Monday, July 26, 2010

Suffering that Pleases God (1 Peter 2:18-20)

Audio can be downloaded or streamed from this link

I had a preaching professor once who said that if you preach on suffering, you will never lack an audience. Indeed, suffering seems to be one universal constant in the human experience. Suffering is our daily reminder that things are not right in this world. For this reason, skeptics and cynics will say that if there really was an all good, all powerful God, then there would not be all of this suffering. Since there is so much suffering, of such a great degree, and so seemingly unequal in its distribution, then God must not exist, or else He is not all good, or else He is not all powerful. If He exists, and if He is all good, He would want to eliminate suffering. If He could not, then He is not all powerful. So goes the argument known as “the problem of evil and suffering.” When asked why we believe in an all-good, all-powerful Creator, we will often say, “Look at the universe.” Interestingly, C. S. Lewis once admitted that when he was an atheist, if you had asked him why he didn’t believe, he would have responded, “Look at the universe we live in.” In his mind, the chaos and disorder, the suffering and the evil that existed in the world seemed to suggest that there was no god. But looking back on those days of unbelief many years later, Lewis said, “There was one question which I never dreamed of raising. … If the universe is so bad, or even half so bad, how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator?” Lewis said, “In a sense, (Christianity) creates, rather than solves the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.”

This is exactly what we claim isn’t it? That God is real, He is all-knowing and all-powerful, Jesus is Lord, and, yes, there is unimaginable suffering going on in the world. To some, this is an insurmountable paradox. But to those of who are the followers of Christ, these are the inescapable realities of life in a world corrupted by sin. Sin is at the root of suffering, and God has acted to kill the problem at the root through the death and resurrection of Christ. There is coming a day when we will live free of sin’s presence, and in that day we will also enjoy the absence of sin’s effects on our lives and on our society. Until that day, there will be suffering, because there will be sin, and much of that suffering will be seemingly unjust. God is not unconcerned with suffering, nor is He unable to do anything about suffering. God is sovereign over all that occurs in life, and He has a purpose in all suffering, even when we do not know what that purpose is. In some cases, God is able to bring glory to Himself through our suffering. In our text today, Peter addresses this very issue – suffering in such a way that God is glorified. Is it possible for God to pleased in our suffering? Because suffering is a result of sin, God is not pleased with the fact that we suffer, but as we will see in this text, it is possible for God to pleased with us in the midst of our suffering. Twice in this text we read concerning unjust suffering that “this finds favor with God.” We might recoil from the thought of our suffering finding favor with God, but the passage does not indicate that all suffering is pleasing to Him. There are certain occasions, however, when our suffering finds favor with him.

I. God is pleased when we suffer through difficult obedience (v18)

It does not escape our notice that the passage before us today is addressed primarily to “servants.” The term used here is not the general one used throughout the New Testament for those who serve others, but it is a specific term referring to the household slaves of the Roman world. By definition, slaves had no personal rights, and were viewed as the property of their masters. Some were treated well by their masters, while many were treated harshly. Underlying the treatment of slaves was the assumption that they were somehow less than human. Aristotle said that “a slave is a living tool,” while Varro, a Roman nobleman, wrote that the only thing distinguishing a slave from a beast or a cart was that the slave could talk. The writers of the New Testament did not see their task as revolutionaries, overturning social systems. Rather they understood that the gospel, rightly-applied, transforms individuals first, and transformed individuals change the world. Therefore, they never address the system, just the people inside the system. So, Peter, and elsewhere Paul, speaks to the Christian slaves instructing them to live out their Christian faith within the system of slavery. Several times in Paul’s letters, masters are addressed the same way: to treat their slaves as real people, and when they are believers in Christ, to treat them as brothers and sisters in the Lord. Over time, the institution of slavery in the ancient world was eventually revolutionized as Christians within the system were transformed by the power and the word of God. At the time Peter was writing, however, that transformation had not taken place. Many Christians found themselves enslaved to others, and some were treated better than others by their masters.

Peter’s words to these enslaved Christians is the same as it is to all people when it comes to the Christian perspective on authority. He exhorts them to be submissive to their masters, just as all of us are to be submissive to authority figures, whether kings or governors, or any other authorities. This attitude recognizes that God is sovereign over our station in life, and that no authorities exist except those which God has allowed to exist.

Now, none of us are slaves, but all of us are under human authority figures of some kind, whether in government or in the workplace, or in any other way. And sometimes, we are treated well and fairly by those authorities. Other times, we are treated harshly and unfairly by them. Slaves in the ancient world faced those same realities. And you will notice that Peter does not say here, “Masters, make sure you are nice to your slaves.” He has no word for masters here. Perhaps there were none in the church at that time. Instead, he says, “Servants (or slaves), be submissive to your masters … not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable.” The Greek word translated here as “unreasonable” is the word skoliois. You have heard of the medical condition scoliosis, which is a curving of the spine. The Greek word means “crooked” or “curved,” and when applied to people, it referred to those who were dishonest or wicked. So here God’s word commands those who are under the authority of such people as this to submit to them anyway.

The principle here echoes Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” It is easy to submit to those who are good and gentle toward you. You don’t need the empowering of the Holy Spirit and a Gospel-transformed life to do that. Jesus said even tax collectors and Gentiles, the proverbial epitomes of unrighteousness in that day, are able to love those who love them back. But in order to submit to those who are “crooked” toward us, harsh and wicked, those who oppose and persecute us, we have to depend on resources that are not our own. We must have the empowering of the indwelling Holy Spirit to do what would otherwise not come naturally.

This is difficult obedience. But remember that the issue here is not merely obedience to the human master or authority figure. The issue is obedience to God, who commands us to do this. That is why Peter says it is to be done with all respect. Literally, this would be translated with all fear. The Greek word is phobos, same word that is used in 1:17, where he says we are to conduct ourselves in fear. The obvious intention is that it is for the fear of the Lord that we do this. We submit to harsh masters because God has commanded us to and empowered us to. In worshipful fear of Him, we choose to obey Him even when it is difficult.

Martin Luther said, “Let the master be as he may, I will serve him, and do it to honor God, since he requires it of me, and since my master, Christ, became a servant for my sake. … If God should command you to wash the devil’s feet, or those of the worse wretch, you are to do it, and this work would be just as much a good work as the highest of all, when God calls you to it.” We must not fear that suffering always means that God is not pleased with us. In some cases, particularly when our obedience to Him leads to suffering at the hands of difficult people, God is pleased with us and our suffering rises to Him as a fragrant offering. It finds favor to suffer through difficult obedience.

II. God is pleased when we suffer for His sake (v19).

Everyone suffers in life. Not everyone suffers for the same reason. There is physical suffering that we experience because we live in bodies that are corruptible and dying because of sin’s effect on humanity. For this reason, we are subject to everything from colds to cancer, arthritis to AIDS, hernias to heart attacks. Some experience natural suffering as a result of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and the like. These things happen because the curse on sin has ruptured the created order and subjected the world to all kinds of disasters. Some suffer because of sin, either their own sin or the sins someone commits against them. And then there are those who suffer for no other reason than that they belong to Christ. God is not pleased with all manners of suffering; but He has told us in His word that suffering for His sake, because we belong to Him and are faithful to Him, finds favor with Him. Peter says here in verse 19 that we find favor with God when we suffer for the sake of conscience toward God.

Often when we talk about salvation, we focus only on the fact that Jesus died to remove our sins. While this is of infinitely great importance, it is really only half of the Gospel. The other half is that God has credited us with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. That means that He views us as bearing the perfect righteousness that Jesus demonstrated in His sinless life. Now, this means that wonderful privileges are in store for us – the temporal blessings God lavishes on us here and now, and the eternal blessings that are awaiting us in heaven. But, if God treats us the same as He treats Christ, then we can expect that the world will treat us as it treated Christ also. And that may not be the best news you hear today. Jesus experienced unjust suffering throughout His life, culminating in His death on the cross. And He promises His followers that we cannot expect better treatment at the hands of this fallen world than He experienced. In John 15, Jesus said, “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name's sake, because they do not know the One who sent Me.”

He also said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Notice He doesn’t say, “Blessed are you if people insult you and persecute you … because of Me.” He said, “when.” We have many precious promises in God’s Word, and this is one we often wish wasn’t there perhaps. We have the assurance that we will suffer for the sake of God in Christ. Paul said to Timothy, “Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim 3:12).

In greater or lesser ways, throughout a Christian’s life there will come dilemmas when standing for Christ will mean suffering, while compromising our convictions will lead to an easier path. We must remember when we stand at that crossroads that the Bible promised us these days will come, and great men and women of faith have stood this test at great personal cost throughout history. We must remember that Jesus said it would happen and that we would be blessed when it does. And Peter tells us here that when we suffer because we follow Christ, when we suffer for the sake of our conscience toward God, this kind of suffering finds favor with God.

