Thursday, December 23, 2010

And in other news ...

I got a call this afternoon from Kristin Nelson at WGHP FOX 8 asking for a comment about the threat of snow this weekend and how that might affect our plans for Sunday service, and what canceling a service means for a church's offerings. I thought it was a great question, and I responded by saying that our members' well-being is more important than the offerings, and we simply trust God to provide for what our church needs, even if we have to miss a Sunday from time to time. She asked if she could come by and do an interview on camera with me, and I agreed. She and the videographer with her were very pleasant and we had a nice chat in the sanctuary about these and other questions.

I reiterated in the interview much of what I had said over the phone. The point I wanted to make clear in the piece was that God controls the weather, and He is the one we trust to provide for us. Therefore, if the weather causes us to close for a Sunday, we don't believe that we will suffer financially for that. I hope that is what came across when the story aired. But I am not sure it does.

The frustration I have had with journalists over the years, and the reason why I usually don't grant interviews or return phone calls, is that the final product is in the hands of an editor. Like some preachers who take the Bible out of context to prop up a point that they want to make, so some journalists will cut and paste and splice a conversation to support the premise that they went into the story to advance. While this was one of my more enjoyable media encounters, there were a couple of misrepresented statements made by the reporter in the piece that aired. For starters, I never said that I was praying for little or no precipitation. I am not going to put God' response or lack thereof to my prayers on the hook for what does or doesn't fall from the sky. Personally, I love snow, and I love the idea of a white Christmas, but I confess that I do not look forward to having to make a weather decision for Sunday. Moreover, her voiceover in the piece in which she says, "...otherwise they'll have to cancel Sunday services and miss out on donations," reflects nothing of what was said in our interview. My point was precisely the opposite ... we don't mind canceling the service for the sake of the safety of our members, BECAUSE we trust God to provide.

I want to think the best of the intentions of those who put this story together, and not read anything into their motives, it does seem that there was a desire going into this story to paint a picture of a church that needs its people's money so desperately that the threat of bad weather instills panic in our hearts as we head toward the weekend. Where my statements failed to support that thesis, a voiceover had to suffice.

My desire here is not to begrudge or belittle hardworking journalists trying to put together a quality piece of news reporting. But I am disappointed in the finished product, particularly how it was edited to convey the exact opposite sentiment of what I said. If you are in journalism, please don't do this. Don't edit and voiceover in an editorialized way. But I am also reminded of the tendency that we all have to spin things the way we want them to be. I am certainly guilty of doing this from time to time as well I suppose.

Most of all, I am also reminded of the tendency that some have to do this with the Bible. When what it says doesn't correspond to the preconceived notion in our own minds, we may feel tempted to spin it, read something into it, insert a speculation or an opinion, omit certain key thoughts and words, so that we come away from it feeling like our presupposition has been validated. As frustrated as I am when this happens to me in the paper or on TV, I must think of the disappointment God must feel when we do the same to His word. If our opinions are not confirmed by the facts, our opinions need adjusting, but we mustn't spin the facts.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Fullness of Time

If you could be born at any time in history, when would it be? Perhaps we might say biblical times, or in the prime of some ancient empire, or during a period such as the Enlightenment, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Victorian Era, Colonial days, etc. We might even look forward and choose the future, when perhaps there will be a cure for cancer, or even a better economy! Of course, though we can make many choices in our lives, we are not able to choose the time in which we were born. That was determined by the sovereignty of God. Acts 17:26-27 says, "He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God." According to that truth, God placed us when (historically) and where (geographically) He chose us to exist for His own purposes, namely that we might be most sensitive to Him, and seek Him like we would in no other period of time. But it is fun to imagine what life would be like in another time or place, isn't it?

What about Jesus? If you could determine the time and place for Him to be born, when and where would that be? When it comes to the exact day and year of His birth, there is much uncertainty. The story of how Christmas came to be celebrated on December 25, and the year of His birth as Year 0 (Zero), is complicated and somewhat embarrassing. Most scholars are convinced that He was not born on this date, and many propose a more probable date of the fall season (perhaps in proximity to the Feast of Tabernacles), in the range of 4 to 6 BC. But, though we may never know this side of heaven (and it will hardly matter on the other side) the precise date of His birth, we know that when it occurred, it was the precisely perfect time in history. Just as God sovereignly determines our appointed times and the boundaries of our habitation, so He sovereignly determined the moment that the incarnation would occur. In Galatians 4, Paul says that God sent forth His Son "when the fullness of time came." It is as if all of human history was pregnant, and when it had reached full-term, the incarnate Christ was born to the virgin.

At that time, there was an unprecedented spiritual hunger and religious upheaval in the world. Because of the scattering of Israel across the nations, the idea of monotheism was gaining traction among multitudes who had been previously devoted to the worship of many deities. In most of the world's major cities, there were synagogues where Jews gathered for worship and teaching from the Hebrew Bible. But by this time, most were making use, not of a Hebrew Bible, but a Greek one. Because of the conquests of Alexander the Great and the Hellenization of the world (the spread of Greek language and culture), Greek was the lingua franca of nearly the entire world. By 200 BC, the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) had been translated into Greek (the Septuagint), so most of the world could read, hear, and know about this one true God whom the Israelites worshiped. Greek was also the language in which the New Testament was written, and the language by which the Gospel and the teachings of Jesus began to permeate the globe. To facilitate the spread of this message, God had providentially allowed the Roman Empire to unite the world under a common peace, the Pax Romana, and connect the world through an intricate system of roads and trade routes. So the time when Christ came was the ideal time in all of past and future times for Him to be made known in the world.

We might be tempted to think that the day in which we live would be more opportune for Christ to come. If Jesus was on the earth today, He could make use of the great technological advances that we enjoy today to spread His message. His birth, His teaching sessions, even His death and the events surrounding His resurrection could be simulcast via satellite all over the world. He could write a blog that could be read all over the world, and translated via Google services into almost any language. He could have a podcast that disseminated MP3s of His sermons globally. Can you imagine downloading the Sermon on the Mount onto your iPhone? He could have a Twitter account that would rival Conan O'Brien's in number of followers and buzz created. He could have a facebook page for all of His followers to connect on, and He could share pictures immediately. Think of it ... James could upload a picture of Lazarus coming out of the tomb! Peter could have uploaded video of the transfiguration to YouTube, or better, in High Definition on Vimeo! Surely God must see the technological tower that we have built for ourselves in this day and second guess His own timing of the incarnation! No, perish that thought. God's ways and His timing are always perfect, and when Christ came, it was the fullness of time.

When Jesus walked the earth, His message was heard by sometimes three, sometimes twelve, sometimes a few dozen, a few hundred, and at the apex, perhaps 20,000 or more. With the push of a few buttons and a few mouse clicks, today one can publish a message (like this one I am writing now) that can be seen, heard, and viewed by millions, if not billions! I maintain this blog which has been visited some 18,000 people on every continent since its inception. I have a facebook page with over 300 "friends," and a twitter account that is "followed" by 160 people, some of whom I don't even know. And my numbers are small compared to countless others who are far more important than me. But we, like all humanity, will be swept away in death one day. The keystrokes will fall silent; URLs will expire; a server will crash, something new will come along that renders the sites and services we use today irrelevant, and our words and ideas will turn to dust along with our decomposing carcasses. But, two-thousand years after Jesus walked the earth, He is still creating a buzz, though He made no use of any of these technologies.

These things should affect us deeply in several ways. First, we should become instantly aware of how unnecessary these things are. We are thankful for them, and we should steward them wisely, but God doesn't need them to carry out His task. Second, we should be reminded of both our own fleeting influence, and the ever-enduring influence of Jesus. Whatever splash we make in the world through our online presence and tech-savvy is microscopic (if that!) compared to the wake that continues to follow Jesus. Third, we must consider that God is able to work in "small things" perhaps even more than we imagine that He could in "big things." Our aim should not be for greatness in the world's eyes, but for the world to know the greatness of Jesus. If God could do that before electricity, internet, and air travel, He can still do it without us creating empires for ourselves today. Finally, we must be mindful to avoid what C. S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery." We must not think that we live in a utopian age because of all of our advances, nor must we daydream of returning to a simpler society in which we shun all of these advances. While God did not need the printing press, we are certainly grateful for its existence and we have made much good use of it for the spread of the Gospel. The same could be said of the technology we enjoy today. It has arisen under the providence and common grace of God, and if we would use it well, we would use it to spread the glory and fame of Jesus, not ourselves. Christ is the Word made Flesh. Heaven and earth, and all who dwell upon the earth, and Google and Facebook, and Twitter and YouTube, and HDTV and Skype, and all the rest will all pass away. But God's Word will never pass away. And the Word made Flesh in Jesus will continue to spread His glory in all the earth until He returns.

Longing for the Lord to Come Down (Isaiah 64)

Audio available here

A few weeks ago, I was at home alone, and decided to have a frozen meal for dinner. I opened the box and read the directions, and it said, “Microwave on high for five minutes.” And do you know what thought went through my head? “Five minutes?!? That is an awfully long time!” And instantly I caught myself in the midst of that complaint. Has it really come to this? Have the advances in our technology and society really spoiled me that much that a five minute wait seems unbearable? A couple of decades ago, that same meal I ate in five minutes would have taken hours to prepare. But today we live in a society of instant gratification, and I for one have grown impatient with waiting. Maybe you have too.

