Archive | December, 2019

How Christian freedom should not lead to Christians behaving badly – First Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 4

5 Dec
Photo by Rene Böhmer on Unsplash

Have you ever heard Christians say that if churches or Christian institutions don’t have rules and regulations, people will go off the rails leading to anarchy?  So if we want to be good Christians, they say, then we should be making new rules, like the ones in the previous post: no wearing lipstick or smoking a pipe.

As we continue our study through Galatians 2, Paul says, wait a minute, that’s not true.  Jesus doesn’t promote sin.  Consider what Paul says in verse 17.  When we look at our lives, even after placing our faith in Christ, do we see that we sin, which is doing things that do not honor God, whether that be in word, thought or deed?  My guess is that all Christians should be answering, “Yes,” because we still do things that dishonor God, right? So does the fact that there are Christians who trust in God’s grace but still sin mean Jesus promotes sin?  It could seem like it, right?  Shouldn’t Christians be the ones who don’t sin? Maybe was is needed is a new Christian law code, to help us stop sinning?

In verse 18 Paul says that if he rebuilds the law, it will result in him becoming a lawbreaker.  But has not rebuilt the law.  That is not what the good news of Jesus is all about, it is not about making a new law code. 

Instead Paul says in verse 19, that he died to the law, that he might live for God.  Do you hear that?  Christians are living for God.  So how does that work?  Those of you who have ever felt those first pangs of being in love, could it be said that you were living for that person?  Did you plan out your day so you could interact with them?  Did you see things and wonder, “Would they like that?”  Or “What would they think of this idea?” Those are evidences of living for another.  We are to be living for God.  Not checking off our adherence to rules and regulations.  Living for him, loving him and his ways, and knowing that his ways are made and created out of his heart’s desire for our very best.

Paul’s teaching reaches its high point in verse 20.  This is a powerful verse, and one that I encourage you to memorize.  Let’s look at it closely. 

The first line is I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live.  A Christian is a person who so identifies with Christ, that we see ourselves as crucified with him.  It’s like Jesus himself once said, “if you want to be my disciples you must die to yourself.”  That’s what Paul is getting at here.  We die to ourselves, to our desires, to our longings.  In fact, we no longer live.  Our desires and longings are dead. 

That might sound harsh or wrong.  Isn’t it OK to have desires?  Well, Paul goes on and says something that speaks to this.  

Look at the next phrase: Christ lives in us.  Our desires, our longings are replaced by a whole new kind of life that is now within us.  Jesus’ life is in us.  That’s wild.  And a tad weird. Think about it: don’t Christians believe that Jesus is a person with a body? Yes, we do. So how is a person inside billions of other people?  To answer that we need to remember what Jesus himself taught. In places like John 14, he said that when he would leave his disciples, he would send his Spirit to live with them.  That is how he lives in us.  By his Spirit.  The Spirit of Jesus lives in us, and that is astounding.  God is within us.    

That gives Paul reason to keep thinking about the ramifications of this.  He says next that the life he lives in the body, he lives by faith in the Son of God.  Paul’s longing is for Christ and Christ only.  He wants a life that is marked by faith in Jesus.  Do you see what Paul has done here?  He has taught us that Christians will replace their longings with faith in Jesus.  The more they love and know Jesus the more their hearts will beat like his, their eyes will see things as Jesus does, their longings will be what Jesus’s are.

There is incredibly good reason for this, as we see in his final phrase: We can live completely by faith in God. In other words we can replace our longings with his longings, and we can do this with full confidence in him because he loved us and gave himself for us.  

All of this is rooted in God’s love for us.  God’s love for us is an all-encompassing, total kind of love that we could never fully describe or explain.  It is so rich.  It never fails.  Because of that we can make his longings our longings.  When we do so, we can and will find satisfaction in him.

Just dwell on that verse.  Let me read it again.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Isn’t that a beautiful concept?  What Paul unearths for us is the true satisfaction of longing.  In comparison to all we long for, even good longings like peace and happiness, there is a deeper satisfaction that must come first, Paul says, and that is a longing for Jesus.

