An Open Letter Regarding Mainstream Christian Traditions

Imagine that you want to travel to somewhere you have never been before, and assume the following conditions are true:

 

  1. There is only one way to arrive at your destination safely.
  2. There is only one person who knows the safe way.
  3. You have hired that one person as your guide.

 

If, at a certain point in your journey, your guide instructs you to proceed in a particular direction, is it possible to refuse him and still arrive at your desired location? Logically, it would be impossible unless at least one of the above conditions is false, wouldn’t it?

 

Arriving at the correct answer to the above basic logic problem would be of the utmost importance to you if your life depended on your ability to reach the desired destination, wouldn’t it? Have you ever given thought to the fact, then, that if you profess to be a Christian, as it pertains to the Kingdom of God and salvation — your potential eternal life —  those three statements are all unequivocally true? For Jesus once said:

 

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.  My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.”  Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).”


Notice that Jesus did not say he is a way to eternal life — he is the way, which is singular. Therefore, by taking upon yourself the title of Christian, you are making the claim that Jesus is the guide you are following, and that you trust that he alone is able to lead you into eternal life in the Kingdom of God. And if we acknowledge that Jesus modeled for us the way of life that leads to salvation, would we be justified for consciously living in a manner that was inconsistent with his example? Shouldn’t the religion we practice be the same as the religion he practiced and preached? With that in mind, can you prove the Sabbath is Sunday using only the Bible? What day did Jesus observe the Sabbath on? What about the apostles? What Holy days did they keep?

 

If you set aside everything you have learned from others and use the Bible alone to establish your standard of practice, you will find that the weekly Sabbath was never observed on Sunday anywhere in the Bible — from Genesis to Revelation the command has always been to observe it on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. Additionally, the “mainstream Christian” holiday traditions that are broadly accepted as true practices of Christianity are also different from what the Lord and his apostles did and taught. Christmas and Easter were nowhere celebrated by the early Christian church. So when did the Biblically supported teachings change regarding the Sabbath and Holy days? Why did they change? The answers to those questions are well documented and can be easily researched by anyone, so it is not the purpose of this article to chronicle the history of those changes. Instead, since many are already aware of these things and yet still find reasons to justify continuing their practice, the focus will be on examining the validity of the arguments made for maintaining tradition.

 

To begin, some say it doesn’t matter which day you worship God because God should be worshipped every day. On the surface, that seems to be a compelling argument, because God should indeed be worshipped continuously in a person’s heart. But the problem with that reasoning is that it isn’t consistent with God’s own instructions. In order to highlight that fact, let’s start by turning to the first Scripture where the Sabbath is mentioned and established:

 

“By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done (Genesis 2:2‭-‬3).”

 

Notice first that God did not bless every day, he only blessed the seventh one. In doing so, he set it apart and made a distinction between it and the preceding six days. In blessing the seventh day alone, God made it known that the day and the purpose he established it for are both special to him. So focus on who it was who blessed the seventh day and made it holy: it was God. If God alone is Holy, then God alone can make something holy — man, therefore, cannot.  And if God states that a day is set apart as sacred and holy to him, and you say it is no different than any other day, how is that worship? Furthermore, given the fact that God himself unambiguously declared the seventh day alone to be holy, and commanded its observance, if you decide to set aside a different day for worshipping him, have you not placed your own authority higher than God’s?

 

Next, here are just a few of the many Scriptures that establish that it was God who ordained the Sabbath, and that clearly state it is to be observed on the seventh day of the week:

 

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20:8‭-‬1).”

 

 ‘Observe my Sabbaths and have reverence for my sanctuary. I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:30).’”

 

Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:12‭-‬15).”

 

“ ‘There are six days when you may work, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, a day of sacred assembly. You are not to do any work; wherever you live, it is a sabbath to the Lord (Leviticus 23:3).’”

 

I’ll make a final minor point regarding the passage from Leviticus 23:3, because it relates to the rationale of being able to worship God on any given day: if God declared the sabbath to be a day of sacred assembly, what would happen if everyone just decided for themself which day they would observe the sabbath on? How would everyone be able to come together for a common assembly?

 

Before moving on, here is one last Scripture to illustrate that observance of the Sabbath as the fourth Commandment in the Law is an acknowledgement that the One who made the day holy is the same One who created all things. As it was a sign of the covenant that exists between God and His people, the seventh day Sabbath and the annual Holy days have always been associated with the proper worship of the One, true God:

 

“I said to their children in the wilderness, “Do not follow the statutes of your parents or keep their laws or defile yourselves with their idols. I am the Lord your God; follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. Keep my Sabbaths holy, that they may be a sign between us. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God (Ezekiel 20:18‭-‬20).”

 

You may notice that the above passages are all from the Old Testament, and claim that the fact that the sabbath is mentioned so little in the New Testament is an indication that the sabbath was done away with. In reality, though, all it illustrates is that the Sabbath wasn’t a subject of dispute in the New Testament. There was no disagreement or confusion as to which was the proper day to worship God. Even after Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead, the Christian church continued to observe the sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. This will be shown further on, in the discussion of New Testament scriptures. In preparation for that discussion, I invite the reader to assemble all the Scriptures they can which say that God has at any point changed his mind, and that the Sabbath and Holy days are no longer important.

 

Let’s shift the focus now from the sabbath to the mainstream “holidays” that have been substituted for the true Holy days from God’s Word, with the understanding that the principles which applied to the discussion of the weekly sabbath apply to annual sabbaths also. Many people are willing to acknowledge that the origins of Christmas, Easter and Halloween stem from pagan customs, but practice them anyway because they rationalize that their reasons for observation are different than those of the heathen. But are they really? To examine that idea we can start by defining what “heathen” or “pagan” meant to the biblical writers who used those terms. Here is the word and the definitions for “heathen” in the Old Testament Hebrew:

 

Original: גּי גּוי
Transliteration: gôy gôy
Phonetic: go’-ee

BDB Definition:

nation, people (noun masculine)
nation, people
usually of non-Hebrew people
Goyim? = ” nations” (noun proper masculine)

Strong’s Definition: Apparently from the same root as H1465 (in the sense of massing); a foreign nation ; hence a Gentile ; also (figuratively) a troop of animals, or a flight of locusts: – Gentile, heathen, nation, people.

 

And now here is the word alternately translated as “heathen” or “Gentile” in the New Testament Greek:

 

Original: ἔθνος
Transliteration: ethnos
Phonetic: eth’-nos

 

Thayer Definition:


the human family
a tribe, nation, people group
in the OT, foreign nations not worshipping the true God, pagans, Gentiles

Strong’s Definition: Probably from G1486; a race (as of the same habit), that is, a tribe ; specifically a foreign (non-Jewish) one (usually by implication pagan):Gentile, heathen, nation, people.

 

The point I would like to draw out from this is that in both the Old Testament and the New, the term “heathen” or “pagan” broadly referred to any individual or group of individuals who were not worshipping the One, true God. Here is an example of the use of the word in the Old Testament (The word for גּי גּוי follows in bold):

“Hear what the Lord says to you, people of Israel. This is what the Lord says: “Do not learn the ways of the nations or be terrified by signs in the heavens, though the nations are terrified by them.  For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel.  They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a cucumber field, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.”  No one is like you, Lord ; you are great, and your name is mighty in power. Who should not fear you, King of the nations? This is your due. Among all the wise leaders of the nations and in all their kingdoms, there is no one like you (Jeremiah 10:1‭-‬7).”

 

And here is an example of the use of ἔθνος, from the New Testament (again in bold):

 

“”But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils.  Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils (1 Corinthians 10:20‭-‬21 KJV).”

 

How is all of this relevant to the discussion of holiday traditions? When you think of the word “pagan,” what associations come to mind? To our modern day thinking, when we read of pagan sacrificial practices and worship, perhaps we imagine a person or people who is/are wholeheartedly evil, bloodthirsty, or savage, and certainly far different than ourself or anyone we know or associate with. After all, we are a civil society; one far removed from being so primitive as to worship idols! But ask yourself this: when all the people of various nations were worshipping their false gods, do you think they consciously knew they were worshipping false gods? Which do you think is more likely: that when they offered their sacrifices, they knew they were sacrificing to devils, or that they had simply been deceived into believing they were worshipping the true God? Now if the entire ancient world, excluding Israel, had been deceived as to the identity of the One, true God, and were therefore passing down false traditions that actually worshipped devils, and we can trace the origins of Christmas, Easter, and Halloween back to the same ancient pagan practices, how are we different than them, if we are doing as they did?

 

Next, consider that question in light of how many Scriptures warn that false teachings would come into the church (Matt. 7:15 & 24:11, Mark 13:22, Galatians 2:4, 1 Timothy 1:3, 2 Timothy 4:4, 2 Peter 2:1, etc.) Given that the true church was warned by the New Testament writers that false teachings would eventually gain acceptance and alter what true Christianity was (and is still intended to be), is it inconceivable to imagine that the change of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, and the holiday traditions mainstream “christianity” observes are both a part of the false teachings which were foretold to come?

 

Some may attempt to dismiss those questions by saying that God will accept our worship because the meanings of and purposes for our traditions have been changed, and if we are trying to honor him, then God will honor our intention. That’s a common argument, but it is one that is made based upon a mere opinion: a self-serving notion unsubstantiated by God’s Word. God is a God of truth, not a father of lies. Why would God be pleased with worship that is founded upon a falsehood? If he accepts a false standard, he would no longer be holy! (The beliefs that the weekly Sabbath is Sunday, that Jesus was born on December 25, and that he was raised from the dead on “Easter Sunday” are just three examples of falsehoods which are currently taught as christian truth.) Even if a person believes they are trying to worship God with the best of intentions, if there is a discrepancy between what God has commanded and what a person actually does, would God be pleased with their intention more than he would be with their obedience? That question was answered very early on in human history:

 

“Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord . And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.  Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it (Genesis 4:2‭-‬7).”

 

If Cain’s offering had adhered to what God had instructed regarding how to make it and what it was to consist of, both he and it would have been accepted — as was Abel and his offering. But since it did not follow God’s regulations, notice that not only was his offering rejected, but Cain also found himself to be out of favor with God.

 

Also, God had told King Saul,

 

“Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ (1 Samuel 15:3).”

 

“Then Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt. He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword. But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.  Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions (1 Samuel 15:7‭-‬11).”

 

When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The Lord bless you! I have carried out the Lord ’s instructions.”  But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”  Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.”  “Enough!” Samuel said to Saul. “Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.” “Tell me,” Saul replied. Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; wage war against them until you have wiped them out.’ Why did you not obey the Lord ? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?”  “But I did obey the Lord ,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”  But Samuel replied: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.  For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king (1 Samuel 15:13‭-‬23).”

 

Saul tried to frame the situation in the most flattering light, by claiming they spared the best of the sheep and cattle so that they could sacrifice them in order to honor God. Was God, or even Samuel, swayed by Saul’s justifications for disobedience? Not at all! The fact that they “pounced on the plunder” indicates they coveted it for their own enjoyment, and God labelled their action as rebellion and arrogance — and isn’t that what it indeed was? If you are given a specific command, and you do not obey it (whatever your reasons may be), have you not rebelled against the command? And if you imagine you can improve upon God’s own instructions, is that not arrogance? The answer to those questions should be obvious to most, if not all. But in order to understand the mind of God more fully, it is important to also understand how rebellion and arrogance can be equated with divination and idolatry.