The Advent season has a lot to do with waiting. During Advent, we think back to the centuries that Israel waited for the coming of the Messiah who had been promised. Since the first sin of humanity, God had continually reminded His people that He would, in His own way, in His own time, bring about the deliverance of His people through the Messiah. Days, weeks, months, years, decades, generations, centuries, even millennia came and went, and no Messiah came. Some hardened their hearts in impatience, while others held onto hope that God would do what He said. They were longing for the Lord to come. And in God’s perfect time, and in God’s perfect way, He did not just send a Savior, but He became a Savior, taking human flesh upon Himself in the person of Jesus Christ to deliver humanity from the bondage to sin. He did this through His perfect life, His substitutionary death, and His glorious resurrection. During Advent, we look back and reflect on what it would have been like to wait with longing and expectation for the Lord to come.

But during Advent we also look ahead. The prophets foretold what the Messiah would accomplish when He came, and when Jesus died, there were things that had been promised which had not yet been fulfilled and still remain unfulfilled today. Jesus explained to His followers that there was more that would occur in the future. He spoke of a return, a second coming, in which the remainder of these things would take place. The Israelites who originally heard and read those Messianic prophecies did not understand that there was a first or second coming. It was all still future to them. It was like looking at a mountain range from far away, and you see several peaks in the distance. You don’t recognize until you get closer to them that they are miles apart. The Old Testament saints looked at the promise of salvation and the promise of final judgment that Messiah would bring, but they saw it from a distance as one thing, not two. It was not until His first coming did it become clear that there would be a second coming. So, though our longing for salvation has been satisfied in the coming of Christ into the world, still we wait for Him to return with that same sort of longing that they had. As we look at this broken world which is devastated by sin, we cry out with those Old Testament saints, “Oh that You would rend the heavens and come down!” We cry with the martyrs of the book of Revelation, “How long O Lord?”

Today I want to focus on the first coming of Christ and the desire of Israel for the coming of the Messiah which had been promised and find in this text the reasons why there was such a longing for His coming. As we do so, we will also consider how the satisfaction of that longing in the coming of Christ affects us today as we live between the first and second advent of Jesus.

I. The coming of the Messiah means hope for the nations (vv1-4)
The second Psalm opens with a question concerning the state of global affairs that existed in ancient days: “Why are the nations in an uproar and the peoples devising a vain thing? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers take counsel together against the Lord and against His Anointed, saying ‘Let us tear their fetters apart and cast away their their cords from us.’” Thousands of years later, we see that, in spite of all the changes in the world, this state of affairs remains unchanged. The nations continue to rage; tyrants continue to take bold stands and act aggressively toward one another, and conspire together to lead their people away from the will of God. They posture themselves as enemies of peace, enemies of justice, enemies of righteousness, which amounts to a warfare against the Lord Himself.

The longing of the people of God was that the Lord might come down from heaven and remedy this situation. Though they longed for judgment to come upon the enemies of the Lord “as fire kindles the brushwood, as fire causes water to boil” (v2a), there was also a note of compassion in their longing. They understood that the reason why these nations were adversaries of the Lord was that they did not know Him. They longed for the Lord to come, saying in verse 2, “to make Your name known to Your adversaries, that the nations may tremble at Your presence.” While Israel had known and experienced the power of God, while they had received the promises of the Word of God and the blessings of God’s favor, the nations warred against a God they did not know. Verse 4 says that they “have not heard or perceived by ear, nor has the eye seen a God besides You, who acts in behalf of the one who waits for Him.” It was not that they did not have gods of their own whom they worshiped and served. Every nation of the ancient world, just as every nation of our own day, had deities to whom they prayed and sacrificed and served. But their gods were false idols, figments of a depraved imagination, fashioned in attempt to quench their nagging spiritual hunger and their corrupted fancies. And it was with their gods’ seeming approval that they committed atrocities against humanity and blasphemy against the one true God. After all, their deities had not forbidden them from acting in such ways. They had not punished them for so doing. They had not warned them to change their ways. Their gods were of no help to them at all.

Psalm 115 says that “their idols are silver and gold, the work of man’s hands. They have mouths, but they cannot speak; they have eyes but the cannot see; they have ears but they cannot hear; they have noses but they cannot smell; they have hands but they cannot feel; they have feet, but they cannot walk; they cannot make a sound with their throat. Those who make them will become like them, everyone who trusts in them.” Isaiah 44 says that they cut down a cedar, and they take part of it and make a fire to bake bread and warm themselves, and the other part they craft into a god and worship it; they pray to it and say, “Deliver me, for you are my god.” Isaiah 45:20 says that “they pray to a god who cannot save.” Isaiah 46 says that they hire a goldsmith to craft gold and silver into a god, and they bow down and worship it. “They lift it upon the shoulder and carry it; they set it in its place and it stands there. It does not move from its place. Though one may cry to it, it cannot answer; it cannot deliver him from his distress.”

Why do they do this? It is because they have not heard of the name of the one True God; they have neither heard nor seen of Him. And they devote themselves therefore to hollow idolatry which cannot help them here and now, and which leads them into the pursuit of their sinful desires, and which will ultimately lead them to the destruction of judgment and hell. Now, in Israel’s cry of longing, there is a subtle confession, an indictment if you will. What they are crying for the Lord to come and do, God had already commissioned them to do! Surely it is accurate to say that Israel was God’s chosen people, but the question must be asked, “Chosen for what?” Israel was never chosen that they alone may the participants in the gracious favor of God in His covenant! They were chosen to be a light to the nations, that all nations may hear and know of this God who saves as Israel lived and testified before them. But they failed in that mission. They kept God to themselves, and they were surprised to find the nations resorting to idolatry, when in fact the nations simply did not know any better.

Christ has come into the world now, and in His life and ministry, He demonstrated that God is concerned for the nations as much as He is for Israel. Our longing for the coming of the Lord has been satisfied in Jesus, and He has brought hope for the nations. Yet today, of the world’s 11,588 people groups, more than half of them (6,426) are considered unreached, having less than 2% of their populations as evangelical Christians. Some 3,724 of these people groups are considered unengaged, that is, there is no access to the gospel at all among them. If we were to cry out like Israel did, “Oh Lord, that You would rend the heavens and come down!” it would mean destruction and judgment upon those nations where Christ has not been named. He has already come to bring hope to the nations and to bring the message of salvation to them. He will not come again for that purpose, but to bring judgment. But He has entrusted the mission of sharing the hope of His promise of salvation with the nations to His church, to you and me.

All over this world there are entire nations of people warring against God and against His anointed Christ. We see it on the news – the acts of terror and aggression that demonstrate no concern for humanity, no recognition that mankind bears the image of its Maker. We see images of idols to which people who can scarcely afford their basic life necessities make costly sacrifices. And they do this because they have no knowledge of the God who is there and the Savior we have in Jesus Christ. We say, “Oh Lord, come that these nations might know You!” And the Lord would respond to us, “I have come. You celebrate My coming for this purpose every December. But what have you done to share that message with these who are lost in ignorance of My saving power?” If the nations would know of the hope that the coming of Christ brings, it must be us who do something about it! We must pray! We must give to support the spread of the gospel! We must sacrifice luxuries and comforts so that the world may know of Christ! And we must be willing to go to the hard places, to send our children and our grandchildren when we cannot go ourselves, and to make Christ known among these nations who will otherwise never have the opportunity to know of Him before they stand before Him at His second coming in judgment. The coming of the Messiah means hope for the nations, but it is up to us to share that hope with them.

II. The coming of the Messiah means salvation for those who believe. (vv5-11)
As the Israelites cried out with longing for the coming of the Messiah, they did not just have the nations in view. They were also thinking of themselves. For the nations, there was a cry for judgment, but also an awareness of the ignorance of the nations concerning the Lord. But when they looked into the mirror and saw their own spiritual condition, they realized that, even though they were aware of the Lord and had received His blessings and His promises, they were also deserving of judgment. If God would come to bring judgment upon the nations who sinned because they had no knowledge of the Lord, what would He do to those who knew of Him and yet persisted in sin? Surely, verse 5 states a fact when it says, “You meet Him who rejoices in righteousness, who remembers You in Your ways.” But Israel was aware that these words did not describe themselves. “Behold,” they say, “You were angry, for we sinned. We continued in them a long time.” And so the question on their mind as they considered the promised coming of the Lord was not just, “What will You do to the nations when You come?” but also, “Shall we be saved?” (v5).

