Friday, June 26, 2015
Monday, June 22, 2015
The Times-Reporter of New Philadelphia, Ohio, recounted that in September, 1985 a celebration of a New Orleans municipal pool took place to commemorate the first summer in memory without a drowning. In honor of the occasion, 200 people gathered, including 100 certified lifeguards. As the party was breaking up and the four lifeguards on duty began to clear the pool, they found a fully dressed body in the deep end. They tried to revive Jerome Moody, 31, but it was too late. He had drowned surrounded by lifeguards celebrating their successful season. A Similar tragedy is being lived out in the world today on a far grander scale. There are so many people with the knowledge of the means for eternal life (who know Christ and have perhaps even grown more like Him) and yet they act as though they are completely oblivious to those dying around them without Jesus.
Over the last several weeks we’ve been delineating “Our Mission.” On week one we discussed the process of conversion by which people come to know Christ in an intimate way after responding positively to the overwhelming revelation of God by placing faith in His Son Jesus. Last week we looked at how growth takes place in the believer by investigating man’s responsibility and God’s responsibility in sanctification. Today, we arrive at the third part of the mission—showing Christ to others. In an effort to demonstrate how we can successfully accomplish this third and final part of the mission, we are going to take a look at one of Paul’s many encouragements to the church of Colossae in Colossians 4:2-6.
Colossae was a thriving city 100 miles east of Ephesus. Although Colossae’s population was primarily Gentile, there was a large Jewish settlement there. After Paul greets the church at the beginning of this letter, he thanks them for their service and prays that the church will grow in wisdom, especially concerning the person of Christ. Next, Paul begins to describe Christ as the head of the church, Redeemer, Reconciler, and Sacrifice. He shows that Christ trumps philosophy and dispels the rumors beginning to percolate regarding Gnostic tendencies and legalism. After defending Christ’s personhood, Paul delves into the implications that go along with a sophisticated Christology. He shows how Christ should be chosen over carnality and describes how a new man and Christian home should look. Thereafter, following a brief address to masters and their slaves, Paul begins to give encouragements to the church in light of God’s coming and God’s grace. These encouragements are given as commands and are presented in chapter 4 verses 2-6. Three of them pertain to how best to show Christ to a world that desperately needs Him and are therefore important to the study of our church’s mission, that is, should we choose to accept it.
I. COMMAND #1: PRAY PURPOSEFULLY-4:2-4
As Paul draws his letter to a close, he calls upon the church in Colossae to first devote themselves to prayer (with consistent and constant intensity with the possible implication of difficulty), “devote yourselves to prayer” (4:2a). In light of all that Paul has taught in the beginning of his letter, his first encouragement to the church is to commit themselves to a life of fervent prayer. Why? Because showing Christ to others is predicated on one’s prayer life. One’s ability to demonstrate Christ to others is in direct proportion to their personal ministry of intercession.
The Colossians were instructed to pray in a specific manner, with “alertness” or “watchfulness” and “with an attitude of thanksgiving,” (4:2b). Although prayers do require the individual to be awake, when Paul says “keeping alert,” he is talking about praying with an acute awareness of whatever affects the spread of the gospel. This becomes exceedingly obvious as Paul will soon provide specific requests. Informed prayer is more likely to be purposeful, personal, and powerful.
Notice also that prayer is supposed to take place in the context of thanksgiving (1 Thess. 5:17). No one depended on this context of thanksgiving more than Paul whose own circumstances were anything but something for which to be thankful—he was in prison for crying out loud! However, to ensure a proper perspective in the midst of tribulation, Paul both modeled and urged that prayer be offered in an attitude of thanks. This kind of prayer sees clearly the obstacles and difficulties but recognizes that in spite of all of them, God is able to work and in many cases has already worked in copious ways.
These two verses present a three-part pattern in prayer. First, an individual prays fervently, second, an individual watches or waits for a response, “keeping alert in it,” and third, the individual responds with thanksgiving upon answered prayer. The first requires obedience, as a believer takes on the command to pray. The second requires faith as the believer anxiously awaits the fulfillment of the answer, and third, it requires praise and adoration to God for having answered the prayer offered. While the world sleeps in their disbelief and ignorance, Paul calls Christians to keep awake and devoted to regular and steady prayer.
In repeating the word “prayer” in verse 3, Paul emphasizes its importance, “devote yourselves to prayer, praying at the same time for us as well” (4:3). In the spirit of being devotedly specific in their prayer lives, Paul gives them some specific requests of his.
First, Paul requested that the church in Colossae pray for an open door for the gospel, “that God will open up to us a door for the word so that we may speak for the mystery of Christ for which I have been imprisoned…” (4:3). Paul always looked for ways to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ. No one had better skills to turn any situation into an opportunity for witnessing. Paul’s success was, in part, due to the many prayers offered on his behalf for wisdom and opportunity. You want the opportunity to spread the gospel successfully? Pray for it! That is what Paul did and look how God used him! Therefore, Paul instructs the Colossians to pray that he would continue to find open doors. The apostle lived for such opportunities and realized that God alone provided these divine appointments.
However, what is this mystery Paul is talking about sharing in these opportunities, “so that we may speak for the mystery of Christ for which I have been imprisoned”(4:3)? The answer is found in Colossians 1:26-27, “the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” The substance of Paul’s message, the mystery that he longed more than anything to solve for people was that by grace through faith, anyone can have Christ in them, the hope of glory. This was the kernel of truth that Paul hoped to share with those who were lost.
