Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Month: March, 2016

THE MEANING OF THE CROSS


On Good Friday, of course, we commemorate the death of Christ on the cross, a historical fact that we largely take for granted today.  Yet it is hard to imagine how problematical that was in Jesus’ own day.  He proclaimed Himself to be the Messiah, yet he was crucified by the Romans.  For Jews who had been expectantly waiting for the Messiah this was not the way it was supposed to turn out.

The confusion in people’s minds can be seen in Jesus’ own disciples.  At one point, towards the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus was traveling with His disciples to the northern extremity of Palestine.  During the course of their trip Jesus asked the disciples who people thought that He was.  “John the Baptist,” “Elijah,” “one of the prophets” were some of the answers He got.  But then Jesus asked the disciples, who did they think that He was, and Peter gave the answer: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29; NKJV – “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah”).

But at this point Jesus tells them something that utterly astonished them.  “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (v. 31).  “Killed”?  The Messiah?  That wasn’t supposed to happen.  The “Son of Man” is a reference back to an Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah.  In Daniel 7:13,14 we are told of “One like the Son of Man, / Coming with the clouds of heaven,” and “. . . to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, / That all peoples, nations and languages should serve Him.”  And the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting just such a Messiah.  And yet here was Jesus, telling His disciples that “the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected . . . and be killed.”  How could such a thing be true?

Understandably Peter found this hard to accept, and he had the temerity to rebuke Jesus for saying such a thing.  Jesus, in turn, rebuked him (vv. 32,33).  What Peter and most of his contemporaries failed to realize is that before the Messianic reign could begin, before there could be universal peace on earth, an atonement for sin had to be made, and that was the primary purpose of Christ’s first coming to earth.

But that was not all.  Not only was the Messiah called upon to suffer on the cross, but that had implications for His disciples as well.  “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (v. 34).  You call yourself a Christian, a follower of Jesus.  But what does that involve?  What it means is that just as Jesus was rejected and put to death, so too we must be prepared to suffer rejection and persecution.  This, of course, goes against our grain.  Our natural instinct is for self-preservation.  And yet what is required of us as disciples of Jesus is self-denial.  We must, each one of us, “take up his cross.”  We do this figuratively when we suffer trials and difficulties as a result of our testimony for Christ.  In this way we “follow Him.”

“But,” someone might say, “that is absurd.  Why would anyone willingly sacrifice his self-interest for someone else’s sake?  What is to be gained by it?”  Jesus goes on to explain. “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (v. 35).  Here we are confronted with a paradox: in order to gain our life we must be prepared to lose it.  Jesus goes on to explain in verse 38: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”  Currently we live in a fallen and sinful world – “this adulterous and sinful generation” Jesus calls it.  It is a world that hates the message that Jesus preached, and therefore hates us when we also preach it.  But then, referring back to the prophecy in Daniel about “the Son of Man,” Jesus points to a day sometime in the future when the Messiah will return and punish evil and reward good.  At that point the tables will be turned and those who suffer persecution now will be amply rewarded.

And so Jesus asked a pointed question: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (v. 36).  What is the point of being successful in this life if we spend an eternity in hell?  What will we have gained?

As modern Americans we are preoccupied with the here-and-now.  We devote our time and energy to getting ahead, or at least surviving, in this life, and scarcely give any thought at all to the life to come.  We “look out for good-ole number one,” and to “get along we go along.”  But what a terrible mistake it all is.  Life will not last forever, and this world will eventually come to an end.  And what then?

Today we are living in a rapidly changing society.  The western world is shedding the last vestiges of Christianity.  Are we prepared to take up our cross and follow Jesus?

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CHURCH UNITY

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Interior, East Troupsburg Baptist Church, Troupsburg, NY

We have seen, in our last blog post, that salvation makes a difference.  A person who is saved should be different from what he was before, and he should be different from the unsaved world still around him.

But how should he be different?  What exactly is the difference?  Paul spends most of the rest of the epistle explaining what exactly that difference should be.

Interestingly he begins by discussing church unity and the attitude we should have in order to achieve that unity.  We are to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, 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; NKJV).

Here he calls for three basic traits that are necessary to preserve Christian unity: lowliness, gentleness and longsuffering.  The word “lowliness,” (literally, “lowliness of mind”) denotes that basic trait of humility that we should have when we think about ourselves in relation to everyone else in the church.  We are not necessarily better, smarter or more important than anyone else.  We are all brothers and sisters, members of the same family in the Lord, and we should treat each other with kindness and mutual respect.

