Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

OUR FINANCIAL PRIORITIES

4.2.7

Quentin Metsys: Money Changer and His Wife

 

“Honor the Lord with your possessions,

         And with the firstfruits of all your increase,

   So your barns will be filled with plenty,

            And your vats will overflow with new wine.”

                                                                      Prov. 3:9,10; NKJV

 

An important test of our devotion to God is what we do with our money.  As we saw in our last blog post, Christ will hold us accountable for how we use our time, talents and money.  They have all been given to us by God, and He expects us to use them for His glory and the advancement of His kingdom.

But how does that work out financially?  We do have physical needs of our own, after all, and many of us struggle to earn a living.  What is left for God?

The passage before us gives us an interesting challenge.  There is a command: “Honor the Lord with your possessions, / And with the firstfruits of all your increase”; and this is backed up with a promise: “So your barns will be filled with plenty, / And your vats will overflow with new wine.”

The primary reference here appears to be to the Old Testament Feast of Weeks, (or the Feast of Harvest, as it was also called) which was held annually seven weeks after Passover, typically in late May or early June.  (In the New Testament it was also known as Pentecost, because it was fifty days after Passover.  Pentekosta is the Greek word for “fifty.”).  In Palestine the growing season is in the winter, when it rains, and harvest is in the spring.  Summer is the dry season.  The feast would occur right after the wheat or barley harvest..  The Israelites were required to make the trip to Jerusalem where each family would offer two loaves of bread, seven lambs, a bull, and two rams, along with various sin and peace offerings (Lev. 23:16-22; Num. 28:27-31).  Everything offered had to be perfect, without blemish of any kind (Num. 28:31).

The basic idea behind all of this was to acknowledge God as the source of our prosperity.  If there was no rain there was no harvest – it was as simple as that.  And so when we come to our passage we are told to “Honor the Lord with your possessions.”  We are to “honor” or “glorify” Him.  He is our Creator and Lord.  He sent His Son to die for our sins. He should be the most important Person in our lives, and we should openly acknowledge that.

That, in turn, should be reflected in the way we manage our finances.  The text says that we are honor the Lord “with your possessions, / And with the firstfruits of all your increase.”  God should get the first.  He takes priority over every other financial obligation we have, because He is more important than anyone or anything else.  As Matthew Henry put it in his commentary, “God, who is first and best, must have the first and best of every thing; His right is prior to all other, and therefore must be served first.”  And if our increase originally came from God, He is entitled to have some of it back.  “For all things come from You, / And of Your own we have given You” (I Chron. 29:14b).

But the question is, will this not create financial hardship for ourselves?  But the text goes on to say, “So your barns will be filled with plenty, / And your vats will overflow with new wine.”  What we have here is a promise from God: if we honor Him with our finances, He will supply our need.  But we must act first, and that requires faith.

And how much should we give?  In the Old Testament a tithe would be one tenth (Lev. 27:30-33; Dt. 14:22).  In the New Testament, however, there is no fixed amount.  Rather the apostle Paul emphasizes that giving is to be voluntary (II Cor. 9:7) and “according to what one has, not according to what he does not have” (II Cor. 8:12).  But the promise still pertains: “But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (II Cor. 9:6).  And Jesus commended the widow because “she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had” (Lu. 21:1-4).  As Charles Bridges put it, commenting on our text in Proverbs, “The law dealt with us as children, and prescribed the exact amount.  The gospel treats us as men, and leaves it to circumstance, principle and conscience.”

In many ways financial giving is where the proverbial “rubber meets the road.”  It is easy to attend church regularly and to look outwardly like a decent and respectable person.  But to dig into one’s pocket and pull out the checkbook requires personal sacrifice; and if we are not personally wealthy it may require faith in god as well.  But if God is truly the Lord of our lives, and if we genuinely care about others, we will do it.  It is a personal sacrifice that promises to yield a reward.  Let us be found faithful in the way we handle our finances!

 

 

STEWARDSHIP

 

In His Olivet Discourse Jesus described the end times culminating in His Second Coming.  He told His disciples to look for certain signs of the approaching end, but said, “of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, but My Father only” (Matt. 25:36; NKJV), and then drew out the practical application: “Watch therefore, for you do not know  what hour your Lord is coming” (v. 42).  He said that “if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into.  Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (vv. 43,44), and went on to say, “Blessed is that servant whom his Master, when He comes will find so doing” (v. 46).

To illustrate the point Jesus went on in the next chapter to tell His famous Parable of the Talents.  A man who was about to travel to a far country summoned three of his servants and entrusted to each of them a certain sum of money: five talents of silver to one, two talents to another, and one talent to the third.  (A “talent” was a Greek measure of weight varying anywhere from 57 to 95 lbs.  Thus a talent of silver would be equivalent to 900 to 1500 silver dollars, a considerable sum of money in those days.  Our English word “talent” is actually taken from this parable.)

The first two servants invested the money and each achieved a 100% return on the investment.  The third servant, however, dug a hole in the ground and hid the money.