Finding our way through the muddy waters of law and grace – First Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 3

4 Dec
Photo by siu siu on Unsplash

Do Christians have Christian laws we are supposed to follow in order to be right in God’s eyes? Can you think of any?

This is a tricky subject because Christians are called to live a certain way, so how is that different from following the Old Testament Law? We’re about to discover that this was a huge issue in the early church. Frankly, I find it to still be a big issue in our day. Many Christians are confused about our relationship to the Law. In our Deuteronomy series, I wrote about it starting here. But it is coming up again. Actually, I find that in my pastoral ministry at Faith Church, it comes up multiple times every year. Many Christians have a hard time wading through the muddy waters of law and grace. Perhaps what Paul has to say in our study of Galatians 2 can help us, as it seems the Galatian Christians, and even a top leader of the church, were just as confused.

As we saw in the previous post about Galatians chapter 2, Paul became a follower of Jesus, believing in and teaching the true story of Jesus. We learned that at one point during his ministry of traveling around the Roman Empire in the First Century, heralding the story of good news in Jesus, Paul sharply confronted the Apostle Peter.

What did Peter that had Paul so concerned?  Paul says that Peter allowed himself to fall in with the Judaizers.  The Judaizers are the false brothers Paul referred to in Galatians 2, verse 4.  Now Paul describes them a bit more.  They were people who believed that Christians still needed to follow the regulations of the Old Testament Mosaic Law, especially the practice of circumcision.  This became a major issue in the early church, because when Gentiles, people who are not Jews, became Christians, believing in the Good news of Jesus and following him, those new non-Jewish Christian had never been circumcised. 

Paul taught them the true gospel which is about believing in and following the way of Jesus, and which is not about following the Old Testament Law.  Therefore non-Jews who became Christians didn’t need to be circumcised.  Thus Paul is saying the Judaizers were wrong when they came to Peter and swayed him to their view.  And Peter was wrong to be swayed. 

So Paul strongly opposes Peter.  Peter knew the truth of the Gospel, but he was caving – he was allowing other things to get in the way of the truth of the gospel.

We don’t struggle today with whether or not to be circumcised.  It’s not a religious issue for us.  What do we struggle with?  What are the laws that can enslave us away from the Gospel?  Over the years on this blog, I’ve talked about numerous such contemporary laws.  Usually they’re unwritten laws, but they can hold power over us nonetheless.  There are the classics like not working on Sundays, which can include things like washing the car, mowing the lawn or doing laundry.  We’ve talked about what people should or should not wear.

But at our weekly Faith Church sermon roundtable when we discussed this sermon, I learned some new ones!  Two ladies remembered that lipstick was a big deal in their day.  Christians didn’t wear lipstick.And then another person said that his father-in-law was not allowed to be on his church leadership board because he smoked a pipe.  These are all things which are not a part of the Goods News of Jesus, but they are conditions added by man. 

What we’re talking about is Law vs. Grace.  Peter was allowing himself to be swayed by the people who said that Christians needed to follow the stipulations of the Old Testament Mosaic Law, and Paul was shocked because the true gospel he taught was the story of how Jesus brought us freedom from the Law.  So Paul writes the Galatian Christians because he hears they were getting swayed the same way Peter had!  In other words, Paul brings up the story about the time he confronted Peter to illustrate the truth.  And what is the truth? 

That’s what he talks about next.  We might call it a theology of grace.  Look at what he says in the rest of the chapter, Galatians 2:15-21.

Paul’s focus is on God’s grace.  We cannot be justified, Paul says, by following rules and laws.  We are justified by God’s grace, through placing our faith in Jesus.  That word justified is important.  He uses it a bunch of times in verses 16-17.  It means “to be made right.”  We are not made right in the eyes of God by following the law.  We are made right (that is, brought into a right relationship with God) by placing our faith in Christ who was right for us.  This is what Paul gets at in verse 21, where he uses the word righteousness.  In the Greek language Paul wrote in, this is the same root word as justify in verses 16-17.  Paul is saying that we absolutely need God’s grace to be made right, to be brought into a right relationship with God. We can’t be made right on our own.  If we could be made right on our own by following rules and regulations, then Christ died for nothing, Paul says.  So the good news of Jesus is that though we could never be made right on our own, Jesus died and rose again, winning victory over sin, over death and over the devil, so that we can place our faith in him and be made right.