III. God is pleased when we suffer for doing right (v20)

Have you heard the saying, “No good deed goes unpunished”? Perhaps some of us have been on the receiving end of suffering for doing what we thought was the good or right thing to do. And then there are times when we suffer because we deserve it. We reap what we sow, and the consequences of our own sin or wrongdoing catches up with us. Now it may seem that God would be pleased when people suffer for wrongdoing, and not pleased when we suffer for doing right. Certainly there is some measure of truth in this. God is glorified through justice being done and wrongs being made right. And certainly God takes no pleasure in the occurrence of unjust suffering. But in cases of unjust suffering, where someone is suffering for doing right, God can be glorified in the actions and attitude of the believer who chose to do right, even knowing that it may bring suffering as a result.

There are some things we just never have to pray about. One of those is the choice to do right or do wrong. We know, when faced with the options of doing what we know is right or sinning by disobeying God, that sin is never the choice God will bless. If you suffer because you did something wrong, God is glorified in justice being done, but not glorified in your actions that led to the suffering. But often, our choices are not so clear-cut as choosing to actively do right or actively do wrong. Sometimes our choice is between doing what is good, doing what is better, and doing what is best. These are difficult decisions to make, and we need to pray about that so that we have God’s wisdom in weighing the choices and making the one that will bring the most glory to Him. Still, at other times, our choices are to do right or to do nothing. Perhaps we calculate that there is risk in doing right, possible suffering to endure if we choose to do right, and this paralyzes us into a state of inactivity. We deem the risk too great, the fear of the unknown insurmountable. So, we do nothing. And God does not bless that. He is not glorified by that.

God is glorified when we do right, in spite of the outcome. When we do right, even if suffering will follow, this finds favor with God. This does not mean that we are to be cavalier and throw caution to the wind. There are calculations to make. Does doing something good come at the expense of doing something better? Does the short-term good, nullify the long-term good? All of these considerations need prayer and biblical meditation, and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s promptings. But the point here is to say that if we take a risk and do something good, something right, something that honors God, and suffer because of it, our suffering in that event will find favor with God. We need not fear that such suffering is an indicator that He did not approve of what we did. He may even use our suffering in those situations to magnify the glory He brings to Himself through our actions. Are you faced with a decision? If it comes down to doing right versus doing wrong, that is easy. We know we are to do right. What if it comes down to doing good versus doing nothing? If we opt to do nothing on the chance that we are avoiding suffering then perhaps we need to rethink our decision. Perhaps we need to take the risk and do right, and accept the suffering that comes. If our decision comes down to choosing between good, better, and best, then we need to prayerfully consider the short and long term ramifications, pray for the Spirit to guide us and empower us, exercise biblical wisdom, seek out godly counsel, and then by all means act as we feel led of the Lord. And if suffering should come as a result, so be it. At least we are suffering for doing good, which finds far more favor with God than suffering for doing wrong or suffering for doing nothing.

Now finally, …
IV. God is pleased when we endure suffering with patience (vv19-20)

We do not ever want to give the impression that our righteous and loving God takes pleasure in seeing anyone suffer, especially in seeing unjust suffering. Because of His great love, He is filled with mercy and grace toward humanity, the bearers of His image in the created order. This is why, even when it comes to the suffering of the wicked, God is moved with pity. In Ezekiel 33:11, He says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his evil way and live.” God has made a way of salvation available to us all through the cross of Jesus Christ so that none of us will experience the suffering that our sins deserve. Christ has received the suffering our sins deserve in His death, so that we might be able to turn from our evil ways and live. So even when our suffering is the result of something we have done wrong, we have still not received the full measure of what we deserve. Christ received the full measure of what our sins deserve, and expressed the agony of that dark wrath as He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” The suffering we still experience in life is a result, in one way or another, of sin’s lingering effects in this fallen world. And when we suffer unjustly, we must not say that God is pleased with the bare fact that we are suffering. Still, in the midst of the suffering, He can be pleased with us when we face the suffering with patient endurance.

Peter says in verse 20, “What credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience?” The implied answer is that there is no credit in this. You got what you deserved in that case, and you very well should patiently endure your consequences. Such patient endurance under those circumstances is evidence of repentance and contrition. But Peter says that when we suffer for doing right, and patiently endure that suffering, this finds favor with God. It is not the suffering itself that God takes pleasure in; for what would that say about our God? Rather it is our response to that suffering that brings Him pleasure, namely when we patiently endure it. In verse 19, he speaks of the righteous person bearing up under the sorrow of unjust suffering. That is a vivid way of depicting this kind of patient endurance. You can envision the ancient image of Atlas holding up the world on his shoulders, bearing up with strength and courage. The wording here indicates that we are under this burdensome weight of suffering and sorrow, but we find strength and courage to stand under it. This strength and courage comes from the Lord, who supplies our every need through His indwelling Spirit. On our own, we do not have what it takes to bear ourselves up under the sorrow of that unjust suffering. We do not the ability to patiently endure. But God can produce this in us if we yield ourselves to the Spirit’s power in those moments. And as we do, God is glorified in us in the midst of our unjust suffering.

How is God glorified in this? There are several ways. First, patiently enduring unjust suffering demonstrates our confidence in God’s sovereignty. When we react to our own unjust suffering with impatience and anger, it is as if we are saying that this matter has gotten out of God’s control and we must take control of it for ourselves. But nothing, I repeat, NOTHING, is ever outside of God’s sovereign control. Patient endurance when we suffer for doing right makes a bold statement to those around us that we believe God is in control and we trust Him. Second, and related to the first, is that when we patiently endure unjust suffering, we testify to our faith in God’s faithfulness to us. We say with our actions and attitudes in those situations that we believe God is good and that He loves us and that He will not bring us more than we can bear with His power. We proclaim that we believe that God will act in His time and in His way, and when He does, it will be perfect. He does not need us to get ahead of Him and undermine what He desires to do according to His perfect will.

Another reason why there is “credit” in patiently enduring unjust suffering, why it finds favor with God, is that it demonstrates the transformation of our lives into the image of Christ. How do you know how well you are progressing in sanctification? God desires to make you more like Jesus; how do you know how far He has brought you? Do you find your hair growing longer, and a beard developing on your face? Are you suddenly more drawn to robes and sandles for your wardrobe? No. Can you tell how well you are progressing spiritually in times of prosperity and abundance? Perhaps, but it seems that most often we find the sanctifying work of the Spirit most clearly displayed in our suffering. Jesus experienced more suffering than any of us ever will, and ALL of it was undeserved. A good bit of our suffering is often deserved; but when we suffer for doing right, we can measure our response to those situations according to how Jesus handled those situations. And when we find ourselves become more able to patiently endure those things, we become aware of how far the Spirit of God has brought us into the likeness of Christ. Not only do we discover that, but others do as well. Consider your non-Christian family member or friend who has known you since before you followed Christ. Can they see any transformation in your life when you react to suffering the same way you did before? But when they observe that you meet those situations with patient endurance, they know that something is happening in your life that is not happening in theirs. Not only do they witness the Spirit’s transforming work in your life; they begin to envy it. Suddenly, you are being the salt of the earth that Jesus called you to be, creating a thirst in the unbeliever for the Living Water that only Jesus can provide.

There is no special favor from God in enduring suffering that you deserve when you do wrong. But when you endure with patience the suffering that is unjustly experienced when you do right, this finds favor with God and He is pleased with us in the midst of our suffering.

As we conclude, let’s summarize for a moment. Because there is sin, there will be suffering. Only when there is no more sin will there be no more suffering. For the believer in Jesus Christ, that day is coming. We have been forgiven of sin and made righteous by faith in Him, believing that His death received the suffering that our sins deserve, and by His resurrection, we have the assurance of life beyond death in His presence for eternity. There, there will be no suffering. Until then, there will be suffering, and sometimes it will be unjust. We may suffer for no other reason than that we follow Christ. We may suffer because we did something good. But the fact that we suffer does not mean that God is not pleased with us. We suffer because we are human. And in the midst of that suffering, we can please God; we can glorify Him; and we can find favor with Him. This happens when we suffer through difficult obedience; it happens when we suffer for His sake; it happens when we suffer for doing right; and it happens when we suffer with patient endurance. Luther said it this way:

"If I should experience at the same time great injustice and suffering, what is that compared to the fact that Christ, my Lord and Redeemer, who never committed any sin, did the greatest, yea, the inexpressible benefactions of the world, and was so scandalously rewarded for it, that He had to die on the Cross between two malefactors as a blasphemer of God and as a rebel? He suffered for the sake of his good deeds, and the severest pain…; Him will I imitate. … Whoever is a Christian must also bear the cross; and the more you suffer wrongfully, the better it is for you; wherefore you should receive your cross from God cheerfully and thank Him for it. This is the right kind of suffering that is well-pleasing to God."