 

Divination is an attempt to communicate with the spirit realm with the purpose of obtaining knowledge of the future. It is rebellion against God because it is an attempt to make decisions that will procure favorable outcomes for oneself, or avoid unfavorable ones, without being constrained by having to obtain God’s favor or approval for one’s desired action; and it indicates a willingness to attempt to circumvent his will if only one might be able to accomplish one’s own. Also, idolatry occurs whenever God is displaced as the highest object of our worship, adulation and desire, so the belief that one knows better than God, or that one can add to or subtract from God’s commands, is not only arrogant, it is indeed like idolatry because it places one’s own understanding or authority above that of God’s, essentially exalting the Self as god.

 

So, if God made it clear that Saul’s disobedience displeased him, and he called it evil, comparing it to divination and idolatry, one should ask themself, ‘Is my observance of a Sunday sabbath, along with Christmas and Easter, either adding to or subtracting from the Word of God?’ If the answer is yes, how am I any less guilty of what God rebuked Cain and Saul for?

 

Here is one additional Scripture from the Old Testament as evidence of how God feels about false worship:

 

“Therefore, son of man, speak to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: In this also your ancestors blasphemed me by being unfaithful to me: When I brought them into the land I had sworn to give them and they saw any high hill or any leafy tree, there they offered their sacrifices, made offerings that aroused my anger, presented their fragrant incense and poured out their drink offerings. Then I said to them: What is this high place you go to?’” (Ezekiel 20:27‭-‬29)

 

When Israel attempted to worship God on their own terms, offering sacrifices on any high hill, or by any leafy tree, did God simply resign himself to accept it? No, he rebuked them for it and confronted them with their unfaithfulness. When he asked them ‘What is this high place you go to,’ he was effectively asking ‘Are you truly worshipping me, if I have already made known to you that what you are doing there displeases me? If you apply the same question and principle to any of your religious traditions, and then discover that they are based on falsehood, what should you do about it? If you choose to believe that it doesn’t matter what sabbaths or holy days you observe, why do you observe any at all? And is it reasonable to conclude that God is now indifferent toward how he is worshipped, when he previously took it so seriously? Is God so fickle? Has he not said, “I the Lord do not change.”? (Malachi 3:6)

 

So there is certainly sufficient evidence from the Old Testament indicating that religious intention is not an acceptable substitute for obedience. But what about the New Testament? If tradition conflicts with the commands of God, what does it teach? The Pharisees were very confident that their religious customs and practices were correct and pleasing to God, but here is what the Son of God told them:

 

“Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:3)

 

“He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:  “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” (Mark 7:6‭, ‬8‭-‬9)

 

“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.  Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:31‭-‬36).”

 

Jesus said that his true disciples would hold to his teaching, not someone else’s. So, once again, where did the traditions of Christmas, Easter, and Sunday observance come from? Were they ever a part of the Lord’s teaching? If they were not, you have been deceived into following what someone else has taught; and that observation leads to an examination of the predominant teaching that is used to justify the abandonment of the Biblically supported Sabbath and Holy days in favor of present day mainstream traditions. Before getting to it, however, here is a brief summary of the arguments covered so far:

 

Some say it doesn’t matter which day you worship God because every day is the day to worship. Some say God will accept our worship because the meanings of and purposes for our traditions have been changed, and if we are trying to honor him, then God will honor our intention. The Scriptures we have considered thus far do not support those ideas.

 

And so now let’s move on to the most common argument of all: which is that the Sabbath and the Holy days no longer apply because the law has been done away with. Anyone who claims that the Law has been done away with contradicts the Lord, and makes Jesus out to be a liar, for he said:

 

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.  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished (Matthew 5:17‭-‬18).”

 

Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Law, then he died and was raised from the dead. If his fulfillment of the Law and subsequent death was intended to mean that everything was then accomplished, did heaven and earth disappear when he ascended to the Father? Are they not both still here? Since heaven and earth have not yet disappeared, can it get any more clear that the Law has not been done away with? Do not allow yourself to continue to be deceived, because here is what Jesus said about those who profess him to be their Lord, but who live as though the Law no longer applies:


“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven [in other words, those who acknowledge him with their lips alone will not enter], but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

[How can one do the will of the Father unless one first knows what His will is? And how is His will made known, except through His Law? And if you answer that all one needs to know is to “Love,”  how can one even learn what God’s definition of love is apart from the Law, since His Law is the Law of love?]

Many will say to me on that day [the Day of Judgment] , ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21‭-‬23)

 

The word translated as “evildoers” is:

 

Original: ἀνομία
Transliteration: anomia
Phonetic: an-om-ee’-ah

Thayer Definition:

the condition of being without law
contempt and violation of law, iniquity, wickedness

Strong’s Definition: From G459; illegality, that is, violation of law or (generally) wickedness: – iniquity, X transgress (-ion of) the law, unrighteousness.

 

From this, it can be seen that Jesus taught that anyone who has disavowed the Law by belief is also in a condition of being without law by practice, and that he would therefore disavow them on the Day of Judgment.

 

So if Jesus didn’t teach that the law has been done away, where did the notion come from? Was it what the apostles taught, perhaps?

 

“Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.  Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. The one who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work. No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God (1 John 3:4‭-‬9).”

 

John wrote those words near the end of his life, and by that time the Christian church had already been in existence for around half a century. Does that passage sound like he taught the law was done away with? How can someone break a law if it does not exist?

 

“Dear friends, this is now my second letter to you. I have written both of them as reminders to stimulate you to wholesome thinking. I want you to recall the words spoken in the past by the holy prophets and the command given by our Lord and Savior through your apostles (2 Peter 3:1‭-‬2‭).”

 

Would Peter have encouraged the early church to recall the words of the prophets if he believed the Old Testament no longer had any authority under the New Covenant?

 

“So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.” (2 Peter 3:‬14‭-‬18)

 

He not only warned the church to be on guard against the error of lawlessness, but he also alludes to people distorting the writings of Paul. This fact is also highlighted in the Book of Acts:

 

“When we arrived at Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received us warmly. The next day Paul and the rest of us went to see James, and all the elders were present. Paul greeted them and reported in detail what God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry.  When they heard this, they praised God. Then they said to Paul: “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. Take these men, join in their purification rites and pay their expenses, so that they can have their heads shaved. Then everyone will know there is no truth in these reports about you, but that you yourself are living in obedience to the law. As for the Gentile believers, we have written to them our decision that they should abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality (Acts 21:17‭-‬25).”

 

So there was a perception sewn by Paul’s adversaries that he taught against the Law, which continues to this very day, but the church in Jerusalem testified that there was no truth in those reports. As Peter acknowledged, though, Paul’s letters contain some things which have been distorted and are hard to understand, so let’s turn to what his letters actually say about the law and grace.

 

“And where there is no law there is no transgression (Romans 4:15).”


“To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law (Romans 5:13).”


No one is punished for breaking a law that doesn’t exist. If God wanted to take away sins, why didn’t he simply do away with all laws? If he had, then Jesus would not have had to die! But God didn’t just do away with His law, because the law, itself, is good; but the outcome — the penalty for breaking it (which is death) — is bad, and is not the outcome God desires.


If the law — the 10 Commandments — is good, and if it is only the death penalty for transgressing them that needed to be removed (and Romans 5 points out that people still died even if they didn’t violate a direct command), why would God ever do away with them? Indeed, since the first and greatest Commandment is to love God with all your heart, if the law has been done away with, it isn’t even necessary to love or obey God! And if the Sabbath is part of that law (since it is the 4th Commandment), why would God do away with it, and yet still leave the rest?

 

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15‭-‬16).” If Paul believed and taught that the law was nullified or removed by Jesus’s death on the cross, then sin would no longer exist, because if there is no law to violate, there can be no transgression. So if Paul believed he was a sinner, by necessity he would also have to believe that the law remained in effect. He also wrote:

 

Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned—  To be sure, sin was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not charged against anyone’s account where there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses, even over those who did not sin by breaking a command, as did Adam, who is a pattern of the one to come (Romans 5:12‭-‬14).”

 

The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:20‭-‬21).” (The law existed to teach us and make us more aware of what sin is.)

 

“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:1‭-‬3)

 

”As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.  It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, anyone who rejects this instruction does not reject a human being but God, the very God who gives you his Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:1‭-‬8).”

 

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1‭-‬4).”

 

Clearly, Paul believes it is still possible to sin. How then can anyone claim that he taught that the law has been done away with? Being set free from the law of sin and death doesn’t mean the Law no longer applies. What it means is that under the requirements of the Law, the penalty for sin (transgression of the law) was death. So in order to avoid the penalty of death, the only way to salvation was by merit: the only way to prove that you deserved to live forever was by living without ever sinning. But with the exception of the Son of God, no one has ever been able to do that. God knows that we have all been born into a world where sin exists, and that we are also not born with perfect knowledge and perfect character. That is the weakness of the flesh; and so even though the Law was intended to lead us to eternal life by teaching us what sin is (so that sin and its penalty could be avoided), it was rendered powerless to accomplish its purpose by our inability to fulfill its requirement of perfection. Since it is inevitable that we will all sin in some way during the process of learning what sin is, we all are subject to the penalty of death as soon as we do: and since everyone who has ever lived has sinned, everyone who has ever lived has had to die. However, God did not create man just to live for a brief moment, suffer in a world of sin, and then die — never to exist again — He intended man to become His sons and daughters, comprising His eternal family; and everything He purposes, He is also able to do. Therefore, God gave his one and only Son to pay the penalty for sin on our behalf. When the Messiah lived a perfect, sinless life, he fulfilled every requirement of the law, and therefore proved himself worthy of eternal life. In doing so, he did what no one else ever has been or could be able to do. Therefore, just as he did not deserve to die, we do not deserve to live; but when he willingly died for all of mankind, he was offering himself up as a sacrifice for us. As our Savior, he made a petition to God, asking Him  to substitute his own worthiness to live for our unworthiness; and to apply that same worthiness to all who will acknowledge him as their rightful Lord and Master. And his petition was acceptable in God’s sight, as it was consistent with what God himself desired, since “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:‬17).”

 

Being set free from the Law simply means that perfect fulfillment of the Law is no longer the standard by which we are considered worthy to receive eternal life, because Jesus fulfilled that requirement for us. Now, through the Messiah’s sacrifice, when we sin we are able to be forgiven, and the sentence of death which would otherwise still apply is remitted. That is what grace is. Our sins are pardoned, not by our merit, but by Christ’s. It dishonors both God and the Lord’s sacrifice to believe that grace is a license for sin.

 

I am a sinner just like everyone else, and I will not be anyone’s judge, so there is no one who owes me an answer to any of the questions I have posed; and if anything I say is just my opinion, my opinion should be of no consequence or value unless it is founded and established in truth. (See John 5:37‭-‬47) But a Christian is called to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and [to] take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5): and that is what the Spirit of God inspires me to attempt by writing these things to you. Anyone who professes to love God and to follow the Lord should know with certainty that a Day is coming when everyone will appear before the One True Judge, and no secret will be hidden from him, no lie will deceive him, and no justification for sin will be vindicated by him. So what if that Day were today? How would you answer these questions if it were not just me posing them, but the Lord himself?

 

I am not saying these things to condemn anyone regarding the traditions they have learned and followed, because God knows how much He loves us, and He wants you to live and be with him forever. But His commandments test us to see how much WE love HIM, and He also will not allow sin to continue forever: which is why we must learn obedience, just as our Lord himself did. Because of the love Jesus had for the Father, he was willing to die rather than disobey God. So, in light of what God and our Savior have done for us all, if it becomes clear that a religious observation or tradition is not consistent with God’s will or instruction shouldn’t everyone be willing to change in order to obey God? The question one is left with is “Do I REALLY care about what God thinks, or do I just want to be free to continue doing whatever I want to do?” May the spirit of God inspire your reflection on these things, and lead you into all truth.