Likewise a Christian ought to be known for his “gentleness.”  He is to be thoughtful and considerate of others.  He should be sensitive to their feelings and be unwilling to cause unnecessary hurt.

And then a Christian should be longsuffering.  The Greek word is often used to translate a Hebrew phrase in the Old Testament that means “slow to anger.”  It means restraining one’s anger in the face of provocation.  Tensions and conflicts will inevitably arise, but Christians need to be patient with each other, slow to anger and ready to forgive.

With these basic traits in mind, then, Christians are to be “bearing with one another in love.”  We come from different backgrounds and have different personalities.  We may irritate and annoy each other.  But we are called to “forbear one another in love,” to use the phrase in the old KJV.

All of this, Paul says, logically follows from the great doctrines of salvation contained in chapters 1-3.  Today we often associate that theology, with its strong emphasis on human depravity and salvation by grace alone, with “Calvinism,” although Calvin certainly did not write the Epistle to the Ephesians.  But today if someone is a “Calvinist,” if he truly understands the implications of his theology, he will be marked by humility, gentleness and patience.  He, above all others, should recognize that we were helpless, guilty, hell-deserving sinners, and that it was only through God’s grace that we were saved at all.  And that should make us truly humble and make us more forbearing of others.

Paul tells us that we are to endeavor “to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  That is a foreign concept to most American evangelicals.  We are used to seeing a dizzying array of competing denominations which often seem to have little in common with each other.  And yet Paul says that we are to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  But what “unity”?

Paul goes on to tell us.  “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in 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).

First of all, there is “one body.”  Here, of course, he is referring to the Christian church as a whole, which Paul had previously described as the body of Christ (1:22,23).  Everyone who is a born again Christian is a member of that body, regardless of whatever denominational title he may claim for himself.

Likewise there is “one Spirit.”  Everyone who has been born again has the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of him.  But there is only one Holy Spirit, and we each share that same Spirit.  That means that there is an intimate connection between each and every genuine Christian believer.

Paul goes on to say that “you were called in one hope of your calling.”  The “calling,” it will be remembered, is how God drew us to Christ, and hence there exists among true Christians a common, shared experience of coming out of darkness into light.

Paul notes that there is one Lord – we do not serve several different Christs; and one faith – we all have an active trust in the same Savior.  But then Paul says “one baptism,” and here we run into a difficulty.  Some of us would maintain that what Paul has in mind here is believer’s baptism, in which an adult (or at least an adolescent) makes a conscious decision to publicly identify himself publicly with Christ.  But many churches practice infant baptism in which the person receiving the sacrament (to use their terminology) makes no such formal, public commitment.  Presumably though, when that person later seeks admission as a communicant member of that church he claims his baptism as his own.  To the extent, then, that we have each made a formal, public commitment of some sort, we share that in common as well.

And then Paul concludes by noting that there is “one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (v. 6 – the majority of Greek manuscripts, along with the Latin Vulgate, read “and in us all”).  Ultimately all genuine Christian believers share a spiritual union with God Himself.  He is our Father; we are under His authority; He works through us, and He lives within us all.

Thus what unites us as evangelical Christians is far more significant than our differences of opinion on secondary issues.  And what God clearly wants from us as His people is that we “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  May we all repent in dust and ashes.

 

DOCTRINE AND PRACTICE

 

Paul, the inspired apostle, was undoubtedly, after Christ Himself, the greatest Christian theologian of all time.   And yet he was no arm-chair, ivory tower academic theologian.  In fact, he never even wrote a treatise on systematic theology.  Instead he was what we would call today an “occasional theologian,” i.e., he wrote as the occasion demanded, and addressed specific issues as they arose.  Thus what he has left us is a series of letters, letters in which he addresses specific issues facing the churches of his time.  The result is a theology which, while not necessarily systematic, is at the heart of it practical and edifying.

One such example, of course, is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  Written from a jail cell (probably in Rome in the early 60’s) to the church at Ephesus in Asia Minor, possibly with a wider group of churches in view as well.  And like many of his epistles, the one to the Ephesians begins with a doctrinal section and concludes with a section devoted to practical exhortation.

The transition from the doctrinal to the practical occurs at Eph. 4:1: “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you are called” (NKJV).  Notice in particular the word “therefore.”  What he is saying, in effect, is that the practical section of the letter logically follows from the doctrinal.  For Paul the two cannot be separated.  There is no such thing as a purely speculative theology that is not related to Christian living, and there is no such thing as Christian living which is not grounded in an understanding of God’s workings with men.  The two are intimately connected together.