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Our Secondary Citizenship - 1 Peter 2:13-17

Audio available here

In a church like ours, where there are folks from several different countries, there may be some who are “dual citizens.” There are many ways in which a person may acquire dual citizenship, and it is not an uncommon occurrence in our world where travel is so quick and easy. According to the U. S. Government, a person does not lose their citizenship in America when they acquire citizenship in another country unless certain conditions are met. If a person applies for foreign citizenship voluntarily, and demonstrates by their statements or actions that they intend to give up U.S. citizenship, then they may lose their American citizenship. While they remain dual citizens, the law requires allegiance to both the United States and the foreign country. They are required to obey the laws of both countries.
We have been speaking for several weeks now about the fact that the followers of Christ are citizens of His Kingdom. This citizenship is not a pretend or imaginary issue. It is as real as your citizenship in America or any other country. While the government may not view Christians as having dual citizenship in the eyes of the law, in reality, we are very much dual citizens. As it stands, our citizenship in Christ’s Kingdom does not jeopardize our American citizenship. Our new Kingdom does not require that we renounce our earthly citizenship. In fact, the King of our new country agrees with the United States Government that you should obey the laws of both countries and demonstrate allegiance to both. While that allegiance is first and foremost pledged to Christ and His Kingdom, as long as there is no tension between the two, we are expected to live as exemplary citizens of our secondary homeland – America, or whatever country that may be.
There may be some who would feel that the Heavenly citizenship is some kind of pie in the sky that doesn’t really matter here and now. Peter has been reminding us that this citizenship is real and it is primary in our lives. By virtue of that heavenly citizenship, we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possessions; we are merely strangers and aliens here. So, we must never take our heavenly citizenship for granted. But there is another error wherein a person might think that since they are primarily citizens of a heavenly kingdom, that they need not be concerned with the things of this world. One may think that the events and affairs of this world have no bearing on his own life. This person has become the epitome of the expression, “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” God would not be honored by any of His people being described that way. According to the inspired text we read today, the more heavenly minded we become, the more earthly good we should be. And though our citizenship in our earthly country is secondary to our heavenly citizenship, it is not unimportant. We have a responsibility as citizens of America, or whatever country we find ourselves in. Our faith in Christ does not eliminate those responsibilities, but rather clarifies and reinforces them. So, let’s examine these truths concerning the Christian citizen and our secondary citizenship.
I. The Christian citizen has a biblically informed understanding of the role of government.
All of us live under some measure of authority. Of course, the whole universe is under God’s authority, and those who belong to Christ have been brought directly under the lordship of Jesus Christ. But there are other authorities over our lives as well. We have bosses at work; we have civil authorities who make and enforce the laws that are binding on us. We might be tempted to reject those authorities as if they did not apply to us because we belong to Christ. If we really belong to Christ, what claim do other, lesser authorities have on us?
The follower of Christ understands that earthly authorities have a purpose in the plan of God. In fact, if we take God’s word seriously, we understand that there are no authorities except those which God allows to exist. Romans 13:1 says, “there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” When Jesus stood before Pilate, Pilate asked Him, “Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Jesus responded by saying, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above.” Jesus understood that the very authority that would ultimately order His crucifixion was an authority that God the Father had granted in His infinite wisdom and power. God is sovereign over where we were born, where we live, where we work, and over all authorities to which we must answer in this life. They may not all be favorable toward us, or toward Christianity, or toward God in any way, but if God wanted those authorities overthrown, He certainly has the ability to do so. The fact that He doesn’t indicates that He has a purpose for that authority, though we may not understand it.

In very general terms, all authorities that exist in our lives serve two very basic functions that are specified here in verse 14. First, they exist for the punishment of evildoers. Because human beings are all born in sin, we are capable of unimaginable evil. If there was not some restraint, some threat of penalty and punishment, some means of addressing and correcting evil in society, things would be infinitely worse than they already are. You recall perhaps the epitaph on the period of the Judges in the Old Testament: “There was no king in Israel, and every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” Consider this incident that occurred in Jedwabne, Poland in 1941. In that town, there were many Jewish people who enjoyed good relationships with their non-Jewish neighbors for many years. In 1939, Jedwabne came under Soviet control, and the local government was abolished. In 1941, Nazi Germany overtook the area. German officers informed the citizens of Jedwabne that if they wanted to eliminate their Jewish neighbors, they could have all of their property and assets. They were promised a small military detachment to assist them. On July 10, 1941, a mob of people gathered their Jewish neighbors in the town square and began attacking and beating them. Some 400 or so Jews, including women and children, were led away to an empty barn, locked inside, and burned alive. Those who tried to escape were shot.

This story vividly illustrates that human beings are capable of doing the unthinkable when left without restraint of any kind. We might say, “But do we not have the Word of God? Do we not have God’s authority? Is a government really necessary to punish evildoers?” Make no mistake, God’s justice will eventually and perfectly prevail against all unrighteousness. But in the meantime, God has sovereignly chosen to use human authorities to exist to enact justice against wrongs that are done. Martin Luther said, “Since we are not all believers, but the majority unbelievers, He has enacted and ordained so as to save the world from anarchy that the civil power should bear the sword and restrain the wicked, in case they are not disposed to observe the peace, they may be compelled to do so. This He executes through the civil powers, so that the world may be ruled for the good of all.”

You like the idea of having someone you can call when your home has been burglarized or when your life is threatened, don’t you? Civil authorities are granted the right to exist by God in part for this very reason. But there is another reason specified here as well. Peter says that governing authorities exist for “the praise of those who do right.” Historically, governments have treated peaceful and law-abiding citizens both fairly and favorably. Have you ever been driving down the highway and noticed that a police officer was behind you? It doesn’t matter how fast you are driving at that moment does it? You begin to get nervous. “What did I do?” And then there is that sweet feeling of relief as he changes lanes and moves on past you. Why do we feel that way? If we weren’t doing anything wrong, is there any reason to be afraid? That’s what Paul says in Romans 13:3-4. “Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good.”
All of this is to say that as followers of Christ, we have a correct understanding of why governments exist and what their proper function is. The Bible has instructed us on this so that we understand that God allows and uses civil authorities for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. Now, with that understanding, what should our attitude toward government be?
II. The Christian is commanded to adopt a positive attitude toward authority.
Every president has ups and downs in approval ratings. George W. Bush enjoyed a 90% approval rating at one point in his term. It was on September 21, 2001. On October 31, 2008, just days before the presidential election, his approval rating was 25%. President Obama enjoyed a high approval rating of 69% at one time. It was January 22, 2009, two days after his inauguration. In recent weeks, he has had the lowest approval rating of his term at around 44%. If we were to poll the congregation to state our approval or disapproval of the President, we would probably have strong and diverse opinions. Some would be adamant about their frustrations with this President. Others would be exuberant about their approval of him. But all of us, whether we approve of the president or not, have a biblical obligation to him. Not only to him, but to other authorities as well. Peter tells us here what our attitude should be toward those whom God has allowed to have authority over us.

First, he says that we are to submit to them in verse 13. “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right.” This is not an isolated statement in Scripture. It is reinforced by Romans 13:1 which says, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities,” and by Titus 3:1-2 which says, “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.” In fact, Paul even says in Romans 13 that to resist the authorities that are in power is to oppose the ordinance of God, since there is no authority except that which God allows to exist. In Titus 3:3, Paul contrasts the behavior of the Christian who submits to rulers and authorities with our lives before we followed Christ, in which we were “foolish …, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another.”

We see submission to the civil authorities in the life of Jesus. When questioned about whether or not to render taxes to Caesar, Jesus examined a denarius coin and said, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They acknowledged that it was Caesar’s image on the coin. Jesus said, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's.” By this, He inferred that the coin belongs to Caesar because it bears his image; the life, on the other hand, belongs to God since it was made in His image. We see submission to civil authorities even in the hours before Jesus’ death. When Peter brandished his sword to attack those who were coming to arrest Jesus, the Lord said to him, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” But Jesus did not ask for those angels. He did not oppose Herod’s and Pilate’s authority to put Him to death, but acknowledged that their authority was derived from God Himself.

So, we have clear commands from Peter and Paul, and numerous examples in the life of Jesus, indicating that we are to submit to the government. And it bears mention here that all three of these were put to death by the very government to whom they admonished others to submit. This government was increasingly hostile toward Christianity, depriving them of every liberty that we as Americans cherish, including the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But the word from the Lord and His apostles remains unchanged. The followers of Christ are called to submit. Not only are we to submit to those authorities which are favorable toward us, but “to every human institution.” This submission is voluntary, not as a result of forcible coercion or compulsion. It is freely given in recognition that God is ultimately sovereign over all authority.

In addition to submission, the Christian is called to honor authorities. In verse 17, Peter says specifically to “honor the king.” We might protest and say that the king, or the president, or the governor, or some other authority figure is not worthy of honor. Isn’t it interesting that there aren’t any footnotes or parentheses here? In fact, it is very much like the command to honor one’s mother and father. There is no qualification given in that command, nor is it abrogated elsewhere in Scripture. It’s the same with other authorities. The issue is not whether they are honorable. The issue is whether or not we will obey the Lord’s command to honor them. We can afford someone the honor of their position, because it is established by God, without endorsing them or their actions.

Donia and I were in Ukraine in 2000, on a ship in the middle of the Black Sea with 200 Americans and 200 Ukrainians. During a slow day, some of us were sitting around in the lounge talking, and some of us began telling jokes about Bill Clinton, who was still in office at that time. Suddenly, a Ukrainian Christian looked toward us with fire in her eyes, and she began to rebuke us sternly for dishonoring our president. She quoted Scripture to us, like this passage in 1 Peter, and then she asked us, “How often do you pray for your president?” There was a silence you could feel. Most of us could not even look her in the face. I can’t speak for the rest of the group, but I felt a conviction from the Holy Spirit in my heart and the sudden need to be alone in repentance and confession. We are not commanded in Scripture to agree with or approve of those in authority. We are not commanded to endorse their policies. But we are commanded to submit to them, to honor them, and yes, even to pray for them (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Now, the question arises, “Why?” Why should we render such submission, such honor to authorities who may be even opposed to the Christian faith, as those in Peter’s day were?

