Friday, February 28, 2014

As His Custom Was

  Life of Christ 34

Lighthouse Baptist Church, Bessemer, Pennsylvania
          Jesus had a habit of regular attendance at God's house. In other words, basically Jesus went to church, by force of habit, every single Lord's Day. 'And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read' (Luke 4.16). Yes, I realize that the synagogue is not the church, yet the scriptures clearly say that the house of God in our dispensation is the church (I Timothy 3.15). Yes, I realize the Sabbath is also not applicable in our dispensation, but the idea of assembling with God's people at least once a week was not birthed in the Church; it was birthed in the synagogue.
          Is it your custom to attend God's house every week? For far too many of God's people the answer is 'no'. Oh, they attend occasionally, but not habitually. They attend when they have nothing better to do. They attend when they feel moved to do so. They attend when something special is going on. They attend when the weather is good. They attend when they don't have any reasonable excuse to offer themselves for not attending. They attend so long as no one at church offends them. They attend so long as they find it interesting and compelling. They attend so long as the stars align perfectly, and the birds sing, and the sky is blue, and they feel happy to be there.
          That isn't habit driven; it is circumstance driven. What if you brushed your teeth that way? Now, of course, you brush them no matter what you ate, no matter where you ate it at, or no matter what else you have going on. In fact, the habit is so deeply ingrained in you that you probably don't even consciously think about the fact you need to do it; you just do it. But what if you brushed your teeth with the same casual carelessness with which so many Christians view church attendance? The result would not be pretty to see, and the same is true with a Christian who only attends church occasionally as well.
          You cannot be right with God, and wrong with church. I do not believe everybody has to go to my church, by any means, or even a church like mine. But I am absolutely convinced, barring health concerns or not having a church within 100 miles, give or take, that if you are not in the habit of attending church on a regular basis you are not right with God. Jesus Christ died to purchase the church. The church is His body on earth. The church is the pillar and ground of the truth. The church is where God's people sing about Him, pray to Him, fellowship with one another, edify one another, and hear the preaching of the Word of God. The church is God's ordained choice of an institution to perpetuate the Gospel in our dispensation. The church is Jesus in your neighborhood. The church is the local, visible assembly of God's people. Jesus loves the church. If you don't purposely have one that is yours, that you attend regularly, then you are a lousy Christian.

          …after all, to be a Christian is to be like Jesus. If you want to be like Jesus then you must have the habit of weekly attendance at God's house.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

In the Power of the Spirit

  Life of Christ 33

          Jesus is God. Scripture is clear and emphatic about that, and I believe that strongly. It is one of the cardinal doctrines of the faith. But having said that, it is also true that He laid aside some aspects of His Deity when He clothed Himself in human form. For instance, God is omnipresent, but Jesus wasn't. Jesus, of course, was still God, but He voluntarily limited Himself in some respects, in His first advent. The reason I bring this up is that so many people assume, wrongly I believe, that Jesus did what He did and was Who He was because He was God. Please don't hang me here, but what inevitably follows is something like this: 'Well, sure, Jesus was holy; after all, He was God. Sure, Jesus could forgive seventy times seven; after all, He was God. Sure, Jesus preached powerful sermons that changed lives; after all, He was God. Sure, Jesus was spiritually mature at 12; after all, He was God.' In essence, then, the precious and vital doctrine of the Deity of Jesus Christ becomes little more than an excuse for why He was so much closer and useful to God than we are.
          I wish you could see the strength of feeling I have as I type this about the importance of what I am about to communicate here. Everything about Jesus Christ is worth considering and learning from, but today's point is so practical and helpful when it comes to how we live out Jesus Christ in our daily lives. Jesus didn't do what He did in His own power as God; He did it all in the power of the Holy Spirit.
          At this point, Jesus has just returned to Galilee after attending that first Passover in Judea. He had preached a bit there, and did some miracles, but He has not yet preached a sermon of any kind that Scripture records. He is about to launch this aspect of His ministry in Galilee, accompany it with miracles, and continue to gather about Himself disciples. He will maintain this approach for many months before venturing back into the lion's den of Judea. At this key juncture, this hinge pivot in the life of Christ, that will see Him rise from obscurity to the heights of fame, Scripture records this verse in the transition: 'And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and there went a fame of him through all the regions round about' (Luke 4.14). In fact, the very first story covered, His return visit to His home synagogue of Nazareth, which we will cover in the next post, finds Jesus reading from Isaiah 61, 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,' (Luke 4.18).

          Why is it so critical to understand that Jesus did what He did in the power of the Holy Spirit rather than simply as deity Himself? Because Jesus is, in all things, our example, including in how He lived His life. I believe He purposely chose to limit Himself for this reason, amongst others, so that He could exemplify how we are to live the Christian life. Think of it this way: would it be fair or reasonable for me to play tennis with four arms and command you to do just as well as I with only two? Of course not, but that is essentially what so many picture Jesus Christ as doing. He commands us to live holy, to serve the Lord, to pray, to witness, to love God with everything we have, etc. and He exemplifies these things perfectly – but He didn't do it with four arms; He did it with two just like you and I. 'He was in all points tempted like as we are' (Hebrews 4.15), and that word tempted means tested. I realize He did not have a sin nature, but that aside, He lived His life with the same set of spiritual tools that I have.
          The same Holy Spirit that empowered Him indwells you, if you are a child of God, and can empower you to accomplish God's will in your life just as it empowered Him to accomplish God's will in His life. Paul phrased it this way in the critical chapter of Romans 8, 'But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if he live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.' The most amazing miracle of His life was His resurrection, and that resurrection was accomplished the same way He lived the rest of His life – in the power of the Holy Spirit. That same Holy Spirit, and thus the same power, is available to you and I today.
          Does God call you to quit an addictive sin and live holy? Does God call you to love your wife like Christ loves the church? Does God call you to reverence your husband? Does God call you to honor your parents? Does God call you to live pure in your mind? Does God call you to a life of contentment? Does God call you to tell the truth? Does God call you to praise Him in difficult circumstances? Does God call you to witness to the lost? Does God call you to fervent prayer? Does God call you to separation from the world? …then He gives you the power to do it!
          Jesus is our example. He lived a sinless life, perfectly pleasing to His Heavenly Father, not because He was God, although He was, but because He yielded Himself every moment to the Holy Spirit.