They recognized that they were radically corrupted by sin. Notice the description in verses 6-7: unclean, taken away by iniquity, no one who calls on the name of the Lord. Even their efforts to do right, they recognized, were totally corrupted by their sinfulness for they say, “All our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment.” And their sin had corrupted not only themselves but their surroundings. Verses 10 and 11 speak of how the holy cities had become a wilderness and Jerusalem a desolation; the temple burned by fire and the precious things ruined. God had not preserved their cherished places and things while they continued in sin. Israel’s own sin that made their surroundings desolate. In such a pitiable state, the best that Israel could do as they called out for the coming of the Lord was to plead for mercy, and this they did in vv8-9. “We are the clay, and You our potter.” That indicates that they are aware of His sovereignty; they are aware that God can and will do as He pleases with them. But they pray, “Do not be angry beyond measure, O Lord, nor remember iniquity forever.” This is not what they deserve, but it is what they desire, and if God chooses to show mercy upon them, they may be saved.

Friends, in these words, we find a description of our own true condition. Like them, we too are radically corrupted by sin. It has affected us to the core, such that the best we can do is still filthy rags, unacceptable before a perfectly holy God. Our sin has corrupted our lives, our relationships and our surroundings. We are at the mercy of a sovereign God who can do with us as He pleases. And what has He been pleased to do? He has become one of us in the person of Jesus Christ to save us from our sins. He united our human nature to His divine nature in the virgin birth; He lived the sinless life that He requires of us but which we are powerless to live; He died the death that we deserve because of our sins; and He conquered death through His resurrection. As a result, our sins and their penalty have been dealt with fully and finally in this Christ whose coming we celebrate at Christmas, and we who believe upon Him have been covered in His righteousness. Thus, the great gulf that separates us from God has been bridged by Christ, and we who believe upon Him have been saved because He has come. The angel said to Joseph in Matthew 1:21, “You shall call His name Jesus (a name which means “salvation”), for He will save His people from their sins.”

The first coming of Christ into the world means good news for sinners. For those who persist in pretending that they have it all together, and do not need saving, those who would rather stand before God and boast of their own merits and their own righteousness, Christmas is a meaningless holiday. But for us who are willing to see ourselves as sinners in need of a Savior, we can rejoice that God in His mercy has rent the heavens and come down to save us.

III. The coming of the Messiah means that God’s silence has been broken (v12)
“Will you keep silent?” That was the question on the hearts of the Israelites as they considered their own state of affairs and that of the nations surrounding them. This world is in a mess; we are wrecked by sin. Oh God, will you keep silent in the midst of all this? God had not been silent before; He had sent His prophets calling His people back to Himself from their sins, but they had neither listened nor responded in repentance. And so came the final Old Testament prophet Malachi, and when God had spoken through Him, the heavens fell silent for centuries. Sin continued on in Israel and among the nations, but there was no new word from God – only silence. Four hundred years came and went with heaven being silent. But that silence was broken with the coming of Christ into the world.

The words of John’s Gospel are very familiar to us. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” And in Jesus Christ, we are told, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The writer of Hebrews said that God had spoken in the past in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, but in these last days He has spoken to us in His Son. The coming of Christ is the shattering of heaven’s silence as God spoke salvation to the world in Jesus. The longing of all the nations and every generation to hear a word of grace and mercy from God, to hear a word of promise concerning redemption and salvation, was satisfied in the coming of this child into the world, for He would not only speak salvation, but would accomplish it through His life and through His death.

And so today, when we look at our lives and the world around us, we too may ask, “Oh God, will You keep silent?” And the answer from heaven is a resounding “No!” God has spoken. And the Word He has spoken is Jesus. There is no need for us to wait for another Word to be spoken. The final Word is Jesus. The Word has become flesh and dwelt among us; the incarnate Word of God has borne our sins to the cross and conquered them forever. Heaven is not silent! Heaven and nature sings the name of Jesus, and the entire cosmos repeats the sounding joy, for there is salvation in no one else and no other name by which we must be saved than this final Word that God has spoken, the name of Jesus.

The long expected One has come. In Christ, Immanuel has come, God with us. He is the joy of man’s desiring, the satisfaction of all our longing. Humanity cries out to God, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and the come down,” that the nations may have hope, that Your people may be saved, and that the silence may be broken. And in Christ God has done just this. He has pronounced hope to the nations. He has spoken salvation to those who will call upon Christ to save them. And at Advent we remember that He has come, and that He is coming again. So our lives are lived between these two divine bookends of time. And we must live these days in the reality of His first coming, that we might be prepared for His second coming, and we must tell of His coming far and wide so that all may hear and believe, that all may be saved when He returns. That begins here, should there be anyone present who has never received the Lord Jesus as Savior. Will you this day receive the Christmas gift that God has given to you in the person of Jesus – salvation from sin, the covering of Christ’s righteousness, and life abundant and eternal? And it continues as we leave here. If you have received Christ, will you share the good news of His salvation with those whom you know, and will you do what you can in prayer, in giving, in going and in sending to make this news of Jesus known among the nations?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Looking Back and Looking Forward with Thanksgiving (1 Cor 11:23-26)

Audio available here

Today marks the beginning of the liturgical season of Advent. Christians all over the world have for centuries observed this season of the four Sundays prior to Christmas as a time of reflection, introspection, anticipation, and celebration. The word Advent means “coming,” and as anyone familiar with New Testament teachings is aware, there are two senses in which we can speak of Christ coming: there was His first advent which we commemorate at Christmas, and there is a second advent for which we are still waiting. Each of these aspects of the “coming of Christ” were emphasized during Advent by Christians in different times and places historically. As Christianity spread into Northern and Western Europe, Advent traditions focused on waiting and preparing oneself for the Lord Jesus Christ to return. Meanwhile in Rome, Advent was a joyful and festive celebration of the birth of Christ in His first Advent. Over a period of centuries, these two streams of tradition began to blend, and Advent became a season that marked both the end of the Christian year, with its theme of waiting for the return of the Lord, as well as the beginning of the new Christian year, with its theme of celebrating the coming of Christ in His incarnation.

So, Advent is a season that looks in two directions at one time. It looks back in remembrance of what Christ has done, and it looks forward to what Christ is going to do. The righteous people of God in the Old Testament era were waiting for a Savior to come. In Christ, we believe that He has come into the world. But, like those Old Testament saints, we are also awaiting with great expectation His second coming. And the Lord’s Supper is the observance that Jesus has given to His church to help us look in both directions.

While the Lord’s Supper has been called by various names throughout Church History, one of the earliest names for it was the Eucharist. Around 100 AD, a document called the Didache was published to aid the teaching the basics of Christian faith and practice in the church, and in this document, the Lord’s Supper is referred to as the Eucharist. They obviously drew this term from the Lord’s Supper passages in the New Testament which use this Greek word to describe how Jesus “gave thanks” for the bread and the cup as He blessed them and gave them to the disciples to share. The word Eucharist has to do with the thankfulness we express to God for the good gift of His grace. Therefore, since we have just celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday in America, and because we stand at the threshold of the Advent season, it is most fitting for us to mark this day with the observance of the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper. For in the Lord’s Supper, we look back at Christ’s first coming, and we look forward to His second coming, and we do so with thanksgiving for His grace that has saved us.

Paul sets forth his instruction on the Lord’s Supper in this passage, and he reminds the Corinthians that partaking of the Lord’s Supper is about looking back and looking forward at the same time. As we read and apply these words in our own day, we are admonished to do the same thing, which is what Advent is really all about.

I. In the Lord’s Supper, we look back with thanksgiving (vv23-25)

Haven’t you always heard that hindsight is 20/20? Certainly we can look back on things that have happened and see them with far more clarity than we could see them before they occurred or even as they were transpiring. This fact of human nature has informed the practices of the people of God since the earliest days of biblical history. The Passover meal, for instance, was a call for Israel to look back on what God had done for them, lest they forget about His nature and His work. As the Israelites observed Passover, they remembered God’s deliverance of His people from bondage in Egypt during the Exodus. It was at a Passover meal with His disciples on the night before His death when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. He had come to be the fulfillment of that which was foreshadowed in the Exodus: God’s deliverance of His people from bondage to sin. And it is with this new understanding that Jesus commands His followers to continue observing the Lord’s Supper until He returns.

Though Jesus spoke with His disciples often about His real mission and purpose, how He would suffer, die, and rise again to break the shackles of sin, they were slow to understand. On one occasion, Peter even rebuked the Lord for saying such things. Shortly after the Passover meal, Peter even took up a sword to fight against those who came to deliver Jesus over to death. Was He even paying attention during the Passover? Or did he think that he could accomplish something Jesus could not? Or did he simply forget what Jesus had said so many times, even up to the hours prior to His arrest in the garden?

Twice in these verses we are admonished to remember. The Lord’s Supper was instituted as a meal of remembrance to remind us of the mission of Jesus to deliver us from sin. Because of our sinful nature, like Peter, we will be inclined to forget or to adopt what we think are “better plans” for Christ and His Kingdom. But as we take the bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper, we are called to remember why He came during His first Advent and what He did to accomplish our deliverance from sin.