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“Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me…”

A few days before he was to be crucified, Jesus declared:

 

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour (John 12:‬23‭-‬27).”

 

Jesus was that kernel of wheat falling to the ground. He accomplished what no one else could, and through the death he died his name was glorified forever. If he had not died he would have remained a single seed, a solitary Son of God, and the family of God would not have grown to include anyone other than him and the Father. Think about that: all of the patriarchs and prophets who came before him would have lived their lives in vain. If he had not died, it would have been pointless for his disciples to have left everything behind to follow him. Abraham and Moses, who were referred to as God’s friends, would not be merely sleeping now, they would be dead, forever, with no hope for resurrection. Jesus died so that they might join him in eternal life. He died to offer you the same opportunity. But, as is true with every opportunity, there is a cost. The passage above shows that sacrifice is required of all, whether a person believes in God, or not. It is only a question of whether you choose to sacrifice the now, or the later. If you place the greatest value on the things which you can gain from the material world, your life, along with everything you acquire in it, will inevitably be lost. But those who would willingly give up their life to follow the Lord will inherit all things, for all eternity. According to the Lord’s own words, then, where are would-be disciples obligated to follow him to? What was the way to the place where he was going? Luke 9:18-23 is a Scripture which shares the theme of this passage in John, and it makes it clear that Jesus meant his disciples must be willing to figuratively follow him to the cross, so let’s read together what it says:

 

“Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.” Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”  Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.””

 

The interaction began with two questions, and was followed by two statements of fact. The first question (“Who do the crowds say I am?”) encompassed the world at large, in Christ’s day. The general populace regarded Jesus as a noteworthy person, someone on par with John the Baptist, Elijah, or a resurrected prophet — important, perhaps — but still just a man. As a side point, it’s worth mentioning that this whole interaction recorded in verses 18-23 occurred sometime shortly after the twelve disciples had returned from being sent out to the people to preach the kingdom of God, raise the dead, heal the sick and cast out demons. Having just recently returned from that mission, the disciples would have certainly been well qualified to report on the public’s estimation of Jesus. So Jesus then directs the same question to his disciples, as if to say, [Having now seen all that you have just seen, and having now done all that you have just done,] “who do you say I am?” Peter’s response was that Jesus was not just a man, he was the Savior of Man, sent from God. His response establishes a fundamental difference between the viewpoint and belief of the followers of Christ in contrast to that of the rest of the world. Those who believe without any reservation that Jesus is the Messiah, the only way of salvation, and who also believe that the reward of eternal life in God’s kingdom is greater than anything that can be obtained in this world, willingly forsake everything to follow him. Those who doubt hesitate to do so. Having thus established this key difference, Jesus proceeds with the first statement, disclosing the imminent reality that, as the Son of God, he was going to suffer many things, be killed, and then be resurrected. Which brings me to his follow-up statement, the second of the two realities — one that is on-going, and perpetually current — and the focal point of this message:

 

“Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

 

How much time have you spent reflecting upon what that means? I ask because the answer to that question leads to a more penetrating one: how much do you really want to know, and fully understand, what it means? To deny yourself means losing sight of your own interests; it means forsaking your very nature. But, even with the help of the spirit of God, that is not something that is easy to do. By nature, people prefer personal comfort over sacrifice, and yet the more a person understands about the sacrifice that is expected of them, the more they become responsible for offering it. So it is perhaps not unusual for people to read over the command to take up their cross without really thinking too deeply about what obeying it entails: and therefore there are few people who ever commit themself to serving God to the degree the Lord requires. To those who would say that I am being uncharitable when I state that there are few people who will fully commit themself to taking up their cross daily, I refer you to Luke 10:1‭-‬2, which states:

 

“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

 

To paraphrase the Lord’s words, there’s a whole world out there ignorant of the true nature of God, and His Kingdom — no shortage of brothers and sisters in need of salvation — but where are the servants who are qualified and willing to do the work? Oftentimes the problem isn’t that we don’t want the kingdom of God to arrive — most people would like to reap the benefits and blessing of its peace and unity — the problem is that we don’t want it enough now to sacrifice our own desires in order to dedicate ourselves completely to its work. We hesitate to make laboring to serve God our primary purpose. But read what the apostle Paul willingly endured in order to do the work of God. It’s recorded in 2 Cor. 11:23-29. Based upon what he suffered, and how he lived his life, how confident would you be that his desire to serve God was genuine? Did his deeds reveal his faith — did they prove that his convictions about the kingdom of God were real to him? It’s easy to say ”I want to serve God,” but do your actions, does your life, supply credibility to those words? If they do not, a re-evaluation of priorities is called for. Think of everything you are currently striving for in your life, and everything you hope to gain from your efforts, in the context of Jesus’s question from Luke 9:25:

 

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”

 

Are any of the things you’re currently working for worth more to you than your soul — than eternal life? If your answer is no, are you then living like the kingdom of God is the ultimate reality, or is your life indistinguishable from that of a citizen of this world? Jesus willingly gave his life to show that there is a greater life beyond this one, so that through faith in him we might be encouraged and inspired to follow him to that Promised Land, despite the fact that in this life “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).” And as we read in John 12:27, his death was the culmination of his entire life’s purpose. Therefore, if you are called a Christian, as his follower, what is your purpose? Why were you called? Individual answers as to purpose may vary, but the word of God supplies answers which apply to every believer, every true Christian. One such answer is found in 2 Corinthians 5:15:

 

“And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”

 

Anyone whom the Father calls is called to live a life of service to the Son. What, then, are the aspects of a life lived for him? One example of what the Lord’s service entails is found in 1 Peter 2:20‭-‬21:

 

But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

 

Peter plainly states that part of the work a Christian is called to do is to be willing to suffer for doing good and to endure it for the cause of advancing the gospel of the kingdom of God. Doing so is part of taking up your cross, daily, to follow the Lord. Continuing on with verses 22-24 he provides a more specific example of how Christ suffered for the sake of righteousness:

 

“He [Jesus] committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.  When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”

 

The Greek word translated here as healed means “made whole.” A person who is ”whole” can be considered to be fully integrated — they have no internal division, no disconnected or uncoordinated aspects to their personality — everything in them is working in “oneness” for a unified purpose. Consider that in light of Peter’s statement here about the Lord: ”When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” If someone insults a person, what prompts the other to retaliate? Is it not because their pride has been injured, and they feel a need to answer the injury? How natural it is for us to mirror back to others the ill treatment we receive from them! But when Jesus was insulted, although he may have been grieved by the unwarranted accusations of men, he never responded in kind because he trusted fully in the just judgment of God, and was completely secure in the love his Father has for him. It is not that he did not care about what others said of him, it is more that the esteem he knew his Father had for him made him whole, and rendered every other opinion of little consequence. Now consider that passage again, not as it applied to the Christ, but in regards to yourself. Has the love of God made you whole? Are you so secure in your knowledge of the Father’s and the Son’s love for you that insults and threats no longer unsettle you, so that you cannot be goaded into retaliation? Because that is how Jesus walked, and it is the example we are to follow: as it is written, ”This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did (John 2:5-6). The loftiness of that standard does not negate it’s reality. Instead, that standard should inspire a desire for the type of inner peace that the Lord himself possessed, the type that can only be obtained through intimate communion and fellowship with God, our Father; because it is only the peace of God which enables a person to endure in the face of suffering, and to do so without sinning. And whenever we fail to live according to the Lord’s example, those failures should only drive us to our knees all the more, feeling fervently the words of the psalmist: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42:1‭-‬2)”

 

Continuing on now with the discussion of the type of work which comprises a Christian’s purpose, if we skip forward to 1 Peter 4:1‭-‬3, we read:

 

“Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.”

 

The exhortation that we are to arm ourselves with the same attitude as Christ indicates that we must make a conscious resolution that no amount of suffering in the body will cause us to turn away from continuing to seek to serve God’s will. A willingness to endure suffering for the sake of advancing the gospel is something that we must maintain as a point of focus because we know it is in unity with our Father’s will. But on its own, a willing spirit is not enough to succeed, because the flesh is weak, and human focus and will lacks the constancy of an eternal perspective. Our carnal nature continually wars against the spirit of God for supremacy within us, testing us to see what we desire most.

 

What is our human, carnal nature, then? One answer is that it is our unexamined life, those things we do naturally, instinctively. And, instinctively, in order to preserve life, we work first to satisfy our physical needs. But we also have wants, which extend beyond our needs — and we can exhaust ourselves in the pursuit of them — due to the nature passed down to us from our common parents. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had all their needs supplied, and were denied only one thing — the Tree of Knowledge — but once the seed of “want” for that one thing was sown in the heart of Eve, she yielded to it. She desired instant gratification of what she would have otherwise been given in time (knowledge), and because she believed the lie that she would not die, she consumed the fruit, which, in a spiritual sense, also consumed her: since once she ate, death entered the world. The fact that Adam was not deceived implies that he discerned her fallen state and therefore, recognizing that the cost of his continued obedience to God’s command would now eventually lead to him being deprived of her companionship, he willfully disobeyed God, consciously choosing to die with her instead, because he did not want his life without her in it. And yet they had been created perfect, whereas we are born into sin. So if our common parents, who were superior to us in every way, and who were given but a few commands to obey, could not submit their “wants” to the will of God in an environment where only one thing was withheld from them, how could it ever be natural for us to do what they could not? Through Adam and Eve, Satan prompted mankind to question the perfection of God’s will and, collectively, we have all eaten of the same fruit as they did. Their choice to follow their own will above God’s has become our nature.

 

The purpose behind that brief discussion of human nature was to help illustrate that it is impossible for anyone to “take up their cross daily” to follow the Lord by their own strength. Indeed, if it were natural for man to sacrifice for others in the way that Jesus did, the world would be a vastly different place than it is now. No one accomplishes anything for God apart from the work of His spirit. I think there is a proof of that intended in the fact that, due to the beatings he had endured, in a purely physical sense even the Lord himself was not able to carry his cross to its end destination under his own strength (Matt. 27:32). But if the exhortation from 1 Peter 4:1‭-‬3 (along with other similar scriptures), that we are to arm ourselves with the same attitude as Christ, indicates that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just do all the work, or completely change us overnight, what role does the spirit of God then have in our life? How does the spirit of God work in you to change your base nature?

 

First, it is a witness to the truth. Because we lack knowledge, and can therefore be too easily led to believe things that are harmful and false, it provides testimony as to what is true, calling to our minds the words which God has spoken on a given matter. The spirit of God is our counsellor and teacher, both informing us of what is good and bad, and providing wisdom and understanding as to why it is so. More than that, it provides the motivation to respond to and act upon the newly discerned truth by providing an awareness of greater things to come. As it supplies us with a glimpse of future perfection, our faith in that vision works to alter our values and desires, reshaping them from an inclination for temporary things to a longing for what is faultless and eternal. We begin to want bad/transient things less and less, and good/permanent things more and more, because we see them for what they are, as God himself sees them: because the spirit of God gives access to the perspective of God. The end result of this process is that we are to lose our desire to eat from the tree of knowledge because we come to know with certainty that self-reliance leads to death. It is only absolute trust in God, fostered by the spirit of God, that leads us to reject its fruit and what it produces, thereby making a different choice than our parents did. Could oneness ever be obtained through any other means than complete trust in God? What is it that prevents Satan from repenting and being restored to a right relationship with God? Is it not his unyielding belief in his “right-ness” — that he knows better than God? Is it not a similar pride within us, that by nature causes us to reach for the Tree of Knowledge, and bars access to the Tree of Life?

