Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Strategy for Christmas

The United States is Christmas crazy. I mean that literally. You have heard the Christmas carol Twelve Days of Christmas, but the actual statistics state that the official Christmas season is five weeks long! Twelve days of Christmas times three (almost). Retailers depend on Christmas sales to make a profit for the year, and they start to decorate and promote Christmas items before Thanksgiving. Many people depend on seasonal Christmas jobs to augment their income and make ends’ meet. Tragically, there have even been fatalities surrounding Christmas, as just this year on Long Island a Wal-Mart worker was trampled to death by early-bird shoppers. Our culture is Christmas crazy!

We should not have an ad hoc mentality when it comes to Christmas, blindly going with the flow and taking what’s easy instead of thinking ahead and devising strategies for action and engagement with the culture. As Christians we should think things through and be prepared for what may even seem routine – like Christmas. If I was to ask you, “Are you ready for Christmas?” Would you immediately think of…
  • Christmas shopping
  • Christmas decorations
  • Christmas cards
  • Christmas baking
  • Christmas travel plans
  • Christmas parties

There is certainly a sense in which all of those things factor into our preparedness for the Christmas event, but they are only a part of Christmas and by no means the most important part. Instead of all the above, are you prepared to ensure that your family, friends, and co-workers understand that Jesus Christ is indeed “the reason for the season”? We need to have a strategy for Christmas, and the strategy must go beyond presents, pictures, pageants, and parties.

I may be the first person to have ever suggested that you formulate a Christmas strategy; at least one that doesn’t involve the usual fare. I encourage this for a simple reason. Have you ever wanted to take advantage of the Christmas holiday to talk with family about the real meaning of Christmas or maybe to speak with a friend about the season’s reason, but before you realize it you’re cleaning up wrapping paper on December 26th and thinking to yourself, “I can’t believe it’s already over?!” That is why we should think this through before it’s over. That is why we should have a Christmas strategy. It’s good to have a plan.

Should we celebrate Christmas?

Perhaps your Christmas strategy is to have no Christmas at all! Many of this nation’s founding families were Puritans, and they refused to celebrate Christmas. It would be difficult to find more orthodox believers than the Puritans. While I certainly do not agree with all of their theological positions or some of their legislative policies, I would be hard-pressed to find another group of people who dearly loved the Lord and desired to honor Him. Don’t believe all the caricatures and stereotypes about the Puritans. If your only exposure to the Puritans is The Scarlet Letter then you’re misinformed. If the name Puritans can only conjure up images of prudish, boorish, modern-day hypocrites and witch trials then you have been duped. There is much more to the Puritans than all of that, and much to imitate. Should canceling Christmas be one thing in which they are imitated?

The Puritans’ refusal to celebrate Christmas may be distilled down to a couple of reasons. First, they felt the holiday had fallen into abuse. Instead of being a day that was devoted to Christ and Christian celebration it had become a day of wanton partying. The day had become associated with drinking, reveling, and its focus had shifted from the Savior to only merriment, and usually corrupt merriment. Everything but Christ was emphasized, so the Puritans abandoned Christmas.


The second reason is that they considered it wrong to celebrate and emphasize Christ’s incarnation only once a year, as opposed to having that marvelous truth before our eyes throughout the year. As Christians, the Puritans argued, the glorious truth of God being made flesh so that He might die on the cross as atonement for sins should not be reserved for acclaim in only December; instead it should be commemorated year round.


I don’t think we should dismiss the Puritans’ reasoning as quickly as some may like to do, because the holiday is less of a “holy day” and more of a “time off of work so let’s have a good time day.” I agree with the Puritans on both counts. I think it is inarguable that Christmas is abused, by non-believers and believers alike. The day is used as an excuse to party, be greedy, or get charge happy. Even for those who don’t get drunk, are not greedy, and who don’t get (too) charge happy, the celebration has less to do with Christ and more to do with “the season” or the “spirit” of Christmas (and that isn’t a reference to the Holy Ghost). Christmas is seen as a time to feel good about yourself, your neighbors, family, anything and everything but Jesus Christ being made flesh. This is a theologically rich holiday, but the theology is either left out or given scant time, while Santa, snow, presents, and “Christmas spirit” are the primary focus.


This ought not to be, but while I agree with the Puritans’ reasoning I do not agree with their strategy to just call the whole thing off.


How then should we celebrate Christmas?


If we are going to celebrate this holy day, how should we do it?


We Must Celebrate Christmas with Honesty


We should start with honesty, and in so doing we should honestly admit that there is no good reason (that means Biblical reason) for exchanging gifts at Christmas. There is no Biblical reason why celebrating Christmas must involve a decorated tree, concerts, plays, or people traveling all across the state, country, or globe just to be together on the 25th of December.


Now, before you label me as the ultimate Grinch, let it be known that the giving of gifts, the decorating of trees, and the assembling of families, even over great distances, are all truly wonderful traditions which I thoroughly enjoy. But if your Christmas celebration is dependent on any or all of those things then you need a new strategy.


Honestly, what we have done as Christians is combined the celebration of Christ’s birth with an entire season of consumerism, commercialism, and just plain busyness. This is often one of the most hectic and crazy periods of the year, with families running in all different directions to make it to every concert, cantata, office party, and so on, that many people feel relieved when the 26th comes around.


This ought not to be.


We Must Distinguish Fact from Fiction


A second stoke in our wheel of strategy should be the distinguishing of fact from fiction. It isn’t uncommon for people, including Christians, to know so little about Christmas, or to at least have quite a lot of fiction mixed in with the facts. Where do we arrive at the facts? From Scripture! It is a sad state of events when the story of Christ’s birth – not only the story about the baby in the manger but the Man on the cross – becomes lost in the shuffle of wise men, gifts, drummer boys, elves, Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and the rest. That must not be allowed in Christian homes or in our churches!


A lot of fiction swirls around the wise men. The fiction starts with there number. We don’t know that only three Magi came to worship Jesus, and we definitely don’t know that their names were Balthazar, Melchior, and Gaspar. We don’t know that they visited Jesus on the night of His birth. In fact, the text clearly shows that they were not there on that holy night.


Here are the Biblical facts, and those are the only ones we can and should trust. We know for sure that Magi from the east – most likely Persia, modern day Iran – came to Jerusalem in search of the nearly born King of Jews. We know that this troubled the already paranoid Herod, and that, after counseling with his religious cohort, he sent the wise men off to Bethlehem. We know that when they arrived in Bethlehem Jesus and His family were not in a stable or an inn but in a “house”, and that Matthew refers to Him as a “young child” not a babe in swaddling clothes as Luke does when he recounts the holy night of Jesus’ birth. We do know that the wise men brought costly gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh because that is what one does when he visits the king. He brings gifts. We know that they worshiped the Christ-child, and that is fact which we should emulate. (Matthew 2:1-12)

We are quick to say, “The wise men gave Jesus gold, frankincense, and myrrh, so I’m giving you this fruit cake.” Instead of that, we should be as aware as they were, and worship the one who was born King of the Jews, the one who was born to “save his people from their sins.”


Here is another fiction: the innkeeper was a cold-hearted miser who said “NO!” to a needy family. We don’t know anything about the innkeeper. We don’t even know if there was an innkeeper. It’s not like the owner of the Holiday Inn refused shelter to Joseph and Mary. There have been countless sermons and not a few songs about this heartless, money-grubbing, hell-bound innkeeper, who was probably the father of Barabbas, yet all we know is that “She brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7) That is all we know!


We should be careful with the songs we sing, not only at Christmas but at all times, but it seems like artists take quite a few liberties during Christmas. Not long ago I heard a song called The One I’m Dying For, which is written from the supposed perspective of Barabbas after learning that he will be released and Jesus will be executed. Now, it is true that Jesus died for Barabbas, but that is where the theological/Biblical truthfulness of the song ends. Some of the lines are pure fiction. Here's what I mean:
“I caught the eye of a man who was beaten – I saw the truth, even I believed Him – I hear them cry, “Release Barabbas!” – In disbelief I turned to Jesus – He looked at me and He said go free, you’re the one I’m dying for.”
Those are very touching, sentimental words, and when accompanied by a stirring video one can be easily moved. There is just one problem. It’s all fiction. All we know about Barabbas is that he was scheduled to be executed, but in their diabolical bloodlust the Pharisees whipped up the crowd to beg for his release so that Jesus may be crucified in his place. That’s all we know. We don’t need to make up that stuff to proclaim the truth of salvation, and we shouldn’t.