With incredible simplicity, Jesus used two symbols to illustrate to His disciples what was about to happen to Him. The events that they were about to witness were not to be viewed as a tragic accident, but rather as the fulfillment of His divine mission. He took a piece of bread and gave thanks to His Father, and then He said, “This is My body.” You and I don’t get the full picture of this dramatic visualization for two reasons. First, when we think of bread, we usually think of a big loaf of bread like we would buy in the supermarket or bake in our ovens. Second, when we take the Lord’s Supper, we use these little wafers that are manufactured and packaged for use in church observances, which are not much like what Jesus held up for His disciples to see. The unleavened bread of the Passover, also called Matzo, was a flat piece of bread, similar in substance to a cracker. That bread was cooked until it was crisp, and some pieces got burned in the cooking, so that the color was uneven. Much of it would be sort of off-white, while other pieces were black from the burning. And to keep the bread from rising, it was punctured with straight lines of perforations. So when Jesus held this bread up and said, “This is My body,” the bread that the disciples saw appeared to be bruised, pierced, and striped. This is a picture of what Isaiah 53 said would happen to the Messiah when He came: He was pierced through for our transgressions, and as the King James Version translates the Hebrew, “He was bruised for our iniquities” and “with His stripes we are healed.” And then He broke the bread and gave it to the disciples to eat. So this bread was actually a visible demonstration of what was about to happen to Jesus. He would be beaten, scourged, nailed to the cross, and His body broken apart. But He told them, “It is for you.” It is as if Jesus is saying to His disciples, “Whenever you see this bread, bruised, striped with punctures, and broken to pieces, you are to remember what you are about to witness happening to My body; and you are to remember that I was beaten, whipped, pierced with nails and broken apart for you and for your salvation.”

And then Jesus took the cup “in the same way.” That is, He gave thanks for the cup which He held, and He said to them, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood.” Now, anyone who wants to use this passage to defend the Christian’s use of alcohol is guilty of a tragic case of missing the point. First, does it not cheapen the intense gravity of what is going on here to make that even a trivial point of personal application? Second, while we are certain that wine was in that cup, it is of interest that neither of the Greek words for wine is used in any passage concerning the Lord’s Supper. The word gleukos, which only occurs once in the New Testament, seems to refer to fermented wine, but the word oinos, which is far more common, is used to describe both fermented and unfermented wine. But neither word is used in Eucharistic texts. We find the word “cup” as we do here, and “fruit of the vine,” as in the Gospels. The presence or absence of alcoholic beverages at this meal is an issue of complete biblical silence. Third, if the use of unleavened bread was important to symbolize the sinless body of Jesus, how then would the use of leavened, or fermented, wine be an appropriate symbol of His sinless blood? It would seem that a Christian who wants to defend his or her use of alcohol would have a difficult time using this text to do so.

The importance of the symbol was both its color and its historical significance. In its deep red color, the juice of a crushed red grape was a visual analogy of the blood of Jesus that was going to be shed as He suffered and died on the cross. But this was no ordinary cup; it was a particular cup that had a particular significance. Typically during a Passover meal, there were four cups offered at various points in the meal. The first cup was the cup of consecration which they drank at the beginning of the meal, indicating that God had consecrated Israel as His people. The second was the cup of affliction, indicating the plagues that were poured out on Egypt. The third cup was the cup of redemption reminding the people of the deliverance from their bondage. The fourth cup was called, “the cup of praise,” and was shared to indicate that the Passover meal was completed. So, which cup did Jesus offer His disciples as a symbol of His blood? It was the third cup, the cup of redemption. This was the cup which would be offered immediately following the eating of the food of the Passover. As Jesus took this cup and gave thanks, He did not say, “This is the blood of the Lamb which was slain in Egypt.” He rather pointed to the events that were about to unfold and said, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood.

Just as every covenant was sealed with the shedding of blood, so this covenant would be as well. This covenant was sealed with very blood of its Maker. By the shedding of His blood on the cross, He became the substitute who died in our place and bore the wrath that our sins deserve so that we might be forgiven, declared righteous in Him, and reconciled to God. By this blood we are bound to God in the new covenant of Christ. This is the price of our redemption, His blood, depicted in this cup. And each time we drink it, we are called to remember what He did for us in this sacrifice that seals our covenant with Him.

These symbols were difficult for the disciples to understand at that moment, as evidenced by what they did in the hours to follow. First they tried to fight, then they all fled. But we look on these things with hindsight. We look back in remembrance at the breaking of His body and the shedding of His blood. This was the purpose of His coming in the first Advent. He came to bear our sins to the cross that we might be saved. And as we look back on what He did for us there, we look back with thanksgiving.

II. In the Lord’s Supper, we look forward with thanksgiving (vv23-25)

If the cup which Jesus used to symbolize His shed blood was the third cup of the Passover, the cup of redemption, then what about the fourth cup, the cup of praise? Interestingly, in Mark 14:25, we read that after Jesus shared this cup with His disciples, He said, “Truly I say to you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the Kingdom of God.” He foregoes the fourth and final cup, essentially leaving the Passover meal unfinished. And we see Him upholding His vow to never again drink from the fruit of the vine when, on the cross, He was offered wine mixed with myrrh as an anesthetic, but He refused it. It was not yet time for the drinking of the final cup.

The redemption of humanity from sin would not be fully accomplished until He was dead. And it was there as He died that Jesus uttered His final word: Tetelestai, a Greek word translated in our Bibles, “It is Finished!” And then, John tells us in his Gospel, Jesus bowed His head and gave up His spirit. Now the redemption that seals us in the new covenant has been fully completed. But still we wait. We wait throughout all these centuries and generations for the day when He returns and consummates the covenant in establishing His perfect and righteous Kingdom on the Earth. We wait through days and months and years of trials and suffering in this fallen world, having His Spirit within us as a pledge of His promise. And we know that in His own time, according to His own perfect purpose, the day is coming when He will return and gather His covenant people to Himself. And when John was given the glorious vision of eternity in the book of Revelation, he tells us that the consummation of this covenant and the Kingdom of Christ will be celebrated at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. And then and there, when all the elect of God have been gathered into the fold, and the wrongs have all been righted, and the Lord has executed His perfect judgment and those things which we now behold by faith become sight, the fourth and final cup of the covenant meal will be enjoyed together anew with the Lord Jesus in His everlasting Kingdom. Then and there, we will drink together with the Lord the cup of praise.

But until then, we gather together regularly and partake of these tokens, these symbolic elements: the bread that represents His broken body; and the cup of redemption representing His shed blood for our sins. And Paul says, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes.” We are proclaiming with these simple symbols that God has done a miraculous work in the past in Christ to reconcile us to Himself; but we are also announcing that Christ is coming again. We take the small symbols of this meal on faith that the grander feast is yet to come.

The second Advent is still future. And while we wait, we remember what He has done, and we remember what He has promised, and we give thanks. These symbols of the bread and the cup are reminders for us. As we partake of them, we do so with self-examination, knowing that the Lord is coming again in judgment. This is Paul’s point in verses 27-32. We examine ourselves, and as we discover sin in our lives, ruptured relationships in our fellowship, things that are displeasing to the Lord, we repent of them on the basis of what He accomplished for us in the first Advent, and in anticipation of the day when we stand face-to-face before Him at the second Advent.

And so today, with the Thanksgiving holiday fresh in our memory, we give thanks to God for the greatest blessing of all … the salvation that is ours in Jesus Christ because of His sinless life, His substitutionary death and His glorious resurrection. And we begin our preparations for the Christmas holiday by reflecting on His coming into the world, in which God took upon Himself a human body with human blood pulsing through His veins in the person of Jesus Christ. And we also prepare ourselves for His return by examining our relationship with Him and with others.

In this moment of prayerful preparation, let us consider these things, and receive the bread and the cup with thanksgiving, with remembrance of what Christ has done, and with a renewed commitment to walk with Him by faith until He returns. If you have never trusted Christ as Lord and Savior, we would welcome you to turn to Him by faith today. He lived the life you and I cannot live, a life of sinless perfection; and He died the death that you and I deserve to die, bearing God’s wrath for our sins; and He conquered our sins and their penalty in His resurrection. Let your sin rest on Him, and His righteousness will rest on you in exchange. We’d love to pray with you as you receive Him as Lord and Savior today.

Others perhaps have another need, a sin that needs confessing to the Lord, or a commitment that needs to be made to restore a broken relationship, or rededication of faith to Christ on the basis of what He has done and what He has promised. How is the Lord leading you to respond to what He has said and done, as we look back, and look forward, with thanksgiving?

Monday, November 22, 2010

The Right Way to Suffer (1 Peter 4:12-19)

Audio available here

After he had toured the United States extensively, the German theologian Helmut Thielicke was asked what he considered to be the greatest deficiency among American Christians. His response was that American Christians “have an inadequate view of suffering.” While I would agree with him that we lack a proper view of suffering, I am not sure this is our greatest deficiency, nor am I certain that we are unique in this inadequate view of suffering. Have Christians in other places had a far greater understanding of suffering than we do? Consider C. S. Lewis, a man of tremendous faith and intellectual prowess, who was no stranger to personal suffering. Lewis set forth one of the most intelligent and thorough discussions on the issue of suffering in his classic book The Problem of Pain. In that book he claims to solve the intellectual problem raised by suffering, and many have been helped by his reasoning in the book. But some years later, when C. S. Lewis watched his wife’s painful death through a battle with cancer, Lewis struggled to personalize the truths he had proclaimed to others. He journaled through his grief candidly and honestly, never intending for any other person’s eyes to see what he had written. When he was persuaded to allow it to be printed, he insisted that it bear the pseudonym N. W. Clerk. He did not want those who had read his articulate defenses of the Christian faith to know that he could be the same man who would write such things as this: “Meanwhile, where is God? … When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, if you turn to Him then with praise, you will be welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away.” It was only after Lewis died that his executors allowed A Grief Observed to be published in his name.