 

Returning now to the question of how the spirit of God works in us to convert us from being physically-minded to spiritually-minded beings, consider how, in the Scriptures, water symbolically represents baptism and cleansing, while the holy spirit is described as a refining fire (John 3:5, 1 Peter 3:21, Matt. 3:11, Acts 2:3, Numbers 31:23, 2 Peter 3:3-7). Baptism is a figurative acknowledgement of our willingness to die to ourself, submerging our human nature in a watery grave to become immersed in a new life of obedience to God’s will. When we emerge from the water, through the laying on of hands we are symbolically touched by God, and we receive an earnest of the fire of God, burning within. The fire represents our new nature, a nature that enables us to live a new life governed by the power of God. In this sense, the Holy Spirit provides a power that far surpasses human limits, to enable a person to overcome their inherent weakness. The water represents our old nature; and it is important to note that water and fire oppose each other, they do not merge. In this symbolism, fire is pictured arising out of water, to be separate and distinct from it. And, by nature, if they mingle, when fire preponderates over water, the water evaporates; but if the volume of water is greater than the flames, the fire is extinguished. Similarly, the spirit of God within you will either work to burn away your old nature, or your human nature will douse the Holy Spirit’s flame. The principle is discussed in the parable Jesus told, recorded in Matthew 13:33:

 

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”


The parable indicates that the spark of God’s spirit, which is kindled through baptism and the laying on of hands, is intended to grow within, like yeast working in dough, until our old nature is fully consumed by it. But if it is true that it is also possible for our old nature to quench the holy spirit, it is then important to know how that occurs. The apostle Paul spoke regarding this when he was inspired to write:

 

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. (Romans 8:5)”

 

A “set” mind is one where thoughts are fixed on something, to the exclusion of considering things that are contrary to it, so that it cannot be moved. Such a mind maintains an unchanging position. So if our mind is set on what the flesh desires it ceases to be attuned to the voice of the Spirit — it will not hear or entertain what it has to say. Conversely, living in accordance with the Spirit means having a lack of preoccupation with physical concerns. It means that a person’s foremost interest and focus is both to discern and do the will of God. But fixing our minds on what the Spirit desires requires that an effort be made on our part — God doesn’t just do it all for us —

“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble … (2 Peter 1:5‭-‬7‭, ‬10)”


Making an effort to add those attributes is not a  is not a one time action, it is a continuous practice. A single action does not establish a pattern. An action must be performed repeatedly before it becomes a behavior; and the character that God desires to build in us goes even beyond behaviors. God is love, which indicates a state of being. Everything He does is motivated by love, and He would be disavowing himself if He ever behaved in any other manner. If we are to grow to be like our Father, practicing His love, and the right behaviors associated with it, is what we are to work toward, until it becomes a state of being. That is the process of how we become transformed.

 

But why doesn’t God just do all this work for you? If He did, how would you show Him how much you value holy character? God tests us all to bring our values and priorities into the light. How you use your time is one of those tests. Has the thought ever occurred to you, that any and every day you do not willingly take up your cross to follow the Lord, you are quenching the work of the holy spirit? We have been instructed to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Reflect on how you used your time this week/month/year. Was seeking to advance the interests of the kingdom of God your first pursuit? The second? What were the thoughts that most occupied your mind? Do you want to serve God more than you want to have fun and enjoy yourself, or is taking up your cross a mere afterthought, buried under a mountain of self interests?

 

All of us will one day stand before God’s judgment seat, and each of us will give an account of ourselves to Him (Romans 14:10‭-‬12). If honest reflection on the questions I have just posed prompts anyone to acknowledge that they have been living more for self than for God, know that I have not asked them as anyone’s judge. Instead, my hope is that you will take encouragement from those questions — because it is far better to consider such things now, while you still have time left to choose to live differently, if need be, than it is to stand ashamed before the Lord after our account has been given. If your life thus far has only been lived as a hearer of the Word, my prayer is that you become a doer as well. My prayer is that God will indeed send workers into the harvest. I pray that God will supply every one of us with what we need in order to truly take up our crosses and follow Christ, and that these words may inspire every one of you to join me in that prayer. I’ve said before that I believe all service to God begins with humility, and that’s really what the essence of taking up your cross is: humility. So I’ll conclude with the apostle Paul’s words about the humility of our Lord and Savior, and its end result:

 

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,  that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life (Philippians 2:1‭-‬16).”

 

Spiritual gifts and love for God

In 1 Cor. 12, the apostle Paul told the Corinthians that each member of the church was to be one of the constituent parts of a unified whole. He told them that he didn’t want them to be without knowledge regarding spiritual gifts, and their function and operation within the body of Christ. As part of his instruction, he asked them:

“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (vs. 29-30)

The answer of course was, and still is, no. But then he said a very interesting thing: he told them to “eagerly desire the greater gifts” (v. 31). And in chapter 14:1, he told them they ought to especially desire the gift of prophecy.

That begs the question: can a man heal others or prophesy by an act of his own strength, or by desire alone? No, of course not. Although one might have the will to do so, the ability itself is a gift given by God and all such gifts are distributed according to His will alone. As John the Baptist observed, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven.” (John 3:27) So why, then, did Paul encourage the church to earnestly desire spiritual gifts? Is it possible that God chooses to distribute the gifts of His spirit based at least in part on how earnestly a person desires them?

As you consider that question, please turn in your bible to 2 Chr. 1:7-12, where you can read about an extraordinary occurrence. In those verses we are told that God appeared to Solomon at night and said to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Imagine yourself in that position: having assurance from God himself that whatever you ask for will be granted to you. What would your request be? While you’re considering your answer, let’s look at Solomon’s response, in verses 8- 10:

“Solomon answered God, “You have shown great kindness to David my father and have made me king in his place. Now LORD God, let your promise to my father David be confirmed, for you have made me king over a people who are as numerous as the dust of the earth. Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?””

Solomon could have had anything. Have you ever wondered why he prized wisdom so highly that he asked for it above anything else? Solomon himself supplies the answer. In Proverbs 4:3-9 he wrote:

“When I was a boy in my father’s house, still tender, and an only child of my mother, he [referring to King David] taught me and said, “Lay hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands and you will live. Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or swerve from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. Esteem her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honor you. She will set a garland of grace on your head and present you with a crown of splendor.””

What a beautiful example of a father teaching and training his son to love what is right and good! Through his instruction, King David planted the seed of desire for wisdom in Solomon. Because he had love and reverence for his father, Solomon heeded that instruction and fixed his heart upon it — and so when the LORD appeared to him he knew what he wanted most — and his earnest desire was rewarded.

For the next example, please turn to Gen. 32:24-30. It reads:

“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.””

If any of you have ever had an occasion to wrestle with someone, you would know that doing so for just 5 minutes can be physically exhausting. Jacob wrestled from night until early morning. Against an angel! (Hosea 12:4-5) As impressive as that is on its own, I would ask you to immerse yourself further into the account. When the angel saw that he could not prevail over Jacob, he gave him a demonstration of his power by dislocating Jacob’s hip, then commanded him to let him go. Can you adequately appreciate how imposing that experience would have been? Can you feel the hint of potential threat behind the angel’s command: as if he were saying, “Let me go, NOW, before I am forced to hurt you even worse.”

Some additional background on the pathophysiology of a dislocated hip might be helpful here. The hip is a modified ball-socket joint, bolstered by a fibrous joint capsule, and many strong muscles of the upper thigh and gluteal region, and so the joint is very stable. Because of that, a large force is required to dislocate it — a degree of force typically produced by a motor vehicle crash or a fall from height. Simply put, dislocating your hip would get your attention. How did Jacob respond to that physical trauma and the angel’s subsequent demand? He said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” In that moment, all of Jacob’s will — his energy, strength and focus — was centered on one thing, to the extent that even the intense pain of a dislocated hip could not distract him from the object of his heart’s desire.

What was it that Jacob was seeking as he wrestled with the angel? Wealth? A life of pleasure and ease? Fame? Adulation from the masses? No, he sought a spiritual blessing and because of his fervency he received his desire, his name was changed and, in spirit, he became greater than he had been before. I cannot think of a better physical example of how spiritual faith is supposed to work in our lives. Jacob knew in his heart what it was he wanted and needed most — which was to be blessed by God. He began with a right desire, he believed God could and would provide it, and then he set his will with all of his might and refused to let go until he received it. Oh, my brothers and sisters, if only we were all more like him!

Solomon and Jacob are only two of the examples that can be found in the Scriptures where individuals received spiritual blessings because of the integrity and earnestness of their desire. Now that we’ve discussed them, I’d like to return to my earlier question: Is it possible that God chooses to distribute the gifts of His spirit based at least in part on how earnestly a person desires them? Aside from personal stories, do the Scriptures have anything else to say on the matter? Jeremiah 17:10 states,

“I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.”

Additionally, Deuteronomy 4:29 and Jeremiah 29:13 both state that a person seeking God will find him if and when they seek him with all of their heart and all of their soul. The negative implication is that God will not reveal himself if you seek him with a divided heart. Nothing less than 100% integrity is accepted by him. Would not the same principle also apply to receiving spiritual gifts? Considering how exceedingly precious the gifts of His spirit are, do you believe that God would bestow them upon someone with a tepid interest in them? I have often heard the question asked, “Why don’t we see prophesying, healings and miracles today, like we read about in the Book of Acts?” If you simply accept as an answer that God just isn’t working in that way anymore, how earnest would you say your desire to receive those gifts is? Would Solomon have been so easily dissuaded? Could Jacob have been turned aside by such a pat reply?

More importantly though, spiritual gifts are given for the purpose of benefiting others, to draw them to a right relationship with God, and to bring honor and glory to His name — so if our words and our deeds show that our hearts are set more on the things of this life than for rendering service to God and our fellow man, why would we expect to receive them? If we don’t believe we’re incomplete and inadequate without them, and feel a deep need for them, like Solomon and Jacob did, it is unreasonable to expect to possess them. I say that because although God can supply what we lack, only the truly hungry beg to be fed. The simple truth that God has brought me to understand, then, is that His power is not more evident and on display in my life because my love of self is still too strong and my love for Him and for His service is still too weak. And if His power is not manifest in your life, the reason is the same.

Before moving on, there’s one more Scripture I’d like to turn to. Hebrews 11:6 states:

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Earnestly seek — there are those words again!)

The first part of that statement is self-apparent: no one seeks for God if they don’t believe he exists. But why is it impossible to please God without believing that he rewards those who earnestly seek him? One reason is that an earnest or diligent search implies that considerable effort is involved. A brief example to illustrate that point can be found in Proverbs 2:3-5:

“Indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.”

Unless a person is fully convinced the reward is worthwhile, they will be either half-hearted in their effort, or entirely unwilling to do the work. There is an opportunity cost involved in seeking God. We can only learn his precepts and judgments through prayer, bible study, and service to others. Doing those things requires time that is not spent on entertainment or other pursuits. For example, in Luke 9:57-62, we read:

“As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He said to another man, “Follow me.” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-bye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

What then is the cost of following the Lord? Nothing less than everything. The question then becomes, “Is that a price I am willing to pay? We can read that Peter once remarked that he and the other disciples had indeed left everything to follow Jesus, and so Peter asked him, “What then will there be for us?” (Matt 19:27) In response Jesus said:

“I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, do you truly believe in your Lord’s promise? Remember then that he also said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:21) If your treasure is truly in heaven, and you believe that the reward which awaits you there is far superior to anything that can be enjoyed on earth, is there any loss you could suffer in this life that would shake your faith or lessen your resolve to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness?”