We have to separate fact from fiction.


We Must Think about the Details


It’s been said that “the devil is in the details.” Maybe he is. I’m certain that God is, and I know that we should be, especially as we devise a Christmas strategy. We have to think about the details concerning gifts. I love exchanging gifts at Christmas. Buying someone an anniversary or birthday gift is nice; just as a house-warming, new-baby, or retirement gifts are fun, but those all pale in comparison to Christmas gifts. I enjoy to Christmas shop; at the physical as well as virtual stores. I like to wrap gifts, place them under a tree, and watch them be opened. That is a wonderful tradition, and I believe that it is so enjoyable to exchange gifts at Christmas because of how much we’ve been given. That doesn’t mean that a neck-tie or a gift card is comparable to God’s gift of Christ, but it does make me want to be giving; hopefully not just on the 25th of December. So I do not think it sacrilegious to exchange gifts at Christmas.

I do think it is immoral to be greedy; even if you’re “greedy” on others’ behalf. Before you buy your first gift, plan out how much you should spend. Notice I said “should” and not “want.” You may be able to afford spending as much as you want, but that may be more than you should. Christmas is not like winning the lottery, so plan and shop accordingly.


We Must Celebrate Christmas Evangelistically


December should not be the only time in which you talk with your family, friends, and co-workers about Jesus Christ, but Christmas affords us a golden opportunity to speak about Christ with folks who would easily tune you out the other eleven months of the year. Without doubt Christmas is over-commercialized. No question that the big-boned, bearded gentleman from the North Pole receives the lion’s share of the press during Christmas, but it is still Christmas, not Clausmas! What a wonderful opportunity to praise God for Christ, to magnify the name of Jesus, to declare
“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
And why is God with us? As the angel told Joseph:
“She shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21)
.
How shall He save His people from their sins?
“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. For God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved…For the wages of sin [is] death; but the gift of God [is] eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (John 3:16-17; Romans 6:23).
You see, it’s impossible to honestly speak about Christ’s birth without also speaking about His death. As remarkable as His birth was, His death, burial, and resurrection are just as fantastic.


Explain to people, starting with your kids if you have any, why Christmas should be celebrated, and that you celebrate the wonderful truth of the incarnation year-round!

We Must Honor and Glorify Christ

“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31); that includes who we celebrate Christmas. I’ve saved this for last, because we have to follow the other strategic points if we are to glorify and honor Christ at Christmas. We must honestly celebrate this holy day. Christmas does not depend on the pageantry. All of that stuff has its place, but it is not of primary importance. We must separate fact from fiction. The Bible is our guide to truth, including truth about Christmas. We don’t need to be sappy to make Christmas special; it is already that, so let’s stick to the factual story and leave the fiction out of the celebration. Think about the details. How much should you spend, and on what should you spend it? How much time should you devote to concerts, cantatas, plays, and parties? How far should you travel, if at all? If you don’t think through the details, then you will drown in them. We must celebrate Christmas evangelistically. Don’t forsake this perfect opportunity to proclaim the Gospel. If we do all of that I believe we will honor and glorify Christ at Christmas.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Imminent Return of Jesus Christ

The pagan Gentiles of Paul’s day believed that everything ended at the grave. To the Greeks, there was no life after death. There was no hope. 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a prophetic passage that speaks of “the coming of the Lord” (v. 15), and is intended to give “hope” (v. 13) and “comfort” (v. 13, 18) to God’s people.

The Thessalonians were confused about Christ’s Second Coming. They knew that Jesus was returning and that the return was imminent, but as time passed, persecution increased, and Christians perished, it seems likely that some were wondering, “What happens to believers who die before Jesus comes back? Will those who are alive at His coming somehow have and advantage over the dead?”

Paul answers their questions, and his answer is based on six foundational facts.

#1 – Revelation – 1 Thessalonians 4:13, 15a

Mankind has always been intrigued about the future and the afterlife. Philosophers routinely address this question. Spiritualists try to communicate with the dead. Even scientists have investigated experiences of those who claim to have died and returned to life. But there is no need for doubt, concern, or anxiety concerning this life or the next because we have God’s truth on the matter! Verse 15a says, “For this we say unto you be the word of the Lord”! Beloved, God has spoken, and He has given us His complete revelation about the future. Do not consider human speculation when there is divine revelation?

#2 – Return – 1 Thessalonians 4:14-15

Make no mistake about this: Christ is coming again! The return of Christ is a prominent theme of the Bible; in fact, it is the single most mentioned event in the NT, and the OT speaks of it more often than does the NT! The return of Christ is especially emphasized in this first epistle of Paul to the Thessalonians.

  • In 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 Christ’s return is related to salvation.
  • In 1 Thessalonians 2:19-20 it is related to service.
  • In 1 Thessalonians 3:13 it is related to stability.
  • In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 it is related to sorrow (not in a negative but in a positive sense!)

Here is what the theologian A.J. Gordon wrote about the scriptural prominence of the Second Coming:

Whatever doctrine I pursue, whatever precept I enforce, I found it terminating in the hope of the Lord’s second coming. Is watchfulness amid the allurements of the world enjoined? The exhortation is “Watch therefore for ye know not the hour your Lord doth come” (Matthew 24:42). Is patience under trial counseled? The Word says, “Be patient therefore brethren unto the coming of the Lord” (James 5:7). Is holy living urged? The Bible says “Denying ungodliness and worldly lusts we should live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world; looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our great God and the Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). All paths of obedience and service lead to the return of Christ. Our command to service bids us “occupy till I come” (Luke 19:13). In observing the Lord’s Supper we show “the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Corinthians 11:26). We are told to “keep this commandment without spot, unrebukable until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 6:14).

Christ’s Second Coming is not only a prominent theme in scripture, but it is also separated into two phases. Phase 1 takes place “in the air” (4:17). Phase 2 takes place on the earth (Zechariah 14:1-5). Phase 1 emphasizes the trumpet (4:16; Revelation 4:1-2; 1 Corinthians 15:51); Phase 2 the throne (Revelation 20:4-5). Phase 1 takes place before the Tribulation. Paul’s use of the word “we” (vv. 15, 17) is an indicator that he expected Christ’s return to be imminent – that it might take place at any moment). Phase 2 takes place after the time of Tribulation.

This passage is about that first phase of Christ’s return.

#3 – Resurrection – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-16

The fact of the Resurrection is clearly stated in this passage (v. 14; 1 Corinthians 15; 2 Corinthians 4:14). The fact that Jesus died and rose again means that Christians who die will also rise again (v. 16). The impact of the Resurrection is that of hope and comfort for Christians here and now.

#4 – Rapture – 1 Thessalonians4:17

The fourth foundational fact is the Rapture, that living believers will be “caught up together” at the return of Christ. Those who deny that the Bible teaches a rapture (postmillennialists and amillennialists) point out that the Bible never uses the word “rapture”. Although the actual word is never used, the idea is often expressed in scripture. The word rapture means “caught up” or “caught away.” Verse 17 uses that phrase. The Greek word is “har-pad-zo”. It is used in Acts 8:39 to express the idea of being caught away speedily. It is used in 2 Corinthians 12:2, 4 to describe Paul’s experience of being taken to heaven. It is used in Acts 23:10 to express the idea of being rescued from danger.

The Bible explicitly states in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 that what happened to Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2-4) and John (Revelation 4:1-2) and Elijah (2 Kings 2:11) and Enoch (Genesis 5:24) will happen to all Christians who are alive when the trumpet sounds and the dead in Christ are raised.