Suffering has a way of breaking in and ransacking an otherwise neat and tidy life. Philosophers have debated for centuries how a good God could allow it. Others have simply accepted the reality of it and focused instead on what to do about it. There is no more universal experience in life than suffering. All human beings suffer, but not all human suffering is the same. Some suffering is because of sin, both their own sin and its consequences, and the effects of the sins of others. Other suffering is the result of this fallen world which groans under the curse of sin. The human body is frail and corruptible (Gen 2:17; 3:19; Rom 5:12), the ground bears thorns and thistles (Gen 3:17-18), the fountains of the deep have burst open, and the floodgates of the sky have been opened (Gen 7:11), the land has been divided (Gen 10:25); the peoples have been scattered and their languages confounded (Gen 11:9). These realities make life in this world hard and dangerous, and it will stay that way until it is all restored when Christ returns (Rom 8:18-22). But then there is a category of suffering that is unique to the people of God, the followers of Christ. The Bible tells us that as disciples of Jesus, we can expect to suffer for the sake of His name. The world hated Him, and they will hate those who follow Him (John 15:18).

And it is that kind of suffering that Peter is addressing throughout this letter. While the Bible offers precious promises of God’s presence, comfort, and help to His people in all manners of suffering, Peter is focused on the harsh treatment and hostility that Christians are experiencing specifically because of their faith in Christ. To suffer in this way, Peter says, is to “share the sufferings of Christ.” Simply stated, this means that the way in which the world treated Jesus is the way we can be expected to be treated if we bear His name. He was hated, blasphemed, slandered, abused, and ultimately put to death, though none of it was deserved. In the same way, we who belong to Him by faith can expect to undergo these same sorts of unjust suffering in the world. As Christ’s representatives in the world, we become the proximate targets for the world’s hatred of God in Christ. Peter’s purpose in these verses is not to address the question of why. His purpose here is to address how. What is the right way to suffer when we suffer for Him?

I. When we suffer for Christ, we are not to suffer in shock, but with hopeful joy (vv12-14).

When Solomon was just a toddler, I used to play a little game with him where I would go hide, and he would try to find me. As he entered a room or rounded a corner, I would jump out from where I was hiding and scare the daylights out of him. I know that sounds cruel, but he absolutely loved it and we would laugh hysterically about it. But eventually we had to stop playing that game because he came to expect me to jump out and scare him. It wasn’t as fun anymore because he knew what was coming, and it didn’t scare him. By definition, a surprise is something we don’t expect to happen. If we expect it, it’s not a surprise. Peter’s point here in verse 12 is that our suffering for the name of Christ should not surprise us, because we should expect it. Though it may be intense, a “fiery ordeal” as Peter calls it, it should not be considered “a strange thing.” If we consider all that the New Testament teaches us about suffering for Christ, we should rather think it strange and be surprised if we do not face it.

Rather than shock, Peter says that the appropriate response to such suffering is joy. There is a proportional relationship between the intensity of our suffering for Christ and the magnitude of our joy. He says, “To the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing.” As those sufferings increase, so should our joy increase. Joy can be found in the midst of this suffering because it is evidence that we truly belong to Jesus. If that were not so, the world would not treat us as they treated Him. Therefore increased suffering for Christ’s sake provides increased assurance that we belong to Him, and results in increased joy. Peter says that this fiery ordeal comes upon us for our testing. The idea is that it is proving the genuineness of our faith, because in the midst of the trial, we demonstrate Christ to be a more precious treasure than safety, comfort, luxuries, or even life. And the more we treasure Christ, the more we find that He is all-sufficient and all-satisfying, and thus, the true source of all real and lasting joy in our lives.

Another reason we can rejoice in the midst of this kind of suffering is that we do not suffer alone. While all the world will experience suffering, Christians are unique for we have something, or better, Someone, helping us as we endure this suffering. Peter says that we are blessed when we are reviled for the name of Christ, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon us. When you gave your life to Jesus, God Himself took up residence in your life in the person of His Holy Spirit. Have you ever wondered how someone can endure intense suffering without the Lord? It seems unthinkable for us who know the blessing of the presence of the glorious Holy Spirit of God. But “the fact is, many do and move on with life.” Many have suffered and “become deeply embittered against God.” Others suck it up and press on with stoic determinism, or perhaps even unfounded optimism. But the Christian is able to endure suffering, especially the suffering that comes our way because of our faithfulness to Christ, with joy knowing that we are blessed with the presence, the power, and all the spiritual resources of the Holy Spirit of God in all of His glory. He is with us, empowering us, producing joy within us, and giving us a foretaste of the glory that we will witness, experience, and participate in eternity.

Thus, our joy is not temporal; it is everlasting joy. It is filled with the hope that, though these days may include the fiery ordeals of intense suffering for Christ, there is a better day coming. We rejoice as we await the revelation of His glory. While Christ’s glory is being made known every day, it is breaking through in shafts and glimmers. But a day is coming when there will be a full unveiling. That is what this word means. Peter uses the word apokalupsei, from which we get the word apocalypse. We think of that word as one that means ultimate destruction, but that is not what it means. It means “unveiling.” The Book of Revelation is more accurately called by its Greek title, “The Apocalypse,” or “The Unveiling.” And while many turn to it looking for symbols and mysteries about the antichrist and Armageddon and the great tribulation, John tells us in the opening verse that he is writing about the Apocalypse, or “Unveiling,” of Jesus Christ. He is the one who is revealed in the pages of that book, and He is the one who will be fully unveiled as the last things of the end times unfold. We are not looking for events, for creatures, for battles, beasts, or plagues. We are looking for Christ to be fully unveiled in all His glory, and when He is, the joy of those who have held fast to His name while undergoing suffering for His sake will abound exponentially. We will rejoice with exultation. The word Peter uses here describes a “deep spiritual joy, a rejoicing in God,” and in “what He has done.” Interestingly, this word is never found in any of the secular Greek writings. It is only used by Christians. Truly, “Things which eye has not seen and ear has not heard, and which have not entered the heart of man, all that God has prepared for those who love Him.” When Christ is fully unveiled in His glory, we will behold Him face to face as He truly is, and we shall rejoice like never before. We will behold Him whom we have trusted in the dark days by faith, there with our eyes in the light of His glorious presence forever!

Therefore, when suffering comes upon us for the sake of the Lord Jesus, we must not be shocked by it; rather we must rejoice in it. And one day we will behold His unveiled glory in a future home where there will be no suffering, no tears, and no death. Then we will rejoice with exultation forever. God has made it possible for us to begin rejoicing now even while we suffer for Him.

II. When we suffer for Christ, we are not to suffer in shame, but with glory (vv15-16).

Let’s face it: some people suffer because they deserve it. They have gotten what is coming to them; they have reaped what they have sown; they have made their beds and been forced to lay in them. And the suffering they endure is, in some cases temporarily and in others permanently, a mark of shame upon them for what they have done. Therefore Peter says that we must make sure that none of our suffering has come upon us like this—for deserving reasons. Notice in verse 15, he says, “Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer.” If you do these things, and suffer for it, well, you have just received justice, and you bear shame for your deeds. And we must remember that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, broadened our understanding of these sins. According to Jesus, hatred is murder committed in one’s heart and mind; covetousness is stealing; lust is adultery; evil thoughts are evil deeds committed in one’s fantasy life. So, if these kinds of sins are leading to our suffering, there is shame to be borne, and justice to be meted out. There is no promise of blessing, no call to rejoice, no indicator of glory to be shared.

To this list here, Peter adds one more: “Make sure that none of you suffers as … a troublesome meddler.” That seems quite incongruous to the others doesn’t it? The other things seem a bit more severe than this, don’t they? Well, as we have already indicated, according to Jesus, there are no small sins. The word Peter uses here refers to one who becomes “inappropriately involved in another person’s affairs.” It may be that some of those early Christians had done this, thinking they were doing a good thing. One scholar has theorized that some of these believers may have been hypocritically condemning the behavior of unbelievers, interfering with family relationships thus creating tension between spouses or between parents and children, or even using manipulative tactics of evangelism. While we are right to be concerned about others, and right to offer advice or help in some situations (particularly where we are invited to do so), and right to seek to share the gospel with the lost (especially when they ask us about our hope in Christ, 3:15), it is not right to be nosy. If you are suffering for sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong, then there is shame to bear, and you got what you deserved.

