Tag Archives: faith

Behold Your God — Week Eleven, Day Five

11 Aug

We’ve talked a lot in the last few days about the unconventional ways of God’s kingdom. God often works in ways that are not according to our expectations. He often calls us to do unusual things. The easy way is often not the right way. But today’s study has a very important paragraph which I want to highlight here:

“It would be dangerous to think that just because something seems impractical or reckless it is the spiritual thing to do. Doing something reckless in Jesus’ name is not equivalent to obeying Him. Obedience, not reckless self-directed spirituality, honors God.”

Last night I was reading a little booklet called An Hour with George Mueller. Many people know George Mueller as the godly man of the 1800’s who housed thousands of orphans in England, relying on donations through prayer and faith. One of the things that struck me about Mueller’s approach was how rooted it was in the promises of God. In other words, Mueller would pray in faith based on what God had said in His Word. So the spectacular answers Mueller received were not because he was a special person but because he leaned on a God who was able to do above and beyond what we ask or imagine. Mueller would have rejected the approach of doing something radical or impractical just to avoid pragmatism. Instead, he would bank all on God. And that is what the Behold Your God study has been urging us to do from the beginning. To live our lives based on who God is, this is the path of maturity, fruitfulness and blessing, even through hardship and pain.

Our Greatest Need

26 Jul

The missing element in many American churches today is a real and deep understanding that being a Christian means following Jesus. Christianity is about time and eternity. We have boiled down the essence of Christianity to having right doctrine or having some past decision for Christ to lean on or having life enhancement to make my earthly journey more comfortable or happy or purposeful. So I can fail to pay my taxes as long as I hold to the doctrines of grace. Or I can treat my family like trash because I trusted Jesus when I was 11 and so I’m going to heaven. Or I can commit adultery because my spouse is inattentive because after all, God wants me to be happy, right? These false approaches are entirely out of step with the New Testament, where Jesus tells us, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Now to be sure, we can’t keep the commandments of Jesus apart from the power of Jesus. A living relationship with Jesus is essential and that relationship is understood and defined through sound doctrine, a biblical understanding of the gospel and it does have as a by-product a security and joy of heart that is a great blessing.  Jesus says, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.”

Most Christians know the basics of the gospel. They know God sent Jesus to die in our place, to bring forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God. Most know that we are saved by grace, not works. But there are certain truths which flow from the gospel that we have diminished our ignored and most of these have to do with our present lives. This ignorance of the present power of the gospel and the ensuing failure to walk in that power is the explanation for much of the hypocrisy and weakness in the American Church* today.

So by all means, let us recapture good gospel doctrine. Doctrine like adoption. We are part of God’s family now through the work of Jesus. We are sons and daughters of God. We have a secure place to grow in the family of God. God calls all His people to gather together with other believers for encouragement and worship and equipping. The doctrine of adoption forms a solid foundation for the local church. We are not a loose association of individuals. We are family. Let us recapture the doctrine of grace-empowered obedience. We are so allergic to anything that smacks of rule-keeping or legalism that we have moved to the other side and give everyone a license to do anything in the name of Christian liberty. By all means, many matters of preference are matters of Christian liberty and provide us opportunities to love and serve one another and to get along in spite of differences. But many other matters are matters of Christian obedience. Jesus commands us to seek first the kingdom of God, to serve one another, to love one another, to give generously, to endure persecution faithfully, to pray and not give up, to abide in Him, to not lust and covet, to not be ruled by the cares of this world or the deceitfulness of wealth. Dozens of other commands come just from the teachings of Jesus, not to mention other Scripture. So what do we do with those commands? If we ignore them and do our own thing we dishonor God, put ourselves on a destructive path and become a terrible witness for the kingdom. If we cry “legalism” or “works-righteousness” at this point we deny the voice of Jesus, because He tells us in the gospels alone dozens of things we ought to do. We sometimes criticize those who call themselves “Red Letter Christians,” who pay attention primarily to the words of Jesus and minimize other parts of Scripture. But are we not in danger of making the opposite mistake in the name of grace? Might we not be guilty of minimizing the commandments of Jesus in a misguided effort to uphold grace.