After a long time had passed the master returned and summoned his servants to settle accounts.  The first two explained what they had done, and to each of them the master said, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things.  Enter into the joy of your lord” (Matt. 25:21,23).  But the third servant said, “Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed.  And I was afraid, and went out an hid your talent in the ground.  Look, there you have what is yours” (vv. 24,25).  The master responded by calling him “a wicked and lazy servant,” and pointed out that if the servant had known that the master was always looking for ways to make a profit, the obvious thing to do was what the other servants had done – invest the money and try to make a profit.  The master then states the underlying principle: “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away” (v. 29).

The parable has far reaching implications for the Christian life.  We today are in a position analogous to that of the three servants in the parable.  Christ is our Lord and Master, but He has been away for a considerable length of time.  The temptation is to forget about Him, to go about our normal business – to eat, drink and be merry.  But Christ will return, and then we will have to give an account.

First of al, we must remember that we occupy the position of a servant (the Greek word used in the parable is doulos, which literally means “slave”) with Christ as our Lord and Master.  The Master, in turn, has entrusted certain resources to us – in our case our time, ability and money – and He expects us to make good use of them.  It must be emphasized that they have been entrusted to us – we do not possess them in our own and we do not own them outright.  We, in turn, are expected to make good use of these various gifts for the benefit of the Master – His glory and the advancement of His kingdom.

In the parable the master tells each of the good servants “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things.  Enter into the joy of your lord.”  Significantly he says that they were “faithful” – they made wise and careful use of what had been entrusted to them.  He tells them that “you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things.”  As we demonstrate our ability Christ will increase our responsibility and our relative importance in the kingdom.  And finally the master tells them, “Enter into the joy of your lord.”  The master is happy, and he wants his servants to share that joy as well.  We find happiness and fulfillment in life by proving ourselves to be good servants of Jesus Christ.

The question is, are being indeed being faithful?  Christ has given us talents and resources; but what have we done with them?  Did we use them to advance His kingdom?  Or did we squander them like the servant who buried his talent in the ground?  And let us remember that the object is not to seek fame and fortune for ourselves, but to seek the will of God and fulfill His purpose in our lives.

As we enter the new year (the new decade, even), let us rededicate ourselves to Christ’s service, and prayerfully consider what we can do for Him, what we ought to do, with the resources as our disposal.

Count Zinzendorf, the great 18th Century leader of the Moravian Brethren, as a young man touring Europe came across a portrait of Christ hanging in a museum in Dusseldorf, Germany.  The painting had the caption, That I did for you; what have you done for Me?”  Zinzendorf’s biographer (Christian Gottlieb Frohberger) states, “It made se deep and unforgettable impression on his soul, that he made, on the spot, the firm and unshakable resolution to do a great deal for the Lord.” And so he did!

LIFE’S PRIORITIES

 

“But seek firs the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”—Matt. 6:33; NKJV

 

As we look forward to the coming year it is natural to ask ourselves what we hope to accomplish during that year.  And that, in turn, suggests a couple of deeper questions.  What exactly are our priorities in life?  What are we, in fact, living for?

For most people the answer is likely to be their personal ease and comfort – good health, happy relationships, economic success.  For some it may be personal ambition — success in business, sports, entertainment or politics.  And for some it might even be something cruder – a life a sex, alcohol, drugs or crime.

But for what should we as Christians be aiming?  Jesus stated it very succinctly in His Sermon on the Mount: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness . . .”  But what does that mean in actual practice?

We ask firs, what does it mean to “seek the kingdom of God”?  What is “the kingdom of God”?  The phrase harks back to certain prophecies in the Old Testament Book of Daniel in particular.  On various occasions Daniel prophesied about a succession of human empires which would be followed by a divine kingdom that would last forever.  When John the Baptist, then, and after him Jesus, began their public ministries, what they proclaimed was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17).  Much of the Sermon on the Mount, then, is an elaboration on that message; and at one point Jesus said, “For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will be no means enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20), and that our prayer should be, “Our Father in heaven, / Hallowed by Your name. / Your kingdom come. / Your will be done / On earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:9,10).  Our eternal destiny, then, as well as that of others, should be our overriding concern.  This means a life of nonconformity to the surrounding society, as well as the proclamation of the gospel.

There are, however, certain obstacles that stand in the way, and Jesus discusses them in Matt. 6:19-34.  The first of these is the snare of materialism.  Jesus is quite blunt about this: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and mammon” (Matt. 6:24 – “Mammon” is the Aramaic word for “riches,” here used as a personification as a deity).  The plain fact of the matter is that one cannot be both earthly minded and heavenly minded at the same time.  Your attention is fixed on either one or the other.  Those who are preoccupied with success in this life inevitably lose their interest in spiritual things.

But ironically the same thing is true if we are lacking money as well, for here again we are preoccupied with our temporal, physical circumstances.  And so Jesus goes on to say, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.  Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (v. 25).  Jesus goes on to point out that “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (v. 32).