#5 – Reunion – 1 Thessalonians 4:17

One of the toughest things in life, if not the toughest thing in life, is parting – goodbyes. Whether it’s a kid’s first day in Kindergarten or their first day at college; whether it’s waving goodbye at the airport or from the end of the driveway, and definitely as you look into the eyes of a dear one who is not long for this world; parting with ones you love and care for is not “sweet sorrow”, it’s just sorrow. Well, one of the glorious aspects of the truth taught in this passage is this: there is going to be a reunion in the air!

The Bible speaks here of this reunion on two levels. First, Paul says that we will “be caught up together with them in the clouds.” We are going to be together, reunited with Christian family and friends who have gone on before. I’m sure that there are some particular people with which you are longing to be reunited. On earth our circle grows smaller, but in heaven, it just keeps on getting bigger and bigger.

Further, and even better than being together, v. 17 says that we will “be with the Lord forever!” Now, that’s a great reunion! This is the ultimate culmination of which everything is building, and it gives us great hope about our future.

#6 – Responsibility – 1 Thessalonians 4:18

“Wherefore comfort one another with these words.” These foundational facts should compel us to strengthen one another; that is the responsibility which accompanies this truth. Be strengthened! Take heart! Cling to this certain hope; Jesus is coming again. There’s going to be a meeting in the air, and we shall ever more be with the Lord! Encourage one another to love and good works, because Jesus is coming again!

This is not cause to be braggadocios. This marvelous truth should not stir within your heart foolish pride and boasting. I heard a preacher on the radio who said that at that meeting in the air he is going to look at the world and shout “Told you so!” I don’t think that’s the kind of attitude we’re to have; a sophomoric “nah, nah, nah, nah, you’re about to be judged” posture. That is so far removed from the Biblical standard it makes me even wonder if such a one will be at that meeting in the air.

No, beloved, the responsibility of this awesome truth is this: to the believer it is a call to watchfulness, to purity, and to evangelism. To the unbeliever it is a summons to repentance and faith

“Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”
(Acts 17:31).

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hungry?

How’s your appetite? My question is not really a trivial one, because a healthy appetite always accompanies a healthy body. Sick people have a diminished hunger. Jesus often spoke about the appetite, or hunger, of people. In Matthew 5:6 we read, "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled."Jesus is asserting that there is a direct link between the hungry heart and the fullness God offers. Blessed are those who are spiritually healthy. God feeds you and serves you from a table overflowing with every good and delicious thing. However, He will not treat you like some toddler in a high chair, forcibly feeding you. Instead, He sets the table and asks a question: “How’s your appetite?”

Have you ever prayed and found the experience empty? How about worship that fails to inspire you? Have there been times when you have opened your Bible and the words on the page were no more than that, just words on a page? What is the problem? Has prayer, worship, God’s Word, your church, pastor, etc. failed? On those occasions, you might have left your heart behind. Beloved, God’s table is filled; there is joy, music, laughter, nourishment, and refreshment. But the issue is appetite. Is your heart hungry? A healthy spirit means a healthy spiritual appetite.

Spiritually speaking, God has set the table. In His word is a lifetime of daily bread. The diet is balanced and delicious. Don’t pick at your food! It’s not a healthy vital sign.
Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
Psalm 84 is a psalm that demonstrates a deep longing for God, as a pilgrim focuses his attention on his homeward journey. This psalm suggests three features of a healthy spiritual appetite. Those people who have optimum spiritual health, who hunger after God, display it by their:
  • Devotion to God – (Psalm 84:1-4, 10)
  • Direction towards God – (Psalm 84:5-7)
  • Dependence on God – (Psalm84:8-9, 11)
Before continuing, read through this magnificent (Is there another kind?) Psalm 84.


Devotion to God

According to the psalm, a person with a good spiritual appetite will always be found praising God with the people of God (Psalm 84:4). The description of this person is given in Psalm 84:2 - longing, fainting, and crying out are verbs of intensity. The psalmist is not describing an occasional pleasant diversion in his life. He is not talking about a casual commitment to God. He is proclaiming that his very identity is a deep craving for God. That devotion to and for God is the explanation for who he is and where he is going. He possesses a spiritually hungry heart.

Now ask yourself this question: What is the deepest longing of my life? What is it that I am all about as a human being? No one can answer those questions but you and God.

The psalmist provides a profile of a person who has a spiritually hungry heart. There are three keys to identifying this person’s praise.

The Location of Praise
The first four verses of Psalm 84 are replete with the desire to be at the Temple; particularly verse 3. The psalmist wishes he could be a sparrow, nesting in the rafters in the holy place! Have you ever longed to be in God’s house like that? That’s what we do when we have a ravenous spiritual appetite.

Compare the psalmist’s attitude towards God’s house with the person in Amos 8:5. Here you have a merchant, who will go to church, but he is “clock-eyed”, continually checking his watch, hoping the service doesn’t stretch into business hours. Quite a contrast: two people in the house of the Lord; two very different attitudes and experiences. One sits at God’s table with a healthy, voracious appetite. The other is set before the same table, but has no appetite.

I want to stress a crucial point before moving on. Though a Christian can never be separated from the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 6:19), he can be separated from God’s people. And when you voluntarily choose not to be among God’s people, it speaks volumes about your spiritual appetite.

The Foundation of Praise
Consider how the psalmist addresses God throughout the psalm: "LORD of hosts…the living God…my King, and my God…O LORD God of hosts…O God our shield…the LORD God is a sun and shield"

Dear reader, God alone is worthy of worship and adoration! However, I fear that many Christians, in the perfectly legitimate quest to know God personally, have diminished God in their minds from the stature with which He is presented in Scripture. Too many have lowered Him down to the limited status of good friend or pal in our lives, rather than bowing down before His awesome majesty and splendor of His greatness.

The Expression of Praise
Psalm 84:4 - "Blessed are they that dwell in thy house: they will be still praising thee." The idea is continuous praise, not a certain time of day. Praise cannot stay locked up in the church building, confined to a couple hours per week. Praise God with your thoughts, your voice, your hands, your heart, and all within the very routine of your days. Praise is a continual thing, a controlling passion.

Paul said to us, but first to the Ephesians:
…Be filled with [controlled by] the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ - Ephesians 5:18b-20
Please do not confuse expression of praise with style of praise. Real praise and worship of God does not come as a result of any external stimulus. It’s not a matter of the right tune, the right time or place, or of having things just the way you want them. Praising God is strictly an affair of the heart. For those who have left their hearts behind, prayer will not be profitable. Praise will fail to uplift. The Word will seem dull and unenlightening.

The living God, LORD of hosts is the foundation of all true praise and worship. And unless you have fulfilled a personal appointment with the living God in the time of worship, all you can really say is that you were physically present.

Direction towards God

Those who have a healthy spiritual appetite will have a devotion to God, and be moving in a direction towards God. They have their hearts set on pilgrimage. They see life as a campground, not a final destination. In short, they’re just passing through! Psalm 84:5-6, "Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; in whose heart are the ways of them [pilgrimage]. Who passing through the valley of Baca"

If you have trusted Christ as your Savior you are a pilgrim who is just passing through. This world is not your Plymouth Rock. Your home is in heaven, an eternity with the Lord! You are on a journey! Don’t encumber yourself with the non-essentials of this world, which, after all, are not created to last! The more dependent you become on things around you, the more devastated you will be when they are suddenly taken away or destroyed. Avoid that devastation by maintaining a pilgrim sense of direction.

While on this pilgrimage, the psalmist referenced traveling through the “valley of Baca.” What is this valley? You know what a valley is, a lowland between two mountain ranges or hills. Figuratively, valleys are referred to as discouraging places, and the word “Baca” means, “weeping; sorrow.” “Passing through the valley of sorrow.” The psalmist is talking about going through difficulties, tough times, and tribulations. Even the pilgrim, with his eyes set on Jesus and filled with an insatiable appetite for God, must travel through valleys of Baca, valleys of sorrow.

Don’t Be Discouraged by Your Difficulties

Christians become discouraged by their difficulties far too easily, and I do not say that uncaringly. I am well aware that within every pew there sits a broken heart. Job said it best, "Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble."