Here is the bottom line . . . in the Bible, grace changes us. Those Jesus saves are never left the same. Sanctification may be a messy, slow, frustrating process (mostly due to our stubborn hearts) but it is a reality. The one who began the work will see it through. So if you profess faith in Christ but see no growth in obedience to Him, no growing depth of love for Him, no progress in faithfulness, then all your sound doctrine and all your past experience and all your expectation of blessing should really be replaced by repentance and faith.

While it is undeniable that there is significant gospel ignorance in our culture, it is more true I think that we suffer more from a lack of gospel living than from a lack of gospel information. There is a connection of course and there is a sense in which many people do not thrive because they do not really understand how the gospel is to affect every day life. But many of us, I think, understand these things. We just don’t want to live by them. We are happier in our minds being our own Lord. But no man can serve two masters. And I wonder, if we have lived our lives being our own Lord here, what makes us think we will want to bow the knee to God when we pass into eternity? If we don’t really want to live under His authority here, why in the world would we want to live under His authority there? If heaven is going to be like Thanksgiving dinner with family members you barely talk to and hardly know, is it really going to be heaven?

It is interesting that in John’s gospel, both love and belief are linked to obedience (John 3:36; John 14:15). So obedience is not opposed to loving and trusting Jesus, it is an expression of love and trust. Don’t buy the lie that it is legalism to follow your Lord. And don’t buy the lie that you’re OK as long as you have right doctrine. And especially don’t buy the lie that God exists to make you the center of the universe and to give you what you want without hardship. Trust the Lord to work the full implications of the gospel into your life, so that while you are not perfect, you are being perfected and you are walking in the strength of a life lived by faith in Jesus Christ.

 

*I dislike the phrase “the American Church” because it is so broad and too general but I can’t really think of an alternative term so take it here with the reservation that I am not saying every single church or every single Christian is characterized by these things.

 

Behold Your God — Week Six Introduction

2 Jul

The focus in this week’s study will be the call to personal holiness. It is critically important not to run off the rails here. Where many people go wrong is in thinking justification is by faith but sanctification is by works. 2 Peter 1:3 tells us otherwise . . . “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness.” Paul’s letter to Titus tells us much the same in chapter 2 . . . “For the grace of God has appeared . . . training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in the present age.” So the principle of faith, of trusting in Christ, is not only necessary for our justification, it is also necessary for our sanctification. So when we talk about personal holiness it is important to never separate the call to holiness from the spiritual power God gives, otherwise, we have turned sanctification into works righteousness.