Paul’s second request was that he may proclaim the gospel as he should, “That I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak” (4:4). Paul not only looked for new doors to walk through but he also looked for ways to make the gospel known. He did not pray for a specific method of spreading the gospel, but for the wisdom to know what to say in specific situations, all the while doing justice to the gospel.
In this first command given in this passage, Paul reveals that to show Christ adequately, one must adopt a dynamic prayer life which includes: praying for the lost, praying for opportunities to share Christ with the lost, and praying for wisdom so that the sharing done may be appropriate and winsome. However, prayers are only the first step of three.
II. COMMAND #2: ACT ACCORDINGLY-4:5
Paul’s second command is to live out the gist of what they are praying, “conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders” (4:5a). The Colossians were to ensure that their lives, speech, and appearance reflected Christ in them (the hope of glory). To “conduct yourselves with wisdom” means to follow Christ as God’s pattern for full and authentic living. Paul knew all too well the importance of giving the world no reason to criticize the behavior of Christians. Blameless living alongside a dynamic prayer life is another large cornerstone a good witness. Why?
A blameless walk naturally affords a believer the ability to make the most of every opportunity given to him/her to show Christ, “making the most of the opportunity” (4:5b). The word for “making the most” insinuates that every opportunity you have to spread the seed or water on planted ground needs to be snapped up like an unpassable bargain.
You may say, well I have very little if any opportunities to share the gospel. However, the very fact that you are left on this earth and here today suggests that your opportunities have not run out. You may not recognize the myriad of opportunities around you because you have failed to pray for them to be revealed to you. Time itself is an opportunity to seize for the kingdom of God. What are you going to do with it? Decide today to snap it up and redeem it for all its worth for the glory of God. We are not casual window shopping here. It is a black Friday kind of situation and a host of others in this world are longing to snatch up those around us before we do. Therefore, a little urgency is called for.
III. COMMAND #3: SPEAK SWEETLY-4:6
Paul’s final command in this passage reflects on both the content of words spoken and the method of speaking any matter, “Let your speech always be with grace as though seasoned with salt…”(4:6a). Two specific phrases illustrate the nature of Christian speech, “in grace” and “with salt.” “In grace” was an idiom used in that day to describe charm or charisma. However, Paul wants it to mean more than just tactfulness. Ultimately, Paul is trying to get the Colossians to speak with grace as those who live in grace or speak in a distinctly Christian way. While the world slanders and bludgeon’s people with their sharp words, a Christian’s presentation is to stand in contrast as a presentation of grace given with grace.
1 Peter 3:15-“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to
everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
Speech was also to be “seasoned with salt.” In the ancient world, salt was used in three different ways: it could preserve a food, sterilize a food, or season a food. Here Paul is talking about the latter. Conversations are to be seasoned in such a way that they bring life and richness. Paul knew that a lengthy and laborious monologue is often useless in evangelism. Therefore, Christians are instructed here to work at making their witness lively and colorful while at the same time making sure they stay true to the gospel.
This kind of speech is required “so that” as Paul says “you will know how you should respond to each person” (4:6c). Respond to what? Well If verses 4 and 5 are being carried out properly (that is we are engaged in prayer and living rightly), outsiders will begin to ask Christians about their new life and its source. Although many questions are predictable, each questioner is an individual and must be respected, loved, and responded to as such. One technique or approach may not be suitable to each and every person you meet. Instead, each outsider must be given special customized attention.
In this study we’ve observed the unmistakable priority of prayer, the need for an authentic lifestyle, and a proper and gracious presentation. Paul in his encouragements to Colossae desired for that church to become fellow workers with him in the call to show Christ to a lost world. . We must also take on the charge in our own lives. We too must devote ourselves to prayer in eager anticipation of an answer for those we know and for this community. We too must strive to live blameless lives so we might provide the kind of example that will make people stop and ask us what is different about ourselves. In response to such questions, we make the most of every opportunity to share Jesus Christ. Thirdly, we must speak boldly and graciously with those around us as we communicate the flavorful truths of God’s Word. These three commands of Paul are paramount if we are going to adequately show Christ to others as individuals and as a church. May we not be caught standing on the edge of the pool unaware of those sinking around us. Rather, may we choose to live with open eyes and ears, aware of those in need around us, and dive into their lives with the saving knowledge of Jesus. Our mission depends on it!
Tuesday, June 16, 2015
In spite of who is entertaining us in the finals right now in the NBA, I believe I’m on solid ground when I say that the San Antonio Spurs are arguably the best team in NBA history. With 15 straight 50 win seasons recently accomplished and a .614 winning percentage as of 2014, the San Antonio Spurs have passed the LA Lakers in a win/loss ratio contest that takes a look at each team’s entire history. Not only that, but the Spurs have made it to the playoffs every year for the last 17 seasons and during that period have taken home the championship a whopping 5 times. To what or to whom do we credit these successes, especially in the Spurs recent history? Are we to exalt the amazing coaching skills of Gregg Popovich or appreciate the raw talent of the players? A similar question arises when we consider sanctification or Christian growth. Who is responsible for the growth we go through in our Christian lives—the believer himself or God and His grace? Paul discusses the answer to this in Philippians 2:12b-13. As we continue to dissect our mission (to Know Christ, Grow in Christ, and Show Christ to the world), we now arrive at the all-important discipleship component. In an effort to understand our responsibility and God’s involvement in the process of discipleship, we are going to ask and answer two questions that deal with the contents of Philippians 2:12b-13.
