Tag Archives: the gospel

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 Eight, Day One

17 Jul

This week as we consider Beholding God and Evangelism we need to start with the gospel. Do we know it? Have we believed it? Have we added to it?

Do we know it?

The gospel is the good news that while we deserve the eternal judgment of the holy God because we have rebelled against Him in sin, this God showed us grace by sending His Son Jesus to earth to live a life of perfect obedience before God and to bear the penalty of our sin in His death on the cross. God raised Him from the dead to validate the worth of His life and death and now the risen Savior stands as the proof of God’s love and as the offer of God’s grace. Everyone who trusts in Him, not leaning on self or sin but on the Savior, has eternal life rather than eternal judgment, is welcomed into the family of God and will be made more and more like Jesus in the course of their earthly life.

Have we believed it?

I am hesitant to tell you whether you have believed the gospel or not. God knows, and you probably know too. There are a few tests given in the book of 1 John.

True believers don’t walk in darkness, make a practice of sinning, live a lifestyle of rebellion against God (1 John chapters 1 and 2).

True believers seek to follow Jesus’ commands and to become like Him (chapters 2 and 3).

True believers love their fellow believers (chapter 2).

True believers do not love the things of the world (chapter 2).

True believers have the hope of heaven (chapter 3).

True believers discern truth from falsehood and hold to what is true (chapter 4).

True believers remain in the love of God, have an abiding relationship with him (chapter 4).

True believers trust in Christ alone for salvation (chapter 5).

Now all of these things are not matters of perfection. We will all fall short in these things to some degree because indwelling sin remains. However, there is a baseline of belief in these first two questions which we can use to consider the answers to these two questions . . . Do I know the gospel? Do I believe the gospel?

And with that we come to the third question . . .

Have we added to it?

The Bible is crystal clear that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8-10). So we must be vigilant to not add anything to the gospel, lest we make it something other than good news. If we add works to the gospel, it no longer becomes good news because we will all fall short of works that are perfectly pleasing to God. If we add theological understanding to the gospel, we will exclude many who because of education or opportunity will not be able to grasp concepts of God’s foreknowledge or arguments about the second coming. If we add religious activity or devotion to the gospel, we will one day doubt our standing with God when we can no longer participate in religious activity as we once did and we will tend to judge others by their piety. If we add serving the needy to the gospel we will create a hierarchy of acceptance with God based on our service. All of the things I mentioned above are good. Who doesn’t want to live a good life and understand truth and serve and worship and pray? But if they are added to the gospel, as essentials one must have in order to be saved, they turn the good news into bad news and put the burden Jesus bore for us squarely back on our shoulders. The gospel is good news because Jesus paid it all.

My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. 

I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ the solid rock I stand all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.

When we begin to understand how good the good news is, we will want to share it with others. Evangelism is built on the foundation of joy in the gospel.

Behold Your God — Week Five, Day Three

28 Jun

Today’s study focuses on the power of God. Two aspects of this lesson struck me today, so I wanted to share them with you.

  1. Romans 1:16 came to mind. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” When I think of God’s power, I often think of awe-inspiring displays of strength, great miracles, times when God puts His work forward in such a way as to make us tremble in His presence. But Romans 1:16 reminds me that God’s power is also integral to His display of mercy and grace. A God without power to save might be filled with compassion but unable to accomplish salvation. The power of God is a key element of our being able to be saved from His wrath because of our sin.
  2. The two ways to live at the end of the lesson — faith or idolatry — could not be more clear. The assertion of the Behold Your God study is that what you really believe about God will determine whether you live a life of faith or a life of idolatry. Will you get to know God as He is revealed in Scripture and then live your life based upon who He is? That is the life of faith. That is the Christian life to which we are called.

Behold Your God — Week Five Introduction

25 Jun

This week we will be beholding God in the work of salvation. We will be thinking about the gospel, God’s good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.

For many of us brought up in church we have experienced either little to no gospel or a truncated gospel. In some churches, the gospel is scarcely taught as the focus goes to other things (a sense of family, or a focus on growing the church organization, or community service). The gospel, which should provide a foundation and power for all these things, is moved to the background or forgotten altogether.

In other churches, the problem is not a lack of gospel but a gospel that has become narrowed to only a personal moment of decision. The gospel is about getting into heaven and avoiding hell by trusting in Jesus’ death on the cross. While that is true, the gospel is also much more. We are going to be exploring that “much more” this week.