          The self-help industry makes billions offering people that one new thing they need in order to finally get it all together. Just buy this book, or enroll in this class, or take this seminar, or undergo this training, or embrace this philosophy and your life and career will be wonderful, they say. The truth is that you already have all that you need to become what you need to become. You have the Word of God. You have the Holy Spirit. That is how Jesus did what He did, and it is how you and I need to do what are called to do as well.   

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Man Believed the Word

  Life of Christ 32

          'This beginning of miracles' Jesus did when He turned water into wine in Cana. It was the first official act of His ministry. After moving His mother from Nazareth to Capernaum He then traveled back to Judea for Passover. He does miracles there, and preaches, but leaves after a short time so as not to mess up John the Baptist's ministry. On the way back to Galilee He goes through Samaria and wins the woman at the well. Upon arriving in Galilee He goes, for some reason, to Cana again where He had done the first miracle.
          Of course, He is well known in Cana now, and when a nobleman heard the Jesus was in town he immediately went to Him in order to ask Him if He could heal his son. The son happened to be out of town in Capernaum, and he was too sick to move back to Cana. The Bible says the son was 'at the point of death' (John 4.47) and it was 25 miles, all uphill, from Capernaum to Cana. So the nobleman in Cana finds Jesus and asks Him, on His return to Capernaum, to heal his son.
          Jesus' initial response is to deny his request, or at least to test the nobleman. 'Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe' (John 4.48). Jesus would do this on many occasions, in essence denying someone's request for a miracle. He didn't want to become a genie, popping out of a lamp at the whim of the holder, in order to grant three wishes. No, Jesus was looking for faith, for belief, not simply a desire to see or experience something miraculous.
          The nobleman's response to this denial was heartfelt and desperate. 'Sir, come down ere my child die' (John 4.49). Jesus, Who would often later make it a point of emphasis to encourage perseverance in prayer, must have warmed to this immediately. Additionally, it removed both of Jesus' objections to doing the miracle, namely someone without any faith who simply desired to watch a performance. This was, rather, the expression of a heartbroken father with nowhere else to turn.
          Without waiting another moment, Jesus says, 'Go thy way; thy son liveth' (John 4.50). In this we see displayed both Jesus' compassion and His power. The nobleman's reaction is also immediate: 'the man believed the word that Jesus had spoken unto him, and he went his way'. Now bear in mind, although he had only heard of Jesus doing one other miracle, a completely unrelated event turning water into wine, and although Jesus was 25 miles away from his son, and although Jesus had no idea what was wrong with his son, and although the nobleman had no way of seeing if anything had actually changed in his son's condition – still, he believed what Jesus had just said.
          I find here the sweetest kind of faith of the type that simply accepts whatever Jesus says. Such a reaction is not, in my experience, normal. Usually, we have much more trouble placing our complete faith in God's Word, especially if our reason, observation, or emotions tell us differently. Faith, on the other hand, ignores all of these things complete, essentially ignoring me completely and what I think and feel, and simply looks to God. This doesn't mean that faith is necessarily unreasonable. There are many reasons, for instance, to believe in Creation over evolution, but in the final analysis it will always come back to faith. In other words, God doesn't mind showing you and I why we should trust Him, but what He wants, what He desires, what He longs for, what He is looking for is someone who will just believe in Him. Jesus came looking for belief, and He found it in this nobleman.
          I'm not talking about presumption. Presumption assumes that God will do whatever I expect Him to do simply because I expect Him to do it. This charismatic approach in reality places the power in me, and as long as I have enough faith I can speak a word of blessing over anything and make it happen. Such an approach is completely unscriptural. No, beloved, I'm talking about things in which we have God's clear Word promising something, but there is no apparent evidence visible to show that He is doing anything about it. It is in such a time as this that I am called to honor God by placing my simple faith in Him, regardless of what I can see or can't see happening at the moment.
          For example, God promises in the Scripture that He will provide for the physical needs of His own (Psalm 37.25, Matthew 6.25-34, Philippians 4.19). In 17 years of pastoring and 26 years of walking with Him I have seen this hold true countless times. Regardless, then, of whether my church grows or shrinks, regardless of whether the offerings go up or down, regardless of recessions, regardless of whether more is needed as my children mature, I am absolutely confident God will provide for the needs of my family. Why? Partially because I have seen Him do it for years, but basically because He said He would. I may or may not see logically how that is going to happen, but I believe it is going to happen, and it is that very faith that pleases Him so much (Hebrews 11.6).
          Recently, so many of the precious people to whom I minister have been called by God to experience great trials. I do not mean they have endured the pain of a hangnail, but rather that the presence of tumors and cancer, or the sudden removal of a job, or the threat of imminent deportation, et al. I certainly have not enjoyed watching them struggle, but I have been greatly warmed by watching them respond in faith to God.
          Jesus came looking for belief. He found it in the nobleman of Cana. Today He is looking for the exact same thing. Is He finding it in you?

If you would like to hear the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 15, 'The Man Believed the Word'.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

