Son, endless is the victory, Thou o’er death hath won.”


“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”  C.S. Lewis

On the Timing of Outrageous Statements

9 Jan

When well-known Christian celebrities say something that seems to stretch the boundaries of acceptable doctrine or practice or if they say something unconventional, shocking or offensive it is a near certainty that one thing is at work . . . they are about to release a new book.

I know it sounds cynical to say such a thing, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an article from some Christian celebrity that stirs the internet pot right before the release of a new soon to be best-seller.

The world would call this marketing. I call it tacky. We can do better. And honestly, one of the ways we can do better (as readers and Christians) is to not give very much attention to the outrageous. I know the grotesque and extreme have a way of drawing our eyes but maybe we can find a way to not give in to the urge to be drawn to flashiness. Maybe, just maybe such an approach would enable us to see if there is really anything there when the latest book is released, or if we’ve just been duped by slick (or sick) salesmanship.

Anyway, beware that stoking the latest controversy in the Christian blogosphere gives the controversialists exactly what they want: attention. And eyeballs mean dollar signs, or notoriety, or a dozen other types of fool’s gold.

In the end, nobody is making you respond to everything and nobody is making you listen to everything. You don’t have to listen to me. You can think every controversy that comes down the line is a life or death struggle of the faith if you want. Just know that sometimes wrestling with a pig just makes you dirty, and the pig enjoys himself.

Sermon — John 1:4,5 “Christ the Light”

8 Jan

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

           As we begin our new year with the theme “you are the light of the world,” we must remember we can only be the light of the world because Jesus is the light of the world. Though we were made in God’s image and are loved by Him, because of humanity’s fall into sin we must acknowledge that in us is darkness. We are born sinful, selfish in inclination and we show in our daily actions our tendency toward living in darkness. We have already this day probably sinned in thought or action or word. Without Jesus, we have no lasting light to give, we tend to spread darkness instead. So as we think about ourselves as the light of the world in 2019, we must remember that being the light of the world is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ. As we turn from sin and trust Him to save us from sin and self, He begins to change us, He begins to shape us, He begins to make us like Himself: holy, loving, faithful, and true. No one can be the light of the world apart from the saving grace of the One who is the light of the world. In creation, when light was given, the formless and void universe began to take shape. So with us, when the light of Christ comes into our life, He begins to change us and shape us and make us His own, so that we then become the light of the world. And if we are to be the light of the world in 2019, we must focus on the light of Christ within us rather than our earthen vessels and our feet of clay. Instead of obsessing over looks or finances or success or politics or comfort or all the other things of this life, let us look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. Our scripture text shows us the way of life and light. The alternative is darkness and death. Without Jesus, that’s all we get in the end . . . darkness and death. But light has come into the world. And it shines in the darkness, even today. And by grace through faith, we have life, abundant life that rings out to eternity.

          In Him was life. He who is the way, the truth, and the life has life in Himself, which He gives to all who believe. And how does He give this life? Through giving up His own life. His death brings us life. His facing darkness gives us light.

He is the light. The light of the world, who forgives the darkness of all who believe. Go with me for a moment to the cross. The end and the beginning. The light shines in the darkness. Never did the light shine as it did in this darkness. George Herbert’s words came to me as I meditated on these things, from his poem, The Sacrifice . . .

O all ye who pass by, behold and see;

Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;

The tree of life to all, but only me:  Was ever grief like mine?


Lo, here I hang, charged with a world of sin,

The greater world o’ th’ two; for that came in

By words, but this by sorrow I must win:

Was ever grief like mine?


Such sorrow as, if sinful man could feel,

Or feel his part, he would not cease to kneel.

Till all were melted, though he were all steel:

Was ever grief like mine?


But, O my God, my God! why leav’st thou me,

The Son, in whom thou dost delight to be?

My God, my God ——

Never was grief like mine.


Shame tears my soul, my body many a wound;

Sharp nails pierce this, but sharper that confound; Reproches, which are free, while I am bound. Was ever grief like mine?


Now heal thy self, Physician; now come down.

Alas! I did so, when I left my crown

And fathers smile for you, to feel his frown:

Was ever grief like mine?