Valleys are inescapable. Don’t fall victim to erroneous doctrine that says, “God wants you ‘healthy and wealthy’.” That theology comes from empty heads and closed Bibles. Listen, if God’s own Son had to endure suffering to complete the will of the Father, should you expect anything different? All must travel through their valley of Baca. They are behind us and in front of us. Many times, the exit of one valley leads to the entrance of another. Your valley may be death, disease, disappointment, divorce, dismissal, or any number of things. But I say to you, “Don’t be discouraged by your difficulties!”

Don’t Be Distracted from Your Destination
But you may be thinking, "How may I not become discouraged by my difficulties?!" Here’s how, don’t become distracted from your destination!

Think of the psalmist as your example. He knew where he was going, and he determined where he was not staying! Don’t set up shop or put down roots in the valley. Keep pressing ahead you are on a pilgrimage! Your destination is a place where sin and death have been vanquished. Don’t forget, you’re just passing through. Point yourself and others toward heaven. Jesus said in John 16:33: "These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."

Discouragement and defeat are natural byproducts of a Christian being distracted from his destination.
  • Job and all his difficulties
  • Daniel in the den of lions
  • Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace
  • Jesus Christ on the cross and in the tomb
They were all just PASSING THROUGH!

I want to share with you some spiritual counsel that has helped me and I know will help you. Psalm 84:6 says: "Who passing through the valley of Baca make it a well; the rain also filleth the pools."

Here is what happens far too many who find themselves temporarily in a valley: their discouragement skyrockets and…
  • They give up their class.
  • They quit teaching Sunday school.
  • They quit coming to church regularly.
  • They stop tithing.
  • They no longer hang out with Christian friends.
  • They quit the choir.
  • They let their guard down and their discipline drop.
In short, their spiritual appetite evaporates.

But only until things get better!They say.

Have you ever tried that on your job? Why don’t you call your boss and say, “I’m a little down today. I‘ll come in when I feel better.”

I’m sure your boss will say, “Well, God bless you. We’ll call the prayer chain.”

That’s not going to happen. Try that with raising your children.

“I don’t feel like taking care of my baby today. Hopefully, I’ll feel more like it in a week or two.”

You would never do that with your job or with your kids, but it often happens with the things of God. Christian, the things of God are too important to be treat like that.

Now here is that counsel that I promised. When you don’t know what to do, the best thing to do is to keep doing what you know to do!
  • Keep reading your Bible.
  • Keep getting on your knees in prayer.
  • Keep being a positive witness for Jesus Christ.
  • Keep going, and being active in, your church.
  • Keep on loving God’s people.
  • Keep doing all the things that you know you need to do!
“When passing through the valley of Baca, make it a well. Do you realize that Jesus was refreshed from the well that Jacob had dug hundreds of years earlier? In the moment of your discouragement and distraction, dig a well so that others, traveling down that same valley, might be refreshed!

Dependence on God

How is your appetite? Are you devoted to God? Is your direction towards God? Finally, is your dependence on God? The only way you can dig that well in the valley of Baca is through reliance on the Lord. "Blessed is the man whose strength is in thee; They go from strength to strength, every one of them in Zion appeareth before God."

God’s might and power is ample and it never abates. God’s grace will always prove sufficient to preserve you. Troubles will come; temptations will come, but do not be overwhelmed by them because you are kept by the power of God through faith in His Son. "For the LORD God is a sun and shield: the LORD will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly."

It gives me goose bumps to realize that the promise God made to Abram (Genesis 15:1) is the same promise that He makes to me! "Fear not, Travis: I am your shield and great reward!"

If that doesn’t get you hungry, you need to get checked out!

"O LORD of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee."

Do you trust God? Do you trust Him not only with the great decisions and big events, but with the little things as well? Do you trust Him with the things you speak to others about, and the things that you speak to no one about? Do you trust Him with your marriage, your child, your boyfriend, your career, your schooling, your business, and your life? Or do you live by the dictates of a panic-stricken world, caught in a frenzied scramble to feed its appetite with every empty thing in sight?

Do sheep get frenzied? Sheep simply listen to the Shepherd's voice. They know the sound and are prepared to follow Him down any dusty trail. They know He will lead them to green fields and protect them from wolves.

Our Shepherd calls each of us by name. He leads us onward, not withholding any good thing from us, knowing exactly what is best for us. I am prepared to trust that kind of Shepherd. Are you? How’s your appetite?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Pleasing God with Our Grief

In this continuing study of Paul's first letter to the Thessalonian church we have arrived at 1 Thessalonians 4:13. This verse is a prime passage concerning the Lord’s Second Coming. Eschatology, however, will not be the theme of this particular study. Do not worry! I’m not going to be sharing my opinions about the passage, but I do want to focus our attention on 1 Thessalonians 4:13. This one sentence provides a powerful introduction to the doctrine of the Second Coming, but it also presents us with a valuable lesson on death and grief.

From the tone of this and the second letter to the Thessalonians, it would appear that at least some of them if not most of them, assumed that they would personally witness the Lord’s Return. Armed with that conviction, the members of this church were troubled by the deaths of their fellow believers. What of them? Paul devotes the rest of this chapter, much of the next, and nearly half of the second letter addressing that issue, but this single verse (v. 13) enables us to understand how we might please God with our grief. Christians grieve too, you know, and how are we able to please our sovereign Lord when our hearts are broken?

This single verse contains a distinction between the “brothers” and the “others”; an instruction to correct ignorance, and an application for believers to affect.

The Distinction Contained

The distinction this verse contains is between the brothers and the others. “I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren”. This is the familiar word that peppers this letter. The Greek word is “adelphos” and it is used 19 times in all. The word does not denote only the men of the congregation, but should be understood as “brothers and sisters”. While this word could be used to refer to a biological brother, it is overwhelmingly used in the NT to refer to those who are brothers and sisters in Christ, and even more specifically, to the members of a particular, local congregation. This is a designation for those people who have been transformed by the grace of God, the work of the Son, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

The “brethren” are the children of God (Galatians 3:26). We are not all of us in this world “children of God”; the children of God are those who by repentance and faith in Christ have been redeemed.
“Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God: therefore the world knoweth us not, because it knew him not” (1 John 3:1; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:4, 9b-10; 2:10; 3:8).
Obviously, the “brethren” are the saved, and in particular, this designation refers to this local congregation. But who are the “others”? One thing is for sure, the “others” are not a mysterious group of people who populate an even more mysterious island in the Pacific!

The “others” are those who are without Christ, and consequently, they are without hope. That is what Paul said in his letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 2:12). This is what it means to be without Christ; it means to be without hope. If you are reading this and you are without Christ; if you have not come to Christ in repentance and faith, trusting in Him as your Savior and Lord, then this verse describes you. The issue is not religion, because the person without Christ may be very religious. The issue is not heritage, because the person without Christ may have a wonderful Christian legacy. The issue is not morality, because the person without Christ may be extremely moral.

The issue is none of those things. The issue is this: the person who is without Christ is without hope! And he or she will remain in that hopeless condition until one is, as Ephesians 2:13 says, “made nigh by the blood of Christ.”

This is no superficial distinction! This distinction is foundational; it is the difference between “brethren” and “others”; between faith and unbelief; between life and death; between hope and hopelessness; between a foundation of solid rock and a foundation of shifting sand; between the narrow and the broad way; between light and darkness. There is no middle ground! You are either in Christ and one of the “brethren”, or you are one of the ‘others”; without Christ and without hope.

Lest any of us who have been redeemed become puffed up, let us remember the words of Paul to Titus:
“For we ourselves also were sometimes foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving divers lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another. But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:3-5).
Believer, I hope that this truth stirs your heart. May we never become so familiar with our redemption that we take it for granted, and may we never tire of proclaiming this good news of grace and mercy to “others”.