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.”

Sunday’s Sermon– Philippians 1:12-18

23 Jun

Philippians
Philippians 1:12-18
The Unstoppable Gospel

There is a story of a man with 11 brothers. He was a good young man, loved by his father but hated by his brothers. His brothers betrayed him and sold him as a slave to go to a foreign land. But in the end he rose in the ranks through slavery to become one of the most powerful people in the land. Eventually these same brothers had a need that only that foreign land could provide and they went to that land to get food. Who would they have to deal with to get the food but that brother they had betrayed all those years before.
The story of Joseph is one of my favorites. And my favorite part of the story is when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. There is a wonderful reunion. And then, at the very end of the book of Genesis, in chapter 50, verse 20, Joseph says, “What you did to me you intended for evil, but God intended for good.” Joseph had confidence that God’s power overruled the plans of people and when everything seemed to be going wrong, God was working on a greater plan.
Paul, in the passage we are going to look at today, was a lot like Joseph. He was in prison, he was facing persecution, he was facing those who opposed him, yet he was seeing in it all the hand of God. The difference is that Joseph said what he said after the fact, while Paul says what he says in this passage while the conflict is still going on. Maybe one of the reasons Paul could talk like he does in Philippians 1:12-18 is because he had just in recent years witnessed another man betrayed by His own people, suffering a horrible death but rising from the dead. Paul had experienced Jesus, who was the ultimate example of the truth of God turning around the evil designs of men for good. So Paul is confident in this passage that what is happening to him will have a good ending as well.
The question this passage brought to my mind as I studied it was, how could Paul have such a positive perspective on such a negative experience as prison? And really, the answer spreads not only through the passage we are going to look at this week but also next week’s passage. The inward reason for Paul’s confidence is what we will look at next week. But this week we will see that as Paul looks outside himself, he finds many reasons to rejoice as well. We are going to look at six of those reasons this morning, in the hope that Paul will be able to help us, even in the worst trials, to know that God is at work and that God is good and that we can trust Him.

The first reason we can have confidence in God in the midst of hardship and persecution is that . . .

1. The Gospel ADVANCES in the Midst of Hardship and Persecution (1:12).
Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,
Paul begins by telling the Philippians that persecution is not a hindrance to the gospel, it is fuel for the gospel to spread. We see this dynamic in Acts 11:19, Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. So the church grew because of persecution.
The early church father Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” When the early church was under persecution from the Roman Empire, the church grew dramatically. The church in China in the 20th century grew from perhaps 1 million to, by some estimates, 70 million during a time of persecution.
Paul in verse 12 says that his imprisonment has served to advance the gospel. Most people would think that being in prison would be the end of the line for Paul’s ministry. But Paul saw that what people intended for evil, God intended for good. New avenues for the gospel had opened up to him. Paul knew the truth that when we face hardship for the sake of Christ, we can honor Christ and our testimony to others can become much more real. Not many people are won to Christ through large homes or nice cars or other blessings. But many people will be won to Christ when we endure hardship with grace. When we have cancer and still come to worship and still press on in our lives day by day, we make a difference. When we love people in the workplace even when they make fun of us or think we’re weird. When we love our families even when they think we are religious wackos, we make a difference. WE can’t always see it, but it is there. When hard times come in their lives, they will turn to us because of Christ in our lives. We need to be willing to face hardship and even persecution for the sake of the gospel, because the gospel thrives in the midst of persecution. There may come a day in America when standing for the truth of the Word of God might not only bring ridicule but also fines and prison. And for just about every one of us, there will come in our lives some extreme hardship. Disease, the death of a loved one, some financial calamity, something will shake us to our core. Will you be ready for that day? The only way we will be ready for severe hardship and persecution is if we are learning to deal with more minor troubles in a God-honoring way.