Notes on James 4:13-17

10 Aug
The self life or the grace life? This is the choice that faces every believer every day. The goal is not to be good or to just avoid doing bad things. The goal is knowing Jesus and living under His reign. This life in Christ results in the good fruit of faith: good works. Problems arise for us when we either ignore the importance of works as an indicator of authentic Christianity or emphasize works to the point that they become the root of salvation rather than the fruit of our salvation.
The battle between the self life and the grace life is a battle in our souls. Our mind, will and emotions work together and, along with various external influences, we live by a certain worldview. Now we may not even be fully aware of our worldview and many of us have not sat down and taken time to think through our worldview, but everyone has a worldview. We all take a certain approach to the realities of life. And this approach is based on fundamental beliefs about the nature of reality. And these beliefs are based on our experiences, observations, values and what sources of knowledge we accept as authoritative. Many churchgoers have a fundamentally non-Christian worldview. In other words, their approach to life is not shaped by Jesus but by their culture. And many non-Christians carry forward some aspects of Christianity from our culture into their worldview. Our goal as Christians should be to have a worldview shaped by conformity to Jesus Christ. Foundational to this Christ-centered life and worldview is a trust in the sovereignty of God and a turning away from trusting in riches. These two truths are the foundation of a right worldview, and a right worldview can lead to a righteous life (see 3:17,18 for a description of this righteous life).
13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—
We should say, first of all, that this passage is not saying we should never make plans. Plans are OK, but are not to be the ground of our trust. Proverbs acknowledges that a man plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps. So the problem here is not advance planning but arrogant presumption. It is one thing to make plans, it is another to assume they will come to pass without a hitch. James opens both 4:13-17 and 5:1-6 with the phrase “Come now.” This phrase introduces a discussion with an imaginary person whom James sees as representing some of those to whom he was ministering.
As is the case throughout the letter, the issue of wealth and poverty is implied in this paragraph. James is talking in general terms about trusting in the sovereignty of God and not arrogantly presuming our plans will come to pass, but the pursuit of riches are the illustration he gives for this general truth. All the “we will” phrases in verse 13 show the arrogance of these businessmen as they express their confidence in their planning and do not acknowledge God. And of course their goal is to make a profit. Again, I don’t think there is anything inherently evil about making a profit. Profits made through oppressing others are wrong, but here the evil of making a profit seems to be found in the attitude of worldliness that is found in those who are pursuing profit. The profit, not God and His kingdom, has become their pursuit. Their minds are on what material blessing they can derive from this life and that takes them on a straight line to the self life, as they will consistently put their own needs above the needs of others.
14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.
James attempts to shake the confidence of his readers in verse 14, reminding them that in spite of their plans they do not know what tomorrow will bring. This is yet another parallel to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 6:34). And of course in the Sermon on the Mount, the antidote to worrying about this life is to “seek first His kingdom.” Freedom from the self life comes through the pursuit of the grace life.
All of us know, once we’ve lived long enough, that we can’t know what tomorrow may bring.  What is your life? From God’s perspective it is precious, precious enough for Him to send His Son to redeem you. But from the perspective of longevity and certainty, our lives are temporary and, from our perspective, uncertain. James compares our lives to a mist, a meteorological phenomenon with which his readers in Palestine would have been very familiar. Like the fog off the Mediterranean burning off in the dry air of the wilderness, so is our life, a mist, here and gone.
15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
Rather than trusting in our own ability and planning, we need to recognize that our lives are temporary and that our lives are in God’s hands. We can’t do anything apart from the sovereignty of God. We do nothing apart from God permitting it. So James is reminding his readers, in particular those who pursue wealth, that they live under the authority of God. So we need to live with an awareness of God’s rule over us and we need to live with a flexibility and willingness to alter our plans while submitting to the Lord.
Now here we want to avoid the trap of magic words. We can’t just do what we want and put a “Lord willing” on top of it as a kind of pious frosting on our worldly cake. We can say, “Lord willing” or “praise the Lord” or “glory to God” or “I’m praying for you” or any number of other pious phrases and be as worldly and wicked as the next person. So don’t be worried about always using the phrase “Lord willing.” Instead, focus on the attitude of your heart. Are you living in the way of wisdom (see 1:6), asking God for guidance and living with an awareness of His sovereignty and your place under His Lordship? If you don’t live in this way, you fall into the error of verses 16 and 17.
16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
James says these traveling businesspeople boast in their arrogance. This is an interesting phrase. I think it means that they are proud of their assumed autonomy. These people are happy to be what they are: God-neglecting, worldly-minded, and presumptuous. Today, they might be writing Christian leadership books. Rather than living under God’s authority, they are trusting in their own ability. This kind of life is evil. It is friendship with the world and enmity toward God (see 4:4). It is choosing the self life over the grace life. Rather than a life of humility there is a life of pride.
17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
This last verse in chapter 4 struck me at first as strange. It doesn’t immediately seem to fit the passage, but it really does fit right in if it is aligned with the previous discussion. The key is in determining what is “the right thing” James is speaking of here. I believe based on the context that the “right thing” here is the truth of living in humility under the Lordship of Christ. That these people would know this right thing means that James is speaking to believers (as I think he is throughout the book) rather than unbelievers.
Knowing the right thing to do and not doing it is sin. This is the well-known idea of the “sin of omission.” Sin is not just what we do but what we fail to do. We need to think about this often. We will likely find that we sinfully leave undone even more than we do. The key to avoiding this sinful path and living the grace life is found in the opening section of chapter 4 (submit to God, resist the devil, draw near to God, live from a stance of repentance and humility).
The first paragraph of chapter 5 is the harshest paragraph of the whole book. James rails against those who trust in riches. The passage has an amazing number of parallels to statements Jesus made in the gospels. But how does this paragraph fit into the bigger picture of James? That is what we’ll consider below.
5 Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure in the last days. 4 Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived on the earth in luxury and in self-indulgence. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person. He does not resist you.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Jas 4:13–5:6). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Sermon Notes, Matthew 5:17-20