I. QUESTION #1: WHAT IS MAN’S ROLE IN SANCTIFICATION?-2:12b-d
When we pick up the statement in 12b, Paul says to the church in Philippi, “work out your salvation…”. The present tense of this verb suggests that what Paul is trying to communicate is not to be put off but should characterize the life of the Philippians now. It should be a present reality in order that they might be set apart from the world around them. The verb used here also suggests that it cannot be done for them but must be accomplished through them. In other words, they are to take an active role in seeing growth take place in their lives. The statement that Paul offers in the first part of this verse also reveals that this is not a suggestion or a recommendation of sorts; rather, Paul is commanding his readers to do this and carry it out in their own Christian walk. It isn’t “I would suggest working out your salvation” but “work it out.” Chrysostom explains this imperative verb, “work,” as indicating “with great effort, with great care.” Bauer states that this verb describes the idea of “achieving or accomplishing.” Therefore, it is impossible to tone down the force with which Paul here points to our conscious activity in sanctification.
The attitudes within the first part of Paul’s command are reiterated as the verse continues, “with fear and trembling” (2:12c). “Fear,” describes a healthy anxiety of offending God by doing things against His will or nature. It is a respect for His holiness and purity that is in view. This is one motivating attitude behind the growth process. However, growth also takes effort, “…and trembling.”
No one wants to work nowadays. The very word “work” carries with it a negative connotation. Terms like “effort” and “sweat” and “difficulty” don’t really appeal to our fast, comfortable, spoon fed entitlement society. Sadly, this attitude has infiltrated the Christian faith and permeated the church. However, we aren’t given a picture here of something that is easy, or handed to us on a silver plate. Perhaps this is why we are where we are today in Christian America, because we are afraid of chipping our proverbial nails or skinning our knees in sanctification.
In order for great athletes to make it big or to achieve the pinnacle of their discipline, they must put in the work in order to get playing time with the team and grow in ability. It is the same with believers. Maybe we aren’t training or putting in the proverbial hours and that’s why God has benched us/choosing not to use us. Maybe we aren’t growing because we aren’t putting forth the effort.
You might ask, “What is to be done with fear and trembling?” The disciples answer this question in their activities performed in Acts 2:42.
Acts 2:42-“…They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles teaching and to fellowship to the breaking of bread,…”
The first direction of this intense effort and focus is on the apostles teaching. For those in the book of Acts, these were the words preached and spoken of by the twelve who ministered with Jesus. However, for you and me, the teaching that God decided to preserve in the Bible is the primary source of information that leads to growth and development in Christ. The teaching of the apostles for these new believers provided the nourishment and nutrition these people needed to mature and grow in their understanding. Much like a playbook informs a player as to what he or she should do, the teaching of the apostles informed the hearts of their audience. To this teaching believers “continually devoted themselves.” This Literally means to do something with intense effort, with the possible implication of difficulty. The tense and form of this verb suggest that Luke is talking about a devotion that becomes a part of someone’s character and takes place continuously. This word does not describe a passive activity (i.e. sitting in a service of some kind and listening to what is being presented and leaving unchanged). Instead, it describes vigorous activity that leads to growth. The growth of the church or the individual believer is not the responsibility of some third party like a pastor or priest, it is ultimately predicated on one’s personal devotion.
The second direction of intense devotion according to Acts 2:42 is toward fellowship. Fellowship is an association involving close mutual relations and involvement. We read about this type of association in the remainder of Acts 2.
It is this type of fellowship that warms the heart of each believer and allows one to grow by association. Much as the teamwork is vital to the success of the team, fellowship involves a the cooperation of individuals who meet together to encourage, and love each other in a way that fosters growth and leads to success in the Christian life.
The breaking of bread and prayer that follows fellowship renames or defines what the fellowship consisted of in those days. It was customary for New Testament believers to gather together and eat a meal. This was their primary means of entertaining and experiencing life together. One thing that often accompanied such meetings was the sharing of the Lord’s Supper. Ultimately, fellowship meant doing life together in spiritual community. Association in such environments is crucial for proper spiritual growth.
Along with doing life together, prayer was understood to be an essential element to corporate meetings and integral to Spiritual growth (as Acts 2:42 suggests). If the Word is the playbook, and fellowship is the teamwork, then prayer involves the all important communication with the coach. According to John Wesley, this (prayer) is “where the action is.” And as in any successful team, communication with the coach is perhaps what is most important, “The most important thing a born again Christian can do is pray” (Chuck Colson).
In Acts 2:42, commitment to the word of God, community, and prayer, were seen as the only proper response to belief in Jesus as Messiah. The picture of growth portrayed in this passage is spiritual and relational. All of these considerations make up the second phase of the mission…should you choose to accept it.
However, us playing a role in sanctification as Acts 2:42 suggests should give us pause. Our salvation, which we confess to be God’s from beginning to end, is here described as something that we must bring about. However, as we will next see, our dependence on divine activity for sanctification is nowhere else mad more explicit as in the next verse.
II. QUESTION #2: WHAT IS GOD’S ROLE IN SANCTIFICATION?-2:13
Paul continues in his comments to the church in Philippi by saying, “For it is God who is at work in you” (2:13a). Just as the command in verse 12 is a present reality, so is the presence of God at work within the believer. God is presently within His children working within us. Likewise, it is He that is doing the work. In other words, He isn’t just within us; He is also working to continue the growing process. This process doesn’t slow down, take breaks, or finish until our ultimate end. Instead, the work of God within the believer to make them more like Himself is a continuous action that is ongoing. Paul already mentioned this in Philippians 1:6.
Philippians 1:6- “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” No doubt, Paul was alluding to this idea and the concepts around it in this verse which involve the total work of salvation.