Second, we can have confidence in God in the midst of hardship and persecution because . . .
2. The Gospel SPREADS Because of Persecution (1:13).
13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.
Do you think Paul would have had any impact on the imperial guard if he had never been persecuted or imprisoned? It is doubtful. But how in the world would the Roman leaders have been reached with the gospel if there had been no persecution? When Paul faced persecution, the gospel advanced. And when Paul faced persecution, the gospel spread. More people, more different kinds of people, one cultural barrier after another being torn down. Persecution is one of God’s choice means to break through walls of prejudice and separation. In the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, what woke people up to the face that black people were being treated unfairly in many parts of the country? It was not eloquent speeches, those came later. It was not political programs. Most politicians ride the wave of public opinion, they don’t move until they feel like the country is on their side. So it wasn’t the politicians and it wasn’t the speeches. What was it? It was a people willing to endure persecution in the cause of truth. What made a difference was the pictures and TV reports and newspaper accounts of people in Birmingham and Selma and Montgomery getting blasted with fire hoses and having German Shepherds let loose on them and being beaten bloody because of nothing more than a peaceful march for human rights. Because the Civil Rights community endured persecution non-violently, white America responded mostly with compassion and changes began to take place.
When we endure hardship and persecution willingly, we may touch lives we would have had no chance to touch without persecution. And we never know what God might do with some of those lives to accomplish his great purposes. Billy Graham didn’t come to know the Lord through the ministry of some well-known preacher of his day but through the simple gospel preaching of Mordecai Ham, a man we would never have heard of if not for the fact that at one of his meetings, a young, skinny Charlotte son of a dairy farmer named Billy trusted in Christ. Never sell short persistent faithfulness to God in hard places. You never know what God will do with your labor but you can always know that if you labor in the power of the risen Christ that your labor is not in vain. We have 1 Corinthians 15:58 to take to the bank on that, Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

Third, we can have confidence in God in the midst of persecution because . . .
3. Persecution Inspires Others to Share Christ with COURAGE (1:14).
14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
John and Betty Stam were missionaries in China in the 1930’s. They had a baby daughter named Helen. While they were serving in China a time of political unrest caused them to be persecuted. They were thrown into prison and made to travel from town to town with their captors. They listened in horror one night as the Chinese soldiers discussed whether they should just kill little Helen in order to avoid the burden of traveling with her. Eventually, the soldiers paraded John and Betty Stam through the streets of a town, stripped them of their clothes and killed them. Their daughter was taken and put into a basket and put on the doorstep of another family, who took her in and cared for her. The baby’s life was spared, but John and Betty Stam were martyred for Christ. In the years immediately following, thousands of people made commitments to follow Christ in foreign missions because of the Stam’s sacrifice. One of those who made a commitment was a young girl named Elisabeth. She eventually married a man named Jim and they, along with four other couples, went to Ecuador to do missions among a brutal tribe. On January 6, 1956, Jim and the other four men were speared to death by the tribe. The women were all left widows and most of them had young children. In the years following the martyrdom of these five men in Ecuador, thousands of young people volunteered to give their lives to God’s service in missions. And Elisabeth Elliot and the sister of one of the other men went back to the tribe in Ecuador as missionaries. They extended forgiveness to the tribe and shared the gospel with them. Today, over 70% of the tribe profess Christ as Savior.
Paul knew that his boldness, his courage under fire, was giving others courage to preach. It seems strange to us. We might think the imprisonment of Paul would cause other believers to become more fearful and more hidden but instead it makes them more bold. Persecution has the effect of helping us realize that our faith is real whereas when we try to find the path of most comfort our faith often feels unreal and so we are less apt to share our faith. You will notice this in the worship of people who are under persecution or hardship. I remember in the poverty of Haiti little churches of cinder blocks filled with people exuberantly worshiping the Lord. But often in America worship is either a show or it is dead. The praise band basically does a concert in a dark room with spot lights and smoke or the organ drones on through four verses of a hymn nobody sings. But we don’t want either of those options. We want worship that is intense and flowing from the heart of each person here. Musical style doesn’t matter. Organ, piano, guitar, drums, flutes, it is absolutely irrelevant. Only two things matter in worship. The words we are singing or hearing preached or praying. Are our words honoring to Jesus and in accordance to God’s Word. And second, our hearts. Are our hearts seeking to overflow with love for God and joyful expression of that love in whatever way is appropriate for us. That is all that matters. We are to worship in spirit and truth. Nik Ripken, in his book, The Insanity of God, shared a story of visiting a country in Europe that had once been under Communist control, with Christianity severely persecuted. He shared how in the 1950’s the young people there who were Christians had very little access to Bibles, yet what they had, they committed to memory and talked about all the time. Once, when these young people got together for a meeting in the 1950’s, they gathered in groups and shared with each other the Scriptures they had learned. In the end, this group of young people as a whole could recite most of the New Testament. Ripken then found out from the leaders of today in that country, now free from Communism, that most Christian youth in that country today know very little Scripture. What made the difference? I believe the fires of persecution versus the comfort and creeping worldliness of a life without persecution. The same is true with us.