In healing not myself, there doth consist

All that salvation, which ye now resist;

Your safety in my sickness doth subsist:

Was ever grief like mine?


Betwixt two thieves I spend my utmost breath,

As he that for some robbery suffereth.

Alas! What have I stolen from you?  Death.

Was ever grief like mine?


A king my title is, prefixt on high;

Yet by my subjects am condemn’d to die

A servile death in servile company:

Was ever grief like mine?


They give me vinegar mingled with gall,

But more with malice: yet, when they did call,

With Manna, Angels food, I fed them all:

Was ever grief like mine?


They part my garments, and by lot dispose

My coat, the type of love, which once cur’d those Who sought for help, never malicious foes: Was ever grief like mine?


Nay, after death their spite shall further go;

For they will pierce my side, I full well know;

That as sin came, so Sacraments might flow:

Was ever grief like mine?

But now I die; now all is finished.

My wo, mans weal: and now I bow my head.

Only let others say, when I am dead,

Never was grief like mine.

The man of sorrows, the Son of Man, the Son of God at the close of an earthly life of perfection, compassion and spiritual power has been shamelessly betrayed, falsely convicted, ridiculed, insulted, and brutally beaten. He is stretched upon a cross and viciously nailed there. He is hanged between two thieves. He who never so much as had a sinful thought is treated as a common criminal. The light of the world is being horribly mistreated, really beyond our imagining. Yet words of forgiveness and care come from His lips. And as the light of the world sacrifices Himself for our sakes, in the strange symmetry of God’s wise plan, darkness falls over the earth and the God-Man is God-forsaken. But the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.

The light has come and shines in the darkness, even the darkness of His own death. But if the light that shines in the darkness is finally extinguished on the cross, no matter the magnitude of the sacrifice, we are left without hope and without God in the world. If the cross is the end, death wins. But on the third day, with the breaking of the day, with the dawning of the light, the stone is rolled away, the Son has risen, the One who was dead is raised to life as the light of a new day dawns. Why? Because the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. What all the forces of evil hoped for on the cross came to naught as Jesus was raised in victory. The light could not be extinguished. He rose not as a flickering candle on a stormy night. He rose not as he came, a tiny baby born on a dark night illuminated by a wondrous star. No, He rose on the early morn as the blazing sun on the horizon of history, illuminating the world, bringing a new day. “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” This risen Christ is our hope. And His is a hope that shines. He didn’t have just this moment, just these few years on earth to shine. No, the light shines in the darkness. Present tense. When we look at Jesus in His perfect life, His atoning death, His glorious resurrection, His victorious ascension, and His eagerly-awaited return, how can we say anything about Him other than what He said in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world”?

The good news is that what happened on that first Easter morn is the spiritual experience of all who truly trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and their reconciliation with God. Light has dawned and life has come. Death has been defeated and darkness flees. Can’t you identify with Charles Wesley’s hymn And Can it Be? “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed Thee. Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou my God woulds’t die for me?” Our hearts were enlightened through Jesus’ saving grace and the Spirit’s eye-opening work. So often when we talk about our salvation we say, “I saw the light” or “the lightbulb came on.” Suddenly things I have heard for years made sense. And not only in our salvation but now in our daily life, light has come. We have been delivered from the domain of darkness into His marvelous light and are now urged to walk in the light. And even now we shine like lights in the world as we hold out the Word of life. And in the end, when we are glorified, one day, we are going to shine. Matthew 13 – “The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” The Father, the One who loved us so much that He gave His only Son in death to make those living in death and darkness His very own sons and daughters. This is the gospel. God makes His enemies not only His friends but His very children through the sacrifice of His Son. God made us and loves us. But because of sin, we are in darkness. Yet in God is no darkness at all. So He sent His beloved Son Jesus to walk through the darkness of the cross, to pay the penalty for our sins, to take the judgment we deserved. Through faith in Jesus, light enters our hearts.

Light and Life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by, Born that men no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.” This is the good news we are called to share with others. Not the light of ourselves or our goodness, but the light of the gospel, the good news that God delivers us from the domain of darkness and transfers us into the kingdom of His beloved Son. Of course, we share more than words, but our acts of love are empowered by and point to Jesus because the adequacy is from God and not from ourselves and the glory belongs to God and not to us. He gets the glory and we get the blessing of walking with Him as His children. And when darkness veils our eyes for the last time and we never wake again in this world, we know as sons and daughters of the King that we enter a new and endless day. We know in the end . . . Revelation 21 . . . And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.