Paul is rightly concerned, therefore, that the Galatians were starting to believe a different story.  They were believing the old story, the one that said you had to follow all the rules and regulations of the Old Testament Mosaic Law in order to be made right before God.  Paul is saying, “No!  You are free from the bondage of having to follow the Law because Jesus fulfilled the Law for you, setting you free through his life, death, and resurrection!”

That leads to a great question, the obvious question, I think.  Since we have been freed in Christ, does that mean we can live however we want, do whatever we want? Check back in to our next post as we see how Paul answers that important question.

Peer pressure and our longings – First Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 2

3 Dec
Image result for peer pressure

Have you ever been swayed by what other people think, even though you don’t really agree with them? Have you ever been influenced to act contrary to your beliefs because you feel pressure from others? Often we say that teenagers succumb to peer pressure, but the reality is that adults of all ages are just as susceptible. We have deep longings to be accepted and liked, and those longings can impel us to think and act in ways we never otherwise think or act. What can we do about these longings?

In the first post in the series, I made the claim that Jesus alone is where we will find the answer to all our longings.  But is it true? Let’s talk about that. And to do so we’re going to study a section of the Bible, Galatians chapter 2.

Since we are jumping right into the middle of a passage, let me give you at least a little bit of context about what we are studying.  Galatians is an ancient letter, written by one of the Christian church’s earliest leaders and missionaries, a man named Paul.  Not too many years after Jesus died and returned to heaven, Paul traveled around the Roman Empire preaching the good news about Jesus and as a result people who heard his preaching became followers of Jesus.  Paul would group them into local churches in the various cities and towns.  Sometimes he stayed in a place for just a few weeks, sometimes months, but rarely would he stay for as much as a year.  Once he felt they were ready, he would install leaders in the church, but then he would move on to keep preaching and start more churches.  But he didn’t forget them. He would write letters to check in on them, advising and teaching them.  This letter is called Galatians because it was written to a group of churches in a region of the First Century Roman Empire called Galatia.  Paul was very concerned about what he was hearing through the grapevine about these churches.  How do we know Paul is concerned?  We just need to look at three verses in the letter.  One before the passage we’ll be studying, and two after it.

Look at Galatians 1:6.  There Paul says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel which is really no gospel at all.” 

Now turn to chapter 3, verse 1.  Here he gets even more intense: “You foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?” and then, staying in the same chapter, skim down to verse 3, “Are you so foolish?  After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”

In those verses Paul is bewildered that the people in the churches in the region of Galatia have veered from what he taught them.  He calls what he taught them, “the gospel”.  But now, he says, they are turning to a different gospel, which is actually no gospel.  The word gospel means “good news.”  It is the story of Jesus, his birth, life, death and resurrection, and the message connected to his teaching and his victory over sin, over death and over the devil, that there is a new hope in him and him alone. 

As we will see in chapter 2, even a revered church leader was being swayed to follow a different gospel.

What I would suggest is that you start by reading Galatians 1:11 through 2:10 because I want you to hear the story of how Paul came to follow Jesus.  It is amazing.  Originally Paul was not one of Jesus’ disciples.  In fact the opposite is true.  If you like, pause reading this blog and read Galatians 1:11-2:10.

What we learn in that section of the letter is that Paul was originally persecutor of the church, but God saved him, and he became a missionary for Jesus.  Take special notice what he says in chapter 2, verse 4.  What he says there gives us a clue as to what Paul is so concerned about in this letter.  In that verse he says some false brothers had infiltrated the church to spy on the freedom they had in Christ Jesus and to make them slaves.  He doesn’t mean physical enslavement.  He is talking about spiritual enslavement, which has some very physical ramifications.  He means that these false brothers didn’t believe the part of the good news story of Jesus that taught that people are free to follow the new life of Jesus.  Instead those false brothers believed that Christians still needed to follow the rules and regulations of the Old Testament Law, and thus Paul saw that as an enslavement to the Law.