The apostle Paul taught that “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) Could he and the rest of the apostles have persevered through all of the adversities they encountered in serving the Lord if their greatest hope and treasure did not rest firmly in God’s Kingdom? Their decision to follow Jesus required them to make a decision as to how they would use their time on earth — a decision that you and I are faced with as well. They gave the entirety of their life and devoted all of their energy and time to promoting the Gospel, which testifies to the love they had for God, and the value they placed on their promised reward.

This leads me to my next point. The last time I spoke, I concluded by mentioning that my next message would be about love for God. Have you ever thought about the fact that how we spend our time is one of the main ways we show our love toward God? The author of Psalm 84 had it in his heart to write:

“How lovely is your dwelling place, LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” (vs. 1-2)

He also observed, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” Have you ever thought about what a day with God would be like? How would being in His presence alter your perspective and change the things you live for? Consider what the apostle Paul told the Corinthian church:

“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know — God knows. And I know that this man — whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows — was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.” (2 Cor. 12:2-4)

Do you think that experience was impactful? Do you think it would have been still vividly etched in his memory years later when he wrote to the Philippian church, saying:

“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him …” (Philippians 3:8-9)

So often, we live as though this physical life is the ultimate reality. Having seen paradise firsthand, Paul knew with certainty that such is not the case, and when he reflected on everything that he had once lived for in light of what he now knew, he considered all he had left behind to be garbage. So consider everything you currently live for — the goals and dreams you’re pursuing. If you had seen paradise, would you not have a burning desire to return to it? Is there anything on earth that would be capable of capturing and holding your interest? Would your goals remain the same? Paul said there weren’t words to describe what he saw there, and yet even as inexpressibly beautiful and wonderful as that experience must have been, it still cannot possibly equal being in the actual presence of God himself. Nothing can compare to the peace and joy that come from being at one with the Perfection of Holiness and Love — and yet how readily and willingly do we trade time spent with Him for pursuit of fulfillment in the temporary pleasures of life!

So far, I’ve given two examples of individuals who received spiritual blessings based on their earnest desire and also provided evidence indicating that serving God requires faith and consistent commitment to seeking Him. I’d like to move on now to expound on a passage that highlights the seriousness of the responsibility the Lord’s followers have with regards to use of time. Luke 16:10-13 states:

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest [or unrighteous] with very little will also be dishonest [or unrighteous] with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

This is an exceedingly important passage for anyone who desires to serve God. The subject matter goes far beyond a mere discussion of money and its use. The focus is really about the correlation between service to God and entrance into His Kingdom. The principle behind Jesus’s statement that “whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much” is well illustrated in the Parable of the Talents, found in Matt. 25:14-30, so I won’t elaborate further on that point. Instead, I’d like to focus on the question he poses in verse 11: “if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?”

There is clearly a contrast being made between “worldly wealth” and “true riches,” so what is the intended meaning of those terms? To begin, the translation “worldly wealth” is derived from adikos (ad’-ee-kos), which can mean unjust, unrighteous, sinful or deceitful, and mammonas (mam-mo-nas’). Thayer defines it as:

1. mammon
2. treasure
3. riches (where it is personified and opposed to God) — of Aramaic origin, signifying confidence.

With those definitions in mind, a fuller sense of “worldly wealth” could read: treasures or riches which are opposed to God, since man unjustly places his confidence in them, instead of trusting his Creator and Provider.

Next, the word translated as “true riches” is alēthinos (al-ay-thee-nos’), which Thayer defines as:

1. that which has not only the name and resemblance, but the real nature corresponding to the name, in every respect corresponding to the idea signified by the name
a. opposite to what is fictitious, counterfeit, imaginary, simulated or pretended
b. it contrasts realities with their semblances
c. opposite to what is imperfect, defective, frail, uncertain

This physical realm is imperfect, frail, and uncertain. It is only a semblance of the spiritual reality: so true wealth can never pertain to material things, it can only apply to things which are spiritual in nature. So now, I would ask you: do you think Solomon would have defined the gift of wisdom as “true riches”? Would Jacob tell you that to be blessed by God is to be truly rich? What testimony would the apostle Paul give? Would he counsel you to trade the gifts of the spirit for gold or treasure?

Now reframe the logic of the argument the Lord made in Luke 16:10-13, with time as the subject, instead of money. With regard to true riches, consider that time is more valuable than money, because time can be enjoyed without money, but money cannot be enjoyed without time. Even if all your other physical resources are exhausted, time continues on. Whether you are a follower of Christ, or you are a non-believer, we all have at least one thing in common — we are all given a limited amount of time. If you are a follower of Christ, you believe that God has called you to serve him — so is the way you are spending your time consistent with that belief? Time is a precious gift, yet it is wasted on many empty pursuits; and if you waste something, it shows a disregard for the value of the thing you are wasting. So if we have not proven faithful in using the little time we have been given, why would God entrust us with eternity?

At baptism we enter into a covenant with God and pledge to become slaves to Christ. (1 Cor. 7:22 and Romans 6:12) As he laid down his life for us, we also figuratively agreed to lay down our lives, subjecting our will to his, in the hopes that we might one day be called Sons of God. (John 15:13-14 and John 8:35) As his slaves, we are his property, and in truth, all things belong to God. So if we are not found faithful in dealing with His property in this life, how can we be entrusted to care for the eternal mansion he has prepared for his children? (John 14:2) If we will not willingly serve as slaves now, how will we inherit as sons? We cannot serve two masters. We either hate having to obey God and love exercising our free will, choosing to use our time as we please, or we are devoted to God and hate our carnal nature, which hinders us from knowing him more fully. We cannot serve God when we are more concerned with the cares of this life than we are with the interests of His Kingdom, or when we value physical blessings to be enjoyed in the present above spiritual rewards obtained in the future.

We are told to confess our sins to each other and to pray for each other (James 5:16), and so in conclusion I would like to acknowledge that when I examine my life in light of the Scriptures we’ve discussed, I have not consistently used my time in the ways that I ought to have. But there comes a time when anyone who desires to truly become like Christ must cease living for themself, and I believe that time is now, so I want to live differently. I want the way I use my time to truly reflect my love for God. I want my life to have meaning and purpose. I want the spiritual gifts Paul discussed because I realize I cannot adequately serve God without them. I want the eternal rewards God promises to those who faithfully serve Him. But just as a cat cannot will itself to become a lion, I cannot be more than I am, unless God changes me. My responsibility, then, is to maintain the desire to be more, for the sake of glorifying and honoring his name, and to continue to look to Him, trust in Him, and allow Him to complete His work in me. I shared this message today in the hope that each of you would be inspired with the same desire, and because I wanted to show that when the spirit and power of God is not at work in us, it is an indication of the weakness of our love for Him. Unless a person is willing to confront that truth, the door to change will not open.

Remember that Jesus once observed:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Many are called to work in the Lord’s fields, but few are chosen, because few are willing to put in the work it requires. It is far easier to be concerned with tilling our own field. May we therefore be ever mindful that how we approach the work we have been given to do reflects the value we place on the reward we expect to receive; and may God continuously work in each of us both to will and to do his good pleasure.

False Religion and Love for God

Our Lord and Savior, Jesus, the Christ, whose followers we were called to be, left a warning for his disciples of what was to come in the future.  He told them to:

 

“Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying I am Christ; and shall deceive many.”  (Matt. 24:4-5)

 

The greek word translated as “take heed” can mean to have the power of seeing, to perceive and discover by use, or know by experience. It can also mean to turn the thoughts or direct the mind to a thing, to consider, contemplate, to look at, to weigh carefully and examine.   

 

Next, the word translated as “deceive” means to cause to stray, or to lead away from the truth. When Jesus said take heed that no one deceive you, what was the deception he was cautioning his disciples to be on guard against? It was that many would come in his name, teaching falsely about him.  Those false teachings encompass not only his identity and nature, but also his purpose, his message and his second-coming. There have been many anti-christs in the world since the Lord departed, and they still exist and are currently at work in it today. An antichrist is not necessarily just someone who denies that Jesus was and is the Christ; it is anyone teaching in his name who superimposes their own doctrine over the Lord’s teaching.  For example, suppose someone taught that Jesus was the Son of God, who suffered and died for our sins so that we might live a life of peace and ease in this world. Would you accept that statement as fully true?  In recent history alone, we can observe that many have believed and embraced it — because there are several mega-churches which have been built upon preaching a gospel of “health and wealth”.  It may be somewhat of an oversimplification, but the essential premise of their teaching is that all that is required in order to have an abundant life filled with worldly success and the desires of the heart is that a person “accept Jesus” into their heart. These types of appeals to the flesh will always be popular, but did Jesus ever promise his followers a life of ease? What did he have to say about how his disciples should live, and the focus they were to have?

 

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. … Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Luke 9:23 and Matt.10:34,38)

 

That is but one simple example which I include to illustrate how a false theology can become pervasive, but it’s not the focus for my message today, so let’s return now to Matt. 24:4-5 and put it all together. Those two verses mean that we are to examine, consider and contemplate everything God has made known in his Word; putting it into practice so that we know by experience that it is true, in order that we be known as the Lord’s flock — those sheep who listen to his voice and follow him.  Although he is absent in body, he should be present with us in spirit, to the extent that we are figuratively able to “see” him alive and at work in our lives. And when we do so, he will keep us from all deception.

 

Regarding that deception, we can continue on with Matt. 24:6-11.  To summarize those verses, Jesus is describing what the by-product of the false teaching referenced in verse 5 will be. To whom did/does his warning apply, and when would/will these conditions become manifest? Did it pertain only to those few disciples who were present with him during his short time on earth? Were they intended only for those who would live at the time just prior to his return? Might it not rather be that he is explaining the conditions that will always exist whenever false religion grows strong in the world, which would indicate he is addressing anyone and everyone throughout history who would seek to be known as his follower? Those are important questions, because your answer to them determines how you interpret verses 12-13.  When the Lord prophesied in verse 12 that the love of most would grow cold, do you believe he is saying that most people in the world will no longer practice natural love — or does he mean that most Christians will lose the love that sets them apart and identifies them as such?  False religious teaching certainly can influence and diminish both, but verse 13 makes it clear that verse 12 is a warning intended for those true followers of the Christ, who possess the love of God dwelling within them.

 

If we desire to be amongst those who stand firm to the end, I believe it is important to understand why the love of most Christians grows cold.  Our Lord provided the outline in these very verses we’ve been discussing so far. First, false religion becomes prevalent, which leads to a general, societal increase in wickedness. Next, true Christians, those who labor against that tide of wickedness and call attention to sin and false teachings, become persecuted. And, finally, due to persecution, many tire of the fight and abandon the faith.  And the Christian calling truly is a fight.  We can begin to grasp the magnitude of what we are fighting against when we read the apostle Paul’s prophecy of the rise of pseudo-Christianity, as described in his warning to Timothy.  It’s found in 2 Tim. 3:1-5.  He wrote:

 

“But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.  People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous,  rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power.  Have nothing to do with them.”  

 

Why do I say this is describing a pseudo-Christianity?  Because verse 5 is very curious.  It would be reasonable to imagine that people possessing such ungodly attributes would be obviously, outwardly, atheistic and irreligious.  But Paul says they have a form, or semblance, of godliness.  The greek word used is morphosis, which conveys the sense of a shifting of form in order to take on another appearance.  In other words, who these individuals are outwardly, by creed or profession of belief, is very different from who they are at heart, by practice.  Paul is describing people who may believe they are living lives pleasing to God, but who, in actuality, are Christian in name only.  Figuratively, you could say these false-believers whom he is describing wear a mask to disguise their true self from the eyes of others.  And they may indeed succeed in fooling some, but masks like these, once put on, are difficult to remove: and the end result of wearing them is that when they look in the mirror, they are also unable to see themself as they truly are.  