This year, we are going to try to do a hymn of the month. Sometimes it may be a familiar hymn and sometimes a new hymn, but we will try to sing it each Sunday of the month. This month, we will be singing a great hymn from Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. This hymn so fits the message this morning that I decided to move Victory in Jesus to another week.

In Christ alone, my hope is found,

He is my light, my strength, my song;
This Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my All in All,
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone! – who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe.
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied –
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ, I live.

There in the ground, His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain:
Then bursting forth in glorious day
Up from the grave, He rose again!
And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me,
For I am His and He is mine –
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand:
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ, I’ll stand.

In Him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Amen. Let’s stand together and sing.



Death Undone — Mark 16:1-8

7 Jan

Our scripture text is Mark 16:1-8 . . .

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

 On this last Sunday of the year, as we have remembered those who have passed away in 2018, I thought it appropriate to consider today a theme from Mark’s gospel which will lift our spirits and fill us with hope if we will hear it. It is the theme of resurrection. Christmas is over, so now we enter the period we call winter without much to look forward to except entry into a new year, a new year filled with high aspirations but likely to end with shattered dreams, unforeseen challenges, and unexpected twists. Call me a cynic, but it is the nature of life in a fallen world: nothing ever quite works according to our expectations. Some may counsel us in light of this fact to abandon our expectations, or at least to lower them. But when I look at the scriptures, I am compelled to a new vision, a higher one, a deeper one. It is a vision that rings true to our hearts. But we have an annoying tendency to choose what is false and temporary over what is eternal. In the end, unless we see the deeper and higher reality of resurrection, we’re unlikely to end up anywhere in this life but frustrated and flummoxed and in the life to come we are absolutely certain to find ourselves in an eternity of misery. So I come here this morning to urge you to cast your anchor into the rock of resurrection and not the sands of this life. I come to exhort you to bank of what is to come rather than what is. I come to encourage hope in place of anxiety and holy awe in place of self-obsession.

Resurrection is everywhere but we seldom see. Or if we see we do not consider. We see it in every sunrise if we have eyes to see. The earth’s rotation in relation to the sun gives us a daily glimpse of light from darkness, of life from death. We see it in the seasons, as the tilt of the earth and its revolution around the sun produces those distinctive cycles of decay, death, and rebirth. Resurrection is seen in nature, as in the life cycle of the butterfly, cocooned a plain caterpillar, emerging a splendid beauty, some even called monarchs, another word for those who reign.

          What did those women see, on that first resurrection day? Were they looking for life? Certainly not. They were expecting death and decay. That’s why they went to the tomb with spices, to preserve the body in death. We’re often not looking for resurrection when it is right in front of us, because so often life has beaten us up and torn us down. We live in a world of suffering, and many of you who walked that path of suffering with your loved one in 2018 have the scars to show, scars that will heal in years rather than days. And in that suffering, you may be straining to see resurrection. You, like the women, may be occupied by death rather than life. You are trying to figure out how you will go on from here, what life looks like without your loved one. You believe in resurrection, it’s just not much on your mind right now. You’re not a lot different from those ladies at the tomb on Sunday morning, who would have affirmed the general spiritual principle of resurrection but couldn’t imagine it in the here and now.

The fact is, like these ladies, for many of you not only is resurrection not much on your mind, you’re not particularly well-equipped to deal with the problems of everyday life right in front of you. There’s a big stone in the way for the women, sealed up and heavy. There’s no way they’re moving that thing. They are going to need help. They are talking to each other, expressing their anxiety about the stone, just as we so often in our helplessness share our anxieties with one another. What is around the corner? What fearful thing will face me tomorrow? We have all learned from being in this body of believers that we are not able to control the future. A church member that is one day a vibrant part of the congregation is the next day struck with some disease or faces some other terrible tragedy. We are not very well-equipped to face the present with all its uncertainty. So we fear. And we share our fears with each other if we don’t bottle them up. But whether suppressed or expressed, these worries claw away at us and “what-if’s” rule the day. And so we go out at the dawn of a cold and dark new year, with just enough light to see, maybe feeling that all is lost, just trying to make defeat palatable, wondering how even that will be done.