9 May

Here is a manuscript which reflects my study of Matthew 5:17-20 in preparation for a recent sermon.

Matthew 5:17-20

A Greater Righteousness

 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Two men were walking down a road. They were on a seven mile trip. Along the way they were joined by another man who walked up to them and asked them what they were talking about. I know in our culture this all seems strange (walking seven miles, having a stranger come up alongside and start talking) but 2000 years ago this was all very ordinary. The latest news didn’t come from CNN but by word of mouth. So this stranger asked the men what was new. Cleopas was astounded that anyone wouldn’t know the events of the last few days, where Jesus had been crucified and now how His body was no longer in the tomb. The men on the road to Emmaus were uncertain about what had happened to Jesus’ body. So the risen Jesus, who was the stranger on the road to Emmaus, His identity hidden from the men at this point, said these words, “How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things to enter into His glory?” Pretty strong words from a stranger, but not from the Lord. But what is even more powerful is what Luke says Jesus did next . . . “Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.”

How many of you would have liked to have listened to that!?! Jesus recounting the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. And of course when Jesus said this the New Testament had not yet been written, so the Scriptures He is talking about is the Old Testament, the law and the Prophets. So as we come to Matthew chapter 5:17 this morning, we need to remember this conversation on the road to Emmaus, because it helps us understand what Jesus meant when He talked about fulfilling the law and the prophets.

In the Sermon on the Mount so far, we have seen the description of a Christian in the Beatitudes: one who is poor in spirit, mournful, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, a peacemaker, ready to endure persecution for the sake of Jesus. And this kind of person, having a heart transformed by the grace of Jesus, is salt of the earth and light of the world. People like this bring wisdom and blessing to the world. There is a familiar and I think true, cliché out there that goes, “Hurt people hurt people.” The flip side of this slogan is also true though, “People touched by the grace of Jesus spread that grace.”

          There was a group of people in the gospels who never understood grace: the religious leaders. They were people who valued the Scriptures, they were people who wanted to please God, they were the moral and cultural leaders of their society, they were highly respected. But they lived for self-glory rather than God’s glory and they tended to focus on external appearances rather than a heart of faith.

The words Jesus will share in the passage we’re going to look at today must be read in light of the religious leaders. The religious leaders were certainly in the minds of those who heard the Sermon, because they contrast at the end of the Sermon the powerful authoritative message of Jesus with the teachings of the religious leaders.

When Jesus mentioned good works in verse 16, his audience may have begun to think about how these good works were connected to the law of Moses. As Jesus laid out the Beatitudes, there was not a word about morality or obedience or the law of God. Was Jesus introducing a new word here? Was He doing away with the law of God? Was Jesus trying to do away with Moses?