Some commentators believe that there is a play on words in this passage. Paul compels his audience to “work out” only because God “works in.” Both actions rely on God who is emphasized in the passage (and in all of Pauline literature). The grace of God is ultimately responsible for the believers ability to participate in the growing process to which God invites him/her.
Good coaches get involved with their players. Often times they demonstrate the plays they hope to make or how they want a something to be run but either way, they are intimately aware and actively involved in the game, coaching their players on to victory. It is the coach’s will that decides what actions the team will ultimately take and it is the hard work that the coach puts in that ultimately leads the team in the game. In the same way, God is actively involved in the Christian life, in their sanctification. He is the one who calls the shots, He is the one who decides what is best for those on His team. However, it is only when the players are submitted to the coach that they do their best. In the same way, it is only when believers submit to their God and His leadership that they are at their best.
What is God bringing out in this work? His pleasure, “both to will and to work for His good pleasure…” (2:13b). This can also be translated “His good purpose” and is a term that generally relates to the ultimate will of His own glory. In this turn of phrase, Paul reinforces the believer’s dependence on direction toward God’s sovereignty. All is ultimately for the glory and pleasure of God. If it is good for God it is good for His children. The sanctification process is about Him working with us to make us more like Him. In this, He finds delight.
By way of concluding, I want us to answer this last question, who wins the game--the players, or the coaches? I believe it is both the coach’s solid direction/leadership along with the full commitment of his team that wins the game. In the same way, we’ve examined that both man and God play a part in this thing called sanctification or growth. In fact, in light of our salvation (which is totally by the grace of God) the Lord invites us to journey with Him in order to become more like Him. While He is ultimately in control and it is His grace that allows for the growth, the efficiency of the process is in some ways dependent on man’s submission to God. By way of application may I suggest that we not take a passive role in our own sanctification. May we be willing to work hard and get off our duffs to be men and women who take our spiritual lives seriously. May we adopt a fearful reverence for those activities that we see the disciples yielding themselves over to (meeting together, breaking bread, praying, etc.) while at the same time relying on the same grace that saved us to grow us. Don’t be a bench warmer. Study the playbook that is the Word of God, show up for practice in our small groups and prayer meetings, and communicate regularly with greatest of all coaches. Our mission depends on it.
Monday, June 8, 2015
On July 31st of this year the fifth installment of one of the most popular movie franchises will hit theatres and captivate audiences across the globe with its high-speed chase scenes, death defying stunts, and tense plot line which will more than likely involve saving the world. I’m speaking of course about Mission Impossible. In every previous installment of this franchise (and I imagine in this one as well) Ethan Hunt is presented with a mission either through a pair of super high-tech glasses or other gadget and after the presentation is complete, a famous line is read-- “this is your mission, should you choose to accept it” followed by, “this message will self-destruct in five seconds”…and then BOOM! The move gets underway as agent Hunt defies all odds in an effort to save the world one more time.
Whether we are consciously aware of it or not, you and I as believers are on a mission of a far greater caliber. Our mission is not fantasy nor fiction, but a real life struggle against real super-villains that involves the salvation of the people that we come in contact with every day. As time marches on, more and more seems stacked against us in our endeavor to complete this mission (rendering its success more and more far-fetched in the minds of many). Some might even consider it impossible. However, this mission has been handed to us to complete, that is, should we choose to accept it. I’m speaking of course about the mission of God as presented in His Word. One formulation of this mission is found in Matthew 28:19-20 as Jesus ascends into heaven having completed His work on the earth. In His instructions to the disciples He says, “Therefore, as you go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…”. To capture the essence of this mission and aid in memorization of its main points, our church has adopted this rendering “we exist as a church to help people know Christ, grow in Christ, and show Christ to the world.”
This brand new series is going to delineate exactly what this mission entails and how we are to accomplish this as a church. Fasten your seatbelts; it is going to be a wild ride! (I promise, this message will never self-destruct).
In an effort to help us along, we are going to take apart the three objectives of this mission and deal with them separately. First, we must come to understand something about what it means to know Christ and the process involved. Nowhere is this more dramatically demonstrated than in the climax of the gospel of John in chapter 20:24-29.
CIRCUMSTANCE #1: Doubt Drives a Wedge-20:24-25
Jesus’ post-resurrection manifestations would have been life-changing for anyone in attendance. His miraculous appearance had to of had a lasting impact on the these men who witnessed His presence, observed His scars, and felt His breath in a private meeting behind closed doors. However, not everyone was in attendance in John 20:19-23. In fact, at least one disciple was somewhere else, “but Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came” (20:24). Though we are not told where Thomas was when everyone had the benefit of witnessing the risen Christ, his “coming up to speed” episode allows for one of the greatest Christological confessions ever recorded. It just so happens that this episode also details how everyone comes to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (the first part of our mission).
Once Thomas is joined together with the other ten disciples, all of them share the great news of Jesus’ resurrection with him, “so the other disciples were saying to him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’…” (20:25a). This short testimony lets us know that at least initially, the disciples did share the message Jesus instructed them to publicize (However, as we will soon learn, their obedience only went so far). This news, although simple, is profound and would have been shocking to Thomas. First, the statement necessarily means that not one, two, or three, but at least TEN of Thomas’ closest confidants claimed to have witnessed the same miracle (that is pretty compelling evidence of the miracle’s legitimacy). Second, that Jesus was risen from the dead means that all of their worries and fears about following a man who had just been crucified had no basis. Their most profound grief would have been remedied into vivacious victory if what they said was true. Third, their reference to Jesus as “Lord” means that these men at least claimed to believe that Jesus had authority and that this authority was confirmed in His resurrection. Quite a learning curve for Thomas to navigate through in order to catch up with His contemporaries.