It is in this context then, that Jesus says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (v. 33).  Here we are given a promise – that if we keep our priorities straight, that if we put God first in our lives, that He will provide for our physical needs – food, clothing, shelter.  But the command requires faith – faith that God exists, that God is in control, that He genuinely cares for us.  The challenge to faith is that we cannot see that immediately.  We cannot actually see God, and we cannot always see Him working in our lives.  But we must step out in faith first, and then God promises to provide.

Our first priority for the coming year, then, must be God’s glory, the advancement of His kingdom, and the salvation of the lost.  A significant portion of our time, energy and money must be directed toward these goals.  If God is our Creator, if Christ is our Lord and Savior, then we owe everything to Them, and we should be living for Them.

The major question facing us at the start of the new year, then, is what can we do to serve Christ?

DONALD TRUMP AND CHRISTIANITY TODAY

donald-trump[1]

Christianity Today, a leading evangelical periodical, recently published a scathing editorial calling for Donald Trump to be removed from office.  The editorial, written by editor Mark Galli, stated that in the current impeachment process “. . . the facts in this instance are unambiguous: the president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents.  That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral” (Christianity Today, Dec. 19, 2019).  The article went on to say that the president’s Twitter feed “is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused,” and that “we are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence.”

By all accounts President Trump was infuriated by the editorial and tweeted that Christianity Today is “a far left magazine . . .which has been doing poorly and hasn’t been involved with the Billy Graham family for many years” and would rather “have a Radical Left nonbeliever, who wants to take your religion & your guns, than Donald Trump as your President.”

Mr. Trump is surely one of the most controversial and divisive presidents we have had for many years.  People either love him or hate him.  But in a case of impeachment it is important that in the heat of the moment we do not lose sight of the facts and that we uphold the rule of law.

The immediate question is whether or not Mr. Trump should be removed from office on the two charges listed in the Articles of Impeachment recently passed by the House of Representatives.  One of the charges, that of obstruction of justice, involves a complicated constitutional question revolving around the separation of powers and the executive privilege, and should probably be left to the courts to decide.  But one can hardly remove a president from office simply because he is trying to take advantage of his legal options.

But that leaves the central charge in the case: whether Mr. Trump abused his authority by threatening to withhold military aid promised to Ukraine unless the Ukrainian government announced an investigation into the business activities of Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, a possible opponent of Mr. Trump’s in next fall’s election.  If the charge is true, it would be tantamount to an “emolument” forbidden by Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution, and would be on par with bribery which is specifically mentioned as an impeachable offense in Article II, Section 4.  Hence, if it can be proven that there was a “quid pro quo” in the Administration’s dealings with the Ukrainian government, President Trump should be removed from office.

The Christianity Today editorial, however, went beyond that and addressed the broader issue of whether or not evangelical Christians should be supporting Mr. Trump at all.  The editorial states that “this president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration,” and went on to mention his “immoral actions in business and his relationship with women,” and his Twitter feed “with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders.”  None of these would necessarily be impeachable offenses, and other presidents have been guilty of at least some of these.  But the editorial went on to make a telling point:

“To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump

in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this:

Remember who you are and whom you serve.  Consider how

your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to

your Lord and Savior.  Consider what an unbelieving world

will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral

words and behavior in the cause of political expediency.  If

we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we

say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for

decades to come?  Can we say with a straight face that

abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the

same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of

our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?”

“Remember who are and whom you serve.”  We have been called by God to advance His kingdom.  We must promote the moral standards He has laid down in His Word, and call our fellow human beings to repentance and faith Jesus Christ.  We believe in the sanctity of life.  We say that we believe in the sanctity of marriage.  We should also believe in the sanctity of truth (Ninth Commandment).  To give unqualified support to a political leader with such moral failures as Mr. Trump’s is to profess one thing and then support its opposite.  We will have made ourselves hypocrites in the sight of the world.  Who will listen to us then?

 

 

JESUS AS PROPHET, KING AND SAVIOR

 

As we approach Christmas we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ.  But why is that worth celebrating?  What is so special about Jesus?  What makes Him more important than anyone else?  After all, there have been numerous other famous religious teachers down through history.  What makes Jesus special?

One of the first persons to face that question was John the Baptist.  John had known Jesus personally; and both had engaged in teaching ministry and had baptized.  People inevitably made comparisons between the two.

Yet John was aware that there was a difference between himself and Jesus – a vast difference.  And he saw his own role as that of a servant heralding the coming of his Master (John 3:28-30).  But what was it that made Jesus so special?

First of all, Jesus was no ordinary human being: He had come down to earth from heaven above.  “He who is from above is above all; he who is of earth is earthly and speaks of the earth.  He who comes down from above is above all” (v. 31; NKJV).  In other words, what we are celebrating at Christmas is none other than the incarnation of the Son of God who came down to earth to dwell among us.  And because He was “from above,” according to John the Baptist, Christ is “above all” – He occupies a place of preeminence over all created beings.