The Pharisees thought Jesus was doing this. They didn’t like the fact that He did not have the religious training of sitting under a rabbi. They looked down on His humble and somewhat questionable beginnings. The religious leaders questioned by what authority Jesus said and did what He did. And in Jesus’ actual ministry, He seemed to treat the law differently than the Pharisees wanted. He healed on the Sabbath and ignored the traditions of the religious leaders. Finally, Jesus’ associations were questioned by the Pharisees. They didn’t like that Jesus spent time with tax collectors and sinners.

Warren Wiersbe says, “Pharisees were convinced they were the guardians of God’s law and the people were convinced too, yet it was the Pharisees who were destroying the Law. By their traditions, they robbed the people of the Word of God; and by their hypocritical lives, they disobeyed the very Law that they claimed to protect. The Pharisees thought they were conserving God’s Word, when in reality they were preserving God’s Word: embalming it so that it no longer had life! Their rejection of Christ when He came to earth proved that the inner truth of the Law had not penetrated their hearts.

Jesus made it clear that He had come to honor the Law and help God’s people love it, learn it, and live it. He would not accept the artificial righteousness of the religious leaders. Their righteousness was only an external masquerade. Their religion was a dead ritual, not a living relationship. It was artificial; it did not reproduce itself in others in a living way. It made them proud, not humble; it led to bondage, not liberty.”

So we need to keep this contrast between the way of Jesus and the way of the Pharisee in mind, not only in this week’s message but in most of the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is not contrasting His message with the Old Testament, He is contrasting His message with the false message of the religious leaders of His day. And we will learn that the false message of the Pharisees was not limited to Jesus’ day. We can very easily fall into the same traps. The Sermon on the Mount helps us avoid these traps.

So let’s look at verses 17-20 . . .

 17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.

Jesus is making it clear in verse 17 that He was not defying the law through His teaching. Jesus is not contradicting the law but at the same time He is not merely preserving it, keeping the status quo. He is instead fulfilling it, bringing it to its intended goal.

All of the Old Testament applies to us, but it is all interpreted through the person and work and teaching of Jesus Christ. Any righteousness of our own rests on Him and Him alone. He fulfills the law and the prophets through His perfectly obedient life and through the advancing of God’s plan His life and ministry brings. All the blessings of the Sermon on the Mount, from the Beatitudes to the heart of love for God that emerges in the rest of the Sermon flows from Christ and what He has done for us. Any other way of looking at the Sermon on the Mount just makes it a moral code and turns it into a system of works-righteousness, in which we will fail every time. Without understanding that Jesus has fulfilled the Scriptures, the Sermon on the Mount just makes us better Pharisees.

With this said, though, it is clear that some aspects of Jesus’ fulfilling of the Old Testament means that for us some aspects of the Old Testament are illustrative for us but no longer binding. The sacrificial system is a good example of this. We don’t offer sacrifices as atonement for sin anymore not because Jesus abolishes sacrifice. We don’t offer sacrifices because Jesus fulfilled the goal of the sacrifices by the once and for all totally effective sacrifice of Himself.

Some people think Jesus came to set aside the law, to obliterate it, to make it useless. This is not true. Think about it like an acorn. I can destroy an acorn by smashing it with a hammer. But I could instead put it in the ground and see its purpose fulfilled as it grows into a great oak tree. I want to propose to you that THIS is the way Jesus has fulfilled the law. He hasn’t smashed it to bits, His kingdom has emerged from the seed of the Old Testament which in the fullness of time has brought forth the fulfillment of God’s plan for the ages.

Nothing of that seed of the Old Testament Scriptures is wasted. Look at verse 18 . . .

 18 For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

I could preach on just this verse for a long time, because it is one of the greatest verses affirming the full verbal inerrancy of Scripture. The absolute authority of Scripture is in view here. The smallest stroke of a letter will not pass away from the law. This word of God will endure. Aren’t you glad this morning? We have a trustworthy word. This is a great gift of God’s love. I have had a sense at times in my life of God’s internal leading. But I am always tempted to question these leadings. Was it really God? Was He leading me or was I just doing what I wanted? But when I come to the Word, I realize, yes, God has spoken and I can trust what He says absolutely. What a gift. It will not pass away until the end of time, until everything is accomplished. Again, we have here the language of fulfillment. The Old Testament will have enduring value until the end of time and it is to be interpreted on the basis of the one who fulfilled it: Jesus Christ. Since the Old Testament will not pass away until the end of time, we should take it very seriously. Look at verse 19 . . .