After the Honeymoon

  Life of Christ 31

Mandy and I leaving on our honeymoon
          I vividly remember thinking, as my brand new wife and I drove away from our wedding in my five-speed Honda Prelude with the moon roof open, how wonderful it was that I didn't have to drop her off and go home. We were with each other now, and home was wherever we were. We traveled first to Deep Creek, Maryland, and then on to Williamsburg, Virginia, and we had a grand time, being together, taking in the sights. We were young. We were in love. We were on vacation. I mean, who doesn't love a honeymoon, right? But all honeymoons end, and then the real work of building a relationship begins. In the process we inevitably see who is committed and who isn't.
          In Jesus' ministry we see an initial burst of acceptance by John the Baptist and his disciples, by the crowds in Judea at the first Passover and immediately afterward, in Samaria, and by the crowds in Galilee at first, who had seen His miracles at the Passover (John 4.43-45). But all honeymoons end, and we will see in just a few short days the people of His own hometown try to kill Him. Continuing on, we will see that this response was not isolated to Nazareth alone, but that the initial acceptance was quickly swamped by a rising tide of rejection, ridicule, opposition, and hate.
          My question today in this blog is this: How do we keep the honeymoon from ending? How do we make sure that what happened in that day doesn't happen in ours? I do not mean in a national way, for I believe that America has already turned a corner as a nation and rejected God, corporately. No, I mean in a personal way. If you love Him today, and I hope you do, then how do you make sure you don't ever stop loving Him? Let me offer you, kindly, four answers to this question that I have drawn from the life of Christ. 
          First, make sure you don't love Him just for the miracles. The purpose of miracles, as we have seen, was to publicly authenticate Jesus. Certainly, along the way they helped people and produced some excitement, but that was not their goal. I believe in having a personal relationship with God, but when I personalize it to the point that He exists for me rather than me for Him I have personalized it too far. This is one of the great errors of the prosperity Gospel and of the seeker-sensitive church model. Yes, God does amazing things for us something, but if those amazing things become what we follow Him for we will cease to follow Him when He doesn't do amazing things for us. And He won't always do miracles for us. His people do get sick and die. His people do go broke. His people do have children rebel. His people do get fired. Indeed, if we only follow Him so long as He completely smooths the way for us we will soon enough have sufficient reason to throw in the towel. So many of the Jews who followed Him initially did it because of the excitement and blessing of the miracles, but when those dried up or were done elsewhere the glue holding them to a nascent Christianity loosened, and they dropped away.
          Second, we must continue to make time with Him and not just for Him. Paul said it well in I Corinthians 3.9, 'We are labourers together with God.' One of the greatest weapons the devil has in his arsenal is the weapon that keeps us busy serving God but not being with God. I am a tremendous believer in the importance of serving God via a local church, but Jesus said that Mary, who chose to spend time with Him instead of just for Him, 'hath chosen that good part' (Luke 10.42). When our Christianity becomes only what we do for Him at church, and there is no time with Him, all alone, during the week, sooner or later, like old soldiers, we will fade away.
          In 2007 the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development surveyed over a thousand pastors. They found that 70% regularly considered leaving the ministry, and 57% said they would immediately if they had a better place to go in secular work. Across America, 1500 pastors leave the ministry every month, and most statistics that I have read say that at least 60% of those who enter the ministry post-seminary will not be in it ten years later. Only a fraction will stay in it for a lifetime. Why is this? In my humble opinion, perhaps the biggest reason was also cited in that 2007 Schaeffer report: only 26% of pastors said they regularly had personal devotions. Preaching is feeding people, like a mother bird who brings food back to the nest for her hungry hatchlings, and it is eventually incredibly painful to try to feed and minister to people when you are spiritually starving yourself. A Sunday School teacher is not exempt from this, neither is a choir member, a soul winner, a nursery worker, a musician, an usher, a children's worker, or anybody else. If you don't spend time with Him, sooner or later, you will quit on Him.
          Third, be very careful to whom you listen. In a sense, you can say that Eve's great mistake in the Garden was listening to someone who was leading her astray. This is the same mistake that so many young people make when they reject the advice of their parents and spiritual leaders, and embrace the advice and opinions of their worldly friends. It was also the mistake that Jesus' generation of Jews made. When you look at the entire arc of Jesus' life and ministry you begin to see trends and patterns reflected. One of these is this: the whole question in Jesus' day was which shepherd were the common sheep of Israel going to follow – Jesus or the Pharisees? They answered, in reality by Matthew 12 and formally at the crucifixion, with the Pharisees. In essence, Jesus' generation chose to listen to and follow the wrong shepherd.
          Some of you won't like that I say this, but it doesn't change the truth of the matter: I've got friends in the ministry who won't be independent Baptists in ten years and I can already tell it. They are listening to the wrong preachers and reading the wrong books. Of course, changing from independent Baptist to some other branch of orthodox Christianity doesn't mean you have left Jesus, but it does illustrate the fact that people change loyalties based on the ones to whom they listen.
          One of the most important decisions, often completely overlooked as being important, you make in life is the decision of who influences you. Choose that influence with great care. Don't just look at the content of the individual sermon or book or blog. Look at their life. Look at their crowd. Look at their doctrine. Look at the direction of their ministry. Look at the lives of others who have followed them. If you are currently following Jesus the devil is right now making plans to cross your path with some version of the Pharisees, and he will seek to insert their influence into your life in order to get you off track. Look beneath the surface before you allow anyone to influence you, including me. If you choose the wrong influence you will inevitably fall away from following Jesus.
          Fourth, when what He does doesn't make sense, trust Him anyway. When you look at the people to whom Jesus ministered who chose to leave Him you will find that it was not only because He stopped doing miracles for them, or because they listened to the wrong leaders, but also because sometimes He said and did things they didn't understand. For instance, in John 6 He made what was a very difficult statement for the Jews of His day to understand and accept: 'Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life'. The reaction to this was plainly puzzlement, even by those closest to Him: 'Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?' (John 6.60), followed by, 'From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him' (John 6.66). Yet His core group, the Apostles, stayed with Him. Why? Because they continued to trust Him even when what He said or did made no sense to them: 'Then Jesus said unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God' (John 6.67-69). In a difficult spot they continued to place their belief in Him.
          I pastored a man once, a good man, who loved the Lord in His own way, and was a great blessing to our church. Very sadly, his son was murdered, and when he couldn't reconcile that with the goodness of God he quit church entirely. With respect, I call people like this hubcap Christians. They hit a bump and go spinning off into the weeds never to be seen again. I promise you that God is going to do something to you that will deeply test your faith, and possibly do it several times in your life. When it comes, the only and right answer is to always trust Him.
          A whole bunch of Jews were initially very excited about Jesus, but only a few of them followed Him for a lifetime. I want to be one of the latter, not the former. I think you do to, otherwise you wouldn't be wading through this blog with me. May I gently encourage you to consider the implication of these four suggestions, and to implement them appropriately in your own life.
          Thousands upon thousands gladly received His ministry at the beginning, but there were only 120 in the Upper Room at the dawn of the Church age. Be one of the 120, not one of the thousands who just enjoyed the fun on the honeymoon.

If you would like to hear the audio version of this blog you will find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and then choose We Preach Christ 14, 'The Honeymoon.'