But secondly, because He is the Son of God who came down from to the very presence of God in heaven, His teaching carries more weight than that of any human teacher.  “And what He has seen and heard, that He testifies . . .” (v. 32a).  What Jesus spoke here on earth reflected what He had seen and heard in heaven.  Indeed, “For whom God has sent speaks the words of God . . .” (v. 34a).

Here several important truths are underscored.  First of all, Jesus had been “sent” by the Father.  He came from the Father down to earth, and He came on the authority of the Father Himself – the Father was the One who had sent Him.  Thus when He spoke here on earth He had the full weight and authority of the Father behind Him.

Secondly, when He came what He spoke were “the words of God” – the hremata, the spoken words.  What this means is that we have received a verbal revelation from God Himself – God has communicated to us in human language which could be verbally spoken and written down.  Or, to put it another way, the discourses and parables of Jesus recorded in the four gospels ultimately came from God the Father Himself; they are God’s revelation to us.

Moreover, Jesus “speaks the words of God, for God does not give the Spirit by measure” (v. 34b).  While He was here on earth Jesus had a special endowment of the Holy Spirit.  All prophets who had been genuinely sent by God “spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21), and indeed every Christian who has been genuinely born again has the Holy Spirit living inside him.  But in Jesus’ case John the Baptist says that “God does not give the Spirit by measure.”  God the Father gave Him the Spirit in overflowing abundance.  That made Jesus the greatest of all prophets.

John the Baptist goes on to say that “the Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand” (v. 35).  Jesus was God the Father’s own Son, and the Father loved the Son dearly.  And so the Father “has given all things into His hand.”  He has placed all created things under the authority of Christ; and that, in turn, means that as human beings we are all obligated to honor Him and Lord and King.  Or, as we enjoy singing from Handel’s Messiah at this time of year, “King of kings and Lord of lords; and He shall reign forever and ever!” (cf. Rev. 17:14; 9:16; 11:15).  It means that there is coming a day when all the crime, cruelty and corruption of the present age will be done away, and there will be a universal reign of peace and justice at the Second Coming of Christ.  Well might we sing “Hallelujah!”

But most importantly of all, Jesus Christ is the Savior.  “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (v. 36).  Here the promise is that if we “believe in the Son” we will have “everlasting life.”  To “believe in” the Son means to put our personal trust in Him, to rely upon Him as our Savior.  And the promise is that if we do so we will “have everlasting life” – we will be with Christ forever in heaven.

Conversely, “he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”  Mankind’s root problem is sin and our state of rebellion against God.  Because of that “the wrath of God abides on” us.  In order for there to be a restoration of our relationship with God, and with it the hope of eternal life, our sin must be atoned for.  What is needed, then, is a Savior; and that Savior is Christ, who, as the sinless Son of God was uniquely qualified to act in that role.  That is why there is no possibility for salvation apart from Christ.

That, then, is the meaning of Christmas.  We are not simply celebrating the birth of a great religious teacher.  We are celebrating the entrance of the Savior into the world.  It was the decisive turning point in history.  What we are called upon to do as individual human beings is to “believe in the Son” whom god the Father sent into the world that we might receive “everlasting life.”

 

THE HOLY SPIRIT’S WORK OF INSPIRATION

 

Throughout His discourse Jesus kept coming back to the role that the Holy Spirit would play after Jesus’ departure.  Having just described the role that the Spirit would play in the conviction of sinners (John 16:7-11), He now goes on to describe the Holy Spirit’s work of revealing truth to the apostles.  “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will tell you things to come” (vv. 12,13; NKJV).

One might begin by asking why the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit is necessary at all.  What could possibly be added to what Jesus had already said?  And yet Jesus Himself said, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  What remained to be taught were the far-reaching implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But it would have been difficult to explain those implications before the events had actually taken place, and then Jesus would have been here on earth only a short while afterwards.  Some other means, then, had to be found to convey that information to the apostles, and that is where the Holy Spirit enters the picture.

“However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak . . .” (the word “authority” has been supplied by the translators).  Here there are several things that are noteworthy.  First of all, the Holy Spirit is a Person – the pronoun “He,” in the Greek, is masculine, even though the Greek word translated “Spirit” is neuter.  The Holy Spirit is not a vague, impersonal life force, but a living, conscious Being.

And then the text says that “whatever He hears He will speak”; and then goes on to say, no less than twice in the next two verses, “He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.”  What Jesus is saying here is that His own teaching ministry will continue, but through the agency of the Holy Spirit.

But how did this work in actual practice?  “. . .whatever He hears He will speak . . .” The word translated “whatever” is neuter plural in form, suggesting that what is being transferred here through the process of inspiration are pieces of information – facts, concepts and ideas.  And the Spirit is said to “hear” these things and to “speak” them to the apostles, implying that these revelations can be communicated in verbal propositions.