III. The Christian has a specific motive for his attitude toward the government.

Notice in the text that it is not for the government’s sake, the sake of the authorities, or for our own sake that we honor and submit. Rather, it is for the Lord’s sake (v13). “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake.” Again in verse 15 we are told that this is the will of God. How often do we say that we are trying to find God’s will? There’s really no need to go looking for God’s will when He’s revealed so much of it in His Word. If we haven’t begun to follow what He’s already made known concerning His will, why would He reveal more of it to us? It is His will for us to submit to and honor the authorities that are in place in our lives. He tells us why this is His will: “That by doing right, you may silence the ignorance of foolish men.”

In Peter’s day, people were making all kinds of allegations about Christians, accusing them of treason, incest, and cannibalism to name a few. Peter considers these claims to be both ignorant and foolish. It is ignorant in the classic sense of the word, meaning that it is a statement that is not based on knowledge. No person who understood what Christians believed or practiced would utter such accusations against them. And people who speak in ignorance are certainly foolish. And there are two things this world will seemingly never lack: ignorance and foolishness. Today, foolish people make ignorant claims about Christians just as they did in that day. But notice that God’s will takes this into consideration. I would prefer the text said, “God’s will is for them to not make such claims.” But instead, God’s will has less to do with them and more to do with us. His will involves how we respond to foolish and ignorant claims. And His will is that we do right, and thus prove them wrong. Why is it that Christians are being increasingly accused of hate crimes? I think it is in part because there have been no shortage of hateful people who claimed to be Christians. But if we would do right, would anyone believe such allegations against Christians?

And what would doing right include? Look at verse 17: honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king. Do we live that way? We might say, “I can’t honor people who live in such dishonorable ways.” But we are not called to honor their lifestyles. We are called to honor them as people, in part because their lives are valuable because they were made in God’s image and Christ died to redeem them. How about our love for the brotherhood? Jesus said, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” One reason the world doesn’t take us seriously is that they see how we treat each other inside the family of God. Our love for each other is supposed to add credibility to the claims of Christ. Do people see that? Do they see that we live God-fearing lives? Or do they see no difference in our behavior at all? Do people see us as exemplary citizens, or as perpetual grumblers always complaining about the government? We should be leading the way in showing honor to the authorities in order that others would see Christ in and through us. Then they would be unable to make ludicrous accusations against us, and if they did anyway, no one would believe them.

Let’s look at verse 16 now and consider one final aspect of our dual citizenship.
IV. The Christian has a responsibility to act out his or her faith.

Act as free men, Peter says. We are free people. Not free in the typical American sense. We are free because we are in Christ. We are free from sin, free from fear, free from bondage. There can be no chains placed on our faith. Authorities, regardless of their earthly power, cannot compel us to become Christian or to abandon our faith in Christ. We are free people. And in some cases, such as is the case here in America, we are free in other ways as well. We are free to gather, free to worship, free to speak out for Christ, free to proclaim the Word of God, and free to vote our convictions at the polls. And we should exercise those freedoms to the fullest extent as we feel led of the Lord. If we are free, we should act as free men.

But we must never use our freedom, Peter says, as a covering for evil. Our freedom must not be exercised in disobedience of God’s clear commands. Just as, in Christ, we are free from sin, but not free to sin, so when it comes to our civil freedoms, we must not use them in ways that violate God’s ordinances concerning our relationship to the government. Church meetings must not become political rallies; Christian gatherings must not become the seedbed of treasonous acts; Christian speech must not become occasions for dishonoring the authorities or stirring up rebellion. Rather, we must use our freedom to demonstrate ourselves to be Christ’s servants. Our freedom should be exercised in seeking the welfare of our society, in showing kindness to those in need, showing love to one another, and in praying for our leaders. Just because we have the right to act in certain ways does not mean that it is right to act in those ways. If we have the right to bear arms, it does not mean that it is right to bear arms at all times for any reason. We have the right to free speech, but not all speech is right. We have the right to assemble, but not all assemblies are for right purposes. We need to evaluate all of these and other activities, not according to our Constitutional rights, but according to our Christian responsibilities. Christ has given us the right to forsake our personal rights for His higher calling. Do our actions in society demonstrate that we are the servants of Christ?

Now, we cannot leave this subject without one final word about a matter that is within the scope of this passage but is not addressed here. This is the question of whether or not it is ever right to oppose the government or the authorities, be they civil authorities or those at work or in any other sphere of life. I believe Scripture gives us examples of a precedent that those times do occur, but they are rare exceptions. The rule is submission and honor. The exceptions occur when man’s laws and God’s laws come into clear contradiction with one another. In those cases, we must obey God and oppose the human authorities. These cases would be those in which we are either commanded to do something that God forbids, or forbidden from doing something God commands. Consider the command issued by Nebuchadnezzar to worship the idolatrous image in the days of Daniel. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship the idol because they knew God had commanded them to have no gods before Him. Some time later, another king, Darius, commanded anyone who prayed to any god or petitioned any man other than the king, would be thrown to the lions. But Daniel did not obey this command. He continued praying, three times every day, and even in front of an open window. But in both of these situations, there was still a sense of submission even in the acts of disobedience. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego understood that their disobedience would lead to the furnace, and they accepted those consequences. Daniel understood that violating the king’s edict would lead to the lion’s den, and he accepted it. In both cases, God’s people entrusted themselves to the Lord as they submitted themselves to the penalty for their actions. In the New Testament we find the apostles threatened by the authorities in Acts 4 to speak no more in Jesus’ name. The problem was that they had been commanded by Jesus to proclaim the Gospel to the ends of the earth. So, in Acts 4:19-20, they said with great boldness, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.” And they said this knowing that imprisonment and death were very real possibilities as a result. Of course, the ultimate example of this is Jesus Himself. Had He renounced His claim to be the King of kings, the Son of God, the Savior and Messiah, then He would have likely been spared the cross. But Jesus held fast to the truth of God, and accepted the death that the authorities ordered. As Peter says in verse 23 here, “He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.” We must follow His example, empowered by His Spirit.

Yes, there may come those times in our lives when we have to resist authority. We must obey God foremost, and never disobey Him in order to obey lesser authorities. But those cases are going to be rare. It is not just when the authority in question, whether or at work or in society or any other time, inconveniences us or does something we don’t approve of. It is restricted to cases when the authorities command us to do something God forbids, or forbids us from doing something God commands. And if and when these things occur, we are not called to start a revolution, but rather to stand on our convictions, state our case, and accept the consequences that come, even if it is death.

The call to follow Jesus is the call to live on a higher plane. We have different values, different priorities, and a different perspective from others. We have become citizens of a greater Kingdom. But we have not lost our earthly citizenship in the process. We demonstrate our citizenship in the greater kingdom to others through our conduct as citizens of a lesser kingdom. We of all people have a biblically informed understanding of why government exists, and our posture toward the authorities that God has providentially placed over our lives is to be one of submission and honor. We are to pray for those authorities. We are to exercise our freedoms in ways that bring honor to Christ, our true Master and King. We should be the salt of the earth and the light of the world, reflecting God’s glory to those around us and stimulating a desire in others to know the One we follow and to experience what we have experienced in Christ by His grace.

Perhaps today God is speaking to your heart about these matters. This is God’s word. He has spoken; it is our task now to respond to Him as He speaks to us about these things. Perhaps God is speaking to you about your own relationship to Christ. Do you know Him as Lord and Savior? He died for your sins and is risen again, and He can transform your life if you turn to Him.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Alien Life - 1 Peter 2:11-12

Listen to it here

There is a fascination among human beings that we may not be alone in the universe. Science-fiction books, movies, and TV shows have never ceased being hugely popular, no matter how far-fetched their premises. And in a rather unusual case of life imitating art, many scientists and research organizations spend countless hours and dollars every year searching for intelligent alien life forms. I am encouraged by that expression, “intelligent alien life forms.” It assures me that if we were to find a colony of imbeciles on Mars, that we would not be interested in them. We are only looking for the intelligent ones. Are they there? Is there really an alien life-form to be discovered? Whether or not there is such a thing elsewhere in the galaxy, I am in no position to answer. But I do know that here on earth there are aliens. And I also know that there are some in this room. In fact, I want to let you in on something you may not have expected to hear this morning: I am one of them.

Of course, you know that I do not mean that I hail from another planet, though some of you may have suspected that from time to time. There is another way in which we use the word “alien.” We use it to describe a person who is living somewhere besides their true home. In the ongoing immigration debates in our country, we hear much discussion about resident and non-resident aliens. These terms describe those who reside in or visit a country that is not their homeland. This is the sense in which Peter describes his readers as “aliens and strangers.” It applies to them geographically because they had likely once been citizens of Rome, but had been transplanted by the Empire to colonize Asia Minor. But the term is also applied to these Christians spiritually because their true homeland was neither Rome nor Asia Minor. They were citizens, first and foremost, of the Kingdom of God. Like them, though we may have been born in America, or though we may have our immigration papers in proper order, or perhaps even become a legal citizen, if we are followers of Jesus, our status in this country or any other country on earth is that of an alien. As Paul said in Philippians 3:20, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” We are waiting for our King to come and take us to our true home, and He has promised that He will.