19 Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus couldn’t have made it much more clear how seriously He expects us to take the Old Testament. He tied our eternal rewards to how seriously we take the Scriptures. This is His answer to any of the religious leaders who might question His loyalty to the Word of God, any leaders who might charge Him with giving His followers freedom to sin. At the same time He is telling those sinners who are hearing Him and are attracted to His message that their obedience to God matters. Whoever relaxes these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. I think He is thinking here not of the Pharisees but of those who are His followers, because both those who relax the least of the commandments and those who do and teach the commandments are in the kingdom of heaven. The difference seems to be an issue of rewards. This is a very important truth for us to hear. God intends you to live according to His commands. Now this causes us who have been taught the grace of God to bristle. And on one level, this is right, because we know that we can’t obey God’s commands in our own strength. We must trust in God’s power for strength to obey. And we bristle too because some of things Paul teaches seem to tell us that we are not under the law any more. But Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” And what are Jesus’ two great commandments? “Love God and love your neighbor.” And James says following these two commandments is the fulfillment of the law. So how does this all fit together? We are called to obey the commands of God. But, God has given us the provision of His Son who fulfilled the law and the prophets. And Jesus does two things for us. First, because He obeyed the law perfectly and died for our lawbreaking in His crucifixion, God counts all who trust in Jesus as being righteous in the sight of God on the basis of Jesus Christ. But that is not all that Jesus has done for us. Through His dying and rising and present reign fulfilling the Word of God Jesus intends to make us righteous in actual day-to-day living. And He does this as we trust in His power by leading us to a life of faithful obedience to His Word. This means, in light of the ways He has fulfilled the Old Testament, Jesus intends us to walk in conformity to the commands of the Old Testament and the New Testament, while keeping in mind the ways that Jesus Himself has fulfilled the Old Testament. So the Ten Commandments and the principles of God still apply to us but they are all interpreted through the lens of Christ and His work. We are free from the law on the level of depending on our own strength to keep it, but we are not free from the law in the sense that we can now go off and do whatever we want and just put our Jesus stamp on it. This is worth talking through because in our day there is a huge tendency in our culture toward doing our own thing, even among Christians. So I make a life of ignoring the clear commands of God and doing my own thing and then I wonder why I don’t feel close to God or why I am not growing spiritually. There is a temptation among some to say, “well, I trusted Jesus years ago and now I just kind of do what I want to do. I just kind of live based on what I want and I’m not under the law any more so I just kind of do what feels right.” This is how people who profess to be Christians end up in all kinds of horrible sin. We take grace as a license to ignore obedience to God. I even saw one preacher in Britain who was preaching that it was OK to shoplift if you took from a big store because it is just a big greedy corporation but it was wrong to steal from a small business, because they had very little margin. And I know that sounds crazy, but we are incredibly adept at shaping the commands of God to work around to what we really want to do. Jesus is going to make it abundantly clear that we can’t just have an outward obedience to the law. There must be a heart change. But when there is a heart change it will result in conformity to the Word of God, not a relaxing of God’s standards but a desire out of love to God to move into a deeper obedience, an obedience on the level of motivation and action. This life of deeper obedience, obedience flowing from a heart of love and faith, is the fundamental difference between the righteousness of the Pharisees and the righteousness of the citizens of Jesus’ kingdom. Look at verse 20 . . .