The Instruction Conveyed

Paul wanted to instruct this church and us thereby, concerning not only the matter of Christ’s Return but also the issues of death and grief. He said, “I would not have you to be ignorant.” Do not think that Paul was ridiculing this congregation, nor was he belittling them. He was informing them about these important and practical subjects. There is a difference between stupiditylacking intelligence – and ignorancelacking information. Paul was educating them, and us, about death, grief, and the Second Coming. This is something Paul did throughout his ministry, and it is the calling of all pastors-teachers; namely to “read in the book…of God distinctly, and {give} the sense, and {cause} them to understand the reading” (Nehemiah 8:8; cf. Ezra 7:10; Romans 1:13; 11:25; 1 Corinthians 10:1; 12:1).

Many of our problems, Christian or otherwise, are related to ignorance. Ignorance may be bliss in some instances, but in many ways ignorance is rarely ever bliss. With Biblical and church issues ignorance leads to misunderstandings which leads to confusion which leads to disruption which leads to chaos, and all of these lead to no where good. The Lord said through the prophet Hosea, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).

As opposed to ignorance, knowledge is described as one key to blessing (Colossians 1:10). And the believer is expected and commanded to “Grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

That is why you should study the Bible in an expositional manner; so that you may better understand and be strengthened and instructed by God’s Word. So that when you are buffeted by temptation to impurity you can run to 1 Thessalonians 4:3. So that in your daily routines you may know that God wants you to lead a quiet life, minding your own business, working with your own hands so that you may be a gospel witness to “others” and financially dependent on no one. So that when death or loss visits you, you may know how to grieve in such a way that honors and glorifies your God before men.

Paul does not want us ignorant “concerning them which are asleep.” In the Bible, especially the NT, “sleep” is a common term used to describe death, but this is also true of extra-Biblical sources. The Greek word translated sleep is koimaƍ, from which comes the English word “cemetery” (koimeterion in the Greek – Webster’s II New College Dictionary).

In this passage (1 Thessalonians 13-15) the death of the Christian (“which sleep in Jesus”) is compared to sleep, but we must understand that this idea of sleep only applies to the body never the soul. The teaching of “soul sleep” – the idea that the souls of the dead are in a state of unconscious existence awaiting the resurrection – has no Biblical basis. Paul said that for a Christian to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord, and he also said “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:21, 23). Paul would not have regarded death as gain unless he understood it to mean a closer, richer, fuller experience in the very presence of his Lord.

The primary emphasis of this word sleep, concerning the believer, is to describe the temporary nature of death. At the moment of the Christian’s death his soul departs his body (Genesis 35:18) and goes to be with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8; 1 Thessalonians 4:14). At the resurrection of the dead in Christ (the Rapture), the body is raised incorruptible and reunited with the soul (1 Corinthians 15:42). Those who are still alive will be instantly changed from mortal to immortal (1 Corinthians 15:51-53).

Here is the point; death is the end of life here, but it is the beginning of a conscious eternity. Christ clearly taught that after death there would be an immediate awareness of either pain or joy; (Luke 16:19-31) “And it came to pass that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom” (vv. 22-23).

When you die you will immediately know that it is either good or bad; heaven or hell; present with Jesus or apart from Jesus. The good news is that you do not have to wait until you die to find out which it is!

Paul instructed them concerning death and he instructed them concerning their grief over those who had died: “That ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope.” No where is it taught that the believer is to be free from grief. The notion that a Christian is to always wear a smile and only cry “tears of joy” is un-Biblical. It is perfectly right and natural for a believer to grieve and mourn; for a believer to feel the pangs of loss is not a weakness. That grief, however, should be informed by our knowledge of God which only comes from the Word of God. A Christian’s grief is to be distinguishable from a non-believer’s grief.

For the unbeliever death is an awful, terrifying, permanent severing of relationships with no hope of reunion. Death is the great unknown, the unwanted inevitability of life; if you’re an unbeliever. And it is often covered with small talk and/or silly talk – “He’s looking down on us right now.” or “He’s here with us as we speak.” For the unbeliever the loss of loved ones is layered in depression and despondency and covered with hopelessness.

In contrast, believers do not experience the hopeless grief of non-believers. There is still genuine grief and not a little pain, but it is not the grief and pain of unbelief because we know from the Bible that there will be a “gathering together {of all believers} unto Him” (2 Thessalonians 2:1). We do not pretend that death does not bring loss and tears. We “sorrow”, but not “as others which have no hope.”

The Application Commanded

The application is three-fold: the issues of belief vs. unbelief; knowledge vs. ignorance, and God-honoring grief vs. pagan hopelessness.

Belief vs. Unbelief

Where do you stand in relation to the distinction between faith and unbelief? Are you in Christ or without Him? Only you can answer this question. Your spouse, parents, religious traditions or feelings, none of them can answer that question. You are either “dead in your trespasses and sins” or “by grace ye are saved.”

Knowledge vs. Ignorance

How are you handling the scriptures? If the answer is “Not very well” then how long do you plan on living as a relatively ignorant Christian? Believer, you need to be a student of the Book! You must know the Word of the Lord if you are to please the Lord of the Word. Do not be a clueless Christian wandering about always hoping that someone else will have the answer. There are many things in this life about which we may be ignorant; God’s Word is not one of them.

Good Grief vs. Bad Grief

How do you approach grief? Christian counselor Jay Adams defines grief as the following:
“A life shaking sorrow over loss. Grief tears life to shreds; it shakes one from the top to the bottom. It pulls him loose; he comes apart at the seams. Grief is truly nothing less than a life-shattering loss.”
Life brings losses, and when we lose we grieve, and if we do not properly handle grief we’ll be enslaved by it. And this experience of grief is not restricted to the loss of a loved one, because loss can be experienced on a variety of levels and over a range of issues (the loss of a job, relationship, etc).

The apostle Paul did not condemn grief; he understood it. He was confidently able to say that death was gain and that it was more desirable to be with Christ. But he also said about Epaphroditus: “For indeed he was sick nigh unto death: but God had mercy on him; and not on him only, but on me also, lest I should have sorrow upon sorrow” (Ph. 2:27).

Christians are not to employ some phony, glossy, heartless triumphalism. We may face our own death with triumphant assurance of an eternity with Christ, but that does not dispel the pang of loss in this life. It is appropriate that we celebrate the reality of Christ’s victory over death, but through our bereavement, what distinguishes us from “others” is the hope that is grounded in the resurrected Christ and the certainty of His coming again.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pleasing God with Our Love

In 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 Paul is, in very practical terms, continuing to develop the concept of pleasing God. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 proved that we are to please the Lord with our sexuality. God has designed sex as a gift to be enjoyed by a man and his wife; anything outside of that is fornication, and we are commanded to “abstain from fornication”. There is a transition in today’s passage from a condemnation of lust to a commendation of love; the apostle transitions from chastity to charity.

In his commentary on this letter, John MacArthur describes Christianity as “a shoe-leather faith.” Why doe he describe it that way? The reason is because our faith is to be practiced and demonstrated before a watching world in practical, everyday activities; from the ordinary, boring, routines of your life to the big, public, and not-so-routine moments. And the hallmark characteristic of Christianity is L – O – V – E! That only stands to reason because the OT teaches, the Lord affirmed, and the NT shows that love is to be the primary mark of identification for God’s people and the Lord’s churches.

In answering the question of what was the greatest commandment; the Lord answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all the soul, and with all thy mind”… but He didn’t stop there, he continued by saying, “And the second is like unto it, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself’” (Matthew 22:37-38; cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18). Love is the evidence of genuine faith. The NT is full of passages that hammer - albeit with a velvet hammer - that truth home: John 13:34-35; John 15:11-12; 1 John 3:14; 1 John 4:7-21.

Love is the feature that should distinguish the believer from the nonbeliever, and the church from any other assembly. With that in mind we will consider three things from today's text: the foundation of love; the expression of love, and the impact of love.

The Foundation of Love – 1 Thessalonians 4:9-10

This was a loving church. Paul had already commended the congregation for their “Labor of love”. He was thankful to hear Timothy bring “good tidings of {their} faith and love.” Paul prayed for this church to increase and abound in love for one another and for the lost world. This church did indeed love.