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Great Sense of Urgency

  Life of Christ 30

          Jesus, here at the beginning of His ministry, has just spent some time in Judea. He had gone down from Galilee for His first public Passover, and then gotten some attention due to His miracles. He stayed for some time, preaching and baptizing converts in the mold of John the Baptist, until the Pharisees sought to drive a wedge between the two men. When Jesus saw this, out of deference to John, and because His ministry was always the itinerant type, He decided to head back to Galilee. And on this trip He felt the need to go through Samaria (John 4.3-4).
          Galilee was the northern territory of Israel, and the larger of the two. Judea was the southern territory, and contained the all-important city of Jerusalem and the Temple. Several feasts and sacrifices called for the physical presence of the Jews in Jerusalem, and so there was a constant stream of travel back and forth. Curiously, though, they didn't go by the shortest possible route, but rather went a substantial number of miles out of their way in the process. From Galilee they would travel east toward the Jordan River and follow it down toward the Dead Sea. On reaching Jericho, they would turn west, and head up into the Judean hills and Jerusalem. The reason for this was simple: they hated to go through the region directly between Galilee and Judea known as Samaria.
          The source of this deep aversion can be traced back about 700 years before Christ. The kingdom of Israel, united under David and Solomon, had split into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. To the far north, the rising power of Assyria, headquartered in Ninevah, threatened and then eventually swallowed the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel. In those days it was customary to pacify new territory by transplanting the local tribes conquered to another place in the empire, and so the Assyrians depopulated Israel and resettled those Jews around Ninevah. To replace them, they brought in other conquered peoples. These people soon mixed, in marriage and religion, with the few Jews left behind. Headquartered around the collapsed Israeli capital of Samaria they became known as Samaritans. Not only were they an impure, yet related, strain of Jewry, their religion became an impure, yet related, strain of Judaism.
          For instance, the Samaritans only accepted the books of Moses, and not the psalms and the prophets as canonical. They believed in a coming messiah, but placed the location of the Temple, naturally, in Samaria rather than in Judah. Three centuries after their genesis the Jews return from the Babylonian Captivity in order to rebuild the Temple only to discover the Samaritans already had – in Samaria. This was completely unacceptable, and although they offered to help Nehemiah rebuild Jerusalem he could not allow them because they were unclean. When Nehemiah made that decision, the Samaritans, in fury at being rejected, sided with Israel's enemies in their attempts to destroy the infant Jewish nation. This bad blood was still percolating 400 years later in Jesus' day, but for some reason He felt the urgent need to go through Samaria on the way back to Galilee instead of going by way of Jericho and the Jordan River valley.
          On the way through, accompanied by His little group of three or four disciples, He stops to rest at Jacob's well, and sends the disciples into the closest town to buy supplies. When a woman comes out to draw water Jesus asks her for a drink, and this leads to a fascinating conversation (John 4.7-35).

          She objects to His request for water on the racial grounds that He is a Jew and she is a Samaritan, and the two just don't talk to each other. He, in response, brings up the subject of living water, the kind that brings eternal life. She says, in essence, 'Sure, I'll take some of that', at which point He brings up her sin in such a way as to leave no doubt of His complete knowledge of the worst parts of her life. In awe, she asks His perspective on the Jewish Samaritan disagreement over the location of the Temple. He tells her essentially that it doesn't matter anymore, at least in this dispensation, as we can now worship God anywhere rather than at one particular location. She tells Him she does believe in a coming messiah, and Jesus asks her to place that faith in Himself specifically. She obviously believes, and goes into town to spread the word.
          At this point, the disciples come back and marvel that Jesus was actually speaking to a Samaritan, which goes to show that they really had no clue as to the world-wide point of His coming. Simeon knew, for he pronounced over the babe at His Temple dedication, 'A light to lighten the Gentiles' (Luke 2.32). John the Baptist knew, for he pronounced over a freshly baptized and tempted Jesus Christ, 'Behold the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world' (John 1.29). But His newly minted disciples of just a few weeks experience did not. It would be just one of the many times that we see those closest to Him completely misunderstand Him, and in this I see a warning for all of us. We must see Him for Who He is, not for Who we want Him to be. To Jesus' everlasting credit, He did not partake of their ethnic prejudices. He came to die for the entire world.
          In His response to the return of the disciples He displays an incredible sense of urgency about the lost condition of the multitude of humanity heading straight to hell. 'Say not ye, There are yet four months, and then cometh harvest? behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest' (John 4.35).
          It is with great sadness I say that in twenty first century America there are a great many of Jesus' followers who suffer from the same affliction. They want to follow Jesus because of what Jesus will do for them, and because of what they think He is and will be for them – yet they totally fail to grasp His sense of urgency regarding the plight of humanity. They come to church occasionally, in order to get their needs met. They pray occasionally, in order to get their needs met. They read the Bible occasionally, in order to feel better. But there is in them no heartbeat at all for a lost and dying world, headed to hell in a hand basket by the millions.
          Our church in the inner city of Chicago is an average sized, yet growing congregation. Like most modern churches our highest attendance on the property each week is on Sunday morning. Of course, this only makes sense. It is the day of the week and the time of day which is easiest for people to come. In other words, it doesn't greatly inconvenience them. Chicago has terrific traffic problems, but thankfully those are not a concern on Sunday mornings. The music in our services has greatly improved in the last few years, and many visitors comment on how wonderful it is to be in a service with such heartfelt and beautiful music. Parking in our neighborhood is always a problem, but for the Sunday morning service we use a remote lot a block away and shuttle people to the front door of our church in a late model fifteen passenger van.  On Sunday morning, we are pleased to offer something of interest for each member of the family in our schedule, and I preach a time limited sermon so our dismissal time can be anticipated. And our building is filling up to the point which we are raising money in order to expand our seating capacity.
          …but let me schedule a weekly time to go witnessing to the lost, and our attendance drops by 75%, at least. Why? Because even though I preach on it often, emphasize it hugely, and model it with my own life and schedule, the majority of people that attend my church have little to no sense of urgency regarding the spiritual condition of the hundreds of thousands of souls who live within walking distance of our church building.
          Jesus was completely different. His sense of urgency drove Him to witness to all kinds of people, including Samaritans. His sense of urgency drove Him to initiate the conversation, rather than waiting for her to speak to Him first. His sense of urgency drove Him to keep the conversation pointed toward the Gospel when she tried to change the subject. His sense of urgency drove Him to thoroughly explain the Gospel rather than simply settling for handing her a tract with a vague invitation to attend church. Additionally, Jesus' sense of urgency drove Him to tell His followers of the urgency.
          Beloved, there is an urgent need to get the Gospel out to those around you and around the world. That need is urgent, not when you grow up, or when life calms down a bit, or when you retire, but now at this very moment. If you want an excuse to delay the devil will be sure to furnish you with a couple of dozen suitable (you think) to the occasion. You don't have time. It's too cold out. It's too hot out. You have errands to run. People aren't ready and we shouldn't pluck green fruit. You are too young; no one will listen to you. Your health is too bad. Confrontational evangelism doesn't work in our generation. You don't have the gift of witnessing. And I could go on and on and on with the excuses that have been handed to me like get-out-of-jail-free cards in Monopoly.
         I say again, it is urgent that we go soul winning. It is urgent that we train more soul winners. It is urgent that we send money to missionaries. It is urgent that we send out missionaries. It is urgent that we pass out tracts. It is urgent that we invite our friends to church. There will never be a better time.
          Is your heartbeat His heartbeat? Is His heartbeat your heartbeat? What are you doing to reach the lost with the Gospel? What will you do this week? What will you do today?