The apostle Paul would eventually describe the process of inspiration this way: “Now we have received, not the Spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things that have been freely given to us by God.  These things we also speak, not in words which men’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual” [or, as it might better be translated, “combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words’ – NASV].  The “words” which the Holy Spirit teaches are logois – words as embodying conceptions or ideas (Abbott-Smith).  Jesus had also said that the Holy Spirit would “bring to you remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:26) and “will tell you things to come” (16:13).  The apostles and evangelists, then, would take all of this information that they had received from the Holy Spirit and write it down, making the writings of the New Testament, from the gospel records of the life of Christ to the prophecies of the Book of Revelation, the inspired Word of God.

The fact of divine revelation is of critical importance.  Apart from it we have no certain knowledge about God’s dealings with the human race in the past, our standing with Christ in the present, or what lies in store for us in the future.  And yet, tragically, the mainline Protestant denominations have largely abandoned faith in the Bible as the definitive Word of God.

The problem arose through the advent of the “Higher Criticism” of the Bible.  The Higher Critics professed to be studying the origins of the Bible from an inductive, scientific standpoint, and claimed to have discovered a variety of underlying sources and later redactions.  But they were highly selective in their use of evidence, usually discounting any explicit references contained within the Bible itself about its own origins.

Since the late 20th Century liberal scholarship has moved on to a wide variety of hermeneutical approaches, but practically none of them treats the Bible as a direct revelation from God Himself, and in some cases have even questioned whether objective truth is knowable at all.  Jesus, however, took a far different view of things, and as the eternal Son of God He was in a unique position to tell us what the true state of things is, certainly more so than the modern critics.

Apart from divine revelation we are in utter darkness.  We have no clear sense of the meaning and purpose of life, or of right and wrong, let alone the promise of forgiveness or the possibility of life after death.  We would be trapped by our temporal circumstances; we could never rise above the here and now, and the Christian life would be unlivable.  That the major Protestant have lost their faith in Scripture is one of the greatest tragedies of modern history.  And yet the promise that Jesus gave to His disciples still holds true.  The teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit continued beyond Christ’s ascension into heaven, and we have the final product of that divine inspiration in the New Testament.  Let us rededicate ourselves to studying it, to applying it to our lives.

THE HOLY SPIRIT’S WORK OF CONVICTION

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Descent of the Holy Spirit

Jesus has just described the hostility that believers can expect to receive from the world.  But is it a lost cause?  If lost sinners, by their very nature, are hostile to the gospel, how would any of them come to faith in Christ?  If the world crucified Christ, why would it believe in Him as the promised Messiah?

Once again Jesus comes back to the work of the Holy Spirit.  “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth.  It is to you advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7; NKJV).  It cannot be overemphasized how central the Holy Spirit’s work should be in the church.  When Jesus walked here on earth, the lives of the disciples revolved around Him.  He was their Master, their Lord, their Teacher.  But now He was about to depart, leaving a void.  The Holy Spirit is meant to fill that void.

But the very idea of the Spirit of God indwelling a human being is extraordinary, and it would only be possible after Christ had died on the cross and made an atonement for our sin.  Having risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, He was then able to appear before God the Father as our intercessor, and ask that the Holy Spirit be given.  Pentecost was the proof that Christ’s sacrifice had been accepted and that He was now in heaven making intercession on our behalf.  The Holy Spirit now occupies a role in our lives analogous to the role that Jesus occupied in the lives of His disciples when He was here on earth.  The Holy Spirit is to play a central role in our lives as individual believers and in our life together as a church.

In this passage Jesus specifically turns His attention to the role that the Holy Spirit will play in the world at large.  “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment” (v. 8).  The word translated “convict” (elegcho) “implies rebuke which brings conviction” (Abbott-Smith).  The Holy Spirit will overcome the natural resistance of the human heart to convince them of certain basic facts a person must know and believe in order to come to faith in Christ.

The first of these is sin.  “. . . of sin, because they do not believe in Me” (v. 9).  There is a great deal of discussion among the commentators about exactly how this and the next two verses should be translated and interpreted.  We will take the position that the word “because” introduces a clause which states the reason why the Holy Spirit is convicting of these things.  And the first thing of which the Holy Spirit convicts us is the terrible fact of sin.  God is perfectly just, holy and loving.  He created us to live our lives in accordance with His will.  But instead we rebelled against Him and gave ourselves to a wide variety of sinful passions and desires – anger, pride, greed and lust.  We have a general sense that these are wrong, but since everyone else is guilty of the same sins we tend not to take them seriously.  And so the Holy Spirit must show us how serious a problem sin really is.  And He does this ”because they do not believe in Me.”  He came into the world to save people from their sins, and yet they do not believer.  Why?  Because they do not believe that sin is the serious problem that it is.

And the Holy Spirit will convict the world “of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more” (v. 10).  While Jesus was here on earth His life was a perfect example of what true righteousness is, and His teaching reflected the will of God on this more fully and completely than had ever been done before.  As human beings we cannot see how lost we really are until we understand how perfect a righteousness God really requires.  We compare ourselves with each other, and conclude that we are not so bad after all – after all, I am not as bad as the guy in the next cell – he got charged with first degree murder!  But to see what God Himself is really like is to experience is to experience the reaction that Isaiah had when he saw God – “Woe is me, for I am undone! / Because I am a man of unclean lips. . . .” (Isa. 6:5).  And so with Jesus physically departed the Holy Spirit must give the sinner a sense of what real righteousness is.