The fourth reason we can endure hardship and persecution with confidence is because . . .
4. Persecution and Hardship Binds Us Together With Believers of GOOD WILL (1:15-16).

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel.
Those who loved Paul, and there were many, were bound to him in his imprisonment and carried on his mission outside the prison walls in support of him. They loved him and sought to preach the gospel in order to carry on his work at a time when he couldn’t. When we face hardship or persecution, we will find like Paul many believers who will be like family to us. They will pray for us, they will support us, they will be on our team. Have you ever noticed that when a celebrity has some financial trouble, how all their followers drop them? There are people who follow celebrities around to get a piece of their money. But when the money is gone, so are the people. But Christians are not to be like this. We are not to be with people because of what we can get from them but because of what we can give and because of the mutual love of Christ we share. Many people say, “True character is what you do when no one else is around.” I think that is true. But I recently heard a phrase I think is even better. “True character is how you act toward people who can give you nothing in return.” Paul was in chains. If anything he was going to hurt the reputations or maybe even bring danger to those who supported him. But they, with nothing to gain from Paul and something to lose, still supported him and carried on his work. This is true character.

Fifth, we can endure hardship and persecution with confidence when we realize . . .
5. Some Will REJECT Us When We Are Persecuted (1:17).
17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.
There were some among the preachers of Paul’s day who were not men of true character. They seem to have been true Christians because I think these among the brothers he speaks of in verse 14 but they lacked the character to stand by Paul in his hour of need. They preached Christ but out of a sense of rivalry, attempting to get one up on Paul while he was in prison. He was a respected person in the early church and these preachers were trying to gain some of the power they thought he had lost by being in prison.
There are some good cautions for us to remember as we consider these who saw Paul’s imprisonment as an opportunity to up the competition. First, we need to recognize that in Christian ministry we will always have those who oppose us, not only from outside the Christian community but also from within. There will always be naysayers, critics and those who desire for various reasons to undermine our ministry if we are devoted followers of Christ. And since we all face hard circumstances at times and since none of us is perfect in our every action, sometimes the criticisms will stick and that is difficult. Paul is in chains while the ministry reputation he has built through the years is being undermined by these rivals.
Second, we need to avoid rivalry. We are not competitors with other churches. I used to from time to time check the website of another church in our area. I would rationalize to myself that I was just finding out what was going on but in reality I was really competing inwardly with this church. They are about the same size and situation as we are so I would go to their newsletter online and look at their attendance and their giving. And if we were stronger one week I’d feel just a little bit better about myself and if their numbers were better I’d kind of get down in the dumps. And I finally realized, this is terrible. You are competing with that church. You are trying to beat them. Where is your concern for them? Do you really want to be a little bit happy that their numbers were down? Do you really want to measure your life that way? I was ashamed for being so unloving and for being so petty. Our goal must never be to have a bigger and better church than some other church in town. I want you to be genuinely thankful for the good that happens at West Hickory but I ultimately hope all of us will boast not in the church but in the Lord Jesus Christ. And I hope we will be genuinely excited about the good things God is doing in other churches.
Third, this verse warns us about the desire to grab power. I get very nervous when I see pastors with tremendous amounts of power. When a church becomes known as Pastor Smith’s church instead of the church of Jesus Christ, we are drifting toward a situation that is ripe for trouble.
Finally, this verse cautions us against the mistake of equating success with the blessing of God. Most people would probably have seen Paul as a failure. I mean, he is in prison after all. Others out there who were preaching Christ out of rivalry may have been gathering substantial followings. Let us be careful about how we think of success. Success in ministry is faithfulness, nothing more nothing less. This means we trust God, we work hard, we pray, we leave the results in God’s hands. We plant through preaching and teaching, we water through ministering to people in their needs, we get out the weeds through opposing false teaching but in the end we trust God to bring the growth. God’s got to send the rain of the Holy Spirit to open hearts to the gospel. So seek by God’s power to work your life’s garden and then plead with God to send the rain.