Why did this church love? How did they love? The foundation of their love was, and the foundation of our love is, the Lord God. As the text read, “For ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another” (v. 9b). The preceding verse reminds us that as believers we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit; that reference taken together with “taught of God” reveals that the foundation of Christian love is the Lord; an activity of God within the heart. This love was not innate to the Thessalonians, and is definitely not innate to us.

It is a characteristic of the new nature one possess as a child of God. When you are converted to Christ you are “born again”. You are a new creation. As a new creation in Christ you receive His Spirit (Ephesians 1:13). The indwelling Spirit of God is the believer's guide in understanding and applying the truths of God’s Word; as these Scripture's attest: John 14:16-17; 1 Corinthians 2:9-10; Romans 5:3-5.

The foundation of love is God, because God is love. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10; cf. John 3:14-21). This love is not superficial, emotional, or sentimental. And it’s not simply a duty or a commandment. Instead, love is the very foundation of our experience as Christians. Salvation is possible because God loves you. We are able to love God because He first loved us, and as the redeemed (redeemed meaning purchased – purchased by the shed blood of Jesus) we are to love one another.

In the context of a local church we are to love one another; that would seem obvious, but it is very often not exemplified. The love is not to be restricted only to your local church, however; Paul praised the Thessalonians for their love of their sister Macedonian churches (1 Thessalonians 4:10). Our love shouldn’t stop there. We should love our fellow believers, even those who have different convictions about various points of doctrine. You may not feel comfortable joining their church and vice versa, but we still serve the same great God. We should have and display love for one another. But our love for others must not be limited to our fellow church members, sister-churches, and fellow believers. We must love the lost; taking the name of Jesus with us so that we may win them to Christ.

The Holy Spirit is the foundation of our love and v. 11 describes the expression of our love.

The Expression of Love – 1 Thessalonians 4:11

The Thessalonians weren’t perfect, an even though there was much about this church to commend, there were also some areas that needed to be addressed. This verse addresses three types of negative church member behavior: fanatics, busybodies, and loafers.

Lead a Quiet Life“study to be quiet”

The first expression of love addresses the first negative behavior: “study to be quiet” is the antidote for fanaticism. Evidently there were some Thessalonians who had become obsessed with the Second Coming (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11; 2 Thessalonians 2:2). They were so zealously preoccupied with Christ’s return that they neglected their daily responsibilities.

“Why bother?” They must have thought.

“Christ’s coming again at any moment so let’s just stop everything, and wait for the show!”

All Christians should eagerly await the return of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:7; Revelation 22:20), but not to the point of fanaticism. We have not been left here to stand around, looking up in the sky, and speaking only about eschatology.

As Christians we are to be bold and urgent in our witness because we know that Christ’s return is imminent, but we are not to lead loves of frenetic, noisy agitation. In v. 11 Paul used two verb forms that appear contradictory. Study means “to be zealous; ambitious” and "to be quiet" means “to be silent; at rest and tranquil”. You could paraphrase it this way: “Make it your ambition to have no ambition”. It is an oxymoron, instructing us, not to lack initiative, but not to overemphasize certain points of doctrine.

I know people like that; where every conversation will be peppered with some reference to their preoccupation: the translation issue, the timing of the Rapture, reformed theology, the spiritual gifts, the degrees of separation, etc. Many churches have this preoccupation and it is evident just by reading their letterhead or viewing their church sign. Here again is another quote from MacArthur's commentary:
"In anticipation of the Lord’s return, believers are to lead peaceful lives, free of conflict and hostility towards others, which is a witness to the transforming power of the Gospel.”
Mind Your Own Business“to do our own business”

This is a word to the church busybodies; those who want always to poke their nose into everyone else’s business. This is an apostolic injunction to the church in Thessalonica, and to every church, for believers to concentrate on their own lives, take care of their own business, and not meddle in the affairs of others. We must understand that there exists a colossal difference between putting others first – Philippians 2:4, “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” – and the nosy person’s compulsive itch to know everyone else’s affairs.

This could be classified as the “What about him” syndrome which so affected the apostle Peter in John 21:19b-22,
“And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me…Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee? Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do? Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.”
The word busybody literally means “wasting their labor”, and instead of behaving in this unwise and undisciplined manner, a believer is to express his love for God and others by staying out of other people’s business and leading a quiet, unobtrusive life; serving others and glorifying God before unbelievers.

Work with Your Hands“work with your own hands”

How are the loafers in the congregation supposed to express the love of God and for God? They were to work with their own hands instead of being lazy. You should note that manual labor was viewed as degrading by much of Greek culture, but Paul said that those who wouldn’t work shouldn’t eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12). Of course, this is referring to those who could work but just would not work. Paul was not ashamed to work. In fact, his working as a tent-maker in order to financially support himself and his colleagues was probably attacked by his opponents in Corinth; arguing that a real teacher would not be supported instead of doing manual labor to support himself. But Paul operated in that manner so as not to drain the resources of the young churches he had planted (1 Thessalonians 2:9; cf. Acts 18:3; 1 Corinthians 4:12). Work is a noble task to which all Christians should be engaged for their own support and the glory of God.

The Impact of Love – 1 Thessalonians 4:12

Christians are to lead quiet lives, mind their own business, and be hard workers, but do not view these things as ends in themselves. Don’t read these verses like, “Great, I like the sound of a quiet life and minding my own business!” The underlying emphasis behind this entire section – sexual purity and brotherly love (expressed as quiet living, non-obtrusive, and hard working) – is so that you may win the respect of outsiders, and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. Part of a Christian’s basic mission is to live a life that commends the Gospel to others. My good behavior is not for my glory but for God’s glory and for the sake of the Gospel.

The purpose for this exhortation is evangelism, as well as financial independence (and independence does not mean “everything that I’ve ever wanted”; it means food, clothes, and shelter). The integrity of their lives was critical to their evangelism. Their display of brotherly love via their sexual purity, their quiet lives, their respect for the privacy of others, and their diligent work ethic was a powerful testimony to unbelievers and it made the Gospel credible. What was true in 1st century Greece is true today in 21st century America.

There is a little ditty that says, “You’re writing a Gospel; a chapter a day; by the deeds that you do and the words that you say. Men will read what you write; distorted or true. So what is the Gospel according to you?”

The world was watching the church in Thessalonica. The world is watching your life and your church. They do not appreciate our grasp of Biblical doctrine. They have no clue, and they care not about our “doctrinal distinctiveness”, but they are able to recognize transformed lives. They are able to evaluate us as we love one another, and they are able to experience love as we show it to them. Believer, let us not only proclaim the Gospel with our lips, but may we adorn our lives with the Gospel.

Ask yourself:
  • Will my actions please God? Christian morality is not primarily rules and regulations but relationships. The more we know and love God, the more we will want to please Him.
  • How will my actions allow me to serve others? Pray for the desire to please God over the desire to please self. Pray that your love for others will displace your love for self.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pleasing God with Your Purity

The believer’s life is to be spent walking so as to please God. Pleasing God is not a matter of personal preference. Pleasing God is a divine imperative! 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 help us to understand that truth, and the first verse of that passage is crystal clear - "we beseech you, brethren, and exhort [you] by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God." Passages such as Galatians 5:16and Ephesians 5:1-2 reinforce that truth. Not only do we have the example and exhortation of Paul to walk pleasing unto God, but this was also the pattern of the Lord Jesus: “For I do always those things that please Him” John 8:29b.

God does not exist for us. He does not exist to grant us our wishes. Instead, we exist for Him; we exist to bring praise and glory to His name! Striving to please God with all that we think, say, or do is the bedrock foundation upon which Christian ethical behavior is established. But do not think that living to please God means taking on a Pharisaical mind-set of observing a long list of “do’s & don’ts”. And do not think that living to please God means that you must lead a monotonous life which is bereft of any joy or pleasure.

That just is not true. Living in order to please God is a radical principle of pleasing the Law-giver; not living to appease the law itself. God is not opposed to your pleasure. He is committed to it, and true pleasure is something that only comes from God. Do not think that God created man only to make man miserable. Instead, the chief end of man is to glorify God by enjoying Him forever!