 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

The Pharisees had a certain kind of righteousness but the disciples have an entirely different kind of righteousness. It is a righteousness that exceeds the Pharasaic righteousness. And I think the exceeding here is not a matter of quantity but of quality. The kingdom person has a quality of righteousness that is altogether different and better than the Pharisees. This verse would have been a shocker to Jesus’ Jewish hearers, who considered the religious leaders the epitome of righteousness. Man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart. The Pharisees were the height of human righteousness, highly respected moral men. But their righteousness was insufficient because it was external. Jesus says they are like cups which are clean on the outside and filthy within. Jesus says they are like painted tombs full of dead men’s bones. There is in Jesus’ view of righteousness a necessary inward transformation which must come. And you might say exactly what the disciples would say at one point, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus’ reply? “What is impossible with man is possible with God.” True righteousness comes through the work of Christ. As Romans 3 says, “But now the righteousness of God has appeared apart from the law, although the law and prophets testified to it, even the righteousness of God through faith in Christ to all who believe.” The rest of the Sermon on the Mount is going to show, as the Beatitudes have, the reality of the heart transformed through faith in Christ. And the order is essential. Christ transforms the heart and then the heart lives in obedience a fruitful spiritual life. Obedience is the result of transformation not the way to transformation.

We have a Savior who is the fulfillment of the Scriptures. We have Scriptures which are entirely trustworthy. We are called to a life which does not minimize the Scriptures but seeks to live and teach them in light of the work of Christ. And through faith in Him we chart a course away from both man-made efforts at self-righteousness and the God-ignoring license to sin which so characterizes our culture. As I close today let me just ask you a question from Ligon Duncan. “Where is your heart? Is your heart with the Pharisees, grudgingly obeying God or is your heart, or with the followers of Christ, delighting in His law and wanting more than anything else to be conformed to His image and to be exalted not in ourselves but in His righteousness and in His sanctifying work in us that we might become like him. May God cause us to be the followers of Christ and not the Pharisees. Let us pray.”

Bible Reading Blog — May 1, 2016

1 May

TODAY’S READINGS — Job 1-3 & Luke 7:1-10

In Luke 7:1-10, there is a huge focus on the word “worthy.” The centurion’s servant is sick and near dying so the centurion sends some friends to Jesus to urge him to heal the servant. The friends make a big deal of what a great guy the centurion is, how worthy he is to receive Jesus’ work. But the centurion himself says, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof. But say the word and my servant will be healed.” Jesus commends the centurion for his faith. I believe the centurion’s faith is seen both in his recognition of his own unworthiness and of Jesus’ power. He was truly “poor in spirit.” Though he was an important man in the eyes of men, he knew he was not worthy in the eyes of God. Acknowledging his own unworthiness, he also affirmed the worthiness of Jesus to heal his servant just by saying the word. He, a man familiar with authority, knew true authority when he saw it. He placed all His trust in Jesus as the only one who could heal his servant. With empty hands of faith, the centurion in effect said, “I am unworthy, but you are worthy, and that is all I need.” One of the signs we have entered into a real life of faith is when we stop trying to commend ourselves to God. When we stop leaning on our track record and look to all that Jesus has done a doorway to dependence is set up which can never be broken.

Bible Reading Blog — March 4, 2016

4 Mar

Today’s Readings — 1 Samuel 11-14 & Mark 11:20-33

In Mark chapter 11 we read, 20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. 21 And Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. 23 Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. 24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. 25 And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.”

Jesus cursed the fig tree, an acted parable to illustrate the faithlessness (and therefore fruitlessness) of Israel. Peter, remembering what Jesus had earlier done, is astounded. Jesus reveals the secrets of such power — faith and forgiveness. If you have faith in God, Jesus says, there is incredible power when you pray. The power is not in you or in your prayer but in God. If you are really leaning on God, Jesus says, God will meet you in that and bless you abundantly. But when praying, there is not only a vertical aspect but also a horizontal one. For Jesus says,”whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” There is a connection between a right relationship with God and a right relationship with people. Lack of forgiveness toward people is a blockage in our relationship with God. So we may have all kinds of faith but if we do not love others but hold bitterness against them, our prayers will be hindered.