Finally this morning we see that we can face hardship and persecution with confidence because . . .
6. The Gospel is UNSTOPPABLE (1:18).
18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.
This is the good news about the good news: it cannot fail. Even if those proclaiming it do so from mixed motives, the Word can be a blessing. And even when we face persecution for the Word, we can take heart that the message of the gospel will make a difference in the lives of those with whom we have contact. None of us is indispensable. The gospel will go on long after we are gone.
Isaiah 55:10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

In my senior year of high school, I was playing on the baseball team. I was a new Christian and was really feeling the work of God in my life and was wondering if playing baseball was really the best way to use my time. I went to the coach, a kind of rough man who had recently been through a divorce, to talk about whether I should quit the team. He told me to take some time to think about it. I did and decided to stay on the team. Right before the first game the coach gathered us all in foul territory for a pregame talk. At the end of that talk, he asked me to pray for the team. We had never prayed together as a team. A couple of guys snickered and I nervously mumbled some prayer for God to bless the season. Most of the guys just thought I was a religious wacko. But a funny thing happened over the course of the season. From time to time a guy on the team would pull me aside to ask me to talk with them about their problems. Sometimes guys would ask me a question about the Bible. The season was blessed and God’s Word went out even in the locker room environment of a high school baseball team.
The gospel can’t be stopped by envy or rivalry, it can’t be stopped by inexperience or foolishness, it can’t be stopped by prison chains or persecutions. The gospel can’t be stopped.
Paul was confident and joyful in God because he looked around him and realized that as it had been in his own life, so it was in the world, the gospel was breaking through, changing lives and transforming cultures. So he could endure hardship and persecution. The Jesus who endured hardship and persecution for us will use our hardship and persecution for God’s glory and the blessing of the world.
So let us leave this place today bold and willing. Let us leave ready to speak about Jesus with friends, neighbors and co-workers. Let us lay down our lives to go the least-reached places on earth. Let us be more concerned with dishonoring God than being labelled as a narrow-minded religious fanatic. Let us pray and think together and walk together so that we can be faithful witnesses to Jesus now, so that when the hardship or persecution comes, we are still faithful to live for Him. We are not here forever, but we will be with Him forever. So let us live today as those who will live forever with Jesus and let us live in such a way that we know, at the end of our lives, we left it all on the field. Let’s pray.

Good Thoughts to Begin the Week

6 May

Christ was all anguish that I might be all joy

Cast off that I might be brought in

Trodden down as an enemy that I might be welcomed as a friend

Surrendered to hell’s worst that I might attain heaven’s best

Stripped that I might be clothed

Wounded that I might be healed

Athirst that I might drink

Tormented that I might be comforted

Made a shame that I might inherit glory

Entered darkness that I might have eternal light

My Savior wept that all tears might be wiped from my eyes

Groaned that I might have endless song

Endured all pain that I might have unfading health

Bore a horned crown that I might have a glory-diadem

Bowed his head that I might uplift mine

Experienced reproach that I might receive welcome

Closed his eyes in death that I might gaze on unclouded brightness

Expired that I might forever live . . .

Go forth, O conquering God, and show me the cross, mighty to subdue, comfort and save.

— A Puritan Prayer

The Heart of Paul’s Mission

25 Apr

2 Corinthians 5:11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience. 12 We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart. 13 For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. 14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Acts 20:18 You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. 22 And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, 23 except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. 24 But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 25 And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again. 26 Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all, 27 for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.

Philippians 1:12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.
15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

1 Corinthians 1:22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Galatians 6:14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.

The Foolishness of the Gospel

21 Mar

“The Son of God died that we might be forgiven, that we might be reconciled unto Him. And the Spirit is sent, and He comes and does His amazing work of regeneration. God puts His Spirit into us and gives us an understanding that we never had before. And so we have the mind of Christ. This is what the gospel is about. And the moment you realize the essential character of the subject matter of this gospel, you see how utterly monstrous and ridiculous and foolish it is for men and women to come with their wisdom and learning and understanding and apply it to this. They have already gone astray, and that is the whole tragedy of the world and the church at this moment.

My dear friend, we must make this perfectly clear. When you come into the Christian church and listen to this gospel as it is in truth, you must realize that everything you are in the world is of no value. It does not matter who you are, what your natural ability is, what your degrees and diplomas, you academic attainments, what knowledge you may have garnered. It is all useless to you. When you come into the realm of the church, the Pharisee is as helpless as the publican.”

Martyn Lloyd-Jones, from the sermon, “The Great Watershed”

Sermon Saturday: Matt Chandler on Revelation 2

2 Feb

This is an outstanding sermon from a conference at Southeastern seminary. Matt Chandler speaks of the life and death of the church in Ephesus in Revelation chapter 2 and shows the missing element in their life together that led to their demise.

Here is the link . . .

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