Who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb? Who will be here for me now that my loved one is gone? What will happen to me if my health declines? How will I cope if my children forsake God? What of the future of our country, the future of our church? All these questions of the present overwhelm us so that we don’t see the rising of the sun. Like an endless stream of cloudy days blocking the light, the storms obscure our view. Are we left here alone? Who will move the stone?

We walk the dusty path with the women, step by step to the tomb. And we find the heavy stone, the insurmountable object, has been rolled away. But when did the women see it? Mark makes it very clear – “and looking up” – they saw the stone rolled away. Hope comes from looking up. What is impossible for men is possible for God. How do we face a world where all seems lost? We come to the empty tomb. And what do we find there? The stone has been rolled away. The stone wasn’t rolled away so Jesus could get out, it was rolled away so we could look in. And as in the case of the veil of the temple, torn from top to bottom, so it is with the empty tomb – the way of access to God has been opened. The stone has been rolled away. Worries and fears of this life are rendered powerless by the power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. Jesus the Nazarene, a real human being in a real time and place, who was crucified, has risen. The One who gave His life to save His people from their sins has won the victory.

“Thine is the glory, risen, conqu’ring Son; endless is the vict’ry Thou o’er death hast won. Angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away, kept the folded grave-clothes where Thy body lay.

Lo, Jesus meets us, risen from the tomb. Lovingly He greets us, scatters fear and gloom; let His church with gladness hymns of triumph sing, for the Lord now liveth; death hath lost its sting.

No more we doubt Thee, glorious Prince of life!! Life is nought without Thee; aid us in our strife; make us more than conqu’rors, through Thy deathless love; bring us safe through Jordan to Thy home above.”

This is the ground of our hope. If only for this life we have hope, we are to be pitied above all men. I heard this week that the oldest living man in the United States, aged 112, had passed away. And we think, what a long life. Yet it is just a blip on the radar of time. It is just a vapor. Most of us in this room have lived a lot more years than we have left to live. If only for this life we have hope, we are to be pitied above all men. But what if I told you there was life beyond life? And what if I told you that this empty tomb on the first Easter morn was its proof? This is what the Bible has promised all along. This is what nature pictures for us every day of our lives. This is the reality that can carry you through a hundred storms and safely through to the other side. The alternative is a bundle of anxieties, a collection of empty pleasures, and an eternity of deathly anguish apart from the giver of life. Do you have ears to hear? Do you have eyes to see? If your soul is dull to these things, cry out to God right now, ask Him to reveal His risen Son to you. Look up. Look to Jesus.

For those here who are trusting in the risen Savior Jesus today, would you follow the call of the angel? Would you now make it your life’s work to go and tell? As the women were charged to tell the disciples and Peter, will you tell everyone around you, even the ones like Peter who have turned away from the Savior, will you tell everyone this good news?

You see, this is the good news we have to share with the world. Our message is not family values. Our message is not God and country. Our message is not social justice. Our message is not theological knowledge. Our message is not sentimental, warm feelings. Our message is not religious ritual. Our message is not following traditions or chasing after trends. Our message is the EMPTY TOMB! Our message is the RISEN CHRIST! It is the only truth worth living for and it is the only truth worth dying for. This is the good news we have to share with the world. Don’t get sidetracked by questions about Cain’s wife or the ark or sexual morality. Keep this issue of the dying and rising Christ front and center. That’s what the New Testament does and that was part of the secret of the massive success of the early church. They didn’t get sidetracked from the gospel message. The good news gave them life. The good news gave them hope, even in the midst of persecution. And they shared it with others freely and fearlessly because they found life in it. Does your faith in Jesus bring you life and hope? You who closed the eyes of your loved one this year, your hope is found in these words of Jesus, “Because I live, you will live also.” If your loved one trusted Jesus, they are raised to life with Him. They are eternally in His presence, where there is fullness of joy. And you have the assurance of joining them through faith in Christ. This is our message, this is our hope, this is the anchor that will hold. He is risen, just as He said. Amen.




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.





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