But Peter says that we must see to it that we are not suffering for these reasons. But it may be that we will suffer for no other reason than that we are a Christian. Interestingly, the word Christian (Greek: CristianoV, Christianos) only occurs three times in the Bible: here; Acts 11:26 and 26:28. It means “follower of Christ,” much like a Herodian (Mark 3:6; 13:13) is one who follows Herod. And if we are following Christ, then we are walking on the road He walked. There is a road in Jerusalem called the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering, which marks the path that Jesus walked to the cross. We may say that to follow Christ is to walk along the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Suffering. We are sharing in His sufferings, suffering for Him and suffering as He suffered. Therefore, since we are suffering with Christ and for Him, there is no shame to bear. The one who suffers as a Christian, Peter says, is “not to be ashamed.” Those who suffer as the evildoers described in verse 15 bear shame, but not the Christian who suffers for Christ. We bear no shame, but glory.

It is the name of Christ that brought us suffering, and it is the name of Christ in which we glorify God. We glorify God knowing that the suffering which Christ endured purchased our redemption, and our redemption is demonstrated through our willingness to suffer with Him for His name. And God is glorified as we endure it. If our suffering provokes us to retreat from following Christ and to engage in sinful acts of rebellion and retaliation, then there will be shame. But where suffering is endured patiently for the sake of Christ, God is glorified through the name of Christ which we bear as we follow Him. So we do not suffer in shame as the evildoers; we suffer with glory because of the name of Christ which we have been granted to wear as Christians.

III. When we suffer for Christ, we are not to suffer in fear, but in trust (vv17-19).

Several times in the surrounding context of these verses, Peter has indicated that there is a judgment coming. And perhaps the followers of Christ hear that and think, “Great! Bring it!” After all, we tend to think that judgment is something that only unbelievers will face. And knowing that it is coming soon, we can use the time we have left to share the gospel with them in hopes that they repent and believe upon Christ, all the while knowing that if they do not, they will be condemned in judgment, and we will go to heaven. But here in verse 17, Peter says that judgment is not just something that is going to occur in the future. He says “it is time for judgment to begin.” It has already started to happen. And he says that it does not begin with the unbelievers. It begins “with the household of God,” “with us first.” Now, are we still ready to say, “Great! Bring it!”? I would imagine that unless we have a mental disorder, the idea that judgment is beginning with us, the believers, here and now, probably provokes a sense of fear. In fact, if we understand our own sinfulness and God’s infinite holiness, that would be an understandable response. However, a judgment does not always result in condemnation. Judgment involves an evaluation, which may result in a good or bad outcome, in approval or discipline, in praise or condemnation. Additionally, very few English translations rightly express the Greek preposition found in verse 17, which would more literally be rendered that judgment is beginning from the household of God. That means that it is starting here, but then it is going out from here to everyone else.

Peter likely has in view several Old Testament passages. In the Old Testament, the house of God clearly referred to the Temple. We have no temple of brick and mortar as Christians; in 1 Peter 2, he says that we are the stones which are being fitted together in God’s temple. The temple, the dwelling place of God’s Spirit and His glory, is the church: not the building, but the people. Ezekiel 9 depicts a scene in which the Lord assembles six armed executioners, by whom He will destroy the wicked. But with them, He also calls a man who has a writing case. And the Lord calls out to that man with the writing case, from within the Temple, commissioning him to go through Jerusalem marking the foreheads of the faithful people of God. Then the executioners are told to go through the city and strike down all who do not have that mark on their heads. They are to begin at the Temple and go out from there, and this they did, beginning with the elders of the temple. The tragic calamity of that scene is that Ezekiel was apparently the only man in all of Israel who bore the mark of salvation. The rest were condemned. Similarly, in Malachi 3, we find a prediction that the Lord Himself will come to the Temple, and He will be like a refining fire, purifying the Levites so that they may present pleasing offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then, after these have been purified, the Lord promises to bring a swift judgment upon the unrighteous. And it is because of the faithfulness of God to keep His covenant promises that the people of God are not consumed in that judgment.

Now fast forward back to the New Testament: Peter says that it is time for judgment to begin with, or from, the house of God, with us first. If we understand these Old Testament images correctly, then we who truly belong to Christ have no reason to fear. The suffering is occurring, Peter says in v19, according to the will of God. It is accomplishing His sovereign purposes. It is marking us off as the ones who rightly belong to Him; as the ones who are safe from destruction. It is refining us in the fire of purification, the fiery ordeal of our suffering that is purging sin from our lives and proving the genuineness of our faith and our place in the covenant of Christ. Therefore, we need not be afraid of this judgment that is upon us in these sufferings. Rather we can entrust our souls to a faithful Creator: the God who made us, the Savior who saved us, and the righteous Judge who will vindicate us in Christ. We do not abandon our pursuit of Christ, but entrust ourselves to God and commit ourselves to “doing what is right” all the more. God will be faithful to His covenant promise, and we will be saved.

The process of proving and purifying is not an easy one. It is not for no reason that Peter calls it a fiery ordeal; it can be quite painful to endure. But the outcome is certain. The righteous is saved. None of us are righteous in and of ourselves (for we are all sinners), but those of us who have trusted in Christ have been covered in His righteousness. And it is in His righteousness that we are saved. But through the painful days of this life, it will appear that it is with great difficulty that we live out this salvation. Throughout this life, bearing His name is like carrying a lightning rod for suffering. If we persevere through the difficulties by the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, we demonstrate the genuineness of our salvation.

But we are left to ask two questions with the Apostle Peter: If judgment begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? If it is with great difficulty that the righteous is saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? The unbelievers, including those who are false believers, stand in danger of condemnation. In the patience of God, judgment for them has been put off for a season. He has granted an open window to hear the gospel, to turn from sin, and to call upon Christ for salvation. He died for your sins, that you might be reconciled to God; and He ever lives through His resurrection to secure eternal life for you. You may indeed suffer for Him as you follow Him, but the glory that is to be revealed will swallow it up eternally. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:17, “Momentary, light affliction is producing for us a weight of glory beyond all comparison.”

So, as followers of Christ we mustn’t be surprised, but rather, we can rejoice when we suffer for His name. We are sharing in His sufferings, we are filled with hope awaiting the day of His unveiling, and blessed because we are filled with His indwelling Spirit. We need not be ashamed, but rather we glorify God as we endure suffering for Him. We need not fear the coming judgment, for the present judgment of suffering is proving the genuineness of our faith; and in that we can entrust ourselves to God knowing that He is faithful to all of His promises. For all others, we echo the oft repeated warning of God’s word that a final judgment is coming, and only those who belong to Him in Christ will be saved. You can turn to Him today; indeed, you must if you would have any hope in that day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Glorifying God as the End Approaches (1 Peter 4:7-11)

In 1947, the directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists established “The Doomsday Clock” at the University of Chicago to indicate how close humanity is to catastrophic destruction. At that time, the threat of nuclear war indicated that the world was at seven minutes ‘til midnight, or Doomsday. Over the last 63 years, the time has been advanced or reversed 19 times according to the state of nuclear threat, climate-change, and other scientific and technological advances. It has advanced to the point of 2 minutes ‘til midnight and been reversed to 17 minutes ‘til midnight. Presently, the Doomsday Clock reads 6 minutes ‘til midnight. According to the Doomsday Clock, the end of the human race is near, but perhaps not as near as it has been in the past.

Meanwhile, another clock is ticking. God’s timetable advances each day, and each passing day marks another tick of the clock. Peter says in our text, “The end of all things is near.” Many have ridiculed Christians over the centuries, especially those first few generations of believers, for holding on to the hopes that Jesus was going to return at any given moment. Peter addresses this in 2 Peter 3:3 when he says that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, ‘Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation.’” Unconvinced that the end is near, he says they continue to pursue their sinful desires and belittle those who are holding onto the hope of Christ’s return. And they continue to do so today. But Peter says there in 2 Peter 3 that we must not forget that “with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years like one day.” He is not slow in keeping His promise to return and bring all things to an end, but He is patient, giving as many people as possible an opportunity to hear and believe the gospel message of Jesus Christ.

When Peter says that “the end of all things is near,” he is not looking at a clock or a calendar, but at the Scriptures. All that has been promised and prophesied in the Word of God has taken place. Following the birth, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, only one promise remains unfilled – the promise of His return, marking the end of this world as we know it and the consummation of His eternal Kingdom. The final act before the curtain falls is the establishment of the church and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon believers. That had already happened when Peter wrote this letter, therefore it is perfectly accurate for him and other New Testament writers to speak of living in the last days and to say that the end is near. Around the turn of the eighth century, the English monk Bede (pronounced Bead), said, “Peter says this so that you will not be fooled into thinking that judgment is a long way off or even that it will never come. Its timing may be uncertain, as far as we are concerned, but it is sure to come sooner or later.” In 1 Peter 4:5, Peter said that Christ is ready to judge the living and the dead. All things are in order, and that judgment could potentially occur at any moment.

The final act has been underway now for nearly 2,000 years. It is still playing out. Therefore we too can say with certainty that we are living in the last days, according to the prophetic timeline, and that the end is near. And we are equally certain that we are closer to the end today than the world has been at any point, and that will continue to be true in each day that passes between now and then. Peter says, “The end of all things is near.” And then he says “therefore.” That single word introduces the answer to the great question, “So what?” If you knew the end was near, what would you do? In the past, people have reacted to the message of the end of the world by plunging into sinful living, as if to say, “We might as well have fun while we can.” Others have sold all their possessions and retreated to mountaintops and deserted places to wait for the Lord. But Peter’s admonition to his readers is different. The awareness of the nearness of the end is to prompt them to live in such a way that God would be glorified. This is how the passage concludes. Since the end of all things is near, we should live in such a way that God may be glorified in all things.