If you would like to listen to the audio version of this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 13, 'Look On the Fields'.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Nicodemus Should Have Known

  Life of Christ 29

          Occasionally, I run across inept theologians who insist that there is more than one plan of salvation in the Bible. Yes, they say, in the New Testament we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2.8-9), but in the Old Testament it was different. Why back then, they assert, one had to keep Moses' Law in order to gain forgiveness of sin and entrance into Heaven.
          If that is the case, why was Jesus so upset with Nicodemus when Nicodemus didn't understand that salvation came by way of a new birth (John 3.3-10)? No, beloved, salvation before Christ's coming was exactly the same as it is in our day, by grace through faith. In today's blog post I am going to take the liberty of offering a number of Old Testament verses in proof of this. My aim here is to soundly establish in your mind that salvation by faith was taught in the Old Testament, and that the Jews of Jesus' day (and of ours) ought to have known this. It was not something hidden from them until Paul wrote Romans and Galatians. It was there all along.
          The natural condition of the Jew in the Old Testament was as a sinner who needed saved, not as one who was already safe because of 'the merits of the fathers.'

Psalm 51:7   Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Isaiah 1:18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.

          The Old Testament states that sins were cared for when someone paid for them via death, thus 'redeeming' them.

Isaiah 44:22  I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins: return unto me; for I have redeemed thee.

          Not only is this stated, but reminding Israel of this was the entire point of the sacrificial system laid down in Leviticus and lived out daily before the people for fifteen centuries. This redemption was done, not because of 'the merits of the fathers', but because of God.

Isaiah 43:25  I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.

          Thus, the natural condition of iniquity was purged by pardon and mercy, not by 'the merits of the fathers.' This concept is found widely throughout the Old Testament.

Exodus 34:6  And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,
Exodus 34:7  Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.
Numbers 14:19  Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.
Psalm 51:1 Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Psalm 130:7  Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.
Proverbs 28:13 ¶  He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.
Isaiah 55.7  Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
Micah 7:18  Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever, because he delighteth in mercy.
Micah 7:19  He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.

          There was, as Jesus asserted to Nicodemus, the necessity for a new heart and spirit if righteousness were to be present in the individual Jew.

Ezekiel 18:31  Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel?

          Thus, the Old Testament told the Jews that righteousness came by faith in God. This is Paul's entire argument in Romans 4 where he quotes Moses in Genesis 15.

Romans 4. 1 ¶  What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?
2  For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.
3  For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.
Genesis 15:6  And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness.

          In my mind this has already been clearly established, but lest some still doubt let us turn to the penultimate Old Testament passage regarding the necessity for the atoning death of the Israel's messiah to pay for sins, rather than 'the merits of the fathers.' This passage is not only clear but clearly precious to those of us who have come to see in Yeshua our only and sure hope for Heaven.

Isaiah 53. 1 ¶  Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?
2  For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
3  He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 ¶  Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
5  But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
6  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7  He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
8  He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
9  And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
10 ¶  Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
11  He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
12  Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

          Beloved, there can be no doubt at all – salvation is by grace through faith, then, now, and going forward, until the devil is banished to hell, and sin ceases from the earth.
          It was always about Jesus Christ.

If you would like to listen to the audio sermon that accompanies this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 12, 'Ye Must Be Born Again.'

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Ye Must Be Born Again

  Life of Christ 28

          Arguably, the most famous phrase in all the Bible is 'born again'. Arguably, perhaps the most famous verse in all the Bible is John 3.16. Both of them are found in the context of one conversation, and understanding why Jesus uttered those immortal words is both instructive and helpful. Read on, then, if you would like to receive that instruction and help.
          The last time we saw Jesus He had just begun His public ministry. Leaving Nazareth an anonymous carpenter, He had traveled to Judea to be baptized by John the Baptist, endure forty days of fasting, resist the devil's temptations, and gather His first disciples. He then returned to Galilee, and launched His ministry by turning water into wine in Cana. Almost immediately, He returns to Judea for the Passover, and upon entering the Temple He sends the moneychangers and cattle merchants heading for the hills. At this point, while still in Judea for Passover, Scripture tells us that He did several unnamed miracles, and that these miracles caused people to believe on Him (John 2.23).
          These miracles, and the cleansing of the Temple itself, brought Him attention not just from the common people, but also from Israel's religious leadership. The Sanhedrin, the seventy one men, mostly Pharisees, who met in the Hall of Hewn Stone, and led Israel under the direction of the High Priest, would most certainly have sat up and taken notice. After all, one of their designated responsibilities was to investigate reports of miraculous events, and so to determine and declare whether they were authentic or fake. It would be this background, then, that provoked Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, to come to Jesus.
        Nicodemus came to Him respectfully, using the term 'rabbi' (John 3.2). He came as a learner to a teacher. Apparently the Sanhedrin had already conducted at least some kind of investigation into Jesus' miracles and deemed them authentic. At the same time, there was already the beginning of a stigma forming, an opposition to Jesus in Israel's religious leadership, that prevented Nicodemus from coming openly. Scripture tells us he was a Pharisee, and while he didn't believe that Jesus was the Messiah he did believe that Jesus was revealing God, and what God expected of the Jewish people. In other words, Nicodemus viewed Jesus as an authentic worker of miracles, and a God sent teacher of the people, similar in manner and office to an Old Testament prophet.
          As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have expected Jewish people to go to Heaven on the basis of 'the merits of the fathers.' This phrase, found often in the rabbinic writings of Jesus' day, implied that since the Jewish people were directly descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob they were already guaranteed direct access to Heaven. Jesus denied this. He explained that parents can only transmit the nature they are, and that since each parent is a sinner then each child is a sinner. What is sinful cannot possibly enter the kingdom of Heaven, so in order to enter the kingdom one needed a nature transmitted from a sinless parent. God is the only one sinless, and thus each Jew needed to be 'born again', a second time, this time with God as His parent, in order to have the merit of the Father (John 3.3-7).
          Obviously, Nicodemus didn't understand the necessity of the new birth, and Jesus actually got rather upset with him about this (John 3.8-9). Jesus got angry because this was precisely the problem with the state of Israel's religion at the time. It had ceased to be a matter of the heart, one that begins by a lost sinner coming humbly to God for salvation, and had rather become a matter of ethnicity first. This was only aggravated by the fact that the obedience God was actually after was clouded by a great host of external man-made rules. If anybody should have known the reality of how to be spiritually related to Jehovah, first by salvation and secondly by living right from the heart, it should be someone in Israel's religious leadership. Nicodemus was an integral part of that leadership, and he didn't have so much as a clue.
          In order to help explain this, Jesus gives Nicodemus an example from the Old Testament that pointed toward the necessity of being forgiven directly for sin through the mercy of God by faith. This illustration, found originally in Numbers 21, was about a rebellious Israel suffering the just punishment of their sin from God, and dying in great multitudes via being snake bit as a result. God, of course, doesn't want all of His people to die, and in His mercy He instructs Moses to make the brass image of a snake and hoist it on a pole in the middle of the camp. Each Jew bitten would then be faced with the choice of whether to show faith in Jehovah's mercy by simply looking at that pole, or to die a slow and agonizing death in his rebellion.
          It is in this context that Jesus says, 'For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life' (John 3.16). The Pharisees, like the hyper-Calvinists of our day, did not believe that God loved the entire world. They believed He only loved the righteous, and that He bitterly hated the sinner. Jesus here emphatically tells Nicodemus the exact opposite, that God loves the entire world. Jesus then goes on to boldly claim to be God's Son, and the way to eternal life itself, and that faith in Him is all that is necessary for that eternal life.
          Wow. What a series of staggering statements, and all in one sentence! It is my belief that Nicodemus there and then became a believer in the claims of Jesus Christ. How many since have come to believe as a result of that same conversation? Without exaggeration, millions. With all my heart, I hope that you are one of those millions.
          I have been reading the Bible for thirty five years, and paying close attention while reading it for twenty six of those years. I attended nineteen years of formal education, all of it in a decidedly spiritual environment. In addition, for the last seventeen years I have had the high and holy privilege of standing before a group of God's people and preaching the Word of God as their pastor.  With all of the scriptural study implied in this paragraph it is understandable to me that there are some areas of the Bible that are difficult for us to grasp. After all, it is a book written by God Himself. There are some things in it that are not clear, and I'm not afraid to say that. But, whatever we do, let us not allow salvation to be one of those! Let us be clear on it – 'ye must be born again'. Let us emphasize it in our churches and in our families – 'ye must be born again'. Yes, let us emphasize it very much, for on an understanding and belief in this hangs all things.