We are strangers and aliens in this world. This was a phrase that Abraham used to describe himself to the Hittites in Genesis 23:4 as he negotiated for a place to bury his wife. He said, “I am a stranger and a sojourner among you.” That’s how it is rendered in the NASB. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the wording is exactly the same as we find here in verse 11. The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that though Abraham had been given that land by the promise of God, “by faith, he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:9-10). He knew that Canaan was not his true home, just the place he was to dwell until God took him to his true home. Peter uses the same language to describe his readers, and it applies to us as well. We are strangers and aliens as we live for Christ in this world. We are the alien life-forms. So, how shall we live? What are the marks of the alien life? Peter gives them to us here in these brief verses.

I. The alien life is marked by personal spiritual discipline (v11)
On our street, we are one of a very few households that does not own a dog. But the neighborhood dogs are a constant source of entertainment for us. We watch them walk their owners every day, sometimes several times a day. It’s really interesting to compare dogs, or just about any other kind of animal, to people. Of course there are many differences, but one that I repeatedly notice is that when dogs want to do something, they just do it. Depending on the strength of the owner or the length of the leash, the owner may or may not be able to stop them. So, on a near daily basis, I observe the neighborhood dogs chase their would-be prey, fight turf wars with each other, and do many other things that obviously strike their fancy at the moment. Human beings do not have to do that. Every human being has the ability to make moral decisions that override natural desires. That doesn’t mean that we all do, but we all can. Many wonder today why young people demonstrate so little restraint in their conduct, and I believe it is a direct result of their being taught that they are descendants of animals, whose greatest evolutionary achievement is the development of a thumb. Oh no, we are so much more than that. We are created in the image of God and have a universal moral awareness of right and wrong. Sin has corrupted our desires and our ability to control them, but no person is without the ability to natural, but inappropriate, desires. Now, Christians have an advantage over the rest of humanity in this regard. We not only have the ability to override personal desires, we have a supernatural enabling from the Holy Spirit and a stronger motivation for denying ourselves when it is necessary.

Peter addresses his beloved brothers and sisters in Christ here, and says to them, “I urge you as aliens and strangers to abstain from fleshly lusts.” First, let’s identify what he means by fleshly lusts. At first glance, we would most likely assume he is talking about illicit sexual desires. To be sure, those are included, but fleshly lusts are not merely limited to that. The Greek word here translated lusts is a word that means a longing or intense desire. Now, it should be noted that in some contexts, this can be a positive thing. For instance, it is the word Jesus used at the Last Supper when He said, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you.” Paul uses this word in Philippians 1:23 when he says that he has a “desire to depart and be with Christ.” Desire in itself is not a bad thing. God gives us desires. But the problem with desire is that it is corrupted by our sin nature. The sexual desire, for example, was given to us by God for pursuit and expression within the bounds of holy marriage. But sin corrupts this desire and people pursue the satisfaction of it outside of those boundaries. Take the desire for food as another example. We need food to live, do we not? God gave us the ability to feel hunger so that we would know when our bodies need nourishment. But sin unbridles the desire and leads to gluttony. We could also speak about our natural desires to seek revenge, to amass wealth, to accumulate possessions, to gain popularity, etc. In Galatians 5, Paul lists “the deeds of the flesh” to include “immorality (porneia, sexual sin), impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery (pharmakeia, perhaps alluding to drug use in the acts of sorcery), enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” These things come all too naturally to us. The point is that we who are the followers of Christ must not respond to every stimulus that comes our way by doing what comes naturally. We have been empowered to act supernaturally.

God does not issue commands to His people in His Word that are impossible to carry out. So when Peter says that we are to abstain from these fleshly lusts, we need to believe that it is absolutely possible to place these desires under the Lordship of Christ and have victory over them. It is not merely an act of master and slave obedience, but God has given us the power of the Holy Spirit, so that where our flesh is weak, His strength is perfect. So in the moment of temptation, we need to pause long enough to consider our actions rather than just responding to the stimulation of our desire like Pavlov’s dog. In that moment, we need to surrender to the Holy Spirit’s control and find His power to overcome those desires.

Well, we might ask, what does it hurt to indulge a carnal desire, especially when it is done in private and no one notices? Peter actually answers that question here. He says that these fleshly lusts wage war against the soul. Imagine for a moment that you are the commander of a military post. One day, the guards at the gate phone you and say that there is a group of terrorists at the gate, and they said they don’t mean any harm, but they would just like to come in and poke around a bit, take some pictures, ask some questions. What commander in his right mind would say, “Well, I guess if they mean no harm, what could it hurt? Go ahead and invite them in.” When we indulge inappropriate desires, or even appropriate desires in inappropriate ways, it is like we are inviting a spiritual terrorist into our soul for a visit. The indulgence of those desires will sabotage us spiritually, weakening us and dulling our spiritual sensitivities, making us useless for the cause of Christ. Over time, our sensitivity to conscience and to the Spirit’s conviction becomes numb as we repeatedly ignore their warnings, and soon we begin to engage in deeper levels of sin more habitually and indiscriminately. What could it hurt? It could destroy you, even if no one ever knows about it, because it corrupts from the inside. Sooner or later, that corruption will begin to be evident on the outside.

Some months ago, I put a mouse trap in our laundry room. It was one of these “humane traps,” you know, no blood, no mess, instant, painless death for the mouse. The only downside is that it is hard to tell when there is a mouse in it. A couple of weeks ago, I began to smell this really awful stench, and sure enough, my nose led me to the trap. Who knows how long that little mouse had been in there? There was rotting death inside that trap, and eventually, it became evident because of the odor it emitted. Folks, when we engage in so-called “private sin,” we can keep up appearances for a while. In fact, others may never know exactly what we are up to. But that sin is working spiritual death within us. Over time, people begin to notice that things are different with us. Maybe it is our attitude, our personality, our temper, our interests, or something else. But soon, the stench of spiritual death begins to surround us like a toxic cloud. At any moment along the way, repentance is an option for us. We can fight the good fight in the Holy Spirit’s power and begin to experience victory. But the longer it progresses, the more difficult it becomes because we become weaker and weaker for the battle. At some point, we may need help from our brothers and sisters to bring us out. Sin is deadly, and it is a big deal. So we must be vigilant in our internal war against it.

So, one mark of our lifestyles as strangers and aliens is personal spiritual discipline in which we depend on the Spirit’s power within us to abstain from fleshly lusts.

II. Alien life is marked by a witnessing lifestyle. (v12)

You have heard me say that one of the many things that Christians and non-Christians agree on is that the idea of witnessing makes both of them nervous. I recently observed a young Christian sharing the Gospel with someone in public, and I was curious as to which one was going to pass out first. Both were extremely uncomfortable. Some years ago, I suppose in an effort to relieve some Christians of the anxiety of witnessing, the concept of “lifestyle evangelism” became popular. The idea was that it is not our words, but our deeds that do the witnessing, so we should not worry about talking to others about Jesus, we should just live good moral lives, and that will present the gospel to them. There are several major problems with this approach. First, none of us live lives that are THAT good. Don’t get me wrong … you may be a person of superior moral excellence, but can any of us really say that our lives are a clear reflection of the gospel? Second, are there not morally good lost people? Some of them are living more upstanding lives than many Christians! So what does that say for letting our lives do the witnessing? Thirdly, none of us are better than Jesus, are we? So, how often did Jesus say, “You know, I am not going to use words, I think I will just let them see how I live. That ought to do the trick.”? Easy answer: NEVER. So, can your life outpreach Jesus’ life? To think that it can is the epitome of arrogance. Fourth, the gospel is “good news.” To tell the news means that words are necessary. There is nothing we can do or not do that can communicate the news that Jesus Christ is the incarnate God who died for our sins and rose again. Sharing the gospel means that we will need words.

So, is the lifestyle not important? Oh, on the contrary. You see, the Gospel is a message about radical transformation. It is news that because of what Christ has done, we can be made brand new, born-again, empowered for victorious living by the indwelling Spirit, and made citizens of God’s Kingdom. Now our lives are either going to confirm that news or contradict it. If you do not demonstrate the gospel through your life, then words about the gospel are meaningless and empty. So, lifestyle minus words equals not witnessing. Words minus lifestyle equals not witnessing. Witnessing equals words PLUS lifestyle. And what does the witnessing lifestyle look like? Peter says that it is one of excellent behavior. The word translated “excellent” here is also translated elsewhere as “beautiful, lovely, fine, etc.” The interesting thing about those words is that they typically describe something you can see, or at least perceive in some way. So our lives should be noticeably excellent in the eyes of those we encounter. This will validate the truth of the gospel.