We notice that God is glorified “through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever.” This is as clear a statement as you will find in Scripture that Jesus Christ is fully God. If the goal is to glorify God, and the glory rightly belongs to Jesus Christ, then they must be the same, for otherwise, idolatry would be occurring here. God has said in Isaiah 42:8, “I will not give My glory to another.” But Peter rightly says that God is glorified when Jesus receives the glory that belongs to Him. And dominion also belongs to Him, which is to say that Jesus is Lord and has a genuine claim to authority over the earth and all who inhabit it. And when His people live to bring Him glory, His Lordship over their lives is evident, and it is extended through them to the people, places, and things that they influence.

The end is near. So what? So we must live in a way that brings our Triune God the glory due unto Him. And how do we do that? There is a series of imperatives in this passage that guide us in living for His glory as the end approaches.

I. We must have a prayerful mindset (v7)

The Apostle Peter had learned much on the subject of prayer from the Lord Jesus Himself. Peter was there when Jesus taught His disciples how to pray, using what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer” as a model. But perhaps the greatest lesson Peter had learned on prayer happened on the night in which Jesus was arrested. As they entered Gethsemane, Jesus told His disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He said, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me.” After Jesus had prayed for a while, He returned and found Peter and the others asleep. He said, “Could you not keep watch with Me for one hour? Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And this happened two more times! After the third time, Jesus returned and found them still sleeping, and he said, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Behold the hour is at hand.” And at that moment, Judas and the crowd came into the garden to arrest Him. While Jesus accepted what was occurring, Peter panicked. He picked up a sword and hacked the ear off of one of the servants who had come to arrest Jesus. And Peter was rebuked by the Lord. Prayer had prepared Jesus for the moment; sleep had made Peter unprepared for it.

As Peter considered the nearness of the end of all things, he seems to have gone back to that night in Gethsemane. He remembered how, at that critical moment in time, the deepest need of the Lord Jesus was to spend time alone with His Father in prayer. And he remembered how he had failed the Lord by not being awake and alert enough to pray with Him in that moment. So, Peter admonishes his readers, and the Spirit of God speaks to us today with the same urgency, indicating that as the end draws near our greatest need is to spend concentrated time in prayer. This requires us to keep a sound judgment, a phrase that suggests “thinking about and evaluating situations maturely and correctly.” A sound mind is to be accompanied by a sober spirit. The word that Peter uses here indicates the opposite of drunkenness. Peter always uses this word in connection with other words as he does here. In 1:13, the word occurs in connection with “prepare your minds for action,” while in 5:8, it is paired with “being on the alert.” Therefore, Wayne Grudem says that the word “forbids not only physical drunkenness but also … letting the mind wander into any other kind of mental intoxication or addiction which inhibits spiritual alertness, or any laziness of mind which lulls Christians into sin through carelessness.” In a sense what Peter is saying here is that these days call for undistracted devotion to prayer. Don’t be like he was that night in the garden, slumbering lazily through the moment of urgency, distracted by so many other cares and concerns. We must be alert, seeing the things happening around us and understanding them with spiritual discernment in order to pray more effectively and intelligently, all the more as the day draws nearer.

What do you see and hear during your daily commute? What do you see as you read the newspaper or watch the evening news? What is popping up on your Twitter or Facebook page? What are the people around you talking about? Why has this information found its way into your purview? Is it so you can ignore it, worry about it, or gossip about it? I suggest that God has providentially caused your eyes to see what they see and your ears to hear what they hear so that you, Christian, can pray about it. If you have sound judgment and sober spirit, you can evaluate these things from a spiritual perspective and be drawn by them into prayer. As the end of all things draws ever nearer, the need for us to pray about the people and happenings around us only escalates. Having a prayerful mindset will glorify God as the end approaches.

Moving forward in the text, we find another imperative …

II. We must maintain a loving fellowship (vv8-9)

If we would glorify God here in these latter days, we must take into account how we treat one another within His family, the Church. Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). It is that love for one another, love that is expressed between the fellow disciples of Christ, that testifies to the world around us that we belong to Him. When we see siblings who genuinely care for one another, we immediately conclude that they come from a happy home with loving parents. Similarly, when the world sees Christians love for one another, they conclude that we belong to a good family with a loving Father. It is obvious that Jesus was not talking about love as a feeling, but rather as an action. The world cannot see our feelings, but they see our actions. And when we act lovingly toward one another within the church, we present a strong testimony for Christ. So important is this single attribute of Christian believers that Peter introduces his discussion on loving fellowship with the words “above all.” We may fail in a number of ways, but if we would glorify God and show ourselves to be His children and Christ’s disciples, we must not fail to demonstrate love for one another. While we can demonstrate love for one another in a variety of ways, two ways are specified here in these verses: forgiveness and friendliness.

Because we tend to equate love with a feeling, our inclination is to wait until the feeling arises within us to act toward another person in a loving way. But the Bible teaches us here that the feelings we are waiting for may not arise naturally, and may be squashed frequently. That is why this love that has to be fervently kept. The word fervent comes from a Greek word that means to stretch out. Every passage where this word occurs in the New Testament refers to doing something difficult, something that runs counter to what we desire or counter to what is expected, including this one. You notice that the love that we are to fervently maintain for one another is a love that occurs where there is a multitude of sins. Some have wrongly believed that this passage means that if I love people, then my sins will be forgiven by God. That is not what Peter is saying. You cannot do anything to earn the forgiveness of your sins. Your sins are forgiven by His grace because you trust in Christ. You don’t deserve that, but because God loves you, He forgives you. And THAT is what Peter is talking about here.

Martin Luther said to his church members, “It always happens that at times you do or say something that grieves me, and I do things that do not please you. An example is when one member of the body injures another: when the teeth bite the tongue, for instance, or the finger is run into the eye.” Have you ever done that? Have you ever bit your own tongue or poked yourself in the eye? You know the Bible says that we are like body parts, connected to each other in the body of Christ, who is the head. And sometimes, we hurt each other. Luther acknowledged that his church members hurt him, and he hurt them. Has this ever happened? Maybe I have disappointed some of you, maybe some of you have disappointed me, or maybe some of you have disappointed one another. Yes, it has happened and will continue to happen. But where we keep fervent in love for one another, our love will cover a multitude of sins. I will be able to go on loving you, not taking your sins into account when I consider how I will treat you. Isn’t this what God has done for us in Christ? Have we not received this kind of grace from Him? Therefore we must extend this kind of love and grace to each other. We will sin against each other. That’s what people do. But what Christian people do is love one another, covering one another’s sins as we reach out to one another with fervent love. We will have disagreements, but they don’t have to undermine our love.

Wayne Grudem says, “Where love abounds in a fellowship of Christians, many small offences, and even some large ones, are readily overlooked and forgotten. But where love is lacking, every word is viewed with suspicion, every action is liable to misunderstanding, and conflicts abound—to Satan’s perverse delight.” In that wonderful passage of Scripture that we often turn to for a definition of love, 1 Corinthians 13, Paul describes a love that is patient, that is not provoked, that does not take into account a wrong suffered (or, as the KJV says, “keeps no record of wrongs”), that bears all things and endures all things. Therefore, as our brother James Keku says here many Sunday mornings, “We love you, and there is nothing you can do about it.” Martin Luther said, “A man who is full of love is one whom you cannot enrage, however much injury may be done him.” If we let someone else’s sin short-circuit our loving actions toward them, then we open the door to all manners of conflict and strife. But where we love one another in spite of each other’s shortcomings, we cultivate an environment filled with the fresh air of grace, where love grows and abounds, and where God is glorified. Forgiveness is one way in which our fervent love for one another is expressed in Christian fellowship.

Friendliness is another way that this love is expressed. Peter says in verse 9 that we must be hospitable to one another without complaint. “Hospitality” is a word that immediately conjures up the idea of welcoming someone into our homes, or supplying someone with a meal, or meeting some other great need in his or her life. And, indeed, it includes all of those things, but the Greek word that Paul uses here means so much more. The word is philoxenoi. We recognize the philo part as coming from that same Greek word that means “love” for a friend or a brother. The latter part of this compound word, xenos, is a term that refers to strangers, foreigners, or guests. So, the hospitality that is called for is a genuine friendliness toward one another, even though before coming into the family of God together, we may have been perfect strangers.

In a culture in which following Christ could make one an enemy of the state or leave one orphaned with no earthly family to call his or her own, Christians depended on one another to help them meet their needs. Someone’s faith may lead to them being homeless, but the hospitable Christian says, “Come my brother, share my home.” They may have become unemployed, with no means to put food on the table. The hospitable Christian says, “Come sister, I have food to share with you.” Because the church in that day met in the homes of its members, this kind of hospitality may prompt the offer of one’s own home for the purpose of worship and fellowship. And notice that the offer of friendly hospitality comes without grumbling or complaining, a statement that has led many to conclude that Peter must not have been writing to Baptists. The idea is that we don’t do this because we have to, but rather we are blessed to have the opportunity to do so. To complain about it would ultimately be to complain about God providentially ordering our circumstances so that we find ourselves in the position to be a blessing to someone else, and to be blessed as we do.