Now let’s talk in very practical terms; terms which are relevant to our text. One clear and obvious way in which you can walk so as to please God is in the area of sexual purity. God has provided you with His standard in regards to your physical urges and your natural drives. That standard is this: “abstain from fornication”. This standard was repeated in Ephesians 5:3. There is to be not even a hint of immorality in the life of the believer!

You may be thinking, “That’s impossible! Living with ‘not even a hint of immorality’ in this culture is just not realistic. Maybe in Paul’s day when everybody was basically moral this type of standard was doable, but not today!”

“Abstain from fornication” is the standard, and has always been the standard, and will always be the standard, and do not think that Paul’s day was one of moral restraint. Instead, it was a time of licentious debauchery and promiscuity. The Greco-Roman world in which the early churches ministered, and during which time the New Testament was written, was even more debased than our 21st century culture. Immorality was accepted, condoned, and even encouraged. Do not think for even a moment that Paul gave this standard of abstaining from fornication; of living without even a hint of immorality; in some chaste, prudish historical era. The culture to which this letter was originally written viewed immorality as neither immoral nor illegal; it was customary!

From such a lifestyle and culture the Thessalonians had been redeemed. They had been freed by Christ, and were now a new creation, and as such they were to “put off…the old man, which is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts; and…put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24).

Have you ever wondered why “lust” is “deceitful”, as Paul said there in Ephesians 4:22? Why do we think that indulgence equals freedom and pleasure? Indulging in your lustful desires will not grant you freedom; it will actually rob you of freedom and true joy and pleasure. When you indulge in a life of sin (“deceitful lusts”) and do whatever feels good, you’re not free. You’re enslaved to your sin. Only the power of the gospel can free you from that prison. Once you are saved God’s Holy Spirit emancipates and empowers you to “abstain from fornication” and to live with not even a hint of immorality. The gospel enables you to do what you were originally created to do: enjoy and glorify God with your life. The gospel frees you from both legalism and indulgence, and because of the Holy Spirit you are able to resist sin and apply God’s Word. A Spirit-filled, Spirit-led life is not one marked by being a “rule-keeper” or by being a “rule-hater”. Instead, it is the life of one who is submitted to the direction, agenda, values, and priorities of God’s Word; walking so as to please God, and thereby enjoying life to the fullest.

In regards to our text, I want to briefly ask and answer three questions.

What Kind of Sexual Conduct Does God Require?

The answer is simple and straightforward: “This is the will of God, even your sanctification…abstain from fornication”. Let’s define some terms. Sanctification is the process of being separated from sin and set apart to God. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, through the power of His Word, and through fellowship with other believers whereby God peels away our desire for sin, renews our minds, and changes our lives.

The word abstain means “to hold back and refrain from”. The Greek word translated fornication is porneia and from it we get the English “pornography”. This term is used to describe any kind of sexual immorality. Therefore, the idea here is to stay completely away from any thought or behavior that violates God’s plan for sex. Any activity, whether physical or mental, which deviates from the monogamous relationship of a husband and wife is not pleasing to God!

Our good God has ordained that the only type of sexual conduct that is pleasing unto Him is within the context of marriage: the marriage of one man to one woman.
How Can a Believer be Sexually Pure?

First, a believer must control his own body – (1 Thessalonians 4:4). The slogans: “If is feels good, do it” or “It can be wrong if it feels so good” may be contemporary, but the philosophy behind them is ancient. And that philosophy directly opposes this passage. All Christians are to control their bodies, not be controlled by them. To control your body is to gain mastery over it, instead of it gaining the mastery of you. A believer’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and is to be a tool used in the Lord’s service:
“What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
No Christian should ask, “How far can I go without sinning?” The desire and the passion must be to please God instead of treading the edge of sin. Your body belongs to God, believer; understand that and use it for His glory.

To be sexually pure you must control your body and you must not act like an unbeliever (1 Thessalonians 4:5). Passion and desire are good things if directed towards and for the right intentions and purposes. A husband and a wife having passion and desire for one another is good and pleasurable; anything outside of that may cause a temporal pleasure, but will only bring long-term shame and heartache (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Be pure by controlling your body, not acting like an unbeliever, and by not taking advantage of others: (1 Thessalonians 4:6a). No believer should gain pleasure at someone else’s expense; especially a fellow believer. You would expect the world to cause believers to stumble and sin, but believers should never be stumbling blocks for fellow believers. We must instead seek to be holy and to help others be holy.

Why Should a Believer be Sexually Pure?

God’s standard is to “abstain from fornication”; there is to be not even a hint of immorality about our lives. The means to staying pure is only through the enabling of the Holy Spirit who will empower you to control your body, not act like an unbeliever, and to not take advantage of others. But why should a believer be sexually pure?

Because of God’s Vengeance – 1 Thessalonians 4:6b

Thankfully, only the Lord has the authority and the ability to exact vengeance. The sobering reality is this “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord,” (Romans 12:19; cf. Deuteronomy 32:35). Sexual immorality is something for which God will mete out judgment:
“Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.”
Because of God’s Purpose – 1 Thessalonians 4:7

Sexual purity is God’s will and God’s plan for all believers, all of the time, and everywhere. No culture, ethnic group, or era is exempt.
Paul’s usage of the word “holiness” is the third time in this brief passage that he has used that word; the other two times were translated “sanctification”. This emphasizes that fact that when God called you to salvation He also called you to holiness. The call to salvation is inseparable from the call to holiness
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)
It is not for nothing that the Spirit God gives is called the Holy Spirit!

Because of God’s Spirit – 1 Thessalonians 4:8

To disobey this command to abstain from fornication is not to disobey your preacher, parents, or whomever; it is to disobey and disregard the Holy Spirit! This standard that we have been discussing is God’s standard, and He has given believers His Spirit to enable us to keep His standard. We have not been left alone to struggle in vain while attempting to hold to this standard. I’m enabled, moment by moment, to live in obedience to God’s Word. We are enabled and empowered by the Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 36:27)

Whether you are single or married, young or old, you need to take this passage and be alone with it before God, crying out to Him for the grace to be pure in a culture that exults in impurity. Recognize the awesome implications of this passage as it relates to honor, sanctification, and holiness before God. This passage challenges all of us; irrespective of age or marital status. You may be challenged in the terms of failures from the distant past or the immediate present. You may be struggling with the issue of your purity right now; either physically or mentally. God requires that we be pure in both. This passage colors us all.

Beware of the Pharisee’s spirit which says, “I thank you Lord that I am not as other men are; that while this text may be interesting and pertinent to others; it doesn’t seem to have to do with me.” You’re in deep denial and deep trouble if you believe that. If you find yourself in denial or if you find yourself falling short of this standard, then claim the promise that is found in 1 John 1:19,
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
We declare much about our Christianity by how we keep this standard. If you are committed to being sexually pure as God commands, then you must be prepared to be thought totally nuts by the culture around you.

Who are you living to please: the culture or the Christ?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Living to Please God

Whom are you living to please? Think about the way in which you talk; the way in which you work; the way in which you play; the way in which you spend your money and your time; the way in which you interact with others; in short, the way in which you live; whom are you trying to please?

You may have a long list of answers, and some answers would be universal; such as: a spouse, parents, an employer, the payroll clerk. Some answers depend on your vocation. A politician needs to please his constituents. A business owner needs to please his clientele. A performer needs to please the audience. An athlete needs to please the coach.

We understand the dynamics in all of those interactions and associations. We accept the fact that there are certain people in our lives whom we should please; indeed, whom we must please. But have you ever considered the fact that we are to lead lives which are pleasing to God? Living to please God is this week's Thessalonian topic from the text of 1 Thessalonians 4:1-2.

Throughout the first three chapters of this letter we have been instructed as to what we ought to know. These final two chapters will provide us with instruction on how we ought to live. Two words that can be used in summarizing this small book are belief and behavior. There are certain things which we are to believe, and those beliefs should, in turn, affect the way in which we behave. This is always true. Your beliefs will determine your behavior; whether your beliefs are Biblical or not. All of us behave in accordance with our beliefs.