Have you ever known a Christian who “acts better” when they are around other Christians than they do when they are around lost people? It’s like, when they come to church, they put on this show of spirituality, but when they are around lost people, they just blend right in with them. Well, notice here that Peter says that we must keep our behavior excellent among the Gentiles. This is really a rather unfortunate translation. The Greek word is ethnos, and is used elsewhere in the New Testament to denote “the nations.” To understand the point, remember what he said earlier in verse 9, that in Christ you have become “a holy nation.” Now, when you are among those who are not of this nation, but of “the other nations,” it is of the utmost importance that we demonstrate godly lives. That’s not to say that when we are with other Christians that we can just let it all go and act like pagans. No, it is to say that we must be done with the hypocrisy of pretending to be righteous around one another, and chasing after unrighteousness among the lost. We must show the lost the difference that Christ makes in our lives.

Now, Peter says here that these lost people are slandering the Christians as evildoers. Christianity was seldom understood by outsiders in the first century. They heard things about them and made assumptions about them that were not accurate. So, for instance, they heard that the Christians refused to worship the Emperor or the gods of the pantheon; therefore they were accused of being atheists and traitors. They heard that Christians were eating flesh and drinking blood, and did not understand the symbolism of the Lord’s Supper, so they assumed the Christians were cannibals. They heard that Christians loved their brothers and sisters, greeted them with holy kisses, and only married their own brothers and sisters; so, they were accused of incest. This was slander against the church: spoken lies that were told to defame the Christian’s character in the society. What were the Christians to do? Peter’s exhortation is to prove them wrong by the excellence of their conduct. Let them see what we do, and how we live, and of course, when there is an opportunity, tell them what we believe and correct their mistaken assumptions. And as a result, these people may turn from slandering Christians to glorifying God.

Of course today, everyone loves Christians and speaks highly of us in the public square, right? No, this is not 1950 anymore. Public perception of Christians has changed. We are accused of being hateful because we oppose homosexuality. We are accused of being misogynists because we oppose abortion. We are accused of being ignorant because we believe in creation instead of evolution. They say we are angry, narrow-minded, and all kinds of other things.

What are we to do about this? I tell you what we must NOT do. We must not do what some Christians, some churches, and some entire denominations have done. We must not compromise our convictions for the sake of public relations! And we must not respond in anger and retribution. That would only prove them right! No, instead, we must do two very specific things. First, we need to be very clear with our message. If you were to ask the average person on the street what Christians believe, how do you think he or she would answer? They probably wouldn’t know, right? They might say, “They believe in God,” or “they believe in Jesus,” or “the Bible.” More often, they might say, “They believe that only people who go to church go to heaven, and they don’t believe in homosexuality or abortion, and they don’t drink or do drugs.” Friends, an answer like that needs to be received by the church as an indictment. If this is what the public understands Christianity to be, then we have really garbled up the message. In many cases, the Church has crusaded to make well-behaved pagans out of people rather than making disciples for Christ. We have aimed at reforming morality rather than transforming lives by the power of the Gospel. Every now and then I get a call from someone at News & Record about something going on here in the corridor, and honestly I usually dodge their calls. But sometimes they get me. And they ask me about crime and safety and drugs and prostitutes, and all this stuff. And in every answer I give them, I mention the cross and Christ and salvation and the new birth. Why? Is it to be annoying or to shove religion down their throats? No, it is because I want to be very clear that we are not a people who are simply against things. We are a people who are passionately FOR the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are a people who believe that the government can throw as much money as they want at the problems of our city, but unless Jesus Christ changes the heart of the individual person, there will be no change. I want to be really clear with the message. I want to challenge you to do the same. When you have opportunity to speak to unbelievers, let’s talk about what we are for, and let’s keep the focus on the cross. As Paul said in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of” what? THE GOSPEL! Why? Because “IT is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” If someone is going to hate me, I want to make sure the central issue is the bloody cross of Jesus and not our difference of opinion on a social issue or a mistaken assumption about what my Christianity entails.

So that’s the first thing we must do in the face of public opposition to Christianity: be clear with the message. The second thing is this: confirm the message with our lifestyle. Do you realize how much harm is done to the gospel every time a professing Christian is involved in a moral scandal? When King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed, Nathan the prophet told him, “by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme.” And that is the way we need to see it. When our lifestyles compromise the Gospel, we actually give the lost a reason to not believe. So, we must keep our behavior excellent among the Gentiles. And as we do that, and as we keep the message of the Gospel clear, we may find that some of them begin to realize that there is something to this Jesus stuff after all. Maybe God would be pleased to use what they see and hear in you to draw them to faith in Christ.

Peter concludes here with a reminder of the urgency of this. He mentions the “day of visitation.” What is that? That’s the day of the return of Jesus Christ. Folks, we can’t just sit back and say, “Oh yeah, one of these days we need to get serious about this stuff.” Now is the time, and today is the day. Christ is coming, and when He does, He will find two kinds of people on the earth: those who glorify Him by faith in Christ and those who blaspheme Him in unbelief. And it is our task as aliens and strangers in the world to make worshipers out of blasphemers. How then shall we live? In personal spiritual discipline, that we might be useful to the Lord, filled with His power and presence, and strengthened as we abstain from fleshly lusts. And in a life of excellent behavior that confirms our words of witness to the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If you are here today and not a follower of Jesus, we invite you to join us. None of us are perfect, and we have often presented a poor witness for Christ, but it is for imperfect people that Christ came and died, and that should give you great hope. Trust Him to save you from your sins and make you His own, and His Spirit will empower you to live in abundant victory, and to live forever in the home He created for you.

Believers, it may be that the Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart today about something related to your personal spiritual struggles, your witnessing, or your lifestyle. My prayer would be that we might all allow Him to convict us as He will, and that we might surrender every point of personal weakness over to His perfect strength to transform us for His glory.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

No remedy but faith and patience

I've been thinking a lot about grumbling lately. Not that I have any personal experience with grumblers. But I read books you know. I talk to pastors, most of whom are out west, and they tell me about dealing with grumblers in their churches. Chuckle.

Seriously, in a time of much excitement and movement of the Holy Spirit, I should not be surprised by this point in my ministry that there is a small number of folks who grumble. I think every pastor can relate to that. I have sought counsel from some pastor friends about the grumbling few and have received many different insights and opinions. But there is a still small voice reminding me to wait on the Lord. Today that point was reinforced in an unusual way.

Charles Simeon is a hero of the faith. His life was fascinating, his ministry was faithful, and his preaching was beyond compare. Yet, it is interesting how grumblers can sometimes occupy our attention to the point that we forget the lessons we have learned at times past. I had run across this episode from Simeon's life years ago, and it blessed me then. In recent days, I hadn't even given it a thought until I ran across it in Dave Harvey's excellent book, Rescuing Ambition. (Side note: this book is wrecking me two ways ... one for being too ambitious, and another for not being ambitious enough).

Simeon knew that God had called him to be a pastor, and he desired to exercise that calling. When he came to Trinity Church in Cambridge, most of the members did not approve of him. Harvey writes, "Most of the members opposed his evangelical convictions and were intent on frustrating his ministry." What did they do? For twelve years, they boycotted the church's Sunday services and locked the doors on the pews. (Those unfamiliar with the old pews that had locking doors on them will not understand that, but visit an old historic church and you will see how they did this). Anyone who wanted to attend the services had to sit in the aisles because they couldn't open the pew doors. This went on for 12 (TWELVE!) years!!! As Harvey writes, "During all that time, Simeon preached, pastored, and waited."

In Simeon's words, "In this state of things I saw no remedy but faith and patience. ... It was painful indeed to see the church, with the exception of the aisles, almost forsaken; but I thought that if God would only give a double blessing to the congregation that did attend, there would on the whole be as much good done as if the congregation were doubled and the blessing limited to only half the amount. This comforted me many, many times, when without such a reflection, I should have sunk under my burden."

Eventually, faith and patience proved to be the remedy God would honor. The pews were eventually unlocked, and Simeon enjoyed 44 (FORTY-FOUR!!!) more years as pastor there. When asked about passages of Scripture that helped Simeon along the way during those difficult dozen years, he often referred to Lamentations 3:25: "The Lord is good to those who wait for him."

So, what do I draw from that for the present time? First, I really don't have it so bad. Simeon exercised courageous patience when a MAJORITY of his congregation opposed him. I have been blessed in that my grumblers can be counted on one hand (if there are more, I'd rather not know). Second, Simeon's opposition at Trinity lasted for 12 years! That is exactly how long I have been in pastoral ministry. Though I have seen conflict, opposition, and strife in this dozen years, in retrospect those periods have been few and brief. I have seen far more joy than sorrow in the labor. Third, I am reaffirmed in what I sense from the Lord, and that is to let Him fight the battles. As for me, patience and faith, and faithfulness to the task, are the orders of the day. I will wait for Him, and enjoy His goodness in the midst of the grumbling. Fourth, when I consider that Simeon ended up serving Trinity for 56 years, I have to imagine that the final 44 years were not completely free from grumbling. But he endured by God's grace. So, I think overall, my lesson to take away from Simeon's experience is that I need to quit whining and keep my hands on the plow. One of many lessons I am drawing from Harvey's book as it reminds me on every page that my glory is insignificant, but God's glory is infinite. So I need to abandon selfish ambition and embrace a passionate ambition to bring glory to God through what He has called and equipped me to do for Him.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

1 Peter 2:9-10 We the People: The Church's Declaration and Constitution

Sermon from July 4, 2010 (audio available here)

It was 234 years ago today that the founding fathers of America issued the Declaration of Independence which stated the case for America’s liberation from the British Empire. This, of course, precipitated the Revolutionary War in which that independence was secured. Shortly thereafter, in 1787, the Constitution was issued that laid the foundation of the laws that continue to govern this land today. And so for most Americans, the Fourth of July is a celebration of heritage, a celebration of freedom, and a time of remembrance and honor for those who served, who fought, and who died to protect and defend these freedoms. Indeed, all who dwell within America’s borders can be thankful for the rights and privileges we enjoy here which are unique compared to most of the countries in the world today and throughout the world’s history. The sun should not set on this day without each of us taking time to celebrate together and meditate individually on these things, and to pray for our country and its leaders as we are commanded to do in God’s Word.