Now, because we live in a society today where following Christ does not necessarily lead to being isolated from our families or cut off from society’s support networks, we do not often find ourselves in such positions of need. But, though we thank God for that, we perhaps suffer the lack of blessings that this kind of loving fellowship of friendliness would provide. There is a great irony in this in our day: we are not called upon for hospitality as often, and we complain all the more. We come together for an hour on Sunday, and then leave to go our separate ways into our detached lives for the rest of the week. But where this kind of hospitable friendliness is found, the church is found to be a place filled with love, and is seen to be a household of the family of God in Christ. Certainly, as the end of all things draws near, the world needs to see that kind of church. God will be glorified as we become that kind of loving fellowship.

III. We must engage in gifted service (vv10-11)

In C. S. Lewis’s classic book The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, there’s a rather bizarre and unexpected cameo appearance by Father Christmas, aka Santa Claus. Drawing gifts from his sleigh for the Pevensie children, he says to them, “These are your presents, and they are tools not toys. The time to use them is perhaps near at hand. Bear them well.” While we approach the season of gift giving, we must keep in mind that as followers of Christ, “each one” of us “has received a special gift.” These are not the gifts of Father Christmas, but the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Like those gifts that the children received in Narnia, they are tools and not toys, and the time to use them is at hand. We must bear them well.

In 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul explains that spiritual gifts are “manifestations of the Spirit” which are given to every believer “for the common good.” In other words, our spiritual gifts are the ways in which the Holy Spirit manifests Himself through us, not for our own edification and benefit, but for the good of each other in the church. That is exactly what Peter says here. Each of us, every single Christian, has received, by God’s grace through the provision of His Spirit, a special gift (or perhaps more than one) that is to be employed in the service of one another. And God will hold us accountable for how we use what He has given us. He says here that we are to be “good stewards” of this grace we have received. And this grace, he describes, is manifold. We don’t all have the same gifts; we have different ones, manifold giftedness, so that where one is weak, another is strong. As we serve one another with these gifts, God’s grace is evidenced by the manifestation of His Spirit at work within us.

Now, Peter does not give a list of gifts. Though Paul includes lists of spiritual gifts in several places, we cannot conclude that Scripture ever presents an exhaustive list. Each individual is uniquely gifted for the benefit of the entire church. Peter presents two categories of gifts: speaking and serving. All spiritual gifts fall under these two headings. Our Spirit-empowered service to Christ and His Church consists of what we say and what we do.

Some are particularly gifted by the Spirit for ministries of speaking, such as preaching or teaching. But these are carefully warned. Their giftedness is not a license to say just anything and consider it to be good for the church. Rather, the one with giftedness for speaking “is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God.” In other words, our preaching and our teaching must be nothing of human opinion, but rather strictly the expounding and explaining of Scripture, which is the Word of God. John Calvin once said of preaching, “When we enter the pulpit, it is not so that we may bring our own dreams and fancies with us.” He said, “As soon as men depart, even in the smallest degree from God’s Word, they cannot preach anything but falsehoods, vanities, impostures, errors, and deceits.” When the Spirit grants Christian men and women gifts for speaking in the church, He does so in order that they may proclaim God’s word, not their own ideas. Failure to speak the utterances of God is a failure to be a good steward of the grace we have received in the speaking gifts. And church members have a responsibility to ensure that the Word of God is what is being spoken. If a teacher, preacher, or pastor begins to expound the opinions of men rather than God’s divine truth, it is up to you to remove that person. Hold your Sunday School teachers accountable to this; hold me accountable to this; hold anyone who stands in this pulpit or attempts to speak out in the church accountable to this. Be like those Bereans in Acts 17, who, when they heard the preaching of the Apostles, went to the Scriptures to see if what they were hearing was consistent with God’s word.

Others in the church are not gifted for speaking but for serving. Where would the church be without the people whom God has gifted to do the necessary things for serving one another? We tend to think only of those who do the things to maintain the facility in which we meet and worship, and they are necessary and we should thank God for them. But remember that Christians in Peter’s day did not meet in church buildings as we do. The word “church” has only of late come to mean a building. You are the church: the people. So serving within the church speaks most directly to those things which are done to care for and bless one another, like visiting one who is lonely; feeding one who is hungry; caring for one who is ill; showing mercy to one who is weak; meeting the needs of one who cannot provide for himself or herself; and the list could go on and on. But as anyone who is engaged in these kinds of ministries can attest, the burden becomes heavy at times, and we feel that we cannot endure it. Many people will jump in with both feet to a serving ministry, only to become quickly burned out and fall away. What is the secret for enduring in such service? We must serve, Peter says, “by the strength which God supplies,” as opposed to our own strength. It is only out of desire to not embarrass anyone that I don’t cite examples of seeing this kind of selfless, Spirit-empowered service that I have seen carried out by many of you over the last five years. You know it when you see it, and it is a beautiful thing to behold, for God is glorified when people who love Jesus serve one another in this way.

Each of you has at least one spiritual gift: some ability with which you have been endowed and entrusted by the Holy Spirit. So, every believer has the personal responsibility to both discover and use this gift, as well as helping and encouraging each other to discover and use the gifts they have been given as well. Maybe it is speaking, maybe it is serving. The best way to discover these gifts is to get busy! Do something! And as you are doing it, you will discover whether or not God is supplying you with the strength to do it; whether the church is being blessed and edified through it; and whether God is being glorified through it. Once you discover that special gift, steward it and employ it. Yield to the power of the Holy Spirit and let Him use you to bless one another in the family of God.

The end of all things is near. It has been drawing near since the time of Christ. It is nearer now than ever. How long will it be? We do not know. But we have a very clear word from God about what we are to do until the final day comes. We are to live for His glory; to live in such a way as to bring glory to God through the Lord Jesus Christ. And how do we do that? By having a prayerful mindset; by cultivating a loving fellowship where forgiveness and friendliness abound; and by engaging in gifted service, speaking God’s Word to one another, and serving one another in God’s power. Where a church abides under these imperatives, the glory of God breaks through to shine brightly, even in these dark and final days. And the world will see His glory and be drawn to this Christ who has saved us, and who can save them as well, as the end of all things approaches.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Luther on "Disagreeable Preachers"

Today is Martin Luther's 527th birthday, and as I like to do on days such as these, I have been reading various works by Luther. In particular, I decided to spend some time in Luther's commentary on 1 Peter as I prepare for Sunday morning's message (1 Peter 4:7-11). Therein, Luther deals with those who do not use their spiritual gifts in a loving and appropriate way, and he says:

"These are disagreeable people, and yet they are common in the world, especially among the preachers. As soon as one feels he can do something another cannot -- is apt to learn, has a fine voice, or dispatches work quickly -- he overdoes it, becomes proud, despises others who cannot equal him, yea, he thinks he knows more than those under whom he studied and suddenly changed from pupil to professor and wishes to make a show before the whole world. If then the public join him and praise and boast of his ability (as such spirits strive for this one thing with all their might), he is then first made a little gentle and tickled so that he does not know whether he is walking upon the earth or in the clouds. Such characters do the greatest harm to Christianity; what pious orthodox teachers did so well, and planted and built during long years with great care and labor, they break to pieces and ruin in a short time, and consider their ways better and holier, and they must also be honored by such names which suggest that they were seeking the honor of God and salvation of their neighbors."

If, when reading Luther's words, we are tempted to look down our noses at others whom we deem guilty of such attitudes and conduct, then we have missed the point. Rather, I think it best for us to be driven by Luther's words to look in the mirror at ourselves. Are we allowing the precious blessings of God's giftedness and the gratitude of His people to puff us up with toxic pride? We must always be on guard against this, lest we tear down what others have labored long to build. And Luther's words also contain a warning for the layperson as well. Be careful in heaping praise upon the gifted servants of God, for in so doing, you may unintentionally be casting them into a great temptation, the allure of which is dreadfully powerful.

Luther then wisely concludes this section with a more positive injunction for preachers and those to whom they preach:

"Whoever now preaches the word of God in its purity, without the addition of any human doctrine, that God out of pure love gave his only begotten son Jesus Christ for the sins of the lost world, seeks not his own, but God's honor, does not like God, rule over you, but serves you with his gifts, points out to you how you may be delivered from your sins and be saved. Whoever does the contrary seeks his own honor and advantage as is the manner and character of all work-righteous persons."

From this, we draw that our preaching must be thoroughly saturated in the very words of God Himself in Scripture, and not our own opinions and ideas. This is the only way to truly honor God in the ministry to which He has called us. And if a preacher does this, the congregation must be assured that he is not seeking to reign over his people, for he demonstrates his awareness that Christ is the only Lord over the church. Rather, such a preacher has humbly served both his God and his flock by giving them that which is most precious: God's divine truth. And so the right way to honor such a preacher is not then to heap praise upon him, but rather to praise the true source of his words, the Lord Himself, and to submit to the Lord in saving faith and obedient service.