          Truly, 'ye must be born again.'

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

He Drove Them All Out of the Temple

Life of Christ 27

          Jesus wasn't a long haired, effeminate, vegan pacifist. If you really want to know what He was like you need to stop getting your concept of him from Italian homosexual artists and graying 60's radical activists. For that matter, you need to lose your mental image of him from that picture that hung in your Sunday School class when you were a child. In fact, I purposely refuse to hold a mental image of His face in my mind. With respect, no human being could ever come close to drawing a man accurately from 2000 years ago, and I don't want a human revelation of Him anyway. The Bible is the only revelation of God in our dispensation, and it is completely silent about His features, other than to say 'he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him' (Isaiah 53.2). No, what I want is a revelation and understanding of His spiritual graces, of His character, and of His philosophy. I want to 'know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death' (Philippians 3.10).
          To this end, our story today is particularly helpful in understanding Who He was, and in destroying the long haired, effeminate, vegan pacifist image that so many hold of Him, to wit, the occasion in which He drove the moneychangers out of the Temple (John  2.12-22).
          As an observant Jew, Jesus would have almost certainly attended Passover every year for the last eighteen or so, but this year was different. He had been baptized, tested by six weeks of fasting and temptation, and then gathered unto Himself His first disciples in Judea recently. He then returned to Galilee only to place Himself squarely in the spotlight with His first miracle at Cana. Following this, He moves out of Nazareth, and finds a place to stay in Capernaum, a nearby town and regional center in Galilee. Here He will stay, on and off, for the rest of His life. That done, Passover time rolls around again, and so, of course, He goes – only this time, as I said, it is different. Having now begun His public ministry, one announced indirectly and directly by John the Baptist, He now begins to establish His claim to be Israel's messiah. He will see, again, a Temple He has already seen numerous times, but this time His response to what He sees will be different. His response will be fitting for the Messiah, one that expresses His moral outrage at the wickedness, and one that expresses His authority to do something about it.
          In my humble opinion, one of the great benefits of being an independent Baptist is the complete lack of religious hierarchy with which we have to deal. But most religious systems are not independent, and, not coincidentally, most religious systems eventually have to deal with the inevitable corruption that creeps into such a hierarchy. The simony of the late medieval Roman Catholic Church is the classic example here, and the Jewish system of the time of Christ was in a similar mess.
          To be a Jew was to be religious. From their national birth at the foot of Mt. Sinai they had no concept of the separation of church and state. From the time of Moses and Aaron on through the judges and the kings this was true. Beginning with Ezra, when the nation was restored following the death of the monarchy and the Babylonian Captivity, and continuing largely unchecked for the next 400 years, the Jews were not politically independent but rather under the thumb of some other empire. Those empires largely administered their territories with a fair measure of autonomy, and the Jewish system that developed, as would be expected in their culture, was a political and religious leadership under the outside empire all combined in the High Priest. It is true that said High Priest received much help from a group of seventy one leading men known as the Sanhedrin, but largely he was the be all and end all of government and religion.
          By the time of Christ, 400 years after Ezra, the high priesthood had become an office that was bought and sold. One particular family had maintained a hold on it for some decades, and had basically turned it into the family business, for there were great moneymaking opportunities in Israel's religious system if someone was wicked. The beauty (from the wicked leader's perspective) was that the system they set up could insist it was only seeking to ensure people were following the instructions of the Old Testament. In other words, the Torah and the rules the Pharisees drew from it made a great cover for the selfish greed of an high priest motivated by a love of money.
          For instance, certain sacrifices were required in certain situations, and the animals for these sacrifices had to meet the requirement of being without blemish. It was relatively easy to assert, upon inspection, that the animal the family had brought with them was unacceptable, but fortunately for them they just happened to have a substitute animal available at a reasonable cost. You could also take their blemished animal in on trade, and, of course, sell that one to the next unsuspecting victim. In fact, if the courts were busy, one didn't need to actually sacrifice an animal at all, just charge someone an inflated price for one, and then point to another being sacrificed across the courtyard.
          At the same time, Jews from all across the Roman empire were commanded to send an annual tithe to the Temple. However, there was a slight problem. A traditional Jewish interpretation, strongly held, of the second commandment (Exodus 20.4) insisted that images of any person were not acceptable. This included images of Roman emperors on coinage. Because of this, regular money used outside the Temple had to be exchanged for Temple approved shekels before being tithed into the Temple treasuries. The corresponding arrangement of Temple approved moneychangers and cattle merchants, rife with corruption, theft, and deceit, operating on the actual grounds of the Temple itself, brought the High Priest a tremendous income.
          Jesus' reaction to this was not the reaction of a private citizen, nor even of a religious reformer. No, it wasn't a reaction at all. It was the considered and appropriate action of an angry Messiah. When the place that was supposed to be so holy, and the earthly representation of all that was good and right about religion had instead become a den of thieves an angry reaction is completely appropriate.
          Anger isn't a sin (Ephesians 4.26). Losing your temper is a sin. Anger over light things is a sin. Anger cultivated for lengthy periods of time is a sin. But righteous anger is certainly not a sin, else God Himself sins every day (Psalm 7.11).
          One of the great mistakes people in twenty first century America make is that they think God isn't angry anymore. They couldn't be more wrong. The Jesus Christ revealed in this story is One Who is justifiably furious when those who claim to be His people are living in open wickedness. To add insult to injury, the wickedness He encountered in the Temple that day was a wickedness that sought to mask itself in the guise of careful obedience to Jehovah. No wonder He would later say in that greatest of all sermons, 'This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me' (Matthew 7.6). Beloved, Jesus is the same now as He was then (Hebrews 13.8), and His actions toward unrepentant and systemic wickedness on the part of those claiming to be His people will be the same now as they were then.
          Not only was Jesus right to be furious, but that very fury is an insight into His character. How so? My dear friend, there isn't a much more revealing peak into your character than examining just what it is that makes you angry. Jesus' anger in this story is an evidence of His holiness. Fairbain says it this way:

A character incapable of indignation is destitute of righteousness, without the will to give adequate expression to its moral judgments. Here there was almost the worst possible perversion of the holiest things, an offence the conscience would condemn in the proportion to its purity. The emotions awakened in the mind of Christ by the conflict of the ideal and the real could not have been more strongly, and therefore more fitly, expressed. Then, too, the act was finally intelligible to a Hebrew, an act of splendid loyalty to his God.

          We must never forget that our God is a holy God, and that He demands that same holiness from all men, but especially from those who claim His name. Holiness isn't an outward show, a point that Jesus would make over and over again in dealing with the externally oriented Pharisees. Holiness is an inward thing. It is an heart thing. Yes, it works its way outward, and becomes visible, but it is first and always a genuine, real, bona fide heart given in obedience to God.
          This thought convicts me because so often my anger is not an evidence of my holiness, but of my pique, lack of self-control, and selfish desire to have things my own way. As I type this I blush to think that I just got angry today at my wife for getting our van stuck in the snow in the alley while trying to pull out of the garage. I had carefully spent time to clear the area outside our garage of snow, and yet she still managed to put it in the pile of snow by the trash cans. 'How could she be so inept?', I growled to myself while I left my snowblower running in the front and stomped back there to fix it. Was that anger a holy anger? Of course it wasn't. It was the selfish anger of a man interrupted, and the proud anger of a man who certainly wouldn't have let that happen if he had been driving. And God and I had to do some business about it.
          Are you real? Are you holy? What does your anger reveal about you?
          It is amazing what an encounter with the real Jesus Christ of 2000 years ago reveals about Him – and about us.

If you would like to listen to the audio sermon that accompanies this blog you may find it here on our church website. Just click on 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 11, 'He Drove Them All Out of the Temple.'

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

This Beginning of Miracles

  Life of Christ 26

         One of the most noticeable things about Jesus Christ is His miracles. Every time we turn around in the Gospels we find Him healing this one, or cleansing that one, or raising another one. He had, via the Holy Spirit, the power to suspend natural law at will, and He exercised it frequently. Why? Of course, Jesus was a man of great compassion, and He loved to minister to people in need, but was there a greater purpose for His miracles, beyond just helping the individual in question? I believe the answer is yes, and I want to share it with you today.
          For thirty years Jesus had lived a hidden life, tucked away from public view as the town carpenter in Nazareth. Now, as He launches into His public ministry, He must begin to reveal to Israel just exactly Who and what He is, as her messiah, and as the Son of God. One of the primary ways He does this is by exercising His miraculous power.
          There are six different original language words used for 'miracle' in the New Testament. The most commonly used one is used in this passage (John 2.1-11). The definition implies that the miracle is an indication designed to point beyond the actual event toward the meaning behind it. In other words, the miracle is secondary in importance, and the point of it is that it actually points toward something else. Not coincidentally, the King James Version often translates this word as 'sign', thus stating that the miraculous action was explicitly designed to direct one's attention toward something or someone.
          Andrew Fairbain, a nineteenth century Scottish preacher, explained it this way when he wrote his Studies in the Life of Christ:

They were made to prove that He possessed supernatural power, could exercise it directly, by a word or act of the will, without any intermediate or instrumental agency. He could anticipate the slow and normal action of natural forces and processes, as in changing water into wine; could control the fiercest of elements, as in calming the storm; could create, as in multiplying the loaves and fishes; could undo accomplished deeds, not only repeal laws of nature, but cancel events that had happened from their universal and necessary operation, as in raising the dead. These were made to argue Deity, Divine power possessed by nature and exercised by right. But miracles thus became the guarantee of His real being, evidences of His nature and mission. They were His credentials; He was to be believed, not for His own or His truth’s sake, but for His works.