Paul goes on to say that after he started following Jesus, he eventually met with the leaders in Jerusalem, famous guys like the disciples Peter and John, and the brother of Jesus, James, who was the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and they give Paul the right hand of fellowship, which means they welcomed him and accepted him. 

But then Paul describes a serious problem. You can read about the problem in Galatians chapter 2, verses 11-14.

It’s a bit of a shocker.  Paul says that Peter was behaving contrary to the gospel, and even Barnabas was led astray.  Peter and Barnabas were two pillars of the church.  In stature and history it doesn’t get any higher than Peter.  And yet here is Paul describing Peter as swayed by what people think.  As I thought about it, though, it struck me that this was not the first time Peter did this.  Consider his denial of Jesus three times before the rooster crowed at Jesus’ trial. But what did Peter do this time that has Paul so concerned? 

We’ll get to that in the next post!

Why did the US death rate jump sharply in recent years? – First Sunday of Advent 2019, Part 1

2 Dec
Photo by Kyle Johnson on Unsplash

If you could say in one word what you want more of in life, what would that be?

What this question gets at is longing.  This Advent, we are talking about longing. 

Advent is a season of longing.  Ancient Christians created the season of Advent as a four week long preparatory time for the great celebration of Christmas.  Advent means “coming,” and it looks back to the first coming of the Messiah, when Jesus was born.  It also points forward to Jesus’ second coming.  As Jesus taught us, we need to be ready for his second coming.  There is a sense, then, in which Advent is a period focused on longing for Jesus to return, and so we would do well to evaluate our longings.  Are we longing for the right things?

I read an article this week in which the author asked the same question of her readers that I asked you: in one word, what do you want more of in your life?  This is just another way of asking, “What do long for?”  Nearly 800 people responded, and the results were fascinating.  I’m going to list the top 8.  What do you think nearly 800 people in our society said they want more of? 

  • 8 – Confidence
  • 7 – Fulfillment
  • 6 – Balance
  • 5 – Joy
  • 4 – Peace
  • 3 – Freedom
  • 2 – Money
  • 1 – Happiness

People have many longings.  This is no surprise.  What is alarming is that there seems to be a growing sense in our culture of longings going unfulfilled.

Another article I read talked about this.  The article studied the death rate in the USA from 1959 through 2017. The general trend: the death rate improved a great deal for several decades, particularly in the 1970s, then slowed down, pretty much leveled off and has recently reversed course after 2014, increasing dramatically since then.

The article reported sharp especially among those in mid-life, ages 25-64.  The report showed the trend to be true both genders, all races and ethnicities.  By age group, the highest relative jump in death rates between the years 2010 and 2017, a jump of 29 percent, was people age 25 to 34. What is going on?  The title of the article is “There’s something terribly wrong.” 

One person in the article said:

“Whether it’s economic, whether it’s stress, whether it’s deterioration of family, people are feeling worse about themselves and their futures, and that’s leading them to do things that are self-destructive and not promoting health.”[1]

This is alarming because, we are the richest country in the history of the world.  We’re not in a major war.  Our health care is amazing.  We have loads of connection through social media.  We are more educated than ever before.  We have so much opportunity.  Yet there is deep despair in so many in our culture, leading to self-destructive behavior.  What is going on?  Perhaps at the root is a epidemic of unfulfilled longing.

As I answered for myself the question above, “What do you want more of in life?” I’ll admit that “peace” and “money” were the first two words that came to my mind.  Let us consider this: How many of us thought of Jesus?  How many people are longing for Jesus? 

We might actually find that a bit odd.  “What do you mean, ‘longing for Jesus,’ Joel?” What I am referring to is the long-held Christian idea that in Jesus and Jesus alone is where we will find the answer to all our longings.  But is it true? Keep following the blog, as our next few post will look into that.