 

A Christian must have the light of Christ, the light of truth shining out from within them and, when they encounter others stumbling in the darkness of deception, they must be willing to walk into that darkness to help others find their way out of it.  That’s what preaching the Gospel is: being a light.  It’s one of the ways that we show we possess the love of God.  In application, the love of God is not just some vague warm and fuzzy feeling toward people. It’s not the type of love that sends “positive vibes” to someone who is sick. It’s not even about being perceived as someone who is “nice” to everyone.  Those are simply a few examples of what natural human affection is, and even as corrupt as our present day is becoming, we still see many examples of this type of love being practiced in the world today.  But that’s not the love of God as it’s modeled in Scripture.  Jesus told his followers:

 

“A servant is not greater than his master.  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.” (John 15:20)

 

Jesus was not persecuted for being “nice;” and people who consistently exercise human affection towards others are not generally persecuted for doing so either. Our Lord was put to death by the world because he revealed sin for what it is, and he exposed the guilt of the people — not to condemn them, but to bring them to repentance.  And many who came to him did acknowledge their guilt and repented.  But others resisted having their “masks” removed and, like Cain, they hated the Lord for confronting them with their guilt.   Why then are the Lord’s followers warned that they must and will face persecution? It’s because they have been entrusted with the responsibility of contending against falsehoods.  The apostle Paul spoke of this responsibility in 2 Cor. 10:3-5, which states:

 

“For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does.  The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.  On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.  We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”

 

In other words, he is saying that when a kingdom or nation of the world fights a war, they use the power and authority they have been given by God, which is administered through their governing bodies, in order to destroy their enemy’s physical strongholds.  But a Christian is to use the power and authority given to them by God, administering the words of God through the spirit of God, in order to deconstruct erroneous reasoning, overthrow lies and destroy falsehoods.  Christians need to care about that enough that they are willing to speak the truth of God to people so they can see sin for what it is.  A Christian strives toward the goal of freeing others from their slavery to the prince of the powers of this world – and continues to care despite being persecuted and hated for it.  (2 Tim. 2:24-26)  Isn’t that the example we have recorded for true followers of God throughout all of Scripture? So then, ask yourself: “If I died today, is that what I would be known for? Is that what I lived for?  

 

There is only one way we can love in such a way. The type of love that is required is that which is only available through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is something for which we must continually go to God. In my two previous messages, I spoke of the love of God.  Now I’d like to shift to a discussion of love for God.  To begin, consider the Lord’s admonition to the Ephesian church, found in Rev. 2: 4-5.  There he said:

 

“Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen!  Repent and do the things you did at first.”

 

What was the first love they had forsaken? What do you suppose it was that they were no longer doing?  The answer to those two questions might be found by asking another: Why does false religion exist in the world?  Simply because the world does not know God as He truly is.  All false religion arises from false conceptions about God.  Therefore, although the purpose of our Lord’s death was to atone for sin, the purpose of his life was to reveal the Father; and he has called all of his disciples to carry on that same purpose. (John 17:18)  But how is that to be done?  How do you show God to someone?  Certainly it requires that we be filled with His love in us and that we consistently function as models of that love.  And it involves many things beyond that as well — like preaching the gospel — all of which are to be done over the course of a lifetime.  But doing so requires an understanding and application of the entire gospel message.  Anything added to or subtracted from the Gospel of Christ leads to false concepts about God.  

 

Which brings me back to the warning for the Ephesian church.  Collectively, their love had grown colder in certain areas, which led to a decrease in their willingness to labor for the gospel, relative to what they had been doing previously.  Individually, they could have forsaken their first love for a variety of reasons: some to avoid persecution, some because they grew weary of a life of self-denial, some because they became ensnared by deceptions and distractions.  Their example is evidence that the Lord’s warning regarding love growing cold isn’t limited to some unknown future day where nearly all society will be evil to an historically unprecedented degree.  That is an important fact, both collectively and individually.  Collectively, because if they were susceptible to having their first love wane, when they had the apostles still living and teaching among them as first-hand witnesses of the life and resurrection of the son of God, we should be doubly vigilant that we do not stumble in the same way.  And individually, because if we, as individuals, are weak, it is impossible for us to be strong as an organization.

 

How do we show our love toward God?  One important way is by obeying his commands. One of the two greatest commandments is that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  Therefore, as urgently as you desire to have eternal life and be a part of God’s family — as fervently as you desire to be a first-fruit in His Kingdom — the spirit of God in you ought to produce an equally powerful desire that everyone else partake of those indescribably wonderful blessings also.  In that regard, as far as my labor for others is concerned, I cannot say that has been true, nor can I say that it is now; and that is one of the ways I know that my love for God has not been, and is not, what it needs to be. If it was, my life would be significantly different than it is now.  Far too much of the time it’s only been true in an abstract way — a goodwill wish for others that has lacked the reinforcement of sufficient action — like the man who encounters someone without food and clothes and wishes them well but does nothing to address their need.

 

Passion always maintains a willingness to suffer for its object of affection. The Son of God willingly suffered many horrible things out of love for His Father and his love for us. Abraham was willing to suffer the loss of his son out of reverence for the will of God. Moses had to bear with the stubborn rebelliousness of nearly an entire nation and endure the ire of a people who, despite all the good he had done for them, were ready to stone him at one point. (See Ex. 17:4) And bear with them he did, out of love for God. Because of their love for God, all of the prophets suffered for speaking the truth. And there are many other examples like those, both in the Old Testament and the New.  Knowing that to be true, leads me to ask myself “What have I suffered for the sake of the Gospel?”  And if I haven’t suffered, have I really loved? Everyone wants to believe that they’re a good person, but the truth is that none of us are; so, if we are to “take heed that no one deceive us,” we should also be diligent to pray that God would keep us from being overcome by self-deception.  If you share my concern, here is another question which you can use as a litmus test of your own degree of love for God: as it pertains to the gospel, how big is the sphere of influence He has given you with others?  I believe that it is unavoidably true to say that as the love of God increases in you, so too will your power and influence in speaking the words of God.  

 

In conclusion, I  mentioned that the only way we can maintain love toward those who despise and mistreat us is by the power of the Holy Spirit — having the love of God dwelling within us.  And that love is something we must continually go to God for, in order to have it replenished.  Which brings me to my second point regarding love for God: in addition to showing our love for God by obeying His commandments, we also show our love in the same way we show love to anyone else — by spending time with him — and so that will be the topic for a future post.

 

The “Mark” of a Christian

The topic of my last message was the love of God, and I put forward the idea that the purpose for the conversation that took place between Jesus and Peter, as recorded in John 21:15-18, was to reinforce the principle that human love alone is insufficient to serve God effectively.  I wanted to start off today by developing that idea a bit further.  Let’s begin by examining three of the Lord’s own statements, which establish that a clear distinction exists between the love of man and the love of God.  In John 15:18-21, he said:

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own.  As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.  That is why the world hates you.  Remember the words I spoke to you:  ‘No servant is greater than his master.’  If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.  If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.  They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.

Moving forward to chapter 17, in verses 25-26, he states:

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they (all believers) know that you have sent me.  I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them, and that I myself may be in them.”

The first point I would draw your attention to from those verses is that the world does not know God, and His love is not in them.  The second is that although the love of God is not in the children of the world, the world’s children still are capable of exercising love, which is evident from Jesus’s statement that the world loves its own.  For the third scripture, please turn to Matt. 5:43-48, where Jesus was recorded as saying:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven (as opposed to children of the world).  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Without further elaboration, those scriptures should be sufficient to establish that there is a natural love, common to all humanity, such as familial love and brotherly love.  Such love exists and is practiced even by those who do not believe in God, yet the various forms of human love are clearly distinct and separate from the love of God.  Why is that point important?  Because if you turn to John 13:34-35, you’ll read that Jesus has said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” What type of love do you think he had in mind when he said that?  Was Jesus saying that when someone practices natural, human love they are showing themself to be his follower?  Absolutely not!  Even pagans are capable of human love.  It is only having the love of God dwelling within oneself that marks a person as a true Christian!  A Christian is to love in the same way as Christ loved, and with the same type and degree of love.  Possessing and exercising this love is not only essential, it is the primary trait that distinguishes us from the rest of the world!  

We can stay in this same 13th chapter of the book of John, back in verse 12, to find an excellent example of this love in practice:

“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.”

Before continuing with the passage allow me to make a brief side comment: Intellectually, we understand that foot-washing was a task relegated to the lowliest servant; but in our present day, this once common function has been rendered obsolete — and the hands of time have eroded much of the context which made the Lord’s example so poignant.  Every year at Passover we may wash one another’s feet, but it is exceedingly unlikely that the 5 or so minutes we spend in doing so would ever be able to adequately approximate just how a slave would feel in the performance of the same chore.  To attempt to get close, let’s change the scene.  Think how your attitude would be different if, instead of washing a fellow-believer’s feet, as we do by mutual consent here in this room, you were approached by some co-workers, who demanded, “Hey. You. Worthless. Get over here right now and shine our shoes.” You might bristle and refuse: the slave, however would be subjugated to accept the humiliation. With that perspective in mind, let’s return to the remaining verses:

“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.  “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.  I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  If you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.””

We should ask ourselves the same question Jesus posed to his disciples here.  Do I understand the full implication of what the Lord did here?  

Reflect again on his words “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.”  Our Lord’s rightful position is to sit enthroned at the right hand of his Father, the Almighty, Eternal God!  He is the King of Kings, and Lord of Lord’s!  He is the Only Begotten Son of God!  All praise and honor and glory are due to him — but did he insist upon any of those rights while on earth?  No.  Instead, he subjugated himself, and became the lowest of servants in obedience to His Father’s will.  He was willing to suffer greatly in order to teach us the right way to live. He consented to being hated, slandered, spit upon, beaten, even crucified.  He did everything, in service to God, for you. For me.  

But in doing so, he also said that he set an example that his disciples should follow.  It might be pleasing to human nature to believe that the alluded-to example in John 13:15 is restricted merely to the foot-washing; but the command, “as I have done for you” has the meaning of doing to the same degree, or proportion, and therefore carries the sense of encompassing all that Jesus willingly sacrificed during his transition from being ‘Lord’ and ‘Master’ to becoming the lowest of servants.

Human nature is opposed to being told, “no”.  If we desire something, we feel frustration if we are denied it.  But the lowest servant doesn’t get to live as they choose.  Their will is continuously frustrated, to the point where they become accustomed to carrying out the will of others, without considering their own.  No one asks or cares about what they would like.  That is their existence; and that was the attitude or spirit Jesus was demonstrating when he washed his disciple’s feet.  And you are called to be slaves to Christ in this life, so that you might inherit the Kingdom of God as free children.  With our Lord’s example before us, how can we ever be justified for demanding our rights, or for feeling disrespected if the world does not give us our “due”?  We shouldn’t be concerned with seeking worldly position or the esteem of men, and we shouldn’t be offended if we are judged to be a “nobody” by the standards of the world.  How different would the church be today, collectively, if we as individuals pressed beyond the letter of the law modeled in the physical activity of foot-washing, and truly embraced the spiritual attitude it was intended to teach?  What impact would we then have on a world that does not know God?  

Have we made progress in striving toward such a lofty standard?  In 1 Cor. 11:28-29, the apostle Paul was inspired to write, “A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup.  For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.”  In other words, when we take the Passover, we are acknowledging that Christ died for us, and we renew our covenant with him, indicating our willingness to die to ourselves, so that he might live in us.  So in examining ourselves, we should be asking, ‘Have I really been living as the Lord lived? I profess to be a Christian, so how well have I kept his example alive in the world by my thoughts, words and deeds?