In the providence of God, who authored the biblical text through divine inspiration, and choreographs the events of our lives according to His divine purpose, we have come to this particular text, 1 Peter 2:9-10, on this particular day. While we do not want to manipulate the text to suit our calendars, we also do not want to ignore the very clear significance of this text on a day like today. Some two hundred or so years ago, the independence and establishment of this nation was secured. But some two thousand or so years ago, another nation was established that not only existed before this one, but will survive long beyond this one. The nation of which I speak was not merely founded upon vague Christian principles; it was founded by Jesus Christ Himself. The nation of which I speak is the Church of Jesus Christ. It may seem odd to you for me to refer to the church as a nation, but that is the exact terminology that is used here in the text. And the verses we investigate today provide for us a concise summary of the Church’s Declaration and Constitution.

Throughout the history of Christianity, persecution of the church has abounded where governing powers deemed the church’s highest allegiance to Jesus Christ to be treasonous. While I am not calling us to commit treason today, I do desire today to make a clear line of distinction between our temporary and less-significant citizenship in America, and our more permanent and greater citizenship in God’s Kingdom. Though we may pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, there should be an infinitely deeper sense of allegiance to Jesus Christ in the heart of every Christian. We are blessed to live in a country and at such a time where those two allegiances do not necessarily contradict one another. This is not true for many of our brothers and sisters around the world, nor has it been true for our fellow Christians in most of the world throughout Church history. Therefore, we must ask ourselves, if the day should come when being an American and being a Christian begin come into conflict with one another, which allegiance will we pledge? Will we be willing, if, God forbid, we must, to declare with boldness and with much potential personal risk that our ultimate citizenship is elsewhere in the Kingdom of God?

The Christians who received Peter’s letters had most likely been citizens of Rome, but because of their faith in Christ, had been deported to Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) where they became the pioneer colonists of a new Roman territory. Like many of those who first came to America, they were persecuted by those in their homeland, and they lived in uneasy tension with their neighbors in the new land. They had no true place to call home, no place where they were truly free. But Peter writes to them to remind them that their greatest allegiance is not to Rome where they were kicked out; nor to Asia Minor where they had been placed; but to Jesus Christ who saved them and made them His own.

So, as I read these verses today, I find sentiments here that are remarkably similar to those which the founding fathers of America expressed in the founding documents of our earthly homeland. So I have adapted language from those documents as headings for our consideration of this text today in hopes of using ideas that are familiar to us as Americans to broaden our understanding of concepts that may not be as familiar, but which are infinitely more important, to us as Christians. And so, this is the declaration and constitution of the Church of Jesus Christ, of which we, the people who belong to Him by faith, are members and citizens.

I. We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ have been declared to be independent.

In the Declaration of Independence, the founders of America set forth the conditions under which they had been living that led them to the radical decision to dissolve the political bands that connected the with Britain. They stated in the most famous words of American history, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” And they went on to say that when a government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to abolish it, and to institute new Government. But they wrote of the long train of abuses and usurpations that had reduced them under absolute despotism. And they set forth their indictment against the King of England that made this Declaration of Independence necessary.

Now, as we look at our text today, we are reminded that, spiritually speaking, humanity as a whole has endured a long train of abuses and have been reduced under absolute despotism. The oppressor is not a tyrannical earthly king or corrupted government, but rather, we are oppressed by our own sinful condition. Following the first sin of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, humanity has been suffering the wicked effects of sin in our lives, in our relationships, in our communities and in our cultures. We come into this world separated from God because of sin. Our lives are fractured and splintered because of its effects, and we are therefore “not a people,” as Peter says in v10. Our separation from God, our isolation from one another, is severe and threatens to be eternal. Hell is the final, eternal destiny of those who die separated from God. People will often ask, “How can a loving God send innocent people to hell?” The answer is that He doesn’t. The fact is that there are no innocent people. We are all sinners by nature and by choice, and hell is what we deserve. Therefore, if there is to be any hope, it must be found in receiving from God that which we do not deserve. This is mercy. Mercy is God’s withholding of the penalty that we have earned because of our sin. But Peter says here in verse 10 that we “had not received mercy.” In verse 9, he describes our condition as one of “darkness.” When you consider that three times in the Gospel According to Matthew, Jesus uses the phrase “outer darkness” to describe hell, we may well say that a life that is being lived in separation from God is hell on earth, and it leads eventually to the final and ultimate judgment of hell itself.

The founders of America reached a point in which they determined to set themselves free from Britain by a strongly worded declaration and the ensuing war for independence. But when we speak of our spiritual condition, we must understand that we cannot declare ourselves to be free, nor can we do anything to make ourselves free. We are doomed to languish under sin’s tyranny unless we are set free by God Himself. Jesus said in John 8:36, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.” And in His Son, God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, God has declared us free and accomplished our liberation. Blood was shed for our liberty, but it was not the blood of human warfare. It was the blood of Jesus on the cross where He died for our sins. He received in Himself the just penalty of our sins, so that as a result of His sacrifice, we could be free from sin forever and reconciled to the God who made us for Himself. Once reconciled to Him, we are reconciled to each other in this new family, this new and free people that God has formed from all the peoples of the earth. He has called us who were not a people now “the people of God.” He has shown mercy to us who had not received mercy. He has withheld from us the penalty we deserve and taken it upon Himself in the cross. He called us out of the darkness of sin and into the marvelous light of His eternal and unconditional love, the light of eternal life, and the light of His eternal glory. Those who have heard that call of the Gospel and responded by placing their faith in Jesus Christ to save them have been set free from bondage to sin and made to be the people of God by His mercy.

II. We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ have been constituted as a more perfect union

The Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War did not establish America as a nation; it merely severed the ties with Britain. The hard work of making a nation was still to come. As the Constitutional Convention concluded in 1787, Benjamin Franklin emerged from the closed rooms where the Constitution had been drafted and debated, and was faced with a question from a citizen: “Well, Doctor,” she asked, “what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.” That republic was established on the Constitution of the United States of America, which described how the American government was to operate and what the rights of each citizen of the republic would be. Its opening words are well known to most of us: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The framers understood that a government which Abraham Lincoln would later describe as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” could never be perfect. There are no perfect people, and therefore, no government created by people and carried out by people could ever be perfect. Their aim was not to create a perfect union, only a “more perfect” union that what they knew before.

But in our text today, we are reading about a new nation which was not formed by faulty human hands. We are reading here about a nation that was formed by Jesus Christ. He is not flawed by sin as we are. Therefore, when He establishes a “more perfect union,” it is more perfect than anything human beings can create. And this nation is constituted here in this brief verse using four biblical depictions that are borrowed from Old Testament passages. We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, these titles comprise your truest identity above and beyond the claims of culture, ethnicity, occupation, or nationality.

We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ are a chosen race. We’ve heard a lot of discussion about race here at Immanuel over the last few weeks. We were encouraged and challenged to embrace and pursue the vision of being a church for all people. Dr. Woo uses the term “multiracial church” to describe a congregation that includes people of many diverse ethnicities. In his opening talk he used a text from Ephesians to describe how Jesus has torn down the walls of separation, so that now, having been reconciled to God through Christ, we can be reconciled to one another regardless of our native language or the color of our skin. I have often preferred to use the word “ethnicity” rather than “race,” because I believe it is a truer reflection of the biblical language that describes our varied human backgrounds. Still, Dr. Woo and I are using different words to describe the same reality, and that is that church is no place for segregation or separation of people according to skin color, eye-shape, socio-economic status, or any other factor. There is one Savior, one way to God, one Gospel, for all of humanity, and a church that is characterized by diversity provides a visual picture of this gospel to our society. So, a church that refuses to embrace ethnic or racial diversity hinders the gospel and is in disobedience to Jesus Christ and the Word of God. We ought to be a church that consists of all races in this sense.