Remember, Thomas did not have the experience the others shared of seeing Jesus and investigating His scars. Though people traditionally give Thomas a hard time, it is healthy to remember that he is a step behind everyone else. In fact, his response is not very different from how they responded when they first heard the news from Mary Magdalene. Upon hearing her news, the disciples locked themselves in a room out of fear instead of proudly proclaiming Jesus’ victory! Poor Thomas gets a bad wrap; however, he is just as doubtful as his colleagues were before they saw Jesus alive.’
When considering our mission today, it is important to remember what we are up against. People are not predisposed to believe in God let alone His Son. The Bible even calls the lost dead in their sins. They have not shared your experience nor mine and therefore may not initially react positively to the good news you have to give. They may even make inappropriate demands for certain evidences in order to be convinced. In fact, this is exactly what Thomas does next.
“But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe” (20:25b). Apparently, Thomas thinks the disciples may have seen a ghost (the Middle East during the first century was very superstitious). In fact, this would not have been the first time Jesus was mistaken to be a ghost, nor would it be the last time that people demanded confirmation of Jesus’ identity (see Matt. 14:26; John 21:4, etc.).
Ultimately, Thomas desires the same kind of evidence that his fellow disciples enjoyed in John 20:19-23. Surely, if Jesus’ body was truly raised it would have some sort of physical continuity with the Jesus who was crucified (i.e. scars in appropriate areas) (Carson, 656). However, for the time being, Thomas has not yet seen what He needs to see to make this quantum leap from skepticism to faith from disbelief to knowledge. Because of this, I imagine it drove an incredible wedge between him and his friends. Imagine being the odd one out in this situation. All of your closest buddies are enjoying the victory of hope and life and you are stuck wondering by yourself in a corner if any of this is true. Thomas was an outcast in his doubt and would remain this way for no less than 8 days.
In similar ways, some distance might exist between you and those around you who do not know Jesus in the way that you do. Unbelief places a wedge between those who know and those who don’t know Things might even get awkward.
CIRCUMSTANCE #2: Revelation Creates an Opportunity-20:26-27
Interestingly, a week later Jesus appears to His disciples again, on this time, Thomas is in attendance-- “after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, ‘Peace be with you’…” (20:26). The time reference of “eight days” is an idiomatic was of saying “a week later” putting this episode on the newly crowned “Lord’s Day.” However, instead of celebrating and sharing the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, there they are hiding out for fear of the Jewish authorities behind locked doors…AGAIN! INSPITE OF THE EXPERIENCE THEY ALL SHARED! You might see why Thomas was unconvinced by the disciple’s message. To Thomas, their fearful behavior may have validated his skepticism.
So far, a lot is working against our completion in the first part of this mission: deep-seated skepticism, predisposition to unbelief, and some level of distance between those who believe and those who don’t. We should not make things even more difficult by failing to live up to the hype that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection promotes! Otherwise, people will not be convinced.
Regardless of their faithlessness, Jesus, out of sheer grace, appears miraculously again and shares the same message, “Peace be with you” (20:26). After making this familiar declaration on the whole bunch, Jesus narrows His focus on Thomas and makes an example out of Him, “…Then He said to Thomas, ‘Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here you hand and put it into My side;…” (20:27a). Though Jesus did not need to justify Himself in this way, He humbly offers His body to Thomas in this way for Thomas’ benefit, putting obvious revelation on the lowest shelf imaginable.
Here, Thomas is awarded the opportunity he asked for earlier—a thorough examination of Jesus’ wounds. Jesus’ allowance of Thomas’ empirical investigation is His way of reaching into Thomas’ skepticism in an effort to bring Him to a point of faith. In fact, following His invitation to Thomas, He calls for Thomas’ belief.
“and do not be unbelieving, but believing” (20:27b). There are several ways to translate this amazing invitation. Some translations render this “do not be unbelieving, but believing” while others render it, “do not be an unbeliever, but a believer.” Either way, by taking up Thomas’ challenge, Jesus proves that he hears His disciples even when he is not physically present, and removes all possible grounds for unbelief (Carson, 657).
Jesus’ presentation of evidence to Thomas is indicative of what He and the Bible has done on a far more general scale. Thousands of corresponding copies of early manuscripts with no doctrinal differences make the Bible one of the most thoroughly vetted and consistent pieces of literature—even in modern day translations. Similarly, secular historical scholars agree that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is one of the most exhaustively evidenced events in all of history. These and countless other proofs demonstrate God’s willingness to offer evidence of Himself in manageable bites for even the most juvenile skeptic on the lowest epistemic shelf. The myriad of presentations all cry out the same message, “and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” (John 20:24-29)
Recognized skepticism (lost-ness) and a presentation of Jesus Christ (accompanied by compelling evidences) provide the framework for the third circumstance found in this passage.
CIRCUMSTANCE #3: Belief brings Salvation-20:28-29
We are not told whether Thomas actually took Jesus up on His offer to insert His fingers into the Savior’s wounds or not. In fact, the text seems to suggest that the sight of Jesus and His invitation was enough to bring Thomas out of doubt and into profound reverence.
The circumstances in Thomas’ life bring him here to a point of belief that Jesus is not just a man, not just a teacher, not just a miracle worker, not just a prophet, not just a good role model—HE IS GOD HIMSELF MADE FLESH and Thomas’ declaration of this is the climax of this gospel, “Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’…” (20:28). In a gospel that has done its best to demonstrate that Jesus is God, here is where we see one skeptic’s journey from disbelief to deep conviction in the face of overwhelming evidence.