So Paul says that we should “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called.”  The “calling” was the way that they had been brought to Christ, to become Christian believers, as described in the first half of the letter.  And in that section Paul has laid out the great doctrines of election and predestination, of redemption, of total depravity and salvation by grace through faith.  Salvation is fundamentally a work of God’s grace.  Thus Paul summarizes his argument in the last two verses of Chapter 3: “Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Jesus Christ to all generations, forever and ever.  Amen” (3:20,21).  The glory goes to God, and the glory goes to Him because of the greatness of His power that works in us.  Salvation is a work of God’s grace.  We do not save ourselves; it is God who saves us. And He does not just forgive our sins; He changes us inwardly as well.  Thus the church, as a body of saved believers, should be a monument and testimony to God’s grace and power.

But then, that being the case, how does that affect the way we live?  We are to “walk worthy of the calling with which you were called” (4:1).  We are God’s church; we have been adopted into His family.  Christ His Son died on the cross to save us from our sins.  We have the Holy Spirit living inside of us.  Two conclusions follow from this: first of all our conduct should be consistent with our status.  Every Christian is a “saint” by virtue of his salvation; he should not be seen living like a criminal or a derelict.  Christ did not die on the cross in order to make us self-righteous hypocrites; He died to make us monuments to His grace.

The second implication is that there should be evidence of God’s transforming power in our lives.  If there is no evidence of the fruit of the Spirit, then we do not gave the Spirit.  And if we do not have the Spirit, we are not saved.

In other words, salvation makes a real difference.  It changes us.  We are no longer what we once were.  Let us live accordingly, and to God be the glory.

A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD

 

If you were a pastor, what would you desire for your congregation? Paul had spent two years at the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. The believers there were dear to his heart. What did he want for them? He tells us in a prayer he has for them in Eph. 3:14-19. It is basically that they would have a meaningful relationship with God. But what does that entail?

The passage begins like this: “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with might through His Spirit in the inner man” (v. 16; NKJV). Paul will go on to elaborate on this in Chapter 6. Suffice it to say here that we are engaged in a spiritual war, that ‘we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (6:12), and therefore we are to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (6:10). This strength comes from “His Spirit in the inner man” (3:16). It is the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us that gives us the strength to live the Christian life. Our own natural ability is not enough.

But then Paul goes on: “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (v. 17). Christ, of course, is already in our hearts through faith if we are genuinely Christians. But here Paul seems to be talking about the full influence of Christ in our hearts. By “hearts” he means our whole inner being, not just our emotions. And as we walk by faith, as we trust and obey, we grow closer to Him and His influence is increasingly felt in our lives.

But Paul goes on. He says that we are to be “rooted and grounded in love” (v. 17). And then he goes on to elaborate further: that we “may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height – to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge . . .” (vv. 18,19). In short, we as finite, mortal human beings are confronted with the infinite, eternal glory of God Himself, and we stagger at the prospect. He is beyond our comprehension.

And if we could but faintly glimpse the love that Christ has for us guilty, undeserving sinners, a love that led Him to give up His very life for us, how differently would we treat others around us! How patient, how understanding, how merciful we would be! That is what it means to be “rooted and grounded in love.”

But then Paul goes on. He prays that “you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (v. 19). This is a bit like trying to fit the ocean in a teacup. How can “all the fullness of God” fit into us? And yet Paul says “that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” – that He would completely fill us, that He would fill us to overflowing, that He would fill us with all of His goodness, love, justice and mercy. At that point we truly become the image of God in man.

But how does it all work out in actual practice? The answer is the presence of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer. “Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rom. 5:5). Part of the fruit of the Spirit, of course, is “love, joy, peace’ (Gal. 5:22). If we have the Holy Spirit, if we are walking according to the Spirit, these qualities will fill our hearts.

But more to the point, the Holy Spirit gives us an assurance of God’s love towards us individually. “For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:15,16). This is sometimes referred to as “the inner testimony of the Spirit,” and people experience it in various degrees. But according to the testimony of those who have experience it, it is truly “heaven on earth.”

It will be noted, once again, that this is a prayer: “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened . . .” (vv. 14,16). A close, personal relationship with God, the experience of His love, is a privilege that must be bestowed by Him. He must grant it; we must ask for it. It is not something that we work up ourselves.

At the heart of the Christian life is a relationship with God. Mere church attendance is not enough. Not even doctrinal orthodoxy or financial giving are enough. What God wants is our hearts. Nothing less will do.