Maybe powerlessness in prayer comes from failure to deal with the unforgiving spirit we harbor against others.

Loving God and loving people consistently go together in the teachings of Jesus. Spiritual power and relational harmony are interrelated.

Bible Reading Blog — February 15, 2016

15 Feb

Today’s Readings — Deuteronomy 22-25 & Mark 9:21-29

When Jesus casts out the unclean spirit from the boy in Mark 9, we see the very interesting interchange between Jesus and the boy’s father . . .

21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “ ‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

“I believe; help my unbelief!” has long been the cry of the desperate heart. We sometimes  understand ourselves most clearly when we are cut to the core with inward struggles or outward trials. So here this father, in his desperation, calls out to Jesus for help. He knows what he lacks (wholehearted faith) and he knows where to find it (Jesus), so he calls out for help. And God meets him, bringing healing to the son.

When the disciples ask Jesus about this healing later, we read . . .

28 And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.”
We see no evidence here that Jesus prayed, however. He simply says to the unclean spirit, “come out and never enter again.” Jesus doesn’t pray, He commands. The only thing in this passage we might liken to a prayer is the phrase of the father of the boy who was healed, “help my unbelief!”
So in this case, the prayer Jesus is referring to must be the prayer life Jesus cultivated outside this event itself, or the prayers Jesus offered during the healing which are not recorded in the text, or perhaps the prayer of the boy’s father for greater faith. Regardless of the prayer in view here, it is apparent that faith is a critical element of this passage. “All things are possible for one who believes” (9:23). This phrase from the mouth of Jesus should be taken seriously. But I admit it is hard to take it seriously in a world of Alzheimer’s and ALS and cancer and children with leukemia. Thus we too must cry out, “help my unbelief.” One thing I know for sure is that this kid who was healed later died. Death is part of the deal in a fallen world. No healing can undo it. But I sure you have probably wish sometimes Jesus would touch us again like we see in the gospels. Maybe you’ve beaten yourself up over your faith, thinking if only you’d have believed more strongly your loved one would have been healed. But consider the man in this story. He had very much a faltering faith, yet Jesus healed his son. So I don’t think it is all about how much faith we have. Jesus said even a mustard seed like faith can bring great things.
What do we do with all this? With the confusion, sadness and struggle of living in a fallen world? Three simple words . . . Help My Unbelief.

Bible Reading Blog — February 7, 2016

7 Feb

Today’s Readings — BREAK & Mark 8:11-13

Seeking signs. It’s been our way from the beginning. Humans like signs and the people of Jesus’ day were no different. The problem with sign-seeking is that it points to a life of unbelief. Sign-seeking is an endless game of moving the goalposts or asking God to jump over the hurdles to faith you erect. All along, God has already given many convincing proofs to those with eyes to see. He’s not going to jump through our hoops.

Jesus says repeatedly that the issue is faith, not signs. Even the sign of His resurrection will not be enough to convince those who are committed in their unbelief.

Even the Greatest Doubted

31 Jan

I was reading this morning in Matthew 11 and was struck once more by John the Baptist. The one whom Jesus said was the greatest person born among women, in his discouragement in imprisonment, wondered about whether Jesus was the Messiah who was to come or whether there was another. This Jesus, whom John had proclaimed the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, now in John’s dark cell looks to be something less than what John once knew Him to be.

But Jesus doesn’t slam John. He comforts Him with the truth. He sends back a message, “Look what I’ve done John. You can trust me.” And then he goes on to praise John before the people, saying “among those born of women there has not arisen one greater than John the Baptist.”

Jesus comes to us in a similar way in our discouragement. When we are in darkness and see no way out. When our inward struggles drive us to despair. When our outward trials bring us to the breaking point. When our earthly future looks grim. Look to Jesus.

It is OK to wrestle with doubt and discouragement. Just don’t turn away from who Jesus is and what He has done.

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