His statement is important for several reasons. First, it is an explicit declaration of Jesus’ lordship and therefore His equality to God the Father. Because Thomas calls Jesus “Lord” and “God,” he is claiming that Jesus is equal to God—He is God made flesh. Anything other than this conviction falls short of true Christianity. Second, his statement is profoundly personal, “My Lord and my God!” It is one thing to say that Jesus has the authority of God and another thing entirely to subject oneself to that authority. That Thomas claims Jesus as his Lord and God means that he is surrendering his life to Christ and entering into a personal relationship with Him.
Finally, that Thomas calls Jesus “my Lord and my God means that Thomas now knows Christ in a far more profound way—in a ginwskw kind of way. This kind of knowledge is experiential, personal, and intimate. Before Thomas might have known something about Jesus and his ministry. However, now Thomas believes Him, trusts Him, and is intimately acquainted with Him. This is the kind of knowledge of Christ that we are after as we complete our God-given mission.
In this statement we see a beautiful depiction of salvation. Romans 10:9-10 explains salvation this way, “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.” Thomas, after witnessing Jesus’ death personally and coming to grips with His resurrection declares that Jesus is Lord verbally, demonstrating what is already true in his heart. Because of this, Thomas is transformed from a lonely doubter to a faithful follower. Calling him a “doubting Thomas” now is not accurate in the least. Thomas may have doubted before; however, he ended up being a faithful follower. In fact, how is this for “doubting Thomas”—Thomas (Didymus) according to historical accounts traveled further than any other apostle with the news of Jesus Christ, making his way all the way to southern India where he was eventually speared by a pagan priest for refusing worship to an idol. I’d say that Thomas’ life adds to the mound of evidence for the legitimacy of Jesus and the reality of His resurrection. Not many would travel to the end of the world and give up there life for someone they believed was dead, especially if they used to be a skeptic.
Jesus responds to Thomas’ declaration by saying, “…’because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed’…”(20:29). Although many understand the first part of Jesus’ response as a word of rebuke, it is important to point out that Thomas’ faith far exceeded his colleagues at this point. We will discover in the next couple of weeks that the rest of the disciples were not yet where Thomas was. In fact, the one who was lagging behind the others earlier now stood out front! Therefore, it is better to interpret Jesus’ words as a confirmation of Thomas’ saving faith posed as a question in an effort to introduce the main thrust of John’s Gospel (located in the second part of verse 29).
“Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (20:29). In other words, Jesus says, blessed are those who will come long after I leave the earth and reach the same conclusion Thomas reached—that I am their Lord and their God. With this statement, Jesus breaks the fourth wall and stares down anyone who picks up this book, letting them know how they can have real life. Real life is bestowed on those who in light of the evidence provided in God’s Word, creation, and experiences reach the inevitable conclusion that Jesus is Lord and in response surrender their lives to Him. Blessed are those who come to know Him!
Jesus is Lord and God! Do you Know this? –really know this to be true? Those who doubt this (believing anything less of Christ) drive a wedge between them and God, leaving them in a stubborn state of disbelief. These know nothing of God, ultimately have no hope, and enjoy a mediocre and altogether meaningless life. Perhaps it is time that you examine the evidence and see for yourself. The Bible is the most trustworthy document known to man with the most compelling and exhaustively evidenced events (events that carry with them eternal implications). Its characters (like Thomas) were historical people who were really changed in profound ways and in many cases gave their lives proclaiming that Jesus rose from the grave! If this is true and Jesus really did rise as numerous sources support from secular historians of the first century, then everything Jesus said and did is confirmed. When all Jesus said and did is added up, it leads to one conclusion—Jesus is Lord and God! Is it not about time you recognize the futility of your skepticism and faithfully follow Jesus saying along with “faithful” Thomas, “My Lord and my God?”
For those who have voiced this confession, is it not time we live accordingly? Our Savior is alive from the dead! Why should we not lay down our lives spreading this message? Let us take our cue from the one we call a doubter and put our feet and hands where our mouth is! Do not let you inactivity in the kingdom building project and your silence fluff the pillows in the living room of skepticism. This is the first part of your mission—to do what you can, to allow your life and testimony be good evidence of the faith that you affirm with your lips. We must know Christ and be those who help others know Christ as well. This is the first part of the mission (should you choose to accept it).
Tuesday, June 2, 2015
“It is not how you start, but how you finish that really counts.” This maxim is uniquely appropriate for God’s people in Nehemiah’s day and for God’s people assembled here as we complete our study of an incredible Old Testament account. As Nehemiah wraps up, God’s people have everything going for them: God had recently sent them a leader (Nehemiah) who inspired them out of laziness, He had helped them rebuild their embarrassment of a wall against all odds (enemies attacks, famine, time, etc.), and he had reacquainted them with His law, festivals, confession, and repentance. Most recently, God gave them the added grace of a sacred dedication service and amazing worship experience at the temple. You would think that with all of these graces showered on God’s people that they would have every reason to finish this chapter of their history on the up-and-up. However, this is unfortunately not the case. Nehemiah ends on a relatively low note as the inspiring leader responsible for this account is made to provide much needed correction, yes,….correction ALREADY! These five correctives remind the people of God in both Nehemiah’s day and in our day what is required to be useful to the Lord in this ever-darkening world.