And then Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will convict the world “of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged” (v. 11).  It is tempting for us, as human beings, to think that no serious consequences will come from our sin, as long as we obey the laws of the civil authorities.  We live, we pursue our dreams and ambitions, we have successes or failures, but hopefully most of us will avoid imprisonment.  What we fail to recognize, however, is that there is coming a day of judgment in which each one of us individually must give an account to God for our actions here on earth. And what a terrifying prospect that is!  To stand before an absolutely holy God who knows every impure thought and hidden fault that we ever had, and try to explain to Him, our Creator, why we did what He did not want us to do – who could possibly escape condemnation?  And the fact of the matter is that “the ruler of this world is judged.”  We think that we are fine if we are in conformity with the standards of human society around us.  But human civilization in its entirety is in a state of rebellion against God, and its ruler is no one less than Satan himself.  But Satan has already been judged, and while his influence may prevail now his cause is ultimately lost.  This is why it makes no sense to keep conforming to this twisted and perverted standards of human conduct.

Most people have at least a vague sense of guilt.  We have consciences – we have at least a sense that there is a difference between right and wrong.  The apostle Paul calls it “the work of the law written on our hearts” (Rom. 2:15).  Most people have a sense of moral standards imposed by society and feel guilty when caught.  But the conviction brought on by the Holy Spirit is different.  The apostle Paul, in his former life as a devout Jew, could say that “concerning the righteousness which is in the law” he was “blameless” (Phil. 3:4-6).  But once he understood what God really required, once he understood how deeply engrained sin really was in his personality, he was led to exclaim, “O wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from the body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).  And the lost sinner, no matter how outwardly respectable he may be, can scarcely have any sense at all of the righteousness of God or the reality of the Last Judgment.  Thus true conviction must be produced by the Holy Spirit.

The passage is also a sober reminder to the church of how dependent we are upon the work of the Holy Spirit in evangelism.  Evangelism is not just a matter of marketing and intellectual persuasion.  The lost sinner is spiritually blind.  He “suppresses the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18).  They “walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness [“hardness” – NASV, ESV] of their heart . . .” (Eph. 4:17,18).  Thus “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor. 2:14).Thus what has to happen in true evangelism is, as Paul described his own ministry, “And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (I Cor. 2:4,5).  “For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance . . .” (I Thess. 1:5), and thus the Thessalonians, “when you received the word of God which you heard from me, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believer” (I Thess. 2:13).

True revival will come only when we acknowledge our dependence on the Holy Spirit for results, and ask for His anointing on the preaching of the word.  Secular marketing techniques and methods will not bring lost sinners to Christ. Only the Holy Spirit can accomplish that.  Even so come, heavenly Dove!

THE CHURCH AND THE WORLD

168

The stoning of Stephen

As Jesus and His disciples make their way through the streets of Jerusalem to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is conscious that He is literally on His way to His arrest and execution.  How did He arrive at this point?  And what does it mean for His disciples, and, by implication, for the church?

At this point Jesus give His disciples a foreboding notice: “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18; NKJV).  “The world” is the generality of the human race in its lost condition.  We sometimes hear well-meaning Christians say that America is a Christian nation founded on biblical principles.  But that is not the way Christ sees it.  The United States, like every other nation on the face of the earth, is made up mostly of lost sinners who are in a state of sin and rebellion against God, and are on their way to hell.  America is a part of “the world.”

And the world, Jesus says, “hated Me.”  The great irony of the situation is that here was Jesus, the very Son of God, come into the world to save us from our sins, and He is rejected by the great majority of mankind.  He was the promised Messiah, and yet He was rejected by the Jews.  And if we are faithful followers of Jesus Christ we may face the same rejection as well.

Jesus goes on to elaborate on the position of the Christian in the world: “If you were of the world, the world would love its own.  Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (v.19).  Christ’s immediate disciples were a select group of men specifically chosen by Him to be His disciples.  But in a broader sense this is true of every Christian believer.  Why do some believe and not others?  We were all lost sinners, “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1).  But God chose some (those of us who were to be saved) to make monuments of His mercy and grace.

But in the process of choosing us He effectively separated us from the world of which we once were a part.  He chose us “out of the world.”   We are no longer a part of the human society around us.  We no longer share its values.  We have seen the light, and can no longer live the way we used to; and that puts us at variance with the world around us.  They are motivated by self-interest.  They routinely ignore God.  And when confronted with the claims of Christ they react in loathing and disgust.  And so they rejected Christ; and they rejected the apostles, and they will likely reject us if we try to bear faithful witness to the truth.  The world “hates” us, because it hates what we represent: the claims of God over their sinful, rebellious lives.