Like our Lord, we are to go through life putting others above ourselves, in order to further the work of God’s Kingdom.  The sacrificial, selfless love modeled by the Messiah and manifested in the true Christian cannot be attained by human strength; it is only made possible through God’s Spirit.

In further support of that conclusion, I ask you to consider the following rationale, starting with a question: how was it that in verse 38 (still in John 13), Jesus was able to prophesy that Peter would disown him?  The amplified version of the Bible translates Romans 5:7 as stating, “Now it is an extraordinary thing for one to give up his life, even for an upright man; though perhaps for a noble and lovable and generous benefactor someone might even dare to die.”  So although it would be an extraordinary thing, Peter’s professed willingness to lay down his life for Jesus was neither unheard of, nor beyond the realm of possibility (and when we partake of the body and blood of Christ, we make the same profession as did Peter).  Therefore, if Jesus could foretell Peter’s denial, he had to have insight into something Peter was lacking that would make his action a certainty.  What was Peter missing?  When he was asked if he was one of Jesus’s disciples, was he suddenly stripped of his free will in that moment in order to bring Christ’s words to fruition?  Did he not still have a choice as to how he would respond?  Far be it from God to compel man to sin, so of course Peter had a choice!  Take those questions a step further now.  Since Peter had a choice, and still denied the Lord, does that mean he consciously, deliberately disowned him?  Do you believe that is the choice Peter willingly wanted to make?  I would argue it was not, since when the rooster crowed the second time and Jesus turned and looked at him, he immediately regretted what he had done and wept bitterly.  What phenomenon was at work here, then?  This was a perfect illustration of the truth of the apostle Paul’s words from Romans 7:18-19: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.  For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.”

Jesus knew Peter’s denial was a foregone conclusion because he was aware of the spiritual realities that apart from him we can do nothing (John 15:5); and when the shepherd is struck, the sheep will scatter (Matt. 26:31).   He also knew that the Holy Spirit had not yet been given, so when that moment of testing came upon Peter, he was inadequately equipped to meet it successfully.  He knew that although Peter intellectually, in his inner being, was willing to die with him, the natural inclination of concern for the physical body would also be warring within him; and a house divided against itself cannot stand.  Jesus knew that Satan desired to “sift” Peter (Luke 22:31), and because of all these things, he gave him counsel while they were in the garden of Gethsemane to “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” (Matt. 26:41)   It is noteworthy that Jesus had taken the two sons of Zebedee along with him, in addition to Peter, yet this admonition was directed solely to Peter.  What was the temptation he was to be on his guard against?  I think it reasonable to conclude that this was an allusion to the very denials which Christ had foretold, and which came to pass so swiftly after this warning.

The reason (at least in part, if not in totality) Peter failed was because when he was told to watch and pray so that he would not fall into temptation, his physical fatigue caused him to sleep instead.  Temptation can be understood to be a testing or proving of one’s integrity, or it can be any force that acts to oppose an individual’s accepted standard of right conduct: and in Peter’s moment of testing, he wasn’t able to do what he claimed he would do, or act consistently with how he believed he would act, because his thoughts weren’t anchored on what he should have been praying for — which is that God would deliver him from temptation and supply him with what he needed so that his faithfulness might not falter.  He temporarily lost sight of looking to God to uphold him in any situation and in doing so, he was left to rely upon himself, and the resources that were natural to him.  And although Peter could be considered an upright man even before he was given the Holy Spirit, even the best qualities he possessed as part of what made him who he was were not sufficient for him to overcome his adversary in the critical moment.  He was limited by his weaknesses — the same reality which confronts every single person who has ever lived.     

Consider that when God’s protection was removed and Satan was allowed to test Peter, he could not even acknowledge himself to be Jesus’s disciple, even though he had previously left everything to follow him!  Just like Peter, whenever we rely on our own strength to serve God, we will fail — but what is impossible for men is possible with God (Luke 18:27).  God is love and God is spirit.  One of the functions of the Holy Spirit is to increase our capacity for love by giving us access to the power of God’s love.  But once we receive it, we do not automatically have it in an unlimited supply.  Although the spirit of God is inexhaustible, the love of God can grow cold and His Spirit can be quenched within us.  In my last message, I referenced Christ’s prophecy that prior to his return, the love of most would grow cold.  I anticipated that would be my topic today, but that message is built upon an understanding and acceptance of the principle just expounded on: that apart from the power of the Holy Spirit — apart from having God’s love dwelling in us — it is impossible to serve God.  Therefore, I thought it best to establish that foundation more firmly before moving forward, and because of that I will have to once again leave you until next time to ponder the question I posed in conclusion to my previous message: “How do we make certain that we will be among those who hold fast to the love of God and stand firm to the end?”.   

The Love of God

If you have been introduced to another person, you can rightly say that you know them, in the sense of being aware of their existence.  But if you never go beyond that introduction and don’t know anything else about them aside from the fact that they exist, you can’t truly claim to know them in the sense of understanding who they are.  This is a truism which applies to man’s relationship with God as well: just because a person professes belief in God, that does not mean they know Him.  So how does one come to know God, especially given the fact that, while we are physical, we do not have the benefit of a face to face introduction, and cannot converse with God in the same way we can with our fellow man?

 

Because God is an infinite spiritual being without limitations, He can never be completely and perfectly known and understood by flesh and blood.  But if an attempt to do so were to be made, one might begin by describing His character.  And I believe no single characteristic would be able to provide greater insight and understanding into who God is than the one found in 1 John 4:8, which states, “God is love”.  What an amazing statement that is!  It doesn’t merely say God loves, it says He is love.  Love is not simply an attribute or quality that God possesses; rather, His entire being is founded upon, and declared or made known through, love!  So we begin to come to know God through understanding His love — and I would argue that all sincere efforts to know God more perfectly should inevitably lead to a more accurate and mature understanding of what love is — but since no one has ever seen or heard God at any time, how is His love made known?

 

The Father is made known through His Son and His love was and is ultimately expressed through what the Lord did:

“…the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.”  (John 1:18)

“And this is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us”. (1 John 3:16)

There is no action possible in this world that reveals more about God, the Father, than this sacrifice by His Son. The entire gospel message is built upon that singular foundation.  But the good news that Jesus died so we could have the opportunity to live with him forever also sets a lofty standard for love, and carries with it a daunting expectation — for all who profess Jesus to be their Lord and Master are required to live as he lived, and do as he did.  (1 John 2:6)

 

Because of that, it’s important for us to understand all that the Son of God did.  He did indeed die so that we might live, but he did much more than just laying down his life.    In truth, our Lord and Savior gave of himself, in service to others, without holding anything back for the full duration of his life.  His death only speaks to the sacrifice of his physical life, but there was also a spiritual sacrifice he had to make — one that is at least as poignant, if not more than, that which occurred at his crucifixion.  Before he suffered death, he first had to experience separation from God.  Those who love deeply in this life know the pain that separation can bring; but even the closest and best relationship you could imagine enjoying in this present world pales into insignificance when compared to the one shared by the Father and the Son.  Prior to his earthly incarnation, The Only Begotten One had spent a previous eternity enjoying perfect unity, harmony and communion with his Father, in His presence.  No two other beings in all of Creation will ever know so perfect a bond or experience that degree of closeness (John 1:18), yet our Saviour was willing to experience a temporarily diminished intimacy with God, as a means of expressing his love for us and the Father, by being obedient to His will.  Why was this necessary?  Partly because it was paramount that “… the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.” (John 14:31)

 

This act of obedience was for our benefit in many ways.  In addition to obviously being the way in which the penalty for sin was paid, which opened the way to eternal life, it also serves as a model and a lesson for us of one of the key ways we demonstrate our love to God.  Here are a few of the Lord’s own statements on the subject:

“If you love me, you will obey what I command.” (John 14:15)

“Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me.  He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.” (John 14:21)

“If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching.  My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.  He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.”

“You are my friends if you do what I command.” (John 15:14)

“In fact, this is love for God: to keep his commands.  And his commands are not burdensome, for everyone born of God overcomes the world.” (1 John 5:3-4)

 

From these and other statements, Jesus made it clear that unless we obey God, we cannot claim to love him, or even know him.  So another key way we come to know God better, and understand the nature of His love more perfectly, is to obey Him.  What then are those commands we are to obey, which John says are not burdensome?  We can turn to the Lord’s own words for the answer.  They are:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Regarding these commandments John wrote, “Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning [since the Law had already been known for centuries by that time].”  But he goes on to say,

“Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him [Jesus] and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.” (1 John 2: 7-8)

What was this new command, whose truth is seen in Jesus, applicable for all who accept the title of “Christian”?  It is still: “Love one another.”  But it is now to be understood in a new light, one which began to shine when our Lord and Savior bled and died on our behalf.  The fullness of the law’s requirement to love your neighbor as yourself, is only realized in the command: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.  As I have loved you (In the same way as), so you must love one another.”  (John 13:34-35)   The love that Jesus had was a self-less love — one that was always ready and willing to sacrifice on behalf of others — and so the love we are to have is also one that is put into practice without consideration of “self”.  How critical of an issue is this for those who seek to know God and serve the Lord?

 

Consider the challenge Jesus posed to Peter, after Peter’s denial.  He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?  Peter had previously made the statement, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will. … Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”  (Matt. 26:33 and Luke 22:33)  Peter had believed that his own love for the Lord was superior to the love the other disciples possessed for Jesus.  Yet three denials in rapid succession proved his boast to be false, and showed that the comparative estimation of devotion he had made between himself and his brethren was unwarranted.  In Luke 22:61 we read that as soon as the final denial issued forth from Peter’s lips, “The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.”  Could any words communicate more powerfully than the understanding that passed between them when they locked eyes in that moment?  Clearly, Peter saw the truth about himself right then and there, because it is written “And he went outside and wept bitterly.”  So now, because of that experience, in response to Jesus’s question, Peter simply acknowledged that Jesus knew him better than had known himself, and said, “Yes Lord, you know that I love you.”

 

But Jesus doesn’t stop there — he asks him again.  The focus of the first query was on the comparative aspect of the question. Essentially he had asked Peter, Do you really love me more than anyone else does?  But now the heart of the question changes to ask, Do you really love me more than you love anything else?  Jesus used the verb agapao, which indicates an ardent, supreme love.  And just as he did in response to the Lord’s first question, Peter replies that he has phileo (affection denoting personal attachment, as a matter of sentiment or feeling; while agapao has a wider connotation, embracing especially the judgement and deliberate assent of the will as a matter of principle, duty and propriety) for Jesus.  By this, Peter showed he understood his denials revealed that he had loved his own life more than he had loved his Master, and therefore, he could not truthfully claim to love him above everything else.