But then there is another sense in which we are one race. I need to explain that very carefully. I do not mean in any way that the Church of Jesus Christ is to be white or black, any more than the Apostles Paul or Peter would have meant that the Church is to be Jewish or Gentile. The Church cannot be American, Chinese, Ethiopian, Nigerian, Canadian, or any other single earthly culture. The Church is a race all its own, and is Christian first, before it is anything else, and exclusive of anything else. In Christ, God has swept across the races, the ethnicities, the nationalities, and chosen for Himself those who will make up this new race of people. The Greek word we translate as “church” literally means “the called out ones.” We have been called out of our various backgrounds and into this new race of the people of Christ. When we think of humanity in biblical terms, there are only two races. There is the human race, and then there is a special subset of the race of human beings whom God has chosen for Himself. So, racism and airs of nationalistic superiority have no place in the Church of Jesus Christ. If you are inclined to look upon other people whose skin is a different color, whose eyes are a different shape, whose hair is a different texture, or whose native tongue is different from yours, and think you are better than them, then you are not right with God; you have not embraced the Gospel fully, and you have no part in the Church of Jesus Christ. Repentance is the only cure for this, as you search your heart and discover the roots of racism, take it to the cross of Jesus and lay it down there and leave it there. We are a church of many ethnicities, and God-willing, we will be even more in the future; but ultimately we are one chosen race of people in Jesus Christ.

We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ are also a royal priesthood. Within Old Testament Israel, there was a special class of priestly people. But as a whole, Israel itself also had a priestly function to represent God to the nations of the world. Throughout their history, they failed this task repeatedly. They either cut themselves off from the nations in an attitude of superiority, or else uncritically embraced the practices of the pagan nations around them. As one commentator describes it, “Because His people acted like the pagans of the surrounding nations, they were to be sent into exile, scattered among them.” But now, in the church, God has reestablished a priesthood for Himself—a people that will be His representatives in the earth. For centuries, the Church also failed at this task, erecting an artificial hierarchy of clergy and laity that entrusted the work of ministry to a privileged few. It was not until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century that the doctrine of the priesthood of the believers was restored and reemphasized. Martin Luther was a part of the Roman Catholic system that obscured this reality, but he became the loudest voice for the priesthood of believers in church history. He said, “Let everyone, therefore, who knows himself to be a Christian, be assured of this, that we are all equally priests.”

So, does the priesthood of the believers mean that you can interpret the Bible to mean whatever you want it to mean? Does it mean that you can take any action you desire and do it in the name of the Lord or the name of the church? No. The congregation as a whole, and those who have been appointed by the congregation as leaders, have a responsibility to hold each of us accountable in the exercise of this priesthood. You and I have a responsibility to hold one another accountable for representing Christ well, upholding His Word faithfully, and preserving the unity of the church before the eyes of a watching community and world. So, we are individually priests of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit to act in Christ’s name as we have the opportunity; but we are collectively a priesthood that holds one another accountable in this ministry.

And notice that the priesthood is “royal.” A royal priest of old was one who was in the particular service of the King. But we are not in the priesthood of earthly kings, but rather the King of all Kings, Jesus Christ Himself. We are a royal priesthood because we work for Him. He is sovereign over us in our priestly duties.

Notice that Peter also states here that we are a “holy nation.” Let me remind you that when he says this, he is not speaking of Israel as a holy nation or of America as a holy nation. He is speaking of His Church as a holy nation. Holiness in this sense has to do with being set apart for God’s particular purposes. God has chosen the church, wherever in the world that believers in Jesus are found, to be His nation, and this nation is devoted completely to His sovereign purposes. Our primary citizenship is not in the nation in which we were born or the one in which we live, but in this nation to which we have been called. We are citizens of Christ’s Kingdom, and it is to this nation that we owe our ultimate allegiance. First century Christians were not always persecuted simply because they worshiped Jesus. There were so many gods worshiped in ancient Rome that adding one more was no matter of great concern. The most intense persecution stemmed from the fact that the Christians declared their loyalty to Jesus Christ and His Kingdom above and beyond the Roman state. We have been duly constituted by God Himself as a free and sovereign nation that exists for Him alone in the world. Thankfully, in America, there are few times we will face in our lives where our dual citizenship creates a conflict. But, those times will come, and will come increasingly in years to come if present trends continue. And when they do, we need to be prepared to say that our citizenship in heaven is infinitely more important than our citizenship in these United States.

Then notice the fourth phrase: We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ are a people for God’s own possession. “You are not your own,” the Apostle Paul stated, “you have been bought with a price.” The price that was paid for you was the blood of Jesus Christ. In Him, God has taken ownership of us. We are not rugged individualists, living out the pursuit of the American Dream. We are not the slaves of earthly lords; we are not the subjects of earthly empires; we are not the blind followers of earthly leaders. There is no claim on our lives greater than this one: We belong to God through Jesus Christ.

And so this is our constitution, Church: We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession.

III. We the people of the Church of Jesus Christ are called to the free exercise of our faith.

As the United States Constitution was being drafted and debated, George Mason and others felt strongly that the Constitution needed to include a description of certain rights of the citizens that the federal government could never violate. So in 1791, ten amendments were added to the Constitution that became known as the Bill of Rights. None of these has been more precious in the intervening centuries than the first, which reads in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This means, of course, that there will never be an official religion of the United States of America. Many of the earliest settlers in America were fleeing persecution from the Church of England, and they wanted to be sure that the government would never have the power to enforce religious dictates against conscience. But it also stipulates that Congress cannot pass a law that restricts the free exercise of one’s religion. We may not realize fully what Christian brothers and sisters through history and in the world today would give for a protected freedom like this! Many of them are daily being persecuted for worshiping Christ and for speaking in His name. Though forbidden in their homelands, they do these things anyway out of obedience to Christ. Ironically, here where we are free to worship openly and speak boldly for Christ, we often fail to do so. In that sense, while we cherish these rights, they are being wasted on a lethargic American church which is caught up in the enjoyment of other personal rights to the exclusion of these precious ones regarding our faith!

Well, what is the free exercise of our faith? To put it biblically in relation to our passage, what have we been called to do for Christ? He has called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light; He has shown mercy to us who had not received mercy; He has made us who were not a people to be the people of God, a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession. But for what? The text makes it clear with the words “so that.” All of this has taken place so that “you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light.” Our Christian task, our duty (but even more than duty, this should be our delight) is to proclaim the excellencies of God in Christ. This is really our only task, but it encompasses so much in the carrying out of it.

When we proclaim the excellencies of God in Christ to God, this is worship. Worship is about so much more than singing the songs we enjoy! In worship we are proclaiming the excellencies of God in Christ to God in Christ, and we do this through our songs, through our prayers, through our offerings, and through the proclamation and listening of His Word. Our guide for song selection in worship should be this: Does it recount to God Himself His own excellencies? When we place our offering in the plate, we are declaring to Him that He is infinitely worthy. When we carve aside a sizeable chunk of time for the purpose of proclaiming and hearing His word, we are declaring to Him that He is precious to us, and that His Word is necessary for our lives. So we proclaim His excellencies to Him in worship.

When we proclaim the excellencies of God in Christ to each other, this is fellowship and edification, or discipleship if you will. Is our Christian fellowship enriched by the simple knowledge that we like the same football teams or the same kinds of food? Not any more than any other human relationship is enriched. But we grow in fellowship with one another as we learn of each other’s love for Christ that we observe as we talk together about His countless excellencies! Is there a need for Christian growth in our congregation? It doesn’t happen through workbooks and DVD series. How does it happen? It is contagious as we spend time with one another hearing and recounting with each other about the excellencies of God in Christ that we have experienced in our walk with Him.

When we proclaim the excellencies of God in Christ to those outside the church, this is witness. Call it missions, call it evangelism, call it what you will. We obsess over “how to do it,” but the Bible tells us how to do it. Proclaim the excellencies of God in Christ to those who do not know Him, and the Holy Spirit will use that to call out those whom He would save. So, what do we find ourselves speaking of when we talk to those who do not know Christ? Politics? Sports? Current events? Ourselves? Are we always complaining about something? Does the lost person we speak to know how excellent we find Jesus Christ to be, and why we find Him so glorious?

When we proclaim the excellencies of God in Christ to ourselves, this is spiritual discipline. I have found that there is no better motivator for me to do right for Jesus than to rehearse in my mind His excellencies. There is no greater tactic to employ in the battle with temptation and sin than to confront those momentary weaknesses with a litany of the excellencies of God in Jesus Christ. Contrast the fleeting appeal of sin with the abiding glory of Christ, and examine your heart’s truest desires. We are inexplicably helped in moments of spiritual struggle by proclaiming the excellencies of God in Christ to ourselves.

Perhaps nowhere in the New Testament do we find a more succinct description of what we are called to do as believers than these brief words: “proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” This encompasses our worship, our fellowship, our discipleship, and our witness to a lost world.

In closing, as we mark the birthday of the United States of America today, let us be reminded from God’s Word that through faith in Jesus Christ, we have become a part of something that transcends our earthly citizenship. We are the recipients of greater blessings, greater freedoms, greater rights and greater privileges through God’s grace that has been demonstrated for us through Jesus Christ. He lived for you, He died for you, He rose again for you, and He longs to live inside of you to transform you into His likeness and bring you to Himself for eternity. Through Jesus Christ, we become citizens of a heavenly kingdom that will never pass away. This is a reality that the Christian should celebrate every day, not just once a year. So perhaps this day, as you gather with friends and family to celebrate our American heritage, God will give you the opportunities to speak of His excellencies in Jesus Christ, His Kingdom, and our citizenship therein.