Foreigners Must be Excluded From the Temple-13:1-3
On the day of the celebration mentioned last week (see Nehemiah 12:27-47), the people “read aloud from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and there was found written in it that no Ammonite or Moabite should ever enter the assembly of God, because they did not meet the Sons of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them. However, our God turned the curse into a blessing. So when they heard the law, they excluded all foreigners from Israel…” (13:1-3). In order for the worship the people were enjoying in Nehemiah 12 to remain pure and God-glorifying, it had to be free of corrupting agents that were pervasive in foreign lands. If the Ammonites and Moabites were allowed admittance to into the temple area, it would completely destroy the distinction of the worship offered to God, which was, as mentioned in chapter 12, to be pure. Coming at the very end of this book, Nehemiah reminds the people that the present state of distinction they enjoyed was not going remain on its own; the people had to actively ward of corrupting agents in order to keep the worship meaningful and God-glorifying.
This is not unlike the instructions given before the Lord’s Supper at our church today. While everyone is welcome to attend our church, only those who have a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ are invited to participate in communion. In fact, anyone who takes communion in an unworthy manner runs the risk of being struck down by God himself in judgment. Why? Because unbelievers neither understand nor do they appreciate the sacrifice of Jesus that the Lord’s Supper celebrates. Therefore, their participation in it would dilute and even harm the message of this symbolic practice.
Ultimately, this is a corrective established to keep worship from being corrupted by the world. Though we are to live in the world and worship in the world, our worship is to be distinct from the world in an effort to show the world an other-worldly alternative to the world.
The Temple Must be Cleansed-13:4-9
While the first corrective is given to protect the worship of God from corruptive agents that exist on the outside, the second corrective given in this final chapter of Nehemiah deals with the kind of corruption that can come from the inside. One manifestation of this is dealt with in verses 4-9, “…Now prior to this, Eliashib the priest, who was appointed over the chambers of the house of our God, being related to Tobiah, had prepared a large room for him where formerly they put the grain offerings, the frankincense, the utensils and the tithes of grain, wine and oil prescribed for the Levites, the singers and the gatekeepers, and the contributions for the priests…” (13:4-5). Though this might seem like a small infraction (helping out a family member by moving some temple furniture/tools around to given him a place to stay in the worship building), ultimately, playing fast and loose with the things of God and using them in ways that they were not intended by God to be used is a serious offense. As the Temple was intended to accommodate the presence God on the earth during the Old Testament era, it was improper for a mere human with no right to a room to take up residence alongside so lofty a tenant in this way.
How did such a careless accommodation take place in a city like Jerusalem—a city who had just confessed, repented, and was doing their best to faithfully uphold the entire law because of God’s work through Nehemiah? Unfortunately, when the cat’s away, the mice will play. Nehemiah reveals that “during all this time I was not in Jerusalem, for in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon I had gone to the king. After some time however, I asked leave from the king,…” (13:6). Imagine the reunion this cupbearer turned superintendent must have had with his old boss! No doubt Nehemiah must have shared with this ruler how God came through for them in a mighty way and how the provisions provided helped during his long endeavor. However, when Nehemiah returns to the land he helped restore, he witnesses signs of it returning back to what it once was as result of negligence and carelessness, ”… and I came to Jerusalem and learned about the evil that Elisashib had done for Tobiah, by preparing a room for him in the courts of the house of God…” (13:7).
This is why Nehemiah responds with the following, “…It was very displeasing to me, so I threw all of Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. Then I gave an order and they cleansed the rooms; and I returned there the utensils of the house of God with the grain offerings and the frankincense…” (13:8-9). The corrective given here is to refrain from using the things of God carelessly or for personal gain. The people of Nehemiah’s day did not own a thing, and because of this they had no right to do with it as they pleased. Instead, God owned it all and decides how it ought to be used—this is especially important when it comes to the temple and everything in it.
Tithes Must be Restored-13:10-14
As Nehemiah deals with one problem, another one surfaces. Like an unending game of whack-a-mole, the problems of Jerusalem raise their ugly heads, leaving Nehemiah to beat them down with the mallet of these strict correctives. The third one involves tithes. As Nehemiah returns from the capital of Babylon, he also discovers that tithes have not been going to the right places, “I also discovered that the portions of the Levites had not been given them, so that the Levites and the singers who performed the service had gone away, each to his own field…” (13:10).
In response, Nehemiah, “reprimanded the officials and said, ‘Why is the house of God forsaken? Then I gathered them together and restored them to their posts. All Judah then brought the tithe of the grain, wine and oil into the storehouses…” (13:11-12). No doubt the deficiency of funds was already having a harmful effect on the worship experience in the temple precincts. Therefore, Nehemiah wanted to put an end to this as soon as possible.
However, not only does Nehemiah deal with this in the present, he puts checks in place to keep this from happening again in the future, “In charge of the storehouses I appointed Shelemiah the priest, Zadok the scribe, and Pedaiah of the Levites, and in addition to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah; for the were considered reliable, and it was their task to distribute to their kinsmen….” (13:13).
As mentioned several weeks ago, the principle of contributing to the ministry is something that translates in the New Testament and Church age. It is an offense against God to leave His agent for change in the world, the church, in need.
Exhausted by the work that has already been accomplished, the recent trip to the capitol and back, and the people’s return to the problems that plagued them in the past, Nehemiah declares “Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out my loyal deeds which I have performed for the house of my God and its services…” (13:14). Not only is this a request for God to remember what Nehemiah is doing, it is also a plea for help. Nehemiah is tired and knows that his human efforts, no matter how effective, will only stave off the slow slide of regression for so long. This is why he calls upon the Lord to keep this people distinct in these areas. God had done so much to bring Jerusalem and its inhabitants to this point; only God could keep these people from returning from whence they came.