 

Jesus then used the same standard of phileo love Peter had professed in his two previous answers, once again slightly shifting the thrust of the question.  This time, it amounts to him asking, Are you even my friend?; and Peter was hurt that Jesus would ask him that.  Was Jesus being cruel by doing so?   Peter already knew he had failed, so why would Jesus press the issue like this?  Was it simply to rub Peter’s failure in his face, or was there still a deeper lesson he needed to learn?  I believe this last inquiry was intended to provide Peter with insight that would be crucial to his future success as the Lord’s servant.  In order to persevere in all that he would face in the future, he first needed to have a deeply reinforced understanding of why he had failed.  After Peter replies the final time, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you”, Jesus gives him the same instruction to “Feed my sheep.”  The message in John 21:15-17 essentially had been, “Even if you only have brotherly love for me, my command to you remains the same:  Feed my sheep.  That is how you will show your love for me.”  But notice what he says next:

“I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18)

 

How was this relevant to the conversation they had been having?  Before answering that, I think it is worth mentioning that throughout this entire discourse Jesus addresses Peter as “Simon, son of John”.  Simon, son of John encompasses his identity more completely than simply calling him Peter.  It carries a more serious tone, and conveys the sense that he is speaking to the very heart and soul of the man, not just the body in front of him.   With that in mind, here is how I interpret what Christ was communicating in verse eighteen:

Simon, son of John, my dearly beloved disciple, brother and friend, since the day you were born you have always been strong-willed (insisting on dressing yourself and going where you wanted).  But in the days to come, what will be required of you will exceed what you are able to accomplish by force of will alone.  Of course I know that you love me, but just as human affection and brotherly love were not strong enough for you to remain faithful to me in Gethsamene, so too are they inadequate for the work I have yet for you to do.  The reason you failed was because you relied on your own strength, rather than seeking and trusting in that love which can only be supplied by God.  The reason I’m challenging you like this now is so you fully understand that the only way to truly follow me and walk the path that I have just trod is to seek the love from God which surpasses all that man can attain.  That is how you will have success in feeding my sheep.

 

We’ve already read the passage in 1 John 5, which states that everyone born of God overcomes the world.  Overcoming the world means triumphing over evil by vanquishing it.  It has both internal and external applications, because before anyone can overcome the world, they must first overcome themself by having their essential nature altered down to its very foundation.  A self-oriented nature never overcomes the world — it only joins with it.  Over-comers are those who set aside concern for self and never let their love for others grow cold, in spite of all the evil and wickedness that occurs around them.  Through their constancy and steadfastness in love, they exert a godly influence on others.  By what means are they able to do this?  Through faith that Jesus is the Son of God.  The only way to persevere and endure hatred without becoming tainted by it, is to look to the example put before us by the Messiah’s sacrifice.

Peter had to learn that human love is insufficient to serve God effectively, because it is a fickle love, one that alters in response to the treatment it receives.  His lesson is also our lesson.  No one can manufacture godly love from within themself: not Peter, not you, not me.  Godly love can only be obtained from God, and we must seek Him continually, in order to receive that which is to be our daily spiritual bread.  Peter had believed he loved Jesus more than anything else and more than anyone else did, but He who knows the hearts of all men confronted him with the truth about what he was lacking.  I cannot imagine that our Lord would hesitate to do the same with us.  It is far too easy to lapse into the thinking that we are doing well as servants of God if, as a general rule, we go to church and are nice to people.  But we can keep the Sabbath our whole life, we could become the world’s preeminent Biblical scholar, understand every prophecy, have faith to move mountains, even give everything that we have and earn the praise of all men — and yet if we don’t have the love of God dwelling in us, we are nothing, and all our service is mere self-deception.

 

Because of that fact, Christ’s propechy regarding the condition mankind will be in prior to his return is a chilling one to me.  In Matt. 24:12 he says, “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”  I’m confident that he wasn’t using hyperbole when he said that, which means true Christian, agape love will be nearly non-existent in the world at that time.  Whether we have reached those days which will herald the end of the age or not, God alone knows, so we need not occupy ourselves with such questions.  But we most certainly should be concerned about keeping the love of God alive within us at any and all times.  So how do we make certain that we will be among those who stand firm to the end?  That is a topic that I will save for my next post.  Until then, may the love of God be in you, and actively at work in your life.

 

 

 

 

Humility

A few years ago, I was seeking to understand God’s will for my life, and I asked Him to show me the work he would have me to do.  Looking back, I now recognize that my question and concern had as much to do with my employment as it did with service to God.  At the time, I had a particular career path in mind, specifically the one most appealing to me, since I didn’t know of any other method of determining His will.  I wanted my life to have a meaningful, positive impact on others, so I was interested in starting, or at least working in, an orphanage.  I never received an answer in that regard.  Instead, the response to my inquiry, whispered by that still, small voice was, “Humble yourself.”  It seemed to me to be a very inadequate reply.  That’s not to say I saw no value in doing so, it’s just that I wanted to do great things for God, and I thought my time needed to be occupied by activities that would have a more practical benefit to others.  But laboring for God always starts with an internal process of refining, and I see now that even if humbling myself was the only job He ever gave me, the task is such that I will always have work left to do.  I now believe that any and all efforts to draw near to God, to know His will, and to serve Him, must start with humbling oneself.

Why is this so?  We are told in Hebrews 6:1 that repentance from dead works is the first foundational principle of the doctrine of Christ.  Consider that, when building, before any foundation is ever laid, it must first be established that the land is suitable for construction.  With that in mind, it can be said that humility is the spiritual ground into which all foundational doctrines are poured and accepted.  All godly characteristics are built upon having a right view of self in relation to the Holiness, perfection and power of God.  It stands to reason that humility must precede repentance, because without humility repentance is impossible, since pride always justifies itself and will not accept that it has done wrong —  and no one repents of an action they consider to be right. (See Psalm 36:1-2) But if I know myself to be a sinner who has fallen thousands of times in thousands of ways, and have seen time and again how my love for God has proven to be weak, frail and miserable in contrast to how much I love myself, then I will have taken the first step toward allowing the perfection that is found in Jesus to advocate on my behalf, as opposed to seeking to justify myself before God.  Although acknowledging that there is nothing perfectly good within us is not the natural way we like to see ourselves, it is an essential and truthful one.  It’s necessary because every path to repentance leads to Christ, and when we accept the Messiah’s sacrifice as payment and atonement for our sins, he opens the door to God’s Kingdom, making it possible to enter into a relationship with the Father, just as the Lord himself stated in John 10:7-9.  So from this we see that without humility it is impossible to even begin a true relationship with God.

The second foundational doctrine of Christ from Hebrews 6:1 is faith toward God.  As was the case with repentance, the cornerstone upon which faith toward God is built is also humility.  Humility is the end-result of thinking about yourself less and less.  It’s the natural product of trusting in God to provide for ALL of your needs with all of your heart, mind, soul and being.  To the extent that we are able to do that, we become freed to spend our thoughts and energy towards service to others.  But when a person believes that they will accomplish their personal goals through the strength of their own efforts, as they pursue those objectives they often become locked in a path of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion.  The fourth chapter of the book of James speaks to this when it states,

“What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?  You want something but don’t get it.  You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want.  You quarrel and fight.  You do not have, because you do not ask God.  When you [do] ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”

Conflict arises because we want something, someone else wants the same thing, and there’s not enough of it for everyone — so we fight to see who gets to have it.  But when we do so, it shows where our interests ultimately lie.  The degree of humility James was elucidating here exhorts for a complete relinquishing of self — turning control of the direction of our lives completely over to God.  It entails consciously choosing to promote God’s glory rather than seeking to further our own agendas.  The Kingdom of God is spiritual, and spacious enough to accommodate all who earnestly desire to enter it.  In it there is no scarcity — so if seeking it is our focus, we need not quarrel over the things of this life.  We need to learn to make ourselves small and stop seeking personal greatness.  We should be content with what God provides, leaving concern for material blessings to the children of the world; because God’s children have a far greater inheritance.

A final point on this before moving on: life never works out according to our plans 100% of the time, because our plans aren’t consistent with God’s plans 100% of the time.  How do we respond when the two are not in unity?  If we should ever be displeased with the course God would have us follow, do we trust that God alone knows what is best?  Or do we insist upon having our own way, and seek to flee from His will, like Jonah did?   Are we humble enough to “allow” God to remain sovereign? If we truly desire to serve God with our life,  we must be continually willing to submit our will in order to bring it into alignment with His.

Returning back to Hebrews 6:1, we see that it is an outline of the doctrinal progression which forms the backbone of Christianity.  A doctrine is a teaching: and just as one does not begin to build upon quicksand, a teacher cannot teach successfully unless the student is willing to learn.  God is the ultimate teacher, and His lessons are intended to make us more like His Son; but it is only through humility that we are made capable of understanding His instructions.  And yet no matter how much God may open our hearts and minds to receive and understand the truth, there is still so little that we can truly, fully know.  It takes humility to accept that fact, and also to acknowledge God as the source of all of our talents and abilities; whereas pride reverences the gift above the Giver. Humility keeps our focus on God, from Whom every good and perfect gift proceeds.

As an example of one such gift, turn back to  James again, this time to chapter 1, verse 5, where we read, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”  Solomon is an excellent illustration of this, and his story helps to illuminate the difference between the natural abilities God supplies to all men via his general providence, and those which He bestows supernaturally, through His spirit.  When God appeared to Solomon and told him to ask for whatever he wanted, Solomon said, “Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?”  (2 Chr. 1:7-10)  It’s clear from his petition that Solomon already possessed wisdom.  He recognized that it was God’s people that he had the responsibility to lead, not his own.  He also had the wisdom to know what he ought to ask for.  But it was humility that enabled him to realize that the wisdom he already possessed was insufficient, in  view of the stewardship committed to his care.  And after receiving his request, he would have recognized within himself, that he had now been given something which could not have been obtained from any other source. As a result of Solomon’s humility, we are given this record of his life:

“King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth.  All the kings of the earth sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart.  Year after year, everyone who came brought a gift — articles of silver and gold, and robes, weapons and spices, and horses and mules.” (2 Chr. 9:22-24)

And just as it was with Solomon, because God is first faithful to us in supplying our need, our faith in Him is built as we receive the answers to our petitions.

Another testament to the value and importance of humility can be found in the summary statement regarding the life of Moses from Deut. 34:10-12:

“Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt — to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land.  For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”

Moses, through his submission to the LORD, was empowered to show and display the mighty works of God.  He was entrusted with a service to God that has never been duplicated.  God’s mighty power and miraculous deeds are intended to showcase the love that he has for His children, and draw the hearts and minds of men to Him.   Is it reasonable, then, to assume that God would entrust the highest offices of His service to those who seek their own glory, rather than His?  I believe that it is no coincidence that it was also written that “…Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Num. 12:3)

These two accounts illustrate two principles pertaining to humility that tie in to and complement each other. From God’s dealing with Solomon, we see that when we are humble enough to acknowledge our deficiencies, and we look to God for aid, God is faithful to supply our need.  The person who desires to serve God must first recognize their own inadequacy for doing so, and must petition God that He would grant them the capacity to accomplish more for Him.  But the more pride a person possesses, the less they look to God for help because they lack a sense of need.   So, in addition to the characteristics already discussed, humility also keeps us diligent, because it allows us to recognize that our best will never be perfect in this life, and will always fall short of the holiness of God. The second, shown in the life of Moses, teaches that as we become more and more humble, we can be entrusted with greater and greater responsibilities.

Proverbs 16:18 states, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (And the landing is rarely soft!)  So to summarize, humility is like a fence restraining us from overstepping our boundaries. If we pick its locks, and trespass in pride’s territory, we will be walking in the same path that caused Lucifer to be cast out of the presence of God.  Humility impacts all aspects of a Christian life.  It is required in order to acknowledge the need for a Savior for sins — so enjoying a right relationship with God is predicated upon having it — it’s also what makes repentance possible; it stimulates faith; and it opens the door to being entrusted with greater responsibilities in service to God.

In conclusion, Jesus, the Christ, is King of kings and Lord of lords.  Though he is greater than all but the Father, He completely emptied himself of self-consideration, temporarily leaving His Father’s side to die for us, so that we might be able to enter back into the presence of God along with him.  Let each of us be ever mindful of that sacrifice and go forward putting into practice the type of humility which he so perfectly modeled for us, as it is written:

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.  Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.  Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!   Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:1-11)