In the ocean of knowledge, some people will swim on the surface of understanding, some will snorkel just below it, and a few will scuba dive down to the depths. Some will also choose to remain forever on the beach.
United States White House
President Donald Trump
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW.
Washington, DC 20500
The platform for your 2016 presidential campaign was built upon the slogan, “Make America great again,” which begs the question: what makes a nation “great”? Is greatness based on military prowess, or the strength of the economy? Perhaps how its leaders respond during times of crises? Each of those factors could certainly be ingredients in composing a recipe for national greatness, but history has recorded a different answer. Millenia ago, long before America was discovered, King Solomon observed, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people” (Proverbs 14:34). From that we learn that a nation is ultimately raised to greatness when its people possess the strength and integrity of character to consistently do what is right. Since any chain is only as strong as its weakest link, no country can ever be collectively great unless it first is so on the level of its individual citizenry. Therefore, in your slogan, the inclusion of the word “again” encourages each of us, individually, to peer through the window of history and to look to the past for a reminder of how we rose to a position of preeminence in the first place. When we do so, we can see that some of our most esteemed leaders understood that our greatness was built upon our character; as evidenced from the following quotes:
“Americanism is a question of principle, of purpose, of idealism, of character. It is not a matter of birthplace or creed or line of descent” (Theodore Roosevelt). *
The qualities of a great man are “vision, integrity, courage, understanding, the power of articulation, and profundity of character” (Dwight Eisenhower). *
“Character is the only secure foundation of the state” (Calvin Coolidge). *
So, since the success of a nation is guided by the character of its people, and the character of a nation’s leaders helps to shape the character its people, it stands to reason that the character of the nation’s commander-in-chief is a point of paramount significance and concern. When you were elected, in a figurative sense you became like a city set upon a hill, and how you conduct yourself sets an example and standard of behavior for billions of people throughout the world. Therefore, I wish to reframe the discussion of making America great again. I ask you to consider the challenge of such an undertaking starting not from a national scale, but from the level of the individual. Specifically, I ask you to reflect upon the following question: what impact will your character have on the character of the people you lead? I ask, because if America became great due to the character of its past citizens, the continuation of that greatness requires that our brothers and sisters of today have leaders who will be role models of the same type of right character that lifted us to those prior heights.
As citizens, we have the responsibility to “not speak evil about the ruler of your people” (Acts 23:5, from Exodus 22:28). Many in our country have disregarded that precept, and those who have made your job more difficult by doing so are not without guilt. So the question I asked of you regarding your personal character is not intended as a personal attack, nor is it intended to be an all-encompassing examination. I would focus it singly on how you choose to express yourself when addressing those you consider to be opponents, because our leaders also have a reciprocal duty to conduct themselves in such a way as to not provoke or induce others to speak ill of them. And if you, as our chief citizen, consistently speak ill of those you regard as opponents, what message does that send? Should it come as a surprise if many reciprocate your example by disparaging you?
Words are like seeds, Mr. President. Be careful what you plant in another person’s heart, because those who “sow the wind, reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7). The reason for my concern in writing you, then, is the inflammatory nature of your speech. No one can harvest peace while sowing discord. Much of our strength stems from the fact that we are still the United States of America, but our country today is becoming increasingly more fractured, and “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (Mark 3:25). If you speak as a roaring lion, devouring others with your words, you promote further disunity, widening the divide; and rather than inspiring us to greatness, you will push us further down the road to a terrible fall.
Character and integrity go hand-in-hand. Integrity is wholeness, and to make whole that which is divided requires integrity. Great men unite. They integrate others into a whole. You will never win converts by attacking those with whom you have disagreement. So if you truly have a genuine desire to lead America back to greatness, you must always be conscious that our return path lies upon the high ground, and you must be committed to personally walking it: remembering that the greatest leaders do not destroy their opponents, they convert them into allies. They do so by holding firm to their convictions, while consistently demonstrating to their adversaries the rightness of their principles.
The responsibility of uniting our nation once fell upon the shoulders of one of our most beloved presidents, Abraham Lincoln. What he learned through the difficulties he encountered in carrying such a heavy burden can be discerned from the following quote:
“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing. I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside me.”
In other words, the shadow is based on what people say of you, but the tree is who you really are. Sometimes the shadow accurately outlines the tree, sometimes it distorts it, making it appear larger or smaller than it truly is. It all depends on how the light is shining upon it. Lincoln was great because when the light of our nation dimmed, it shined brighter in him. He understood that the strength that matters most is having the character to do what is right in spite of all resistance. This quote illustrates that he believed in holding fast to his conviction of what was right, and if the cost was that the whole world would oppose him, so be it: because he knew that it is better to be hated by the world for doing right than it is to end up loathing yourself for doing wrong.
Lincoln recognized that, ultimately, the shadow is not the tree — just as a man is sometimes more than his reputation, sometimes less. To lead others to greatness, one cannot merely talk about it — for substance is not found in the shadow — one must be great. Greatness is most suitably displayed when one has a humble eagerness to put others first. Therefore, I urge you to cease from self-serving boasting and derogatory speech, to focus instead on becoming the greatest servant of the public good that you can be. Do this first, and we, the people, will joyously follow. Some few may still oppose you, and so the path back to greatness may not always be smooth, but you will be well compensated for the struggle: for there is great peace which comes from knowing with certainty that you are on the right path — a peace which will still the natural instinct to lash out and transform it into a habit of reaching out. May this letter inspire you to consistently walk that path, for the benefit not just of our nation, but the entire world.
In conclusion, I encourage you to think differently than you have previously, in regards to how you respond to those who disagree with you — for in changing your perspective, you have the power to reshape both the shadow and the tree, and rewrite how you will be memorialized in the hearts of your people. Be humble, and be a champion for peace, and you will make huge strides toward being a president who truly made America great again.
Yours in Christian love,
A concerned citizen
“A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45).
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
“Mockers stir up a city, but the wise turn away anger” (Proverbs 29:8).
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9).
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:
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.
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.
Words are like seeds, and we are all farmers. Be conscious of what you plant in another person’s heart.
Tranquility is essential for the soul to grow and flourish, but adversity is the gauge by which the extent and limits of its peace is measured.
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.