The Sabbath Must be Kept-13:15-22
Nehemiah’s return uncovers even more that has gone wrong since his brief trip back to capitol in 13:15-22—this time involving the neglect of the sabbath observance, “In those days I saw in Judah some who were treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sacks of grain and loading them on donkeys, as well as wine, grapes, figs and all kinds of loads, and they brought them into Jerusalem on the sabbath day…” (13:15-16).
Shocked by this gross oversight, Nehemiah reacts by saying, “…’What is this evil thing you are doing, by profaning the sabbath day? Did not your fathers do the same, so that our God brought on us and on this city all this trouble? Yet you are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath…” (13:17-18). In essence, Nehemiah wonders how the people could be sooooo stupid as to repeat the same kinds of infractions that led their forefathers into the situation they had just been brought out of, namely exile and destruction!
The greater principle those in this passage were neglecting is rest. God’s people were to be a well-rested people and unfortunately, these were failing to take their naps!
Swift action, again, was required to correct this behavior, therefore, in Nehemiah’s own words, “I commanded that the doors should be shut and that they should not open them until after the sabbath. Then I stationed some of my servants at the gates so that no load would enter on the sabbath day…” (13:19-21). Nehemiah establishes the safeguards necessary to help the people keep the commands of Scripture. Already with these correctives, one can see Nehemiah’s tendency toward action and away from mere rhetoric. It is not enough to talk about fixing any one of these maladies, the people of God had to do things differently lest they continue down these deleterious paths. Therefore, when the temple was defiled, Nehemiah had it physically cleansed, when tithes were withheld, responsible leaders were placed in charge of it, and when the sabbath was neglected, the gates were locked and guards were posted to keep people at home resting.
Again, as in verse 14, Nehemiah calls upon God for help in making these safeguards stick, “….’For this also remember me, O my God, and have compassion on me according to the greatness of Your loving kindness….’” (13:22). For a second time in this passage, Nehemiah asks for God’s compassion and patience to be exacted on both him and his people as they work on mending these infractions.
Marriage Must be Sacred-13:23-30
Unfortunately, the disobedience did not stop at the corruption entering through foreigners, the impure temple, a withheld tithe, or an unkept sabbath. The parade of transgression continues and finally, Nehemiah is made to deal with intermarriage—something clearly prohibited in the law and reiterated in Nehemiah 10, “…In those days I also saw that the Jews had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. As for their children, half spoke in the language of Ashdod, and none of them was able to speak the language of Judah, but the language of his own people…” (13:23-24).
Intermarriage was already taking a hold on the distinctive culture of God’s people with the introduction of foreign languages and the mainstreaming of extra-biblical practices. This could not be allowed if God’s people were to remain distinct (at least in the way designed in the Old Testament). Eventually, there would be no telling the difference between the Jews and the Ammonites or Moabites. Assimilation and syncretism would eventually erode what set God’s people apart.
Mixing with the world in the kinds of relationships that are prone to distract us from God can, in the same way, erode the distinction of Christians today. We are not called to assimilate into the world nor syncretize our beliefs with the world’s teachings. We are called to be set apart in the world, shining a light to the truth of the one true God through our peculiarly lived lives complete with excellent relationships lived out, in some cases, in the context of holy matrimony.
In order to correct this tendency for those in Nehemiah 13, Nehemiah “contended with them and cursed them and struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons nor take of their daughters for your sons or for yourselves…’” (13:25-29). No doubt this “repeat after me” kind of exercise reiterated God’s high standard for marriage in the minds of those who voiced this promise.
Nehemiah concludes his account by saying, “Thus I purified them from everything foreign and appointed duties for the priests and the Levites, each in his task, and I arranged for the supply of wood at appointed times and for the first fruits. Remember me, O my God, for good…” (13:30-31). As has been the case on countless occasions throughout this incredible book, Nehemiah offers prayer to the Lord, asking God, for a third time in this chapter, to remember Him for the good that he had done in His name and in His power. Truly, Nehemiah’s account ends in these final two verses by highlighting two themes that have propelled the book along: prayer to the Lord and action in His name. These are the two pillars upon which this book has been built and the design through which God has moved through His people to rebuild a wall and a distinguished community poised to change the world.
However, their success in changing the world for the glory of God would be in direct proportion to how well they kept these corrections given in this final chapter—i.e. to not allow foreign corruption to infiltrate the body, to set apart the things of God for His glory alone, to contribute meaningfully to the ministry, to make sure they take time to rest, and to thwart of distracting relationships that erode what makes them peculiar. These reiterated principles are excellent reminders for us as we leave this text and should challenge us to take inventory of our lives to see if we are a help or a hindrance to the community God is about the business of building here at Crystal Spring Baptist Church.
What, if any, foreign substances, relationships, or activities, are you allowing in your life that could corrupt your character or witness for God? Have you set apart your life unto God and are you seeking for His glory to be realized over and above selfish gain? Are you contributing meaningfully of your life, time, and money to the ministry? Are you rested and find your rest in an all-powerful God? Do any distractions exist in your life that take your gaze away from that which is holy? If the answer is “yes” to any of these, I pray that that we take our cue from Nehemiah’s example and adopt a life of fervent prayer that relies on God’s grace to overwhelm our shortcomings. However, may we also predispose ourselves to action by making changes and putting up safeguards that keep us where we need to be. Then and only then will we be a distinct community that can be used by God to bless those around us.