The Scriptures exhort us “walk and please God”. I believe that is a thought which should revolutionize our lives; the children of God living so as to please the Father God. The reason the thought is so revolutionary is not because it is new. Indeed not; it’s as old as the scriptures. It’s revolutionary because we live in such a time that desires only the pleasing of self. In a world of self we must become reacquainted with the priority of pleasing God.

Ours is a society of self-love, “pleasing ourselves” is the credo of our culture. All are encouraged to live by their own rules and to engage life without regard to the standards or rules of anyone else, not even God. The basic philosophy of this age can be summed up in two words: “me first.” And this is not just a secular ideology; there are those who call themselves Christian who also trumpet this self-love dogma. This man-centered theology proclaims that Jesus will make your life carefree and painless; that Jesus just really wants you to become a better a salesman, a better ball-player, etc. Jesus just wants you to feel better about yourself, to improve your self-image, to put an end to your negative thinking.

Robert Schuler is the leading evangelist of this self-love gospel; listen to this quote from his book Self-Esteem: the New Reformation,
“Classical theology has erred in its insistence that theology be God-centered and not man-centered.” He goes on to write that the "deepest needs of human beings are self-dignity, self-respect, self-worth; self-esteem…God’s ultimate objective is to turn you and me into self-confident persons...Once a person believes he is an unworthy sinner, it is doubtful if he can really honestly accept the saving grace that God offers through Jesus Christ.”
Now that is as twisted and contrary to the Scriptures as one can be; I mean, if I don’t believe that I am an unworthy sinner, why should I accept saving grace at all. Christ Himself preached, Mark 1:15, “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Why repent, unless I realize that I am indeed an unworthy sinner, dead in my trespasses and sins?

If your desire is to please God, if you are to be dedicated to a priority of God in a world of self, you must first come to the knowledge of God’s majesty and man’s misery. Man’s misery consists of this, that we have broken God’s Law and cannot please Him by even our best efforts. Only when we acknowledge the gravity of our condition that we are suffering from a terminal condition the Bible calls sin, only then will we understand our need for a Savior. We will never come to know the Lord Jesus Christ as a reality until we see Him as a necessity; only then can we who are by nature at enmity with God, be declared righteous in His sight. Ephesians 2:8-9 describes this transaction by which the penitent sinner is justified freely by God’s grace. Many are familiar with those verses, but Ephesians 2:10 must not be forgotten, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Paul declares that the believer will proceed to discover and do the good works which God has planned for him to do. Our heavenly Father enables us to seek and to do that which pleases Him, and, I believe, that our heavenly Father takes pleasure in our approaches and our achievements, no matter how minor of insignificant they may appear to others ()Psalm 147:11).

You and I make a grave mistake if we compartmentalize our lives into the “spiritual” sphere and the “physical” sphere, and we please God at church or when witnessing to someone, but pleasing God when we make the lunches? When we make a sale? When we teach a class? Yes!!!! The totality of our lives should be, must be, involved in pleasing God; whether we eat, drink, or whatsoever we do (1 Corinthians 10:31), we labor so that we may be accepted of (pleasing unto) Him (2 Corinthians 5:9).

In a society of self, we must give way to the priority of God; just as the Lord Jesus said in John 8:29. Surely we can do nothing other than to follow in Christ’s steps. And the final two chapters of 1 Thessalonians are intensely practical in how we are to please God. 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8 inform us how to please God in our love lives; 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 in our professional lives; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 when we mourn the loss of a life; and in 1 Thessalonians 5 how to please God in the life of a church.

As Christians we are called to order our steps according to Biblical standards (1 Thessalonians 4:2). Not only has Christ given us new life, but He also expects us to live a new lifestyle. In Colossians 1:9-12 you will find four common threads that must be woven into the fabric of believers' lives if we desire to “walk and to please God.”

Fruitful Living – Colossians 1:10

The first of these threads is fruitful living. Ephesians 5:8-11 declares that a believer's life was formerly characterized by the fruitless deeds of darkness, but now - following conversion - a Christian should become fruitful. In verse 9 Paul describes this fruitfulness as “goodness and righteousness and truth.” God is pleased by our goodness.

Titus 2 teaches that the mature women are to teach the younger women what? How to be happy in all situations? How to improve their self-image, be confident and assertive in a male dominated world? Not quite, the mature women are to be “teachers of good things” (Titus 2:3), and those good things are listed in Titus 2:3-5.

Likewise, mature men are to exhort the young men “In all things shewing…a pattern of good works” (Titus 2:7). Yes, the Gospel is theological in its foundations, but it is ethical in its implications. This fruitful living, these good works, are not accomplished by human endeavor but by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. We are not left alone to figure out how to please the Father. He has given us His book and His Spirit, and thereby He enables us to do that which is pleasing to Him, and He loves it when we do well!

Knowledgeable Living – Colossians 1:10

Christianity is not served by mindlessness, but by the knowledge of God through the Word of God, and such knowledge engages our minds, stirs our hearts, and transforms our lives.

This knowledge is personal and is fostered by listening to what the Lord says (priority of preaching), by engaging God in conversation (emphasis of prayer), by spending time in God’s company (need for a devotional life), and by being with others who know God too (gathering corporately for worship and in smaller groups for fellowship). This knowledge is also progressive; it is dynamic not static, so that at the end of our journey we may speak as does Paul in Philippians 3:10-14.

Powerful Living – Colossians 1:11

To be focused on a priority of God in a society of self will require a power beyond you or anything this world can offer. As the prophet Zechariah said, “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, saith the lord of hosts” (Zechariah 4:6). Christian service demands divine resources; aspiration, determination, nor perspiration are adequate for the challenge, but by the indwelling Spirit of God which resides in any and all who trust Christ as Lord and Savior. He will enable you to please God. And according to Paul this divine enabling is a present continuous experience. It is not like being a human cannonball – experiencing a great initial surge of power followed by the awareness of being on your own! Not at all; the Biblical picture is one of steady allotment of power that is sufficient for the journey.

Notice what the second half of v. 11 says, “…unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness." We are so infatuated and intrigued with dramatic manifestations that we miss the point that powerful, Holy Spirit led living is displayed most often in lives of quiet confidence in and steady persistence to glorify God. Powerful living is demonstrated in the lives of those who care without complaint for the needs of others; displayed in the fortitude of those who endure the pain of progressive illness or personal heartaches without succumbing to bitterness and resentment. Don’t be so enamored with God’s power to heal illness and restore relationships that you fail to understand the miracle of God’s grace in granting the power necessary for joyful endurance and patience.

Thankful Living – Colossians 1:12

God is pleased when gratitude colors everything that you and I do. Some of the distinguishing marks of the last days will be men who are “lovers of their own selves…unthankful…lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:2-4). Unthankful people take things for granted and assume that they are owed something or have a right to receive but no obligation to give, and believers should stand in stark contrast to that mindset, not blend in with it. We who are so undeserving of Christ have been made by Him as inheritors of the Kingdom of God. God has “Delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of His dear Son: In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13).

We who are saved have nothing for which to be ungrateful, and everything for which to be grateful! An unfading awareness of God’s mercy must yield in our lives the fruit of thankfulness, but therein lies the problem, because we often become obsessed with this preset world and our awareness of God’s mercy does fade away. Let it not be so among us!

Fellow believer, all our desires, decisions, aspirations, and affections should be governed by a prior determination to please God. This desire to please God is distinct from a superficial interest in religious things that is really nothing more than a thinly veiled form of self-preoccupation. God does not exist to please us, but we do exist to please God.

Therefore, make sure that you avoid the pitfall of living to please men – (Galatians 1:10) or living to please myself – an inverted Matthew 6:33. Adopt the perspective of 2 Corinthians 5:9, “We labor, that, whether preset or absent, we may be accepted {please} of Him”. (cf. Luke 6:46)

Where should we apply the principle of living to please God? Everywhere! With whom should we apply this principle? Everyone! To what should we apply this principle? Everything! There is not a thing that you can think about to which this principle does not apply.

Ask yourself, “Who is [your church's name here] living to please?” Ask yourself, “Who am I trying to please?” Determine as an individual and as a church family to make a concerted effort of living to please God.