The underlying cause of persecution, Jesus says, is that “they do not know Him who sent Me” (v. 21).  Again we need to appreciate the irony of the situation.  Jesus’ immediate opponents were Jewish religious leaders.  They certainly thought of themselves as religious.  And yet in reality they did not know God, for it they did they would have embraced the One whom the Father had sent.  They had actually seen the Son of God.  They had heard Him speak.  Moreover, Jesus had “done among them the works which no one else did” (v. 24).  And yet in spite of that they rejected Christ anyway.  And the servant, Jesus says, is not greater that his master.  “If they persecuted Me, the will also persecute you” (v. 20).

One might think at this point that the situation is hopeless.  And yet we have a most valuable resource available to us – the Holy Spirit.  “But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me” (v. 26).  The world cannot be won to Christ through natural, human means.   To overcome the intense opposition that the world has toward Christ, the Holy Spirit must transform people inwardly, opening their eyes, convicting them of sin, and drawing them to Christ.  Revival is the Holy Spirit’s work – we are merely instruments in His hands.  The disciples themselves, in their role as apostles, “also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning” (v. 27).  They were witnesses of the events surrounding Jesus.  They had heard His teaching; they had seen His miracles.  We have their testimony in the pages of the New Testament.  It leaves mankind without excuse.

Jesus then goes on to tell His disciples that He was telling them all of this in advance “that you should not be made to stumble” (16:1).  Had Jesus been like one of our modern “Prosperity Gospel” preachers, and had His disciples responded to Him thinking that the Christian life would be one of ease and comfort, when persecutions came their way they most likely would have experienced a profound sense of disillusionment and would have dismissed Jesus as a fraud.  But Jesus was honest and transparent with them, and forewarned them of what lay ahead.  He points out that “the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service” (v. 2).

“And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me” (v. 3).  Here is the irony of the situation: there will be religious leaders (and here the initial reference appears to be the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem) who will persecute Christian believers in the name of religion.  Why?  “. . . because they have not known the Father nor Me.”  Unfortunately it is possible to have an outward form of religion based purely on sociology and not on an actual relationship with God.  Thus what the leader thinks is right is not always what God wants.  This is why the genuine children of God sometimes wind up being persecuted.

Most of this is utterly alien to us American Christians.  We have never experienced anything even remotely like this before.  And yet indications are already there that we are now living in a “Post-Christian” society and the signs of persecution are already on the horizon.  Will we, as followers of Jesus Christ, be prepared to suffer for Him?

“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if

need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the

genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than

gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found

to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ . . .”

(I Peter 1:6,7)

LOVE ONE ANOTHER – II

 

Jesus goes on to reinforce the command to “love one another” by saying, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you” (John 15:16; NKJV).  This takes us into deep and difficult doctrine of election.  Jesus clearly states, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you.”  Some have imagined that the doctrine of election would leave to a life of lawlessness and sin.  If God is the One who does the choosing, if it is not my free will that chooses to become a Christian, then why should I exercise my will to live a godly life?  But that line of reasoning misses the whole point of election.  God had a specific purpose in mind when he chose us, and that was to redeem us from sin, set us apart from the world, and consecrate us to live lives that are pleasing to Him.  Jesus chose us, “that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain.”  If we have been chosen by God, if we have experienced the work of grace in our hearts, we will be people different from what we were before we were saved.  We are new creatures in Christ Jesus (II Cor. 5:17), and so we live differently.  Our aim now is to please Him.  And it is significant that Jesus specifically says that He wants us to bear fruit, and that our fruit should remain.  He wants us to be successful in the Christian life; He does not want us to be defeated Christians.

And Jesus further reinforces the exhortation by reminding them of what He had told them earlier, “. . .that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give it to you” (cf. v. 7).  One of the benefits of having a vital connection to Christ is that He acts as our intercessor.  If we pray in His name, our request carries the weight of His authority behind it, and the Father will not deny a request from His Son!  This is all the more reason why it is vitally important that we remain in close fellowship with the Son.  And so Jesus comes back to His original point: “These things I command you, that you love one another” (v. 17).

The practical implications of all of this are hard for American Christians in particular to grasp.  We are used to a plethora of denominations dominated by a professional clergy.  We accept divisions within the Body of Christ as normal, and can scarcely conceive of the existence of a universal church.  Yet Jesus is beseeching His disciples – all of His disciples – both then and now, to love each other.  That means that there are several things about American church life that are highly problematic.

Perhaps the first thing that should be mentioned is overbearing pastors.  Most churches today have just a single pastor; or, if they are large enough to have more than one, one is designated as the “senior pastor.”  This pastor, or senior pastor, is then in charge of the ministry of the church.  Unfortunately in some cases he can be an overbearing tyrant, and some churches have been brought to ruin by poor decisions made by the impulsive and stubborn personality in charge.

But the model of church life that we see in the New Testament was quite different.  All of the believers within a given geographical area were considered members of a single church, and if the Christian community in Jerusalem is any indication, one of these community-wide churches could number up into the thousands.  Within this larger church there would be smaller groups that would meet in private homes where they would “break bread” (Acts. 2:46), evidently a combination of fellowship meal and Lord’s Supper.  The large, metropolitan church was led by a board of elders which at one point was called a “presbytery” (presbyterion) (I Tim. 4:14).