          The Jews of Jesus' day well knew that, historically, God had used miracles first to establish the veracity of His messenger, Moses (Exodus 4.8). Moses' miracles, a hand turned leprous and then cleansed again, and a rod turned to a snake and back again, were designed to authenticate him as a messenger from God, and by extension his message of God-sent deliverance from slavery in Egypt. The same is true with Jesus Christ.
          The miracles that He performed not only authenticated His claims, but revealed His authority. He didn't bring in the Kingdom with His first coming, but ere long He will return a second time, and when He comes back He will sit on a throne ruling a kingdom that extends over the entire earth. The authority He will exercise then is revealed in momentary glimpses in His first coming.
          In His first coming, He stilled the storm and walked on the water. In the Kingdom He will have complete authority over nature. In His first coming, He fed thousands with one lunch. In that Kingdom there will be no hunger or need. In His first coming, with authority, He cast out demons. In that Kingdom, Satan will be bound a thousand years and then cast into hell. In His first coming, He healed the blind, the lame, and the leprous. In that Kingdom there will be no sickness and no disease. In His first coming, He raised the widow's son and Lazarus from the dead. In that Kingdom no one will die, ever.
          Do you need a miracle? Then in coming to Jesus you have come to the right place. I do not mean that in the sense of the showy charismatic way, but in the sense of quiet faith that rests upon God in prayer in its time of need.
          John well named the wedding feast at Cana 'this beginning of miracles' (John 2.11). He has not stopped performing miracles. That was only the beginning. Beloved, He is still the same miracle working Jesus now that He was back then. Believe that today, dear Christian. Believe Him today. And then glorify Him when He works that miracle in your life.
          He is Who He said He was. His works prove it.

If you would like to listen to the audio sermon that accompanies this blog post you may find it here. Just press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 10, 'This Beginning of Miracles.'

Monday, February 17, 2014

Water Into Wine?

  Life of Christ 25

          I'm a teetotaler. That is just an old-fashioned term for someone who doesn't drink alcohol. I do not mean by this that I only occasionally imbibe, but rather that I never do. In fact, I'm one of those rare people in existence who never have. I know that beer smells bad, but I have no idea what it tastes like, let alone wine or spirits. I do this out of the conviction that drinking alcoholic beverages is wrong for God's people. This doesn't make me better than those who do - though I would argue it makes me wiser (Proverbs 20.1) - but it does mean I'm going to have this story (John 2.1-11) thrown at me about a million times in my life. It usually goes something like this:
          'What? You don't believe in drinking? C'mon, man! Everybody knows that Jesus Himself turned water into wine. If it's good enough for Him it's good enough for me.'
          I realize that there are many good Christians who disagree with me on this issue. They take the position that the Bible condemns drinking in excess, but not drinking in moderation. They, like I, believe drunkenness is a sin, but they, unlike I, see nothing wrong with enjoying an occasional alcoholic beverage. They point to a long tradition of such behavior being accepted by the Church, and they point especially to passages such as this as evidence that moderate drinking is perfectly appropriate for the Christian.
          For these reasons, amongst others, some years ago I decided I needed to study out the issue in some depth. I compiled a number of different books, and spent a good amount of time looking at both those books and the hundreds of Bible references to wine and strong drink. I am confident I have come to a good understanding of what the Bible teaches on the issue, and while I will not take time to present everything I learned on this blog at this time, I do want to briefly address this story from this perspective for it is something that comes up so often.
          One of the mistakes we make in our generation is to take a twenty first century definition and put it to a first century biblical word or phrase. To us, 'wine' always means an alcoholic drink. In Jesus' day, this was not the case, as the word was used to mean grape juice preserved in both an alcoholic and a non-alcoholic manner. Christians who believe in moderate drinking take the position that the secret to preserving grape juice over time in a non-alcoholic state was unknown prior to Thomas Bramwell Welch applying pasteurization to it in 1869. Those Christians are most assuredly wrong. There are literally dozens of extant quotes from historical sources that soundly establish a large variety of cultures, even back in Bible times, knew how to preserve grape juice in a non-alcoholic manner for a long period of time, and that people used the term 'wine' interchangeably to refer to both.
          The simple truth is that 'wine' in the Bible sometimes means alcoholic wine, and sometimes simply preserved, non-alcoholic grape juice, and it is my understanding that we generally figure out which is which by examining the context of the usage.
       This wine that Jesus made was not at the beginning of the feast, but later on, after they had already drunk what was there. Those who assert that 'wine' in the Bible is always alcoholic have to understand that the people at the feast in Cana were already well on their way to being soused when the wine ran out. A firkin is about nine gallons, so each stone water pot held between 18-27 gallons, and there were six of these, meaning these water pots held between 108 and 162 gallons. Let us take the middle number of 135 gallons. If what Jesus miraculously manufactured was alcoholic wine then we must understand that He just dumped into the laps of a border-line drunken crowd a staggering 135 more gallons of premium alcoholic wine. If that was the case, in light of all that the Bible has to say about the negative effects of alcohol, what kind of a wedding feast would have resulted? I propose to you it would be the kind of feast that Noah had in Genesis 9 and that Lot had in Genesis 19, a drunken, debauched, and sensual party.
          Is that how Jesus would have wanted the holy institution of the marriage of this couple to begin? Is that how Jesus would have wanted to begin His public ministry? Is that how Jesus would have wanted to enter into the initial training of His few disciples? Is that the kind of wedding feast He would have wanted His mother to attend? No, no, no, and again, no! The Word made flesh would never have so contradicted the written Word of the Old Testament prophets.
          For many years we have had small children in our home, and they drink a fair amount of juice. One of the cheapest places to buy it in our neighborhood is ALDI, and my wife will frequently bring home some apple or grape juice from there. Personally, and do not tell my children please, I refuse to drink it. I find the flavor to be completely unacceptable. The container says 100% juice, and I assume they are telling the truth, but I cannot bring myself to imbibe as the taste is so poor.
          On the other hand, I contrast this in my mind with an afternoon walk I took in an orchard some years back. We had gone together, as is our custom, in the Fall to pick some apples together as a family. This particular day was unseasonably warm for October in our region of the country, and the sun was shining brightly. On the way back to the section of trees to be picked that day we happened to walk by a grape arbor. Seeing the plump purple grapes hanging down in clusters, on impulse, I grabbed a bunch, and as I walked I began to eat them. Much to my delight, I found those perfectly ripened and sun warmed grapes, plucked fresh just moments ago from the vine, to be absolutely divine. As I walked I began to squeeze them, one by one, into my mouth, popping them out of the skin, and savoring the taste until the red juice began to dribble down my chin. I have never forgotten that taste, and although I've also never been able to replicate it, I have enjoyed it many times in my mind.
          Yes, Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana. I accept that, and indeed, even embrace it. It was the sweet beginning to our Saviour's public ministry. But, and if you will forgive the poverty of the illustration, what He did was replace the just run out of ALDI 100% juice reconstituted from concentrate with the freshly squeezed blood of perfectly ripened sun warmed grapes plucked moments ago from the vine.
          …and the governor's eyes lit up, just as mine did, on that October walk in the apple orchard, a few years ago.