But the elders were all on an equal footing – there was no “senior” pastor.  It was not until the Second Century that “bishop” and “elder” were considered two separate offices, with a single bishop being in charge of an entire diocese – what is generally known as a “monarchical episcopate.”  This became a characteristic feature of early Catholicism, and eventually led to the papacy.  But in New Testament times the terms “elder” and “bishop” were used interchangeably, and , as noted, were all on an equal footing.  And the elders were told to “shepherd the flock of God among you . . .not as being lords (katakurieuontes – exercising dominion) over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (I Peter 5:2,3).  “And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will give them repentance, so that they may know the truth . . .” (II Tim. 2:24,25).  How very different from what we so often see today!

But the larger problem in American church life today is the sin of denominationalism.  The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians and rebuked them for dividing into factions and saying “I am of Paul,” and “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas” (I Cor. 1:12), and yet we say “I am Lutheran,” “I am Mennonite,” “I am Wesleyan.”  Granted, denominational differences cannot be easily papered over.  But each of us needs to engage in careful self-examination to see how many of our beliefs and practices are really found in the Bible; and we need to strive together to achieve as much visible unity within the evangelical community as possible.  What is especially pernicious in this regard is the practice of “Second Degree Separation” – the idea that not only must we separate from unbelievers (First Degree Separation, which is Biblical), but we must also separate from fellow believers with whom we might disagree over some secondary point of doctrine.  Granted, there are serious doctrinal errors that should not be allowed within the church.  But the question should always be asked, is the other brother acting in good faith?  Can he build a solid argument for Scripture?  If so, we should be working for peace and unity, not rancor and division.

The “bottom line” is Christ’s commandment that we love one another.  Love is the evidence of a life transformed by grace, and is the most eloquent testimony that we can offer the world.  May the love of Christ shine through us as we love one another!

LOVE ONE ANOTHER – I

 

So what exactly is it that Jesus has commanded us to do?  If our fruitfulness and our joy depend on our abiding in Him, and our abiding in Him depends upon our keeping His commandments, what are His commandments?  Jesus answers the question in John 15:12: “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (NKJV).  The defining characteristic of the church should be love.

The first thing that should be noted is that this love is demonstrated in the context of brotherhood.  Jesus directs his commandment to His disciples, and by extension to the church, of which the disciples were the core.  But they were to “love one another” – it was to be a mutual love.  Some people today, professing to be Christians, claim not to see any reason why they should be actively involved in a church – sometimes because of bad experiences they have had with churches in the past.  But the Christian life is not something that can be lived in isolation.  Its core value is love, and love is something which must be demonstrated towards others.  And so Christians exist together in a community of believers, and they are commanded, by their Savior and Lord, to love each other.  But in order to do that they must have regular contact with each other.  Anything less than a visible demonstration of brotherly love misses the whole point of the Christian life.

But how is this love demonstrated?  Jesus says that we are to love one another, “as I have loved you.”  And how did He love us?  “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (v. 13).  This Jesus said as He was on His way to His execution!  Love means that you care about others as much as you care about yourself: “. . . you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  It is a self-sacrificing love.  “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  On the one hand it means a willingness to suffer wrong without retaliation.  “Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice.  And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as Christ forgave you.  Therefore be imitators of God as dear children.  And walk in love, as Christ also has love us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma” (Eph. 4:31-5:2; cf. Col. 3:12-14).

On the positive side Christian love responds readily to human need.  “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?  My little children, let us not love in word or tongue, but in deed and truth” (I John 3:17,18).  If we genuinely care about a brother who happens to be in need we will try to meet that need as we are able to do so.  Christians demonstrate their love for one another by serving each other. (Gal. 5:13,14) and by giving preference to each other (Rom. 12:10).

But most importantly, Christian love is expressed in church unity.  We are to be “with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3), and Paul goes on to remind his readers that “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called into one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (vv. 4-6; Phil. 2:1-11).  When Paul says, “there is one body” he is referring to the universal church, the body of Christ.  All Christians, of whatever theological opinion, are to be united.

And then, to reinforce the message, Jesus adds a remarkable promise: “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.  No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you” (vv. 14,15).  Jesus is our Lord and Master.  He could, if He so desires, simply assert His authority over us and demand blind obedience.  But instead He chose to His disciples “My friends,” and said that they would continue to be His friends if they continue to do what He commanded them.  The difference between a servant (or “slave” – Gk. doulos) and a friend is that a servant has to yield blind obedience to his master.  He does what he is told to do simply because he is told to do it.  No explanation is necessary.  But a friend is in an altogether different position.  Friends share information with each other.  And so it is with us and our relationship with Christ.  He is not asking us for blind obedience, but for a knowledgeable and willing compliance with His will.  It is an intimate relationship in which the reasons for the commands are made known.  Granted, in one sense Jesus is our Master and we are His servants.  But we are more than that – we are also His friends.  What an amazing way